Counter Intelligence

Blue Plate Restaurant Co. — which operates the Highland Grill and Groveland Tap in St. Paul; the Lowry, Freehouse and Longfellow Grill in Minneapolis; the Edina Grill in Edina, and 3 Squares in Maple Grove — is in the midst of a major growth spurt.

First up: The company has signed a lease on the former Brasserie Zentral/Foreign Legion space in the Soo Line Building in downtown Minneapolis. The 5th and Marquette spot is being converted to the Mercury Dining Room & Rail.

"We're sticking with what we do best, which is creating a neighborhood spot," co-owner Stephanie Shimp said. "There are a lot of apartments in the area — Nic on 5th, 4Marq, not to mention all the apartments above the restaurant in the Soo Line Building — and we want to snag all of those people, and all of the office workers. Other than the skyway, there aren't a lot of affordable dining options in that area."

The Mercury will serve breakfast, lunch and dinner daily, as well as a "strong" happy hour.

"We're still working on the menu, but it's going to be approachable, comforting Blue Plate fare, not dissimilar to what you see at the Lowry and the Freehouse," Shimp said. "You'll see an egg salad sandwich alongside steak frites, or a fish special of the day."

Shimp and co-owner David Burley are making slight revisions to the space. "It's such a beautiful spot," Shimp said. "We want to brighten it up, and increase the size of the bar. We want to bring in a more energetic vibe."

("Rail" is a nod to that expanded bar presence and the building's railroad roots.) The open kitchen will remain, as will the kitchen counter and its ringside seats.

Next door, the former Foreign Legion is being remade as Shindig Events Center. A slight renovation will reconfigure the space to house events for up to 130 people.

(Four-star, fine-dining Zentral closed in January, and casual Foreign Legion followed in April; both were operated by Meritage co-owners Russell and Desta Klein.)

Opening date? September, following the company's 12-day stretch at their wildly popular State Fair venue, the Blue Barn, where Shimp reported 2015 sales of 22,000 chicken-in-a-waffle entrees and 20,000 corn fritters.

That's not all. The company's remake of its former Scusi — which closed in March — has passed new milestones.

There's a name: Bottle Rocket (1806 St. Clair Av., St. Paul). And a vague opening date: a few weeks after the Mercury's debut. The restaurant will serve lunch and dinner daily, along with breakfast on weekends.

"The renovation is pretty much done — we're just waiting on the liquor license," Shimp said.

There's more. Blue Plate has purchased a 53-acre farm near New Prague, Minn., about an hour south of Minneapolis.

"It's something that I've wanted to do for a long time," Shimp said.

It's a long-term project, one that will initially supply the company's restaurants with fresh produce ("we'll be sitting around the table with seed catalogs this winter, asking our chefs what they want us to grow," Shimp said) and possibly hops for the brewers at Freehouse, as well as turning into an agriculture-culinary internship program, à la the Green String Farm and Institute in Petaluma, Calif.

There are other possibilities: The farm's barn could be converted into an events center, and its outbuildings will provide much needed storage space (patio furniture, for example) for the company's restaurants.

For the first time, the company has hired a full-time human resources staffer ("we have 600 employees, so we figured that it was about time," Shimp said) and after years of having an office in the Highland Grill's basement, Blue Plate will soon have an honest-to-goodness corporate headquarters, leasing space in the North Loop near Freehouse.

"I just might have an office with a window," Shimp said.

Opening soon on Chicago

A 20-year friendship is at the foundation of a new restaurant.

Michael Agan will be in the kitchen, and James Elm will be out front (and behind the bar) at Xavi, opening soon in the former home of First Course (5607 Chicago Av. S., Mpls., xavirestaurant.com).

"We've always wanted to have a little restaurant," Agan said. "And now we do. We're trying to be a neighborhood place, just more evolved."

The plan is to change the menu — and the beer and wine rosters — every four to six weeks.

It's dinner only at the start, served Tuesday through Saturday. Expect to see a frisee-hazelnut-rhubarb salad with a goat cheese dressing, lamb ribs with cilantro pesto and pork loin with a lemongrass marinade and a peach-arugula salad. But no burger.

"The 5-8 Club is a half-mile away," Agan said. "That's where I go for a burger, and I don't want to compete with them."

Marin Restaurant & Bar (901 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls., 612-252-7000, marinrestaurant.com) pastry chef Christina Kaelberer, an old pal of Agan's, is pitching in on the restaurant's desserts.

The 60-seat dining room is getting a new look, including the addition of a six-seat kitchen counter. There will be a 30-seat patio, too.

Elm has worked at Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant and the Loring Pasta Bar; his last gig was bar manager at Acqua in White Bear Lake.

Agan's long résumé includes a number of D'Amico restaurants (Campiello, Masa, Cafe Lurcat), along with the former Solera and Chambers Kitchen. "I've been around town for a long time, learning from smart people," he said. "Now I'm going to use what I've learned."

Au revoir, Le Town Talk

Le Town Talk French Diner & Drinkery (2707 E. Lake St., Mpls., 612-353-5398, letowntalk.com) is calling it quits after this Sunday's brunch service.

But the landmark Lake Street diner won't be dark for long. New owners (and spouses) Kacey White and Charles Stotts plan to reopen the place on July 1st under a new name: Town Talk Diner & Gastropub.

The couple met while working together in the kitchen of an Arizona restaurant. Their goal was to move back to the Twin Cities (Stotts is a Bloomington native) and open a restaurant.

