MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — You would not expect a half-Italian, half-French woman, born in Marsailles, to open a restaurant on East Lake Street in Minneapolis.

There’s a Denny’s across the street, Gandhi Mahal around the corner, and a giant sign reading “Town Talk Diner” stands out on the block. But Emilie Cellai liked the challenge.

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Owning her own restaurant has been a dream, “since I was a six-year-old living in Nice,” she said.

Le Town Talk Diner is a French diner, serving classics like a shrimp bouillabaisse and a croque moinsuer and madame sandwich. She moved to Minneapolis in 2003, when the then-Hotel Sofitel in Bloomington recruited her