A Minneapolis diner's thousand-mile road trip
Lake Street's newest diner has taken a long ride to get there.
It was built in the 1950s by the Fodero Dining Car Co., at a time when diners were pre-fabricated and carried by truck to their roadside locales.
It opened in Gibsonia, Pa., as the Venus Diner in 1958, where it served hungry travelers off the Pennsylvania Turnpike for more than half a century. When the original owners could no longer keep up with the pancake flipping and the coffee pouring, it closed in 2009.
Many iconic diners on old state routes have suffered the same fate, as traffic patterns shift and drive-thrus reign. But the Venus, a shining chrome monument to 1950s Americana, is now enjoying a second life as the Hi-Lo Diner in Minneapolis.
MPR News is Member Supported
What does that mean? The news, analysis and community conversation found here is funded by donations from individuals. Make a gift of any amount today to support this resource for everyone.
The spark of the project started more than two years ago, when the owners of Forage Modern Workshop got tired of the view. The furniture store sits across Lake Street from the new Hi-Lo. Back then, the lot was just a shuttered Taco Bell.
"Mike [Smith] and James [Brown] and I would sit and stare at this vacant Taco Bell and try to think: What can we do across the street?" said Rebekah Cook, the director of operations at Forage. Then Brown came across an article online about people who buy and restore vintage diners.
"He knocked on Mike's office door and was like: 'We buy a vintage diner and we put it on the front of the Taco Bell,'" Cook said. "Mike just responded with one word: 'Yes.'"
But where do you buy a vintage diner?
The lot behind Steve Harwin's shop in Cleveland is a good place to start. Harwin runs Diversified Diners, a workshop devoted to salvaging and restoring the iconic structures. At any given time, there are between two and seven diners parked on his land, waiting for new homes.
Harwin gets emails and phone calls from owners and history buffs about roadside diners that have been abandoned or put up for sale. He loads them onto a truck, often with a mandatory police escort due to the oversized load, and brings them back to Cleveland for a floor-to-ceiling restoration.
Side 1 has arrived. #hilodiner
A video posted by Hi-Lo Diner (@hi_lo_diner) on Aug 3, 2015 at 9:41am PDT
Diners weren't Harwin's first love: He started as a car collector. The native Ohioan lived in Europe in the 1980s, where he specialized in restoring sports cars overseas.
"All my friends in Europe told me they thought the coolest thing in America was diners," Harwin said. "I really didn't know what they were talking about."
There hadn't been any classic diners near Cleveland when Harwin was growing up — historically, most were located on the East Coast. When he came home in 1987, he took a road trip east, and walked into a dilapidated diner in Pennsylvania. It wasn't the Venus, but it was just like it.
"I fell in love with it. It was like walking into a time warp," Harwin said. "I bought it unquestioning, completely unprepared, and I made a lot of mistakes."
That first diner purchase turned into a full-blown restoration business: He became an expert in repairing the classic structures, and in tracking down period upholstery fabrics and authentic laminates.
Each restoration is a time-intensive project. Harwin can only complete one or two in a year. The Venus — now the Hi-Lo — took Harwin roughly a year and a half to restore. It's a two-unit diner — it was designed to travel in two sections.
"Most diners were built as single units up until the mid-'40s," Harwin said. In the 1950s, when the popularity of diners peaked, factories began producing multiple unit diners to add more seating.
Fodero, like many other diner factories, was based in New Jersey. The company shipped the buildings up and down the interstates to new business owners. Opening a diner became particularly popular after World War II, Harwin said.
"Servicemen could buy [a diner] on payments, and if you missed a payment, they could just come pick it up and take it away," Harwin said.
On the other hand, if business was booming, you could order a new unit to add on. One of the biggest known diners, also in Pennsylvania, is six units lined up end to end, according to Harwin.
The structures became so much more than just restaurants for people. They became landmarks, first jobs, a family's favorite spot for Sunday breakfast. Those memories don't stop when a diner is picked up and moved, Harwin found.
When he went to visit a diner from Wilmington, Del., that he'd restored before it moved to a new location in Texas, he saw an old man crying at the counter.
"The owner said: 'Is something wrong?' And he said: 'No, I just have so many fond memories of this diner,'" Harwin said.
"He drove all the way from Delaware to Texas just to sit in it again."
But back to Minneapolis.
After years of restoration and logistical planning, the Minneapolis team brought the Hi-Lo Diner home from its temporary camp in Cleveland. It had to be cut in half, loaded on semis and put in place using cranes.
("In the 1950s," Harwin notes, "the traffic rules for oversized loads were much more liberal.")
To tackle the menu, Forage's Brown and Smith brought on Jeremy Woerner and Pat McDonough of The Blue Door Pub, the culinary wizards known for turning the Jucy Lucy gourmet. All four are owners of Hi-Lo.
They took special care to include the history of the diner in its new Lake Street reincarnation.
"We watched videos of the Venus Diner, read about it, and looked at old menus," Cook said. They contacted the original owners and waitresses and asked: What did you love about it? What made the Venus great?
"Everybody loved the chocolate pie," Cook said. So the Hi-Lo's menu features the Venus Pie Trap — a new spin on the Boston Cream Pie.
Behold, the majesty of one of the original diner's menus. #thatwaterfalltho #ismellpancakes
A video posted by Hi-Lo Diner (@hi_lo_diner) on Mar 10, 2016 at 4:17pm PST
They've added one new detail that the Venus definitely never had: A full bar. The Hi-Lo, which is open from 6:30 a.m. to 2 a.m., serves up craft cocktails alongside pancakes and hash browns. When it opened for the first time on Monday morning, some patrons were ready to take that new bar for a spin.
"There was a group of third-shift nurses that were excited to come in at 8 a.m. and have some cocktails after their shift," Cook laughed.
The inaugural breakfast crowd was similarly enthusiastic, ordering up standard classics and Hi-Tops, the diner's signature dish.
"It's taking all our love for donuts and putting it into one dish," Cook said. The fried dough base is piled with sweet or savory toppings of your choice, from the Gary Cooper (buttermilk fried chicken, maple-bourbon syrup, country gravy and arugula) to The Minneapple Bliss (baked apples, sea salt caramel, crème fraiche and candied pecans).
Despite the diner's long journey, the neighborhood has already embraced it as its own, with a line out the door on its first day. That's exactly what they wanted, Cook said.
"We wanted something to feel like it's always been here."