It may seat only 56 inside, but Kim Bartmann's Tiny Diner is taking measures to educate, affect, and sustain many more people than its walls can actually hold. Aside from serving (take a deep breath) breakfast, a full menu of coffee drinks, lunch, dinner, wine and beer, aperitif cocktails (try the Bonal Collins), and homemade pie and soft serve, Bartmann's aim with this, the latest in a long line of ambitious green restaurant projects, is to make the diner as self-reliant and sustainable as possible. They're keeping honey bees on their rooftop and maintaining a small garden on Tiny Diner's grounds, as well as a half-acre mini-farm in south Minneapolis, to produce food for the restaurant and their Thursday farmers markets. They're also working with the Permaculture Institute to teach biointensive urban farm techniques, soil enrichment, and low-impact design so more projects like this one can pop up within our city limits.
As one might imagine, this means there's a lot to inspect and explore before you even get inside the restaurant: cisterns for gathering rainwater, solar panels that provide energy for the building and cast a flattering pale blue light over the patio, a play area for kids complete with a rustic hut made from woven willows, and far more occupied slots in the bike rack than cars in the parking lot. You won't mind puttering around the grounds a bit should you have to wait for a table, which on our visits never took longer than 10 minutes.
Between the semi-open kitchen taking in a steady stream of orders, the back bar area mixing up delightful handmade honey-sage and blueberry cream sodas, and people coming and going from both sets of patio doors, there's a fairly constant flurry of activity in this diminutive space, but never to the point that it feels uncomfortable. That take-it-all-in moment carries over to a much lesser degree once the menus are opened: Dishes are divided fairly traditionally into small plates, salads so fresh there might still be a little dirt on the greens, a price-spanning selection of entrees, and a la carte sandwiches.
In the small-plates section we fell hard for the ingenious and ethereal brandade tots — which looked like a standard bar tater tot but ate like a creamy, beautiful cod croquette — and the turkey liver mousse, a smart combination of woodsy (the smoky meat and caraway rye) and sprightly (thin sheets of bitter breakfast radish and a scattering of pickled berries). The only real gripe on both plates? We wish there were more. We'd even gladly pay a dollar or two more for each dish to just get one additional toast or tot. We were somewhat less thrilled with the beet terrine, which was visually stunning — think compressed layers of every color of the beet rainbow from deep golden to sangria stain — but overall pretty dull on the palate, even to a lover of beets. The tiny dollops of whipped avocado and crumbled meats of a pistachio added textural interest, but failed to make the dish any better than the sum of its parts.
In more indulgent starter fare, the double-fried onion rings were inconsistent, with some thinly coated ones that were over-crisped and some thickly battered ones that weren't fully cooked. The tangy, spicy house-made barbecue sauce ended up being the star of the dish, so we saved it for the much better standard French fries on the side of the excellent Deluxe burger. This thing has melting gouda cheese, the single best onion ring in the batch, ready-for-its-close-up strips of glistening yet crispy bacon, and a condiment that was somewhere between Bearnaise sauce and just-whisked aioli all on a blushing patty of medium-rare grass-fed beef. It was miraculously un-messy and wholly satisfying.
Feeling out the more upscale, bistro-inspired end of the entree selection, we were pleasantly surprised by the Parisian gnocchi, which, sans any potato in the base, was more like a soft, seared soup dumpling. The seasonal accompaniment of meaty Hen of the Woods mushrooms and asparagus is united by a good dose of bright preserved lemon. The softshell crab bowl was hard to pass up, boasting a perfectly fried egg over somewhat creamy brown fried rice, but the crab itself seemed to be more shell than meat and felt unincorporated. The lamb chops with fresh peas, roasted carrots, and not quite enough agrodolce sauce, while delicious and handled well, felt a bit simplistic to warrant a $36 price tag. We're all for paying a little more for food with integrity, but this dish seemed out of step with the rest of the dinner menu.
Yet another one of Tiny Diner's many initiatives is to feature the food of a different great American diner city every month. They've launched with Philadelphia, so for at least the next few weeks you can come to the edge of Powderhorn-Bancroft, do the Rocky steps thing in your beanie and gray sweatsuit, and then order up a cheesesteak with shisito peppers and bechamel-based white Wiz or a slab of Tiny's interpretation of Taylor pork roll — a SPAM-like meat product that's ubiquitous at diners all over New Jersey and parts of Pennsylvania — served here on sourdough bread with yellow mustard.
Maybe it's the latter part of its name, but where Tiny Diner and its visitors seemed to really be most comfortable was at breakfast. The pancakes were griddled nicely with a slight bit of crust on the edges and melty middles. Get a short stack on the side of a loaded-up Breakfast of Champions, a can-do morning meal with a crispy brick of fresh-grated hash browns (an important distinction over frozen), three eggs, maple sausage, and toast. Or order pancakes as your main, with all kinds of toppings from blueberries to nuts to the intriguingly weird option of shredded beef jerky. One of the most unique and well-executed breakfast dishes was the featured Philly specialty of scrapple, a sort of polenta cake studded with smoky roasted pork shoulder and scented with lots of stuffing-inspired herbs. Traditional scrapple is made with organ meat and is usually greasy and a little bit foul. This was a delight, especially with a runny egg over the top. The biscuit part of the biscuits and gravy was heavenly, more of a flaky style than a crumbly one, with just enough salt to be savory and butter to be sweet. However, the mushroom gravy was more starchy than creamy, leaving the whole dish lacking the richness we crave from this scratch classic.
We definitely admire this restaurant on a mission, but it remains to be seen if some of these bigger-ticket items ($36 lamb chops) will survive the first round of menu revisions. We envision Tiny Diner as more casual, a place to go super-clean with a macro-bowl (seaweed, quinoa, and the like) or all-out with a burger and a slice of homemade rhubarb pie. To break things down in terms of Bartmann's other restaurants, Tiny Diner has a beer list as good as Pat's Tap's, a patio that's a bit smaller but more communal-feeling than Bread & Pickle's, a handful of dishes that, price and portion-wise, seem to belong at Red Stag, the casual hominess of Gigi's, and community-impact potential that's much greater than its little name implies.