Nighthawks at the diner of Emma’s 49’er
There’s a rendezvous of strangers around the coffee urn tonight
All the gypsy hacks and the insomniacs
Now the paper’s been read, now the waitress said
Eggs and sausage and a side of toast
Coffee and a roll, hash browns over easy
Chile in a bowl with burgers and fries
What kind of pie? Yeah …
It’s a graveyard charade, it’s a late shift masquerade
And it’s two for a quarter, dime for a dance
Woolworth rhinestone diamond earrings and a sideways glance
Now the register rings, now the waitress sings
Eggs and sausage and a side of toast …
— Tom Waits, “Eggs and Sausage” from Nighthawks at the Diner, 1975
Inspired by the eponymous Edward Hopper painting that has hung in the Art Institute of Chicago since 1942, Nighthawks is the new diner from chef Landon Schoenefeld. Occupying the former Shorty & Wag’s chicken wing joint on the corner of 38th Street and Nicollet Avenue South, Nighthawks joins an ever-growing posse of new, buzzing spots that have turned this intersection into a South Minneapolis food and drink destination. And while its atmosphere might be more family friendly than that of Hopper’s artwork, with its sinister lurkers — or that of Tom Waits’ Hopper-inspired live album, Nighthawks at the Diner, with its down-and-out insomniacs — Schoenefeld’s new spot retains some classic diner vibes while upping the food game considerably.
Schoenefeld’s predilection for classic American food is well known. His approach is summed up in the punny name of Haute Dish, his North Loop establishment, where one can enjoy a deconstructed (and delicious) modern version of tater tot hot dish along with other clever facsimiles of Midwest cuisine like creamed peas on toast, meatloaf in a can, and mac ’n’ cheese. All of this might come off as gimmicky, if it wasn’t evident that Schoenefeld has an abiding love and respect for classic American comfort food. Each dish, successful or not, is the product of careful preparation, technical skill, and a sense of humor.
While Haute Dish has one foot in the world of tasting menus and tweezed garnishes and the other in a Betty Crocker cookbook, Nighthawks is more direct: it is, indeed, a diner. And though there may be a few elements of Haute Dish’s playful sensibilities hiding on the menu, the food is largely straightforward. This is comfort food, made well, and served in a loose and inviting neighborhood atmosphere.
Our first visit took place during Nighthawks’ first Sunday brunch service — on Mother’s Day, no less. This is perhaps the cruelest test one could devise for a new restaurant, and happily, the experience was fantastic, without qualification. Our party of eight was seated at the counter, the prime spot for watching the theatrics in the open kitchen. The cooks were total pros, filling the griddle with a dozen pancakes at a time, and knocking out plate after plate of food for a packed, loud, and hungry holiday crowd of families. Our Eggs Bennie ($10) was a picture-perfect model of the classic — English muffin, ham, poachers, and no-frills Hollandaise. The side of hashbrowns ($5) arrived as a plate-sized mahogany disk with a thick, lacquered crust and flakes of sea salt — crisp, creamy, and tasting of actual potatoes. The Wild Mushroom Omelet ($10) was crammed full of buttery, griddled porcini, chanterelles, and other delicious fungi, along with Gruyere, Parmesan, and fresh thyme. A standout was the Scrambled Eggs & Smoked Salmon ($10), which featured an unexpected but welcome (to us, at least) execution of scrambled eggs: a rich, thick foam of eggs and cream, dispensed from a nitrogen canister with a Dairy-Queen-style flourish atop a schmeared-and-salmoned English muffin. A few eyebrows went up as we watched the chef squirt our eggs out of a can, but the proof was on the palate: delicious.
On the sweet side, Nighthawks features an impressively varied selection of pancakes (three for $6, six for $12). The Plain Old Buttermilk and Blueberry Lemon versions were spot-on examples of what every cake should aspire to: a well-browned exterior, yet so tender they almost melt — cooked nice and slowly on the griddle. We also gave the savory Chorizo Cheddar Corn cakes a shot and really loved the balance of the sweet cake against the spicy sausage, rich cheese, and fresh corn. It was a standout.
We left brunch incredibly full, and also impressed. Some of the most established restaurants around town struggle with insane brunch crowds, and Nighthawks was clearly ready with a great front-of-house staff, and experienced cooks behind the counter. Our party was surprised and delighted all around.
The menu at Nighthawks, like that of any good diner, covers a lot of ground. It’s divided into distinct sections: Soup & Salad, Sandwiches, Fried, Blue Plate Specials (more on those in a moment), the aforementioned Eggs & Cakes All Day, and Hot Dogs. We made another visit during happy hour (Monday-Friday, 4-6 p.m.) to try one of the dogs, all of them foot-longers sourced from Kramarczuk’s Deli, the Northeast Minneapolis authority on tube-shaped meats. Each hot dog is ten bucks on its own, but the happy hour deal is worth seeking out: a draft beer and a dog for the same price. We chose the namesake Nighthawks dog and paired it with a delicious Bent Paddle IPA. The Nighthawks dog is a great example of thoughtful sandwich architecture (something we feel is often overlooked) — somehow they created a relentlessly overstuffed hot dog that’s still possible to eat with a little bit of dignity. A grilled, soft poppy seed bun cradles the excellent natural-casing Kramarczuk’s dog (perfect snap, fatty and juicy) which is topped with sweet-and-sour giardiniera, spicy mustard, dill mayo, soft cheese, and crisp shoestring potatoes. It works — it’s rich, balanced with acidity, and has some pleasant textural contrast. It was great with a cold beer in the sun at one of the sidewalk tables.