As it often does, serendipity intervened. They got to talking to a friend about their plans and that pal also happened to be acquainted with Le Town Talk co-owners (and spouses) Emilie Cellai Johnson and Ben Johnson. One thing led to another: a conversation, then a meeting. And then a sale.

The restaurant's setup will remain: a 15-seat bar in the original diner, an adjacent 90-seat dining room and a 30-seat sidewalk cafe. Rest assured, the Town Talk's fizzy sign, a Lake Street beacon, isn't going anywhere.

"We're going to take advantage of that big, historic sign," said Stotts. "It's going to be a little modern American eatery set in a historic Twin Cities diner. We're going to keep it clean, refined and approachable."

Translation? They'll be changing the seasonal, farm-to-table menu frequently to take advantage of ingredients available at their peak.

"At the restaurant where we met in Arizona, we changed the menu every day, or every other day," said Stotts. "We fell in love with that freedom, for lack of a better word, to utilize the very best ingredients that we have at that moment."

White added that the menu might occasionally include classic diner fare.

"But with a modern element," she said. "You won't see a signature dish, that's not our style. We'll have a burger on the menu, sure, because it's a diner. But every day? Probably not."

The bar program will also get an upgrade.

"Obviously that location has been known as the spot where a lot of local mixologists came from in the early 2000s," said White. "So there's definitely a lot of potential there."

Service will begin with dinner (and a late-night menu) Monday through Saturday, and brunch Sunday. Both Stotts and White will be cooking.

"One our biggest downfalls is that we're both workaholics," said Stotts with a laugh. "It's going to be hard to get us out of the kitchen."

The Town Talk's stainless steel-trimmed space dates to 1946. It closed in 2002 and remained dark until a trio of restaurateurs — including Tim Niver of the Strip Club — flipped the switch on that iconic marquee in 2006, using the diner as a bar and creating a dining room in an adjacent storefront.

The Theros Restaurant Group (St. Clair Broiler, Rudolphs) took over in 2008 and closed it three years later. Johnson and Cellai Johnson (a native of Marseille, France) revived the Town Talk in September 2014.

"I'm happy that we brought this space alive, because it was vacant for so long," said Cellai Johnson. "The sale is a happy thing. They're a really nice couple. It's good that they're keeping the dream alive with this beautiful space."

Around town

Beginning June 13, HauteDish (119 Washington Av. N., Mpls., 612-338-8484, haute-dish.com) will begin serving weekday lunch. From 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., expect to find burgers (among the city's best), a smoked trout sandwich with potato salad, beer cheese soup, chef Landon Schoenefeld's famous Tater Tot hot dish, a daily vegetarian special and more.

At Tongue in Cheek (989 Payne Av., St. Paul, 651-888-6148, tongueincheek.biz), brunch isn't just for weekends. Starting June 15, chef/co-owner Leonard Anderson will be preparing pork belly hash, a pork rillettes eggs Benedict, vegan hash (featuring vegan sausage from the Herbivorous Butcher) and more, every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Note: Saturday and Sunday brunch hours will remain 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Seven-year-old Roat Osha (2650 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls., 612-377-4418, roatoshathai.com) is moving. In August, the Thai restaurant will take up quarters a few blocks south, in the former home of Chiang Mai Thai in Calhoun Square.

There will be lots of intriguing food options at this weekend's Northern Spark festival in Minneapolis (2016.northernspark.org), starting with a launch party Saturday at the Mill City Museum (704 S. 2nd St., Mpls.) featuring fare from Restaurant Alma, Heyday, Eastside, the Third Bird, Al Vento, Marin Restaurant & Bar, Mill Valley Kitchen, Wise Acre Eatery, Black Sheep Pizza and Forepaugh's. Tickets are $40 to $250, at eventbrite.com.

Big news: Food & Wine magazine has named Brewer's Table (520 Malcolm Av. SE., Mpls., 763-999-6526, surlybrewing.com) to its second-annual Restaurants of the Year list. The magazine describes the list as the "10 most exciting places to eat in America right now." The restaurant is part of Surly Brewing Co.'s destination brewery. Chef Jorge Guzman was named the Star Tribune's 2015 Chef of the Year.

Dads, Dads, Dads

Father's Day is June 19. The holiday has never translated into brunch reservations on the scale of Mother's Day — sorry, Dad — but that doesn't mean that there aren't deals to be had, and memorable meals to be enjoyed.

Crave (five Twin Cities locations, craveamerica.com) is offering an all-you-can-eat ($23.95) Father's Day prime rib extravaganza.

Treat Dad to the full Fogo de Chao (645 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls., 612-338-1344, fogodechao.com) experience on Father's Day, and he'll walk out with a gift card for a complimentary lunch or dinner on his next visit (note: the restaurant's evening prices are in full force all day on June 19).

Fathers eat half-price at Rudolphs (1933 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls., 612-871-8969, rudolphsbbq.com) from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Father's Day, when buying an entree of greater or equal value; think St. Louis-style spare ribs, or pit-cooked chicken.

Take Pop on a road trip to Chef Shack Bay City (W6379 Main St., Bay City, Wis., 715-594-3060, chefshackranch.com/bay-city/), where chefs/co-owners Lisa Carlson and Carrie Summer are firing up their outdoor pizza oven from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and inviting chef Christian De Matteo (formerly of New York City's Harry Cipriani) as their guest chef.

Read full reviews and other restaurant news at startribune.com/dining.