Ever since the Hi-Lo Diner pitched up on East Lake Street — in all its stainless steel and neon glory — we have been standing on the curb, eagerly watching the windows for signs of life. Was it six months or a year? It seemed a century, during which rumors of milk shakes and doughnuts only increased our vigilant anticipation, so it’s no surprise that the place has been packed every meal of the day since it opened a few weeks ago.
And, now that we’ve been inside and had a bite to eat, we can say that it looks just like we hoped it would and early tastes are promising.
Prefabricated diners were originally designed to look like the sleek art deco train cars of the 1930s and to be trim enough for road travel from the factory to the restaurant site. The Hi-Lo has the efficient, neato feeling of a dining car. On one side, there’s a long counter and a row of floor-mounted stools, from which one can watch the bartenders and soda fountain at work; on the other, there are small, low-backed booths. A mirror runs above the center aisle, and someone said it’s there to help the bartenders spot empty drinks, but we liked watching the food roll out of the kitchen.
The Hi-Lo is compact, but it’s also light and airy — between the windows, gleaming stainless steel, and teal accents — and just loud enough that if we were initially aware of the neighboring diners, we soon forgot about them.
That may also have been down to the meal. The Hi-Lo menu, created by chef Heidi Marsh (formerly of Aster Cafe), is classic diner fare plus the cafe’s signature Hi-Tops — doughnuts with both sweet and savory toppings. It sounds like overkill but it works, primarily because the doughnuts are yeasted and only lightly sweet.
We enjoyed the Notorious P.I.G. ($10): tender pulled pork in a zingy citrus glaze with a mild black bean and sweet corn salsa, a sunny-side up egg, and a cool dollop of sour cream. On the fork, the toppings and the unglazed doughnut melded to form a soft, delicious whole. No colliding textures here.
Also good at breakfast: the light and fluffy Lo Stack of pancakes ($8.50), which came with a shockingly generous serving of real maple syrup. The Lox & Dam Benedict ($11.50) combined smoked salmon, asparagus, and an expertly poached egg on English muffin with an almost drinkable hollandaise sauce that was lighter than any we’d had before and, we think, favored cream over egg yolk.
The Hi-Lo lunch and dinner menu builds on breakfast with salads, soups, sandwiches, and a handful of entrees. Of the lighter fare, the Brutus salad ($9) stood out as a nice study in contrasts: earthy kale, nutty fried chickpeas, and sweet roasted grapes tossed in Parmesan and a light Caesar dressing that tasted more like a thin green goddess. This is not a complaint; the dressing is full of herbs and garlic and is tasty without drowning out the other flavors. For $3 you can add crispy chicken — do it! The chicken was tender and crunchy.
The lightly battered cod in the Fish and Chips ($12) basket was so flaky and tender that it nearly fell to pieces before we could dip it in the remoulade, a spicy take on tartar sauce. It came with giant, fried capers — a welcome briny note — and some very satisfying crinkle fries.
Of everything we ate, our hands-down favorite was the Sweet T pie ($4.50), apparently a Southern classic, aka sweet tea pie. It was the Earl Grey custard that intrigued us — not just the flavor, but the texture, which was smooth and creamy and what one of my dining companions said she always wished pecan pie filling would be like. The crust was similarly dreamy: flaky, tender, and with just the right balance of sugar and salt.
Welcome to the neighborhood, Hi-Lo Diner.
Classic diner food in Cooper, Minneapolis
4020 E Lake St
Minneapolis, MN 55406
Sun-Thu 6:30 a.m.-1 a.m.
Fri & Sat 6:30 a.m.-2 a.m.
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: No / No
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Limited
ENTREE RANGE: $10-$14.50
NOISE LEVEL: Moderate
PARKING: Street parking