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16. Ole Piper Inn

Classification: Traditional

Location: Apple Valley, Minnesota

Every once in a while, a transcendent experience emerges in an unexpected place that, upon later reflection, proved to forecast certain aspects of the future. One such time was in the mid-90s, a period when cellphones were still somewhat of a novelty. While dining at an outdoor cafe at Baltimore's Inner Harbor with some co-workers, we were assaulted by a VERY loud, VERY personal phone conversation from a table a few feet away, to a point of such absurdity that other patrons began to acknowledge our shared awkward predicament with knowing looks and nervous glances, forming a sort of community of audio victims. In time, a system of generally accepted personal phone etiquette has developed, and we have now emerged as a better species. But technology has not always been so forgiving.

A generation prior to that, Ole Piper Inn was birthing an even more sinister scourge, one that still haunts society today: kids staring vacantly at a screen during family dinner. It was charmingly low-tech back then, an 8mm reel-to-reel projecting old Shirley Temple films or Lil' Rascals episodes on to a barren sheet hanging on a side wall WITH NO SOUND. It was an abomination, but the precedent for today's modern dinner policy of "One Kid, One iPhone" had been established, and there would be no going back. Kids of all ages were curiously content watching D-grade entertainment during dinner, and parents seemed to accept the passive tranquility of this trade-off. One limitation of the seating layout was that only 2-3 families could have prime front-row viewing near the bedsheet, premium spots that were normally reserved for the pillars of suburban society: Little League coaches, church elders, and city councilmen. Our family was usually left "developing our character" by craning our necks from 20 feet out, trying to read the lips of Zorro while waiting for our pizza.

Oh, the pizza at Ole Piper? It was actually quite good and criminally overlooked by me for several years. Swen and I returned in 2016 along with Stogie Jim to a newer location south of the city, and we all agreed it was excellent. And forty years later, the bedsheets have been replaced by a half-dozen flatscreens. The three of us talked baseball and laughed the night away, but knowing we could turn in any direction to view a 60" HD screen really underscored the impressive evolution of screen-based dining. And for better or for worse, this will always play a key role in the complicated legacy of Ole Piper Inn. (9 of 10 stars)

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