Fine Diner

Talk of the Town: In which our photographer treats himself to a very adult malt

Talk of the Town: In which our photographer treats himself to a very adult malt

Town Talk Diner
2707 1/2 E. Lake St., Minneapolis

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.

The Town Talk excels in such mildly emotionally charged items: The beer list, for instance, offers both the high-end beers the typical high-end diner wants in her high-end life (Bell's, Stella Artois, etc.), but also features some things that are basically the Proustian Madeleines of the punk rock cohort, like adorable teeny-tiny bottles of Little King's Cream Ale ($2.50) and huge-ass 40s of Schlitz, Mickey's, or Miller High Life ($8.22) served in wine-chillers. Sigh. The remembrance of bribing the toothless guy in the liquor store parking lot and hiding the malt liquor under your hockey skates past.

Speaking of drinking—and when aren't we, really?—the wine list at Town Talk is a dream, a joy, a model of real-life usability. It's divided into "picnic wines" (which cost $3.65 a glass!—be still my beating, wine-for-the-people heart) and table wines, from $5 a glass, and proceeds to a bottle list. The bottle list is one I'd be happy to see any day, anywhere: a dozen options under $20, even more in the $20-something range, and a bunch of well-wrought critical darlings for those willing to spend a bit more.

If that's not enough beverages for you, please know that the Town Talk has a full liquor license, and not only offers classic retro-glamour cocktails like Stingers, Stilettos, and Rob Roys, but pours classic Champagne cocktails, such as the Black Velvet, and does so into the wee hours of whenever they decide to close, which is, especially on the weekends, bar-close. Is this not enough for you? Then please know that the restaurant serves hot food from the kitchen till 11:00 p.m. most nights, and until 1:00 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays. This summer their new patio tables promise to be the premier late-night tables in town.

Are you not crying uncle and running out the door to Town Talk yet? If so, I provide you with two more bits of fact: Gooey, sweet desserts for sharing, like the thin, crisp chocolate waffles topped with cherry-chunk ice cream and scattered with candied hazelnuts ($6.50); apple pancakes bursting with apple pie-like apples, and topped with cinnamon ice cream ($5.75); and, of course, malts. Finally, they have a stunning brunch, served Saturdays and Sundays from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. It's got just enough gourmet touches, such as thick, delicious, sweet-and-tangy tomato marmalade alongside the generous portion of pulled pork, red pepper, and fingerling potato hash and eggs ($10.25); and just enough don't-think-about-it reliables, like a plain old fried egg sandwich with fries ($8.25). No wonder Sunday mornings at Town Talk, open since late February, have become more popular than air conditioners in Arizona.

Really, my only disappointments with the Town Talk came with the restaurant's more expensive, high-end options, which I don't recommend. I tried the de-boned fried chicken ($16.95) twice, so perplexed was I by its golden, gorgeous appearance, and its leaden, overwhelmingly rich taste, which a sweet potato bread pudding and accompanying chopped pecans and brown butter did nothing to help. The double-cut pork chop ($17.50) was drowned in a dark sweet-and-sour cherry sauce, and weighed down with madly buttery potatoes.

Meanwhile, the two nightly fish specials I tried erred in exactly the opposite way, they were both so light-handed and under-seasoned they seemed to vanish from the plate. One, a pale loup de mer cassoulet made with fresh beans, lacked any center, and the other, a pan-roasted halibut ($21) with a spring ragout of morels ramps, rhubarb, and asparagus, was, even with all those strong spring flavors, vague. One night's special of a cold spinach and sorrel soup ($2.95 a cup, $5 a bowl) tasted like some kind of terrible hold-your-nose vitamin tonic. The forest mushroom tart, of buttery mushrooms and roasted squash mounded upon on a buttery pastry base ($10.50) is so rich and buttery that it seems to have no other dimension. In sum, when you go to a diner, stick to ordering the diner classics, okay?

Of course, unless you're a restaurant critic or some other similar stunted misfit, you probably already know this. And if you don't, look to the children, who tend to opt for pancakes, burgers, and grilled cheese. My favorite child—and I had many to choose from, including one with pigtails like bunches of carrots, and one who looked like a throbbing-brain alien from the original Star Trek series—was a girl of about 12 who was all dressed up for a night out with her parents. She wore a balloon skirt, black leggings, mod flats, a flamingo-pink jean jacket, hair carefully puffed up—the works. She looked like high-period Cindy Lauper, crossed with a pixie. She ordered a Sprecher root beer ($3.25), which was served in a special footed glass, and declaimed at length on some topic, to the rapt attention of her parents, who listened to her as they split a bottle of bubbly (Argyle Blanc de Noir, $45).

There was something about the girl that stayed with me weeks after I saw her, something about the seriousness with which the diner seemed to regard her patronage: She ordered from the menu, same as everyone; she got special, appropriate glassware, same as everyone; her tastes were valid, same as everyone. More, she was participating in a real neighborhood diner experience, in her real neighborhood, in a real diner—a real real diner. Not like the vast majority of other diners, things that are merely nostalgic, or merely shadows of former glories meandering along on autopilot. She was having a truly American experience that was of-the-moment, and capacious, providing room for her, her whole future teenhood, and beyond.

Questions? The girl in the pink balloon skirt would surely have a lifetime of them, some solemn, some trivial, some unanswerable, but it seems awfully nice to me that she has a real diner, in all its lighthearted and simple glory, in which to contemplate, or evade, them all.