Nighthawks at the diner

Cooks prepare food at recently opened Nighthawks Diner in South Minneapolis on a Thursday evening.

Christopher Wakefield

Cooks prepare food at recently opened Nighthawks Diner in South Minneapolis on a Thursday evening.

by Grant Tillery

Edward Hopper’s iconic 1942 painting “Nighthawks” reinforces the image of a diner as homey and comfortable. The painting depicts a diner in the wee hours of the morning, a neighborhood joint where executives and workers stop in before or after a long day, grabbing honest food and shooting the breeze with a familiar cast of characters. 
 
Chef Landon Schoenefeld’s latest endeavor, south Minneapolis’ Nighthawks, is the painting’s diner come to life. Though the painting features a lower-slung building than the two-story brick structure housing Nighthawks, the basic shape and design of the joint evoke Hopper’s masterpiece. 
 
The establishment’s calling card, however, is not its dark wooded and counter-centric ambiance, but the food. Schoenefeld’s cuisine is several steps above the fare at a standard greasy spoon. Traditional diner dishes receive twists and turns that update them for a crowd with refined palates.
 
Cauliflower’s renaissance is one of my favorite food trends of 2015. Nighthawks’ Spicy Cauliflower ($8) is the vegetarian equivalent of chicken wings, thanks to light frying and a habanero hot sauce to write home about. The sweet zing of the sauce diminished the buzz of the pepper’s sting. Ditto the lime pickle yogurt that served as the dipping sauce for the cauliflower. Complex and tangy, it lent Middle Eastern influences to a platter undeniably American in nature. 
 
In their highest form, cheeseburgers are simple and satisfying. Nighthawks’ version ($9 for a single patty, $14 for a double patty) oozes simplicity — the burger’s juice explodes upon the first bite and dribbles onto the plate down to the last nibble. Lowbrow by nature, the American cheese melted atop Nighthawks’ perfectly cooked burger tasted luxurious, thanks in part to the crunch of fried onions and dill pickles. 
 
This is the classic all-American burger, and I devoured mine in three minutes flat. That’s not to say I didn’t savor the cheeseburger’s flavors — I did, but some unknown compulsion prevented me from putting it down on the plate even once while holding it in my greedy maw. The delightful, eggy bun is palm-sized, and perhaps a subliminal ploy by Chef Schoenefeld to encourage diners to gobble their burgers in a glorious display of gluttony.
 
The sides at Nighthawks get treated with the same reverence as main dishes do. Sandwiches and burgers come with either coleslaw or potato salad; I opted for the coleslaw. Most restaurant coleslaw is premade garbage that lacks the sour tang synonymous with the down-home salad. Nighthawks’ coleslaw was good as my grandmother’s. The flavors reminded me of the coleslaw I ate growing up — with finely chopped cabbage, carrots and scallions doused in a silky sauce loaded with sour cream.
 
For dessert, I decided to satisfy the chocolate malt cravings I’ve had throughout the spring. Though Nighthawk’s version boasts a $5 price tag similar to most competitors, it packs fudgy flavor lost in most iterations of the soda-fountain classic, defined in the 21st century by low-grade ice cream. The rich, velvety malt was too much for me to finish on my own. Had I managed the task, my autopsy would have read “death by chocolate” — a very happy death indeed.
 
Service was a tad curt and quick (though never rude), but that’s expected when you interrupt dinner hour with a camera and video crew in tow. Chef Schoenefeld and several hosts looked on in amusement at the spectacle from the busy kitchen, where line cooks concentrated on perfecting cheeseburger after cheeseburger.