Restaurant Reviews

Tiny Diner

With Tiny Diner open and The Third Bird coming, Minneapolis finds itself fully in the age of Kim Bartmann. Pass the fries?

Tiny Diner Minneapolis
Photo by Caitlin Abrams

Have you noticed how profoundly large Kim Bartmann’s group of restaurants has gotten lately? Count them: the New York–feeling bistro and wine bar Barbette (which replaced her very first spot, the coffee shop Café Wyrd), the farm-driven bowling alley and theater Bryant-Lake Bowl, the sustainable retro Wisconsin supperclub Red Stag, the quick-serve coffee shop Gigi’s, the park concession and sustainable beer-and-wine showcase Bread & Pickle, the south Minneapolis gastropub and vintage skee-ball king Pat’s Tap, and now the eco-garden showcase and pancake joint Tiny Diner.

If all goes well, by the time you read this, Bartmann’s newest new spot, The Third Bird, should have opened on Loring Park in the former Nick and Eddie spot. That will bring the grand total to eight Minneapolis restaurants, putting Bartmann right in the running with local dining powerhouses like Parasole (a dozen restaurants, including the two Saluts, Libertine, and Chino Latino) and D’Amico (hard to count, with many quick-serve D’Amico & Sons but also a handful of more elaborate sit-down spots, namely Lurcat, Masa, Campiello, and Parma 8200). Five years ago, D’Amico and Parasole were big and Bartmann wasn’t. What happened?

Kim Bartmann in Tiny Diner

“I’m just simple folk from Appleton, Wisconsin,” Bartmann told me on the phone as she traveled between her newest projects. In fact, Bartmann grew up in Appleton and North Hollywood in California, where her father worked as a field service engineer for a machine tool company. In her high school years the family moved again to Eagle River, Wisconsin, in the distant timber country near the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. “I was not happy,” she remembers. “There was nothing to do.”

She channeled her boredom into rugby, and after a few terms at Eau Claire, Bartmann moved to Minneapolis to go to the University of Minnesota. It was 1983. “It was a big city for me. I had lots of fun. We’d sit at the New French and watch the sun set—it was pretty awesome.” (The sunset view from the Warehouse District of Minneapolis is largely gone now, of course, blotted out by the parking garages.)

“But I needed a job really bad. A friend of mine I knew from playing rugby said: ‘Go to this place. Pretend you’re a vegetarian. They will give you a job as a cook.’” That’s how Bartmann ended up in Uptown, in the building now occupied by Tadka Indian Bistro, which was then called The Blue Heron.

“I knew nothing,” remembers Bartmann. “They’d say, ‘Go to the basement and get some garbanzo beans.’ I’d think, ‘I sure hope they have labels on those cans; I don’t know what garbanzo beans are.’” At home, Bartmann’s mother hadn’t been much of a cook: “Rice-A-Roni, that sort of thing,” says Bartmann. “Do you know any chefs whose mothers were good cooks?”

She figured out garbanzo beans, and a few other things, and was soon cooking in a real restaurant, Winfield Potter’s, under Tobie Nidetz. “I was very young, always the only girl in the restaurant,” she remembers. “But a friend of mine was always [saying]: ‘coffee shop, coffee shop, coffee shop.’ And one day, it was the day after Thanksgiving, I was driving down Lake Street, it was a crappy part of town then, and I saw this place that used to be my friend’s record shop. And, in a classic case of delusional thinking, I thought: ‘I’m working a lot, playing rugby, going to school—if I open a place, I can combine a couple things I like: work and seeing friends.’”

A few months later, in February of 1991, she opened Café Wyrd. A couple years after that, driving down Lake Street again, she got to thinking about the Bryant-Lake Bowl. She had developed a taste for good beer through rugby and thought the wine bars in town were too expensive, so she bought it with a few college friends (whom she subsequently bought out).

A car crash in 1995 slowed her down for a few years. Bartmann now figures she’d have gotten to eight restaurants sooner without that gap in her life.

