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Burger Friday: Have it your way at the Hilltop in Edina

The burger: Last year, when Ken Johnson and Brett Johnson converted their Eden Avenue Grill into the Hilltop, the father-and-son ownership team took a radical turn, burger-wise.

“We used to have three or four different burgers -- mushroom-Swiss, bacon-blue cheese, that kind of thing – but people were always modifying them,” said Brett Johnson. “No matter what, they were getting creative on their own.”

All those customer-driven substitions triggered a classic light-bulb moment. Which explains why the burger section of the Hilltop's menu (overseen by chefs Bruce Bjorkman and James Nielsen) follows a strict do-it-yourself format.

(As a depressing indicator of my age, one look at the menu triggered the memory of a long-ago earworm of a Burger King jingle: “Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce. Special orders don’t upset us. All we ask is that we let you serve it your way.” Watch it here, in all of its glory; this one is even better. Oh, and kudos to the jingle writer for rhyming “on top, or” with “proper.” Sondheim would be proud.)

Here’s how it works: Choose a patty (beef, turkey or bison) and a bun (whole-wheat, soft pretzel, egg or “gluten-friendly), then the kitchen throws in a lettuce leaf and a few tomato slices.

From there, each add-on adds to the tab. Eleven “basic” toppings -- seven varieties of cheese, mushrooms and three styles of onions – come in at 50 cents a pop, and bacon, avocado and a fried egg can be had for $1 each.

The switch-up was an immediate hit. “It’s hands-down the most popular part of the menu,” said Brett Johnson. “It’s also a much fairer way to charge people. You want avocado, and bacon, and Cheddar? That’s what you get charged for, and nothing more.”

Nice. I stuck to the basics: beef patty ("The No. 1 seller, by far," said Brett Johnson), egg bun, no add-ons. The bare-bones results were impressive.

The bruiser of an all-chuck patty -- thick, loosely packed  and muffin-topped over the bun's edges -- must weigh in at just under a half-pound. It's a total doggie bag-ready portion. The cooking process begins on the flat top stove, then transitions to the grill, which explains the patty's criss-crossed (and highly flavorful) char markings. It arrived exactly as requested (medium rare), with juices still intact, and plenty of salt.

The egg bun – it hails from Mainstreet Bakery in Edina – nailed it: substantial yet tender, with a rich, tender bite and a browned, crisped-up interior toast that clearly blossoms under a generous swipe of butter.

(Demerits for the wilted, browned lettuce leaf, and the woody, dry, flavorless tomatoes. If I noticed these deficiencies, why didn’t someone in the kitchen?).

Next time (and they’ll definitely be a next time, maybe on Tuesday, when prices on select bottles of wine are slashed in half, and definitely when the weather cooperates, because that patio looks pretty swell) I’ll pile on the extras. Avocado, caramelized red onions, bacon and smoked Gouda, on a big-old burger? So good.

Price: $11 for the straight-up model. Add-ons extra. (Note to vegetarians: There’s a black bean burger, too, although the house-made patty isn’t a part of the build-it-yourself menu.)

Fries: Included. They’re cut at a thicker width than, say, a McDonald’s fry, and their crisped-up exteriors mask a fluffy, baked potato-like interior. Not bad.

Since 1977: Diners of a certain age may recall the Johnson family's initial restaurant iteration. It was called the Pantry, and the first of three appeared 40 years ago (on the current Hilltop site), eventually growing into branches in Richfield and St. Paul’s Highland Park neighborhood. By 1998, Ken Johnson was focusing his energies on the Edina location, remaking it into the Eden Avenue Grill. That knack for reinvention took root again last year, when he and Brett gave their business yet another top-to-bottom refresh.

Smart idea. Casual and comfortable, the Hilltop is the kind of approachable and affordable restaurant that would improve any neighborhood.

“It has been a great transition,” said Brett Johnson, who grew up in the family business (“I got sucked in,” he said with a laugh). “It’ll be a year next week, that’s hard to believe.”

Address book: 5101 Arcadia Av., Edina, 952-925-5628. Open 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 7 a.m. to midnight Friday, 8 a.m. to midnight Saturday, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.

Talk to me: Do you have a favorite burger? Share the details at rick.nelson@startribune.com.

Wayzata hotel and restaurant to debut in June

For now, envisioning the eventual ninetwentyfive restaurant at the upcoming The Landing hotel in Wayzata, takes a lot of imagination.

But while exposed studs and hard hats rule the space at the moment, all hands on deck are barreling toward at June opening.

The hotel itself – Wayzata’s first in 53 years – will hold 92 rooms (including a handful of plush suites), 31 condos and a full-service spa, and will fully open to the public on June 16 after a series of soft openings. It’s taking reservations for anything past that date now.

A two-story fireplace will be the centerpiece of the lobby area, and a “fireside room” upstairs will serve as wine storage and a venue for private events and wine tastings.

The restaurant, headed by former Lucia chef Ryan Lund, will debut at the same time as the hotel in a 5,628-foot space with 285 seats between the downstairs and mezzanine levels (including the bar) and a patio that will run parallel to Lake Street.

But most other details of the place? The name? The food? Well, that’s all being kept pretty close to the vest.

Last week, Lund, who came on board about a month ago, began working in earnest on the menus, and is ready to start tasting his goods – but not telling anyone what they are.

Expect, however, for there to be plenty of nods to his old haunt, Lucia’s, where he helmed the kitchen for more than a decade.

“I think it’s around impossible after writing all those menus to completely change my style,” he said with a grin. “But the only thing I’m going to say about it is it needs to be the best.”

Dawnette Meadows, most recently at Crave, will act as the food and bar director. Beyond having a strong wine program, Lund also hinted that bourbon will be a focus at the rectangular bar in the middle of the eatery – but don’t take that to mean that the restaurant itself will be southern leaning, he noted.

A small platform in the bar area will act as a music venue for jazz brunches and other small bands in the evenings.

“It’s going to be a place to go after being on the boat all day and sit down at the bar,” Lund said. “But it also has to be a place that people will go for their anniversaries or to propose. And we want to really key in on the business traveler, too. We’re going to have an awesome breakfast that starts at 6 a.m.”

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