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Town Talk Diner coming back to life

Posted by: Rick Nelson under Restaurant news Updated: July 8, 2014 - 12:05 PM

After a depressing three-year hiatus, the historic Town Talk Diner is going to be back in business.

The East Lake Street landmark – dark since January 2011 – is being revived by spouses Emilie Cellai Johnson and Ben Johnson, and being re-christened Le Town Talk French Diner & Drinkery.

Emilie has culinary and hotel/restaurant management degrees from her native Marseille. After working in a restaurant in the Eiffel Tower in Paris, she relocated to the Twin Cities for a job at the Hotel Sofitel, where she met chef Patrick Bernet. She helped Bernet and his wife Azita open their Patrick’s Bakery & Cafe, then spent the last decade working in restaurant sales for Reinhard Food Service.

Ben is a D’Amico and Partners veteran and is currently a real estate project developer with the Neighborhood Development Center, a non-profit small-business incubator that revitalizes low-income neighborhoods. The couple has been scouting sites for two years before finally landing the Town Talk.

“It’s the right space for us, it’s such a perfect fit,” said Cellai Johnson. “We have a small budget, and we needed an existing kitchen, we couldn’t afford to build from scratch. We love the neighborhood. It’s full of younger families, and that’s what who we are, and who we want to serve.”

The Town Talk’s status as a diner was another key attraction.

“By being a diner previously, we have the opportunity to keep it casual,” said Cellai Johnson. “We want to redefine French food. You say ‘French restaurant,’ and people get scared, they think that they won’t be able to afford it, that it will be too fancy.”

Not here. “We’ll be using all of my family recipes, from my French mother and Italian grandmother,” said Cellai Johnson. “I’ll put my spin on them to make it modern, but it will still be the classic comfort food that we made at home. Eating at home is accessible to everyone.”

Fortunately for Twin Cities diners, Cellai Johnson grew up in a household where, “if we weren’t eating, we were cooking, and if we weren’t cooking, we were talking about food,” she said with a laugh. “My mom is a phenomenal cook, and my grandmother is a phenomenal cook. I was lucky to grow up in that house.”

The menu will include sweet and savory crepes (including a monthly all-you-can-consume crepes-fest), bouillabaisse (“the typical fish stew of my hometown,” said Cellai Johnson), “Marseille” burgers (the patties will be packed with herbs), croque monsieur and croque madame, steak frites with a green salad (“it’s what my mom cooked on Saturday after coming back from the farmers market, you know, boom, that was lunch”) and Corsican stew, a slow-cooked beef stew in a tomato sauce with carrots and black olives and served over pasta (“it’s one of my favorite dishes and it’s what we ate for our wedding dinner”), along with a handful of small plates, including grilled bread topped with roasted red peppers, olive tapenade or caponata.

“Everything has a little bit of a story behind it,” said Cellai Johnson (pictured, left, with husband Ben). “It feels more personal, so people can learn that we’re being true to ourselves.”

Dessert will include “a to-die-for” chocolate mousse and, naturally, tarte Tatin. St. Paul Farmers Market shoppers will recall Cellai Johnson’s exceptional version of this classic French upside-down apple tart, which she sold under the name the Original Tarte Tatin. She gave up the popular stand when their daughter Lilou was born two years ago.

“That was when we had time to have a full-time job and an extra job on the weekend,” Cellai Johnson said with a laugh. “Maybe we’ll sell them again at the market, because people loved it.”

I know I did. In an effort to continue the Town Talk’s tradition of first-rate libations-making, the couple has turned to Julien Masson, a culinary school friend of Cellai Johnson’s and now the bar manager at the InterContinental Hotel in Marseille. He is creating a list of champagne cocktails as well as a roster of drinks built using French spirits. Groups of four or more will be able to order cocktails as a “cascade,” served in an absinthe fountain.

The space is undergoing a slight makeover. The historic diner will retain its original fixtures, and the dining room is getting an upgrade with a new floor, different lighting and the addition of banquettes. “We want to make it cozy and comfortable and accessible,” said Cellai Johnson.

As for that eye-grabbing sign, it’s not going anywhere, and it’s getting an addendum: a “Le” on its top left side.

The Town Talk has a fabled history. The stainless-steel trimmed space dates to 1946, and it fed a generation of workers from the nearby Minneapolis Moline farm implements factory. When the plant was shuttered in the early 1960s, the diner sputtered on, finally closing in 2002.

A trio of restaurateurs – including the current partnership behind the Strip Club in St. Paul – flipped the switch on the Town Talk’s 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) bought the place in 2008 and closed it three years later.

The couple plans to start by serving dinner and weekend brunch. The scheduled opening date is Emilie’s birthday, Sept. 13. “It will be the most stressful birthday I will ever have,” she said with a laugh.

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