The Twin Cities has so many interesting places to eat that my "Restaurants to Visit" page on Google Maps has over 30 different pins plastered over the area map. One of the places that I've wanted to try for quite sometime is a place called Nighthawks, an upscale diner and bar on S. Nicollet Ave. After a morning visit to a dealer in Minneapolis, I headed over to Nighthawks for an early lunch before I headed out of town on a cold and blustery day.
Landon Schoenefeld grew up in South Dakota where he once said in an interview with the great Twin Cities on-line restaurant magazine Heavy Table, "Food in general just isn't very good". His mother was not a good cook and Schoenefeld said that her best dish was a tater-tot/ground beef/green bean/cream of mushroom soup casserole that was her go-to meal for all big occasions. As a teenager, he started working in a restaurant that had a menu where they had everything from Italian to Mexican to American - and probably didn't do any of them very well. But he seemed to like the camaraderie that came from working with people in a kitchen.
Not exactly knowing what he wanted to do with his life after high school, someone suggested he go to cooking school. While he wasn't certain that he wanted to pursue a career in the restaurant business, Schoenefeld enrolled in the culinary program at the International Culinary Schools at the Art Institute in Minneapolis. From there, he went to work for a handful of upscale restaurants in the Twin Cities - Restaurant Alma, 112 Eatery and Barbette to name three - before settling at the Bulldog Northeast in Minneapolis.
It was at the Bulldog Northeast where Schoenefeld became famous for re-constructing their burger menu into one of the best in the Twin Cities - and also became infamous for the "Colonel Mustard Incident" where he sprayed mustard from a bottle on a bartender who had asked for a salad with dressing on the side. Schoenefeld was in the midst of a series of 20-hour work binges and evidently had had enough. He was relieved of his duties at the Bulldog Northeast, but he had already created quite a culinary stir in the area that he was soon hired at Trattoria Tosca, an upscale Italian bistro located on Minneapolis' west side, then at its sister restaurant Cafe Levain (both of which closed last year).
Schoenefeld - who wasn't big on dressing up and never owned a tie - wanted to do his own concept restaurant where he offered upscale food in a casual atmosphere. He didn't mind if you wore a three-piece suit or a pair of blue jeans to his idea for a restaurant, he just wanted you to enjoy the food. He enlisted the help of three other partners and they opened Haute Dish in early 2010.
Pictured right - Landon Schoenefeld. Photo courtesy Minnesota Monthly magazine.
Haute Dish was an immediate hit on the restaurant landscape in the Twin Cities with their upscale Midwestern-themed comfort food. With Schoenefeld as the head chef, he had help in the kitchen from four former co-workers he had worked with in his previous stops. Their "nouveau-Midwestern comfort food" drew raves from critics and customers alike. One of the things he had on the menu at Haute Dish was a tater tot casserole based upon the ingredients his mother used in the casserole she made when Schoenefeld was a youngster - only with much better ingredients.
For his next concept, Schoenefeld came up with Nighthawks which is called a "postmodern take on the urban American diner". Schoenefeld gave his new restaurant the Nighthawks name after Edward Hopper's iconic 1942 painting of a late night diner in New York's Greenwich Village. Opening in May of 2015, Schoenefeld also had a restaurant within a restaurant - Birdie - on the premises. Birdie is a chef's table restaurant where customers can watch an 8 to 12 course meal be prepared before their very eyes. Offering four seatings a week, the prix fixe menu comes in at $100 and I understand that there is a waiting list that stretches out to months.
Landon Schoenefeld has been known for years as a hard-charging, tireless visionary who has worked hard at every position he's had. It is probably one of the reasons why he has worked at so many different restaurants since he graduated from culinary school. And late last year, Schoenefeld felt the stress of being burned-out as he was going through some tough negotiations with one of the partners at Haute Dish, as well as keeping Nighthawks and Birdie on the upper tier of restaurants in the Twin Cities. He stepped away from the three restaurants taking a sabbatical to get his head cleared. However, his able staff and chefs have carried on with all three restaurants showing no signs of a degradation in either food or service.
Nighthawks is located at the corner of S. Nicollet and E. 38th Street in south Minneapolis. (see map) S. Nicollet between W. 24th and W. 28th streets to the north is known as "Eat Street" for the number of various cuisines that can be found in that four block area. 6 to 12 blocks south of there are a number of other interesting restaurants that I've found over the years. I was able to find a parking space up Nicollet to the north of Nighthawks and went in around 11:30 a.m. that day.
The main entrance of Nighthawks opens to a long bar area with padded high-backed booths along the wall. I was greeted by a hostess who took me past the bar and around a corner to another room and put me at a small table. My server that day - Mitch - came over to greet me.
I was given a lunch menu to look over. The dinner menu at Nighthawks has many of the same lunch items, but they also feature nightly blue plate specials through the week including fried chicken and mashed potatoes (Monday); a ham chop with cheddar cheese grits (Wednesday); and a ketchup-glazed meat loaf with mashed potatoes and gravy (Thursday.)
The Nighthawk also has breakfast items that are served throughout the day. Only these breakfast items aren't your typical breakfast fare - it's not everyday you see a foie gras omelet on the menu. The Nighthawks Hashbrown platter is topped with chili, smoked cheddar cheese and cole slaw. And they have 8 different types of pancakes to choose from such as plain ol' buttermilk pancakes to a bacon kimchi scallion pancake platter to chorizo/cheddar/corn pancakes.
Sandwiches included a tuna melt topped with a lemon caper dressing and Prairie Breeze cheddar from the Milton Creamery in the southeast Iowa town of Milton; the French Dip topped with Gruyère cheese, beef fat mayo and a shallot jam; and two different sizes of pastrami sandwiches - the Minneapolis which is smaller and the NYC which is probably the size of sandwiches sold at the famous Jewish deli's in New York City.
Interestingly, they also had a number of hot dogs on the menu. They start out with 12" all-beef hot dogs from the Kramarczuk Deli in Minneapolis and then they add individual toppings for signature hot dogs. The Huevo Rancheros hot dog was topped with a fried egg, frito chips, black beans and guacamole (among other things); the JapaDog featured toppings such as pickled ginger, seaweed salad and sliced daikon radish; and the Galaxy Dog was topped with chili, cole slaw, cheddar cheese and frito chips. I damned near pulled the trigger on that when I initially saw it.
But something really jumped out at me on the menu - the lemon blueberry pancakes. Lemons and blueberries are two of my most favorite taste flavors and I about melted when I saw them as a combination in the pancakes.
I was hoping that they would be great and I have to say that they exceeded my expectations. They were absolutely fabulous. The pancake batter had a faint lemon taste - nothing overpowering - but the blueberries were fresh and tart offering a wonderful taste sensation on both ends of the scale. The pancakes were a little too thick and doughy for my liking, but the taste of the lemon and blueberries together made me forget that I liked my pancakes more thin.
For a side, I got some of Nighthawks in-house smoked and cured pepper bacon. The bacon was smoked almost too much for my taste, it was almost too salty and it wasn't all that lean. While it tasted good enough while I was having it, it sort of upset my stomach immediately after I had eaten it. I found myself burping the bacon back up later in the day.
I'm hesitant to categorize Nighthawks as a breakfast place because they don't open until 11 a.m. (They do feature brunch on the weekends.) But they serve breakfast all day long and have an interesting menu throughout the day. The lemon/blueberry pancakes were just outstanding. Service was personable and competent. The atmosphere was laid-back, but somewhat elegant at the same time. While Landon Schoenefeld may now be gone, it appears that he prepped his staff well enough to continue on with the eclectic offerings that make Nighthawks an interesting and impressive place to dine.