There are ghosts around the Town Talk Diner.
Or at least, there are the phantoms of preconceived notions.
That’s bound to happen when an institution has been around as long — and has changed concepts as often — as Town Talk has. The historic East Lake Street diner with the iconic aqua blue sign is now on its sixth owner, after surviving various periods of boom and bust in its 70-year existence.
The original Town Talk was built in 1946, in part as an amenity to workers of the Minneapolis Moline tractor factory, a bustling company employing soldiers returning from the war.
The excellent condition of the building’s facade, and that exemplary signage, is in part what saved the structure, landing it on the National Historic Register. The building is a blessing for history buffs and lovers of art deco (Streamline Moderne Architecture, to be exact) but often a curse for culinary hopefuls wanting to put their own stamp on the space.
In 1978, it became a popular diner, owned and operated by Vicki Brever for around 25 years, an impressive run by any standards. Then in 2002, it shuttered.
But by 2006, Town Talk was up and at it again, reopened by local restaurant talent Tim Niver (now of Mucci’s) and two partners. They famously reinvented diner fare with what was then a forward-thinking menu of boozy milkshakes, fancy burgers, and best-in-town cheese curds.
The heyday wouldn’t last. Niver and his crew left in 2008, selling to Tor Westgard, their sous chef. He then sold to Theros Restaurant Group, which eventually was embroiled in a $540,000 embezzlement scheme by a longtime accountant of the ownership group.
Town Talk closed in the wake of the scandal in 2011, and sat empty for a couple of years, reopening in 2014 as Le Town Talk, a modern French bistro by Emilie Cellai and her husband, Ben Johnson. The Franco-transformation was complete with a playful neon “Le” above the Town Talk Diner signage.
Though they served solid renditions of quiche, crepes, and chocolate mousse, the bistro could not captivate the dining public in the end. Cellai and Johnson chalked the failed venture up to difficulty finding and keeping good help.
Now, as new owners Kacey White and Charles Stotts wade into the storied history of Town Talk Diner, they hope to avoid staffing struggles because, for the most part, they are the staff. Together with just one other chef (Sam Gilman, formerly of the Bachelor Farmer), they run the entire culinary operation. On my visits I counted just one bartender and one server, with Stotts holding down double duty in the dining room. No dishwasher, no host, no bus persons.
The husband-and-wife chef team moved to the Twin Cities from Arizona. Stotts is a native Minnesotan and always knew he wanted to return to his hometown. Though he was away for 17 years, he says, “I never stopped being homesick.”
The duo worked around Arizona in high-end kitchens, met in one, and Stotts, knowing he’d return to Minnesota to make his own restaurant, knew it was his lucky day when he met a woman who wanted to do the very same thing.
They heard through the grapevine that Cellai and Johnson were looking for some good help in their restaurant. Stotts and White weren’t looking to work in a kitchen so much as run one themselves, but they met up with Cellai and Johnson anyway. Before long it was clear that the newest iteration of the Town Talk was going to be theirs. They got the keys, and opened late last summer.
“And that’s when things really got interesting,” says Stotts.
Stotts and White say they are constantly battling the shadows of those other restaurants of the same name, with would-be diners not realizing that the place with the big blue sign has in fact changed hands and concepts yet again.
Today’s Town Talk largely defies genre; it’s a place where two very determined cooks are cooking, and what they’re cooking is very, very good. It’s a sort of fine-dining place for a new generation, where the chefs bust their own suds and wear cargo shorts beneath their aprons while serving delicate handmade potato gnocchi and aged grass-fed Wagyu ribeye steaks.
Stotts and White try not to describe what they’re doing as “farm to table” and “farm to fork,” terms so overly hyped and co-opted they’ve become hollow, silly, and practically meaningless.
“We’ve tried to never use those phrases,” says White. But what else can they say? They’re stubbornly committed to buying what’s fresh today from farmers, then cooking it. Apply whatever term you think fits best.
Or just go and taste for yourself. A starter could be gnocchi, tender as clouds, with rich sage-tinged brown butter, chive, and Parmesan for a classic, perfectly rendered dish. Or it could be a cube of golden seared pork belly, diamond-scored and beading up with fat and sticky balsamic gastrique, served over a simple tangle of peppery arugula and pickley house kraut.
It could also just as easily be a beef and black bean soup with no solace for tender Minnesota palates. This stuff is grab-your-water-glass spicy. A shaved prosciutto salad was a colorful sphere of tender ham with alternating, undulating leaves of pink watermelon radish, dehydrated beets and carrots folded in like flower petals. Toasted hazelnut and shaved Parmesan hiding beneath gave it crunch and depth.
This isn’t a trendy small-plates restaurant. The offerings are limited to about a dozen menu items nightly, none of them “safe” from rotation or elimination. A recent pan-roasted chicken breast with parsnips, beautiful little al dente turnips, oyster mushrooms, and chicken jus made a fine-dining affair of the typical chicken breast, with impeccable seasoning and expert balance.
A couple of dishes didn’t quite stack up to the otherwise excellent fare, including a drab attempt at vegetarian cabbage holishkes stuffed with dry mushroom and ricotta, and a Halibut that suffered from too many salt notes beneath both bacon and a white wine caper sauce.
But if I were east of the Uptown/downtown Minneapolis restaurant tangle, and not yet in St. Paul, this is where I’d head for an unexpected thrill. The classic architecture never ceases to wow, and the current state of the kitchen puts the place smack in hidden-gem territory. Once the sophistication comes sailing out of the kitchen pass, it’s tough not to feel inspired. And, despite the skeleton crew, the service was still expert and timely.
One personal plea is to do away with the unfortunate ’80s playlist. It’s impossible to take yourself seriously tucking into a $28 steak while listening to “Pour Some Sugar on Me” by Def Leppard.
Restaurant perfection is difficult to come by, and even when achieved, it’s a precarious perch. But follow the grit and the determination, and you might just get a flash of it at Town Talk, like a ghost in the night.
Town Talk Diner
2707 E. Lake St., Minneapolis