First look: Highs and lows at Hi-Lo Diner

The burger is a contender for best in town. The fries, too.

The burger is a contender for best in town. The fries, too.

After 10 p.m. on a Sunday evening, squad cars line the parking lot at Hi-Lo Diner. It's Minneapolis' newest vintage diner, recently dropped down on East Lake street like a strange, gleaming spaceship. Trouble? Nope. Just the age-old tradition of cops hanging at a diner over coffee and donuts. 

But this is no ordinary diner. With its full bar, adult milkshakes, iconic menu, and fair prices, it's already a hot stomping ground. It's a place for bearded hipsters doing a post-shift shot, Minneapolis' finest, a lone priest having a celestial feast, and seemingly half the Longfellow neighborhood. 

And these are no ordinary donuts. These are Hi-Tops, sweet or savory fried dough plied with sweet or savory toppings like peanut butter, bacon, caramelized banana, and blueberry glaze. There are eight tempting iterations.

Given the classic surrounds, we had to know how they did with classics first. The best bite by far was their house-ground "diner beef blend" burger, with pickles, American cheese, and a "secret" sauce. Charmingly presented in a neat, paper lined basket, it gives all the other buzz-worthy burgers in town a run for their money. Served on a glossy white bun, buttered and grilled, this one will be a list-topper. Available in single or double patty. 

While crinkle-cut fries tend to be an also-ran of the French fry kingdom, here, they're real-potato stunners. Fluffy spud strains against its golden-crisp exterior. If they did nothing more than these two items, they'd be an instant and sustainable success. 

Happily, they do a lot more. 

Hi Lo shines prettiest at night.

Hi Lo shines prettiest at night.

Texturally, pancakes were perfect, but tasted a little devoid of salt. Blueberry syrup with real macerated fruit enlivened things in a hurry. And, a Lo Stack is a decent deal at $8.50 for three big cakes.

Corned beef hash was similarly almost-there, with feathery hash browns and frothy, lemony hollandaise, but it, too, could have benefited from salt.

Still, the foundational bones of all the dishes were in place, and wee adjustments are all that’s standing between this cooking and genuine short-order greatness.

We detected zero missteps in the bar department. While people tend to go into fits at the notion of adult milkshakes, we've hardly encountered a worthy one until now. Moderately-sized cocktail glasses begin with Sebastian Joe's vanilla bean ice cream, and then in the case of this Alexander Hamilton, a boozy mix of cognac, creme de cacao from local Tattersall distillery, and Jamaican rum. Five ice cream cocktails make up the list and we'll make it our business to try every one.

But the bar has a pro hand with other spirits too, like a carbonated on-tap Santa Ana Winds that we would happily swap out our water tap to have this flow forth instead. Tattersall creme de fleur (liqueur with macerated flowers), lime and ginger combine in bright, refreshing harmony.

The International Waters is a dramatic Hurricane glass, all tropicana with rum, Tattersall Orange Crema, pineapple, lime, mint, and black pepper. It's at once fruity, tart, herbaceous and spicy. You could do nothing but drink here and go away happy. 

Inside, the attention to detail in the restoration of the 1958 diner means the place is convincingly old-timey, like it's been there forever. Aside from a few trendster menu items (Lavender in the French toast, Korean short ribs on a Hi-Top, the forward-thinking bar) there's nothing overly precious to be had here. Most of the menu items remain in the realm of the time-honored. There's even that old stalwart, the open-faced turkey sandwich with mashed potatoes; and another sandwich with real beef gravy. 

Perhaps the thing we like best is that all the goodness comes at extremely democratic price points, staying staunchly in the realm of diner approachability. They could easily have fallen victim to yuppified prices, but they didn't. Every menu item falls at or under $14.50, and most items hover around $10 or under. 

Hi-Lo is a family place, a cop hang place, a date night place, a priest-feast place. It's a diner. A real deal diner. Do like we did and avoid the lines by eating late. They're open until 2 a.m. daily. 

Hi-Lo Diner

4020 E. Lake St., Minneapolis