We didn’t have to wait too long for a table for the eight of us, but it could have been a lot worse. They were clearly coming down from an insane Labor Day rush, and when our party-last-night revelers rolled in at 1:30pm there was no one loitering outside the Hi-Lo Diner, as is a typical sight for a Sunday brunch service. Smaller parties came and went within minutes while we waited for a patio table large enough to fit all of us–their inside booths would fit a snug six, max. After thirty minutes hungrily half-seriously making alternate brunch plans we were sitting around a picnic table, poring over their very sexy drink menu.
Hi-Lo is a collaboration between the proprietors of local home design goods gurus, Forage Modern Workshop across the street and the blucy maestros at Blue Door Pub whose Longfellow location is a few blocks away. So it looks incredible and runs like a tight ship. The dining room is an actual prefabricated diner from 1957 they found and shipped to Minneapolis to install on the front of an old Taco Bell. They moved the cooking space behind the scenes while the tradition open kitchen (from before that was a thing) was transformed into a full bar with cocktails designed by top-notch barman & Tattersall mastermind Dan Oskey. Helming the kitchen is Heidi Marsh, formerly of the Chillkoot Cafe in Stillwater, MN and the Aster Cafe.
The drinks are playful, both in name and flavor. The Fjord Fiesta is an unexpected harmony of clashing flavors, featuring Tattersall Aquavit, Cocchi Americano, Blue Curacao, served Tiki-style over crushed ice. The Oaxacan in Memphis is a deep, smoky Tennessee Whiskey-Mezcal cocktail with a nose of herbs from a thyme tincture and a rosemary sprig garnish. The drink menu features an entire section of ice cream drinks, made with Sebastian Joe’s vanilla. I tried the Periscope Down, which blends Fernet Branca, root beer, and cold press with ice cream, and it was a smooth, tasty, spiced-not-spicy mishmash of some of my favorite flavors. The cocktail list is reason enough to make a return visit, but so is the food.
They’re making really great scratch diner fare, with an extensive breakfast selection, classic entrees, sandwiches and Hi-Lo’s original concept signature item, the Hi-Top. It’s kind of like a doughnut, but not really. There’s no hole, it’s not as sweet, and a bit more dense than–well–than the kind of doughnuts I like. They’re fried to order then topped with a variety of things like short ribs and apple bacon slaw, pulled pork and black bean sweet corn salsa, or a duck confit benedict-style arrangement. I got the Gary Cooper’d: fried chicken strips and country gravy with maple-bourbon syrup, and it balances the sweet, the savory, the crispy, the creamy, and tops them with arugula microgreens for a pop of freshness. It’s a fantastic dish, and the Hi-Tops alone are reason to come back. But also: the burger.
I’ve been getting tired of the smashed patty with American cheese schtick. It’s great, but everybody’s doing it, and lately I’ve been more drawn to pub-style thick-ass patties cooked medium rare. When I heard Hi-Lo was taking the smash route, I rolled my eyes. To their credit, given their concept, they pretty much had to, but it was right when I was getting sick of ’em. So it took me kind of a while to make it to Hi-Lo to check on their offering, and damned if I didn’t instantly fall back off the anti-smash wagon. Their secret sauce is standard fare secret sauce, which is great–I love it. Their “Hi-Lo pickles” are not-sickly-sweet bread-and-butter -like pickled cucumbers. The beef had something else to it I couldn’t place. It was seasoned with something fragrant I really liked, but will most likely keep me guessing on future visits, but otherwise it’s a truly fantastically balanced beef flavor. But the saltiness was perfect, and the sear was a textbook-perfect smash, with just a hint of pink in the center. Gobs of American cheese were fantastically creamy. The bread–from Turtle Bread Co.–is pretty much what I look for in a burger bun: squishy but holds up. Overall, it’s a well-balanced beef-forward burger. You can get it in a single or a double, and I’d highly recommend the double, as it really highlights the beefiness–I had the single on a previous visit and while it was good, there’s something about doubling the surface area that amplifies the flavor.
The Hi-Lo Diner has infiltrated my list of places-I-like-a-lot-but-don’t-live-close-enough-to-be-a-regular-at-but-will-make-an-effort-to-visit-on-occasion-that-are-reasonably-priced. They get bonus points for being open late enough for me to eat after work, for consolidating diner food and cocktails, and for Hi-Tops, which are inspired and delicious. And, dammit, I really like that burger.