The Nighthawks Cheeseburger came next ($9 for a sane single, $14 for a shame-inducing double). Deviating from the kitchen-sink ethos of the well-loved version at Haute Dish, this fistful of beef ditches the toppings to walk down the purist path favored by other spots in town that embrace Zen-burger simplicity (Parlour being one of our favorites). Cheese, pickles, griddled onion, and special sauce make for a damn fine incarnation that will surely be pornographically photographed for inclusion in the infinite “Best Burgers” cover stories that grace our glossy monthly magazines.
One of the best things we tried was an unlikely item on a menu sagging under the weight of meaty indulgence: the Raw Vegetable Salad ($8) arrived as an explosion of color in a bowl, with mandolined raw veggies tossed in a Vietnamese-style nuoc-cham vinaigrette. The prep of the veggies made them tender and easy to eat – wide, thin ribbons of carrot and cabbage, and an entire sliced avocado are sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds, peanuts, fresh basil, and cilantro. It’s an exceedingly refreshing dish, again reflecting balance in flavor and texture (a recurring theme), and a great accompaniment to the footlong calorie injection that is the Nighthawks dog.
But the clear standout was the Matzo Ball Soup ($8). We will come back for this, many times, if it stays this good. This is matzoh ball soup with soul, condensed and distilled without mercy down to the very essence of matzoh-balliness. The broth is thick — heading toward chowder territory — with magical blobs of rich, golden schmaltz and fresh herbs. The matzoh “balls” looked like they had been formed in tubes, and were silky soft, almost like silken tofu, but with a distinct matzoh flavor. Lots of tender chicken and carrots made for a delicious, hearty meal. A huge win.
We also fell hard for the Caesar Steak Tartare ($12). A huge portion of chopped raw beef tossed with some of the expected acidic accoutrements, and then amped up with a heavy hit of garlicky breadcrumbs, a raw egg yolk, and a heap of fresh romaine with Caesar dressing and a dusting of snowy, microplaned Parmesan. The textural balance was, once again, excellent — the crunchy and flavorful breadcrumbs obviated the need for a side of bread. Looked at from one angle, it’s an unimpeachable (and meal-sized) steak tartare; from another, it’s the best Caesar salad in town. Like Hopper’s painting, it’s a study in perspective.
In a seemingly unironic nod to an American diner tradition, Nighthawks has a menu of blue plate specials — an entree for each day of the week, consisting of the comfiest of comfort foods — roast chicken, chops, meatloaf, etc. On a Tuesday night, we ordered the Spaghetti & Meatballs ($16). It arrived looking more like a stunt than a plate of food. There was easily more than a pound of meat on a modest swirl of fat spaghetti. The meatballs were so tender they were almost loose — nice and herby, leaning more toward beef than pork. The sauce had the fresh, sweet taste of good San Marzano tomatoes and was spiked with lots of fresh herbs. The pasta was on the too-crunchy side of al dente for our tastes, but your mileage may vary.
Hidden among the bright spots, there were a few misses. The Spicy Cauliflower ($8) fell in the miss column — we’ve definitely had great fried cauliflower before, but this version needs some rethinking. Billed on the menu with habanero hot sauce and lime pickle yogurt, the flavors were a conflicting mess — zero habanero heat, and something sour and off-putting in its place, like burnt lime. The cauliflower itself wasn’t crunchy, and wasn’t quite soft — just limp. The yogurt dip added nothing to the dish.
The Pastrami Sandwich ($12 for MPLS-sized; $18 for NYC-sized) was middling, and revealed an inconsistency with portioning on the menu. We ordered the smaller sandwich, which was surprisingly dainty compared to the King Kong meatballs on the spaghetti, the LP-sized side of hashbrowns, the well-endowed dogs, and the double-handful steak tartare. Comparatively, the twelve bucks dropped on the small pastrami felt odd. The pastrami itself is cured in-house, and doesn’t have much bite — it’s very soft and tender, texturally akin to smoked salmon. As with the “scrambled eggs” on the smoked salmon dish at brunch, Schoenefeld definitely intends to do something different — it just might not wet your particular whistle. The same goes for the addition of kewpie mayo, which we felt didn’t bring much to the sandwich except some sogginess. The accompanying slaw was bizarrely bland and forgettable, next to general thoughtfulness and big flavors of other side dishes on the menu.
Overall, we appreciated the consistently delicious and varied offerings at Nighthawks, along with the airy, laid-back neighborhood vibe. Out of the gate, the restaurant is looking strong. It’s well-positioned to offer different experiences, depending on what you’re looking for — a quick drink and a snack at the bar while you catch a few innings of the ball game, breakfast at the counter to see the cooks whisk Hollandaise and flip cakes, or dinner in a cushy booth. In a town with far too few good late-night dining options, the open-till-midnight hours are incredibly welcome, as is the all-day availability of eggs and pancakes.
The only tension at Nighthawks — and it’s a barely audible dissonant note in an otherwise lovely chord — lies in the restaurant’s obvious push to be a comfort-food pit stop for the neighborhood, as Schoenefeld irresistibly pulls toward tinkering with things people (especially in the Midwest — but perhaps not in the new North?) tend to expect a certain way. His instincts are usually good, though, and we will gladly eat food from a chef who takes chances now and then, especially in the relatively risk-free realm of diner food. We’ll be back to try the rest of those blue plate specials, maybe round about midnight when some of Minneapolis’ gypsy hacks and insomniacs belly up to the counter for eggs and coffee, a side of toast, coffee and a roll …
Tricia Cornell contributed to this review.
Modern diner in Kingfield, South Minneapolis
3753 Nicollet Ave S, Minneapolis, MN 55401
Dinner: Mon-Sat, 4 p.m.-midnight
Brunch: Sat-Sun, 10 a.m.-2 p.m.
CHEF: Landon Schoenefeld
BAR: Beer and wine
ENTREE RANGE: $16-$25
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Yes