Inside the warm and wonderfully fragrant greenhouses at the busy Tangletown Gardens farm in Plato, Minn., thousands of tiny strawberry plants, budding peppers and just-sprouting herbs are not only a harbinger of spring's impending arrival, but also the birth of a restaurant.

When Tangletown co-owners Dean Engelmann and Scott Endres invoke the phrase "farm-to-table," they're not exaggerating. Their Wise Acre Eatery (5401 Nicollet Av. S., Mpls.), located across the street from their nine-year-old garden store, will be the state's first restaurant designed to be a direct conduit from farmer to diner.

"We're going to offer a complete local experience," said Engelmann.

The farm, about 20 minutes west of Chaska in McLeod County, is Engelmann's family property (Endres grew up on a similar family farm in Hampton) and a model of sustainable, biodiverse practices. Raising food is a relatively new part of their business. Two summers ago, the duo started selling farm-fresh produce at their store. Last year, they launched a CSA (community-supported agriculture) program, and quickly enlisted 320 subscribers.

Starting in late May, diners will get a taste of the farm's wide-ranging output -- including grass-fed Scottish Highland beef, pasture-raised Berkshire pork, free-range poultry and a dizzying array of vegetables, raised on nearly 30 acres, with another acre of year-round cultivation inside the farm's greenhouses.

"We want to give people the absolute freshest food that we can, cooked with care," said Endres. "The restaurant is going to be a nod to what our dads and grandpas raised on their farms, and all the incredible things that our moms and grandmas cooked and baked."

The casual, counter-service restaurant, going into the former Liberty Frozen Custard, will be operated by a pair of Twin Cities restaurant and catering veterans: chef Beth Fisher and wine-and-service guru Caroline Glawe, co-owners of TWO Food Wine Design.

"It's an amazing opportunity that awaits us, with everything that they're going to be growing and harvesting at the farm," said Fisher.

The hyper-local emphasis isn't fanatic: spices, chocolate, wines, coffee and other not-from-Minnesota ingredients will be on the menu, which will focus on sandwiches, salads, burgers and fries, and a few basic entrees. A large takeout component is in the works, including bag lunches for folks picking up their CSA boxes.

"Simple, everyday food," said Engelmann. "The menu will be driven by what's available out here at the farm. It will be a true seasonal restaurant."

And along with locally brewed beers, there will be frozen custard, made daily. "We want to give kids a reason to pull on their parents' sleeves," said Endres. "But we also want to give the over-21 crowd a reason to make it their neighborhood place."

Fisher also plans to offer a seasonally inspired Italian ice.

"We'll be able to take that in so many directions," said Glawe. "Beth makes a killer green tomato sorbet."

Beard finalists

Two Minnesota chefs made it to the final round in the 2011 James Beard Foundation awards competition for Best Chef: Midwest: Isaac Becker of 112 Eatery and Bar La Grassa in Minneapolis, and Lenny Russo, of Heartland Restaurant & Farm Direct Market in St. Paul. It's Becker's fourth consecutive nomination, and Russo's second. The category is rounded out by Colby Garrelts of Bluestem in Kansas City, Mo., and two Wisconsinites: Justin Aprahamian of Sanford in Milwaukee, and Tory Miller of L'Etoile in Madison. Winners will be announced May 9 in New York City.

Spring has sprung

Here's a true sign of spring: Closed-for-the-winter drive-ins are opening. St. Paul's Dari-ette Drive-In and Spring Park's Minnetonka Drive-In are already up and running. The showiest of them all, the Galaxy Drive-In in St. Louis Park, is eyeing an early April return -- probably the 7th or 8th -- with the same owner (Rainforest Cafe founder Steve Schussler) and new operators: Stephanie and Mike Olson, known to countless State Fair-goers as owners of the popular Blue Moon Dine-In Theater.

"At the fair, we get asked, thousands of times, 'Where's your place?', and until now, we've never had a place to send them," said Stephanie Olson. "Now we will."

The couple plan to inject scratch cooking into the burgers-and-fries format, including hand-cut onion rings and turkey burgers topped with spinach and feta. "We want to bring the same kind of upscale twist that we do at the fair," said Mike Olson.

RICK NELSON