IT’S A MIDWEEK EVENING at the Town Talk Diner and I’m sporting a mustache of gin-fizz froth. Wait, it gets better. My friends are splitting a Johnny Cold Train, one of the diner’s signature alcoholic malts, making a smooth slide from zero to tipsy in a half-dozen sips. Our waiter pauses as he scoots past our table: “When I come back, you wanna talk about food?” We nod our heads in synch with a heady remix of “The Girl From Ipanema.” What is this—1962?
After nearly four years in the dark, Town Talk’s Vegas-style sign lights up Minneapolis’s East Lake Street again with art deco glitz. Before the decades-old institution closed, the Town Talk was just a tiny slip of a breakfast/lunch counter; today the original café space opens into an 80-seat dining room. In this new incarnation, the Town Talk’s menu takes a page from The Hipster Handbook: brandy Old Fashioneds and 40-ounce beers washing down such contemporary comfort foods as double-cut purebred pork chops and rare-cooked, piled-high “Kitchen Sink” burgers. Tonight, the place is filled with a hodgepodge of patrons, including college students, middle-aged couples, two women in wigs and sunglasses, Manny from the neighboring Manny’s Tortas restaurant, and a man wearing a beret who looks old enough to have breakfasted here when the place opened in the 1940s. With the racket of chatter and clatter of plates, the room is quickly becoming take-out-your-hearing-aid loud.
Our waiter is back. He pronounces our choice of the butterhead lettuce salad to be “awesome,” our selection of the tri-tip steak a “good call.” When he returns to deliver the dishes, he hovers a few moments longer than necessary, perhaps to bask in our satisfied reactions. He then grins profusely, raps his knuckles on the table, and takes his leave, saying, “I guess you don’t need me here anymore.” The women at our table glow. The lone male, exasperated by the attention, chews his steak and sighs: “It’s like the ongoing narration of the saga of our meal.”
Town Talk isn’t for Nighthawk diners, Edward Hopper characters who hunker over plates of eggs in solitude. The restaurant is fueled by personality, and the rush of pent-up energy of a staff that waited nearly five months for the city to approve its liquor license. The four managing partners possess a sense of high style, having cooked at Levain and 20.21 and overseen dining rooms at Cosmos, D’Amico Cucina, Aquavit, and Martini Blu. And they have a sense of humor. A drink called the Panty Dropper (sparkling wine poured over a scoop of orange-basil sorbet) sums up the Town Talk ethos: fraternity-brother wit, elevated culinary sensibilities, and wait staff who can say the word “panty” without sounding smarmy. The best thing about the Town Talk’s servers is that they treat you like they know you, even if they don’t—welcoming each guest with a “great to see you.” Return the good naturedness, and you might be indulged with a sample of whatever boozy malt just came out of the blender.
Town Talk’s menu is short but diverse: cheese curds share the same page as shrimp and orzo. Ingredients are well-sourced, creatively assembled, and, for the most part, well-prepared. Overall, we found the less fussy dishes—barbecue pulled pork and organic tempeh sandwiches—to be quite good, but not, to borrow the term our waiter used to describe Town Talk’s deep-fried pickles, “a frickalicious experience.” Some of our favorite items were those you’d never expect to find at a diner, such as a citrus salad with thin slices of avocado fanned out like playing cards. The free-range roast chicken, a gourmet take on a humble meal, was exactly the sort of dish I love to chase around the plate, forking all the flavors into each bite: tender meat with a crackled crust, braised greens, a savory bread pudding, apple-pecan brown butter…I’ll stop there.
The specials allow chef David Vlach to show off his chops. The mushroom flan we tried was a little too salty, and the scallops, paired with sauces of Meyer lemon and cipollini onion, were slightly overcooked, but the compositions themselves were admirable. One evening’s fish special, a poached halibut fillet with mixed vegetables served in a buttery fresh-herb broth, embodied the deftness of haute cuisine and the emotional heft of Mom’s chicken soup. This sort of entrée would be priced a lot higher if it were served at a place with white tablecloths, instead of one that uses radiator-hose clamps as napkin rings.
It’s exactly this mix—of high- and lowbrow, hipster and historic, hose clamps and one helluva halibut—that makes Town Talk confusing to some and thoroughly enjoyable to others. Where else can you a have a baby-size martini and a killer banana split while watching urban cowboys in ostrich boots parade past the window on their way to El Nuevo Rodeo nightclub? Yes, prices have come up from the day of the $2 breakfast, but the fried-egg sandwich—slices of Texas toast packed with quality cheese, bacon, and ham—is worth the $7.75 charge. (Then again, I love Texas toast so much, I’d probably eat slugs if they were nestled between a couple of slices.) As a server slid my empty plate off the counter, I apologized for the drizzle of egg yolk and smattering of crumbs. “No problem,” he said, wiping it up. “People have been making a mess on this counter for 60 years.” Here’s to 60 more.
Town Talk Diner
2702 1/2 E. Lake St.