First Look: Le Town Talk Diner

Previewing the talk of the town

Get ready to see East Lake Street all lit up again. The gigantic, iconic Town Talk Diner sign is set to be ablaze once more, with the slightest adaptation—an elegant little “Le” centered over the top that signifies a whole new concept.

Owners Emilie Cellai Johnson and Ben Johnson are spearheading the rebirth of the diner, known in its heyday as a leader in the Twin Cities craft cocktail movement. And while the focus is still on comfort food and killer drinks, don’t go looking for the former space’s famous pulled pork and adult milkshakes—things at the new Le Town Talk are strictly Français.

Cellai Johnson hails from Marseille, in the south of France, and is determined to bring her own brand of comfort food to the Cities: bouillabaisse, ratatouille, and a cod “hot dish” at dinnertime, plus Croque Monsieur and France’s namesake toast for brunch.

The restaurant opens tonight, but a weekend trial run reveals that things are headed in the right direction. The ambiance is just what Cellai Johnson and her husband are aiming for: that of a bustling buvette, or a French social hub designed for evening gatherings. Brick walls, reclaimed-wood bartops, and blue-and-white-striped cloth napkins are as charming as the well-trained service staff.

tartine by josie franske

Kicking the evening off with a cocktail from an extensive menu is a no-brainer—developed by Julien Masson, a fellow Marseille native, the list highlights drinks using sparkling wine and French spirits. And as for appetizers, the tartine is a must: It’s a ritzy French take on pizza, served on a slice of crusty baguette with a spicy, chunky tomato sauce and smothered in melted mozzarella, all topped by a crisp fennel-and-basil salad.

Entrées are promising, if imperfect. The poulet comes brined and moist, with a side of chunky ratatouille that  (though slightly overcooked) will warm up any cold evening. The Marseille Burger’s patty verges on dry, but a sweet onion glaze and tangy burger sauce lock in flavor. Note that the frites aren’t what will be expected by Twin Cities Francophiles accustomed to the thin-but-potato-packed varieties at Salut and Café Levain—Le Town Talk’s are skinnier than matchsticks and fried to a crisp.

And as the French like it, the desserts are absolutely sinful. A seasonal tarte tatin is covered in sticky caramel but remains light, thanks to a dollop of crème fraiche. I’ll give Le Town Talk a little time to master that je ne sais quoi, but I’ll be back to dive into a dish of dark chocolate mousse.