Fine Diner

The revived Town Talk redefines the diner, with Champagne and fancy glassware for all

Town Talk Diner
2707 1/2 E. Lake St., Minneapolis
612.722.1312
www.towntalkdiner.com

Were the brontosaurus ribs that the Flinstones enjoyed in the opening credits dry-rubbed, or cooked in a wet barbecue sauce? Was the first man to eat a snail extremely, excruciatingly hungry, or merely trying to scare his kids into submission? Is the American diner as doomed as the drug-store lunch counter? Does any wine really go with pancakes? Unanswerable questions regarding food seem to stack up some days, and then suddenly you get answers. For instance, Ca de Medici Lambrusco goes very well with pancakes. You should try it sometime; it's a bright-pink, low-alcohol sparkler that tastes like a crisp, clean, not-too-sweet cherry soda, and it has just enough acid to cut through the sweet, and just enough sweet so that the wine doesn't vanish in the presence of syrup. It also goes well with fried chicken and banana splits, all of which are on offer at the Town Talk Diner, a place that not only single-handedly proves there's still life in the old concept of American diners, but is also the most lighthearted, amusing, and downright playful restaurant to open around here in years.

How playful is the Town Talk? You can start your meal with a red plastic basket of "frickles," thin slices of house-made pickle ($5.95), battered, deep-fried, and served piping hot. Figure out how to put a stick in these silly, salty, crispy snacks and you'd have the next State Fair star. How amusing is the place? Grown-up ice-cream drinks are served in aquarium-sized footed bowls, including the cherry bomb ($9), made with Cherry Marie Brizzard liqueur; and the monkey business ($9), in which chocolate, bananas, peanut butter, and bourbon unite to ensure that you have a brief but meaningful second childhood in which you understand why children have the energy to jump off the walls, and also sleep so soundly at night. How lighthearted is the Town Talk? Order a Miller High Life, "the Champagne of beers," and it's served in a Champagne coupe—one of those flat, wide glasses supposedly invented by Napoleon so that he could drink as if from one of Josephine's breasts. Whoa! If that's not family-friendly enough for you, please know that the rest of the Town Talk is: On some visits I've counted fully one out of four customers too young to ride the big-kid rides.

I can't say this is entirely what I expected from this new incarnation of the eons old, but sadly long shuttered and abandoned Minneapolis landmark. When I first heard the Town Talk would be reborn through the labors of three young fine-dining pros, I imagined something more fey and esoteric: foie gras in the pancakes, perhaps, or monkfish in the malts. But, to their credit, these three pros—Tim Niver, most memorably the host of the Minneapolis Aquavit; Aaron Johnson, formerly of Cosmos and D'Amico Cucina; and chef David Vlach, who has worked at the French Laundry in California, and Minnesota restaurants including Levain and 20.21—these three pros have given us a diner. A nice diner, a from-scratch diner, a diner with a heck of a lot of drinks, a diner with benefits, even, but a diner nonetheless.

You know it as soon as you enter the silvery polished Art Deco of the old Town Talk lunch counter, with its long curving counter, round stools, and air of well-worn machine-age glamour. The new Town Talk includes both the old, narrow counter space and a large dining room, annexed from an adjoining space, that is decorated in a simple industrial style and holds enough tables to gather a significant chunk of your extended family all at once—if some of them are willing to go early and camp out for a table, as the restaurant doesn't take reservations, and fills up faster than a first grandkid's Christmas stocking.

That grandkid will probably want the pancakes ($8.25, with bacon, at dinner). Big, fluffy plate-fillers with a defining touch of tang, they come, in diner-appropriate style, with silvery ramekins full of syrup and a fluffy ball of butter. Adults will probably want the "kitchen-sink burger," a towering behemoth with, as promised, everything-but-the, including a snazzy pink sauce enlivened with pickle relish, pickled jalapeños, and a touch of spicy harissa sauce, and made huge with leaf lettuce, tomatoes, and big floppy slices of bacon. It costs $9.95, and is served with fairly forgettable pale, crisp fries and an entirely memorable steak knife plunged in the heart of the beast. The triumph of the mid-priced urban hunt!

Other diner classics enliven the dinner menu, such as grilled cheese, made with both cheddar and Gruyère, and tomatoes, and served with fries ($5.95); plain hot dogs ($5); and the "fearless frank," with bacon, cheese, chili, and grilled onions. For the more refined eater, Town Talk offers several lighter options that are pleasantly simple, like an avocado and citrus salad ($8.25), made with prettily cut and pithless jewels of grapefruit segments, and a permanent special of a "grains and greens" salad ($6.50 appetizer, $8.95 entree sized), which is a wild rice salad united with toasted cashews and cherries in a creamy dressing, and served on a bed of baby lettuces beside a roll-up of buttered, sugared warm lefse. This grains and greens salad is strangely comforting, like something from the family Thanksgiving or proverbial church basement. Creamy wild rice salad and sugared lefse? Come on now—but without the pain of hearing about Uncle Bill's ongoing drainage problems.

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