Surprisingly, she says part of expanding her restaurant group was due to a need to achieve a certain scale that allowed her to move some jobs onto other people’s plates. “If you’re a restaurant owner, you have to be an electrician, a plumber, an accountant, a leader. If you’re not going to be a maniacal controlling asshole, you need to be a leader.” Seeing a life coach allowed her to carve out the jobs she wanted to do—leader, problem-solver, puzzle-fixer—and the jobs she didn’t. Bookkeeping was among the first to go; next came front-of-the-house service. “I can wait tables if I need to,” she says. “I can’t look at a whole dining room with that Terminator-like gaze and say, ‘This table needs this, that server needs that.’”

Over the years, and with the help of the coach, she realized she was in the restaurants more for the fun than for the money. “I’m a triple-bottom-line gal,” she says, “and I was long before I ever heard the phrase.” The triple elements of her bottom line? “People, planet, profit. We were paying 100 percent of staff health insurance at the Bryant-Lake Bowl in 1993. That’s not the way to make a lot of money. But it is the way to have the same bartender for 20 years.”

She decided that each of her places would be unique, run by the chefs and managers autonomously in the personality of the restaurant, which is how we got eight Kim Bartmann restaurants around here, people. Plus, watch out: Bartmann has decided her greatest personal skill and biggest joy may come from restaurant creation. And there are a lot of canvasses out there yet to be painted.

Her new place, Tiny Diner, is very much painted in its own personality. That personality: neighborhood diner with little top-shelf flourishes and a perma-culture demonstration site! What’s that? Permaculture is the idea that you can grow things in a sustainable way without routinely tilling up the soil. If you want to learn more, go to Tiny Diner and take a class; there is a whole mess of classes going on. There’s a lot more sustainability and environmental thought going on, too. The gargantuan patio is shaded by one of Minneapolis’s largest visible solar arrays, and a system of special cisterns and drains means that nearly all rainwater is used or returned to the aquifers without entering storm sewers. There are gardens, beehives, a farmers’ market for the community on Thursdays—get the idea?

How’s the food? It’s hard to talk about, in some ways, because it’s not much more than a diner. The grass-fed burger, meaty and juicy, is solid, craveable, everything you want in your corner diner. The beet terrine is prettily composed, fresh, light, just right in every way. Fries are fresh and as good as the ones at Pat’s Tap, which I mean as high praise, truly potato tasting and well made. Onion rings are light as balloons and some of the best in the Twin Cities. Deviled eggs with whitefish are just ordinary enough to be accessible, just fancy enough to feel worth going out for, and very lovely next to a fresh and floral New York State rosé sustainably bottled in kegs.

My favorite thing of all was the funny Kitchen Sink salad, which was full of green garden things I couldn’t identify (baby sea beans?) and well set off with slices of good ham and crumbles of well-aged cheddar. I added a couple fried chicken wings because you could, and it was a perfect lunch, the uniquely midwestern version of a niçoise that I hadn’t known I was waiting for. At breakfast the pancakes were good. I could quibble with a number of little cooking details: hash browns under a steak that arrived wildly overcooked, a fried soft-shell crab sodden with fryer oil, dry chicken, overly mild sole. But it’s really a diner. It has top-rate pancakes at breakfast, an excellent affordable beer list (pints of Indeed, Surly, and Fulton on tap for $5.50), good rhubarb pie, and good homemade coffee with bottomless refills. If I lived in walking distance, I bet I’d be there every day.

At lunch I got my kid a ham salad sandwich for $2.50. Then the server put the housemade organic-milk soft-serve into a to-go cup so my daughter could eat it inside the house made of willow twigs where all the other 6-year-olds were taking their soft-serve. How are you going to argue with that? It’s the kind of restaurant that the Twin Cities could support every 15 or 20 blocks, in every direction. If present trends continue, that might just happen—and we might be pretty delighted about it.

1024 E. 38th St., Mpls., 612-767-3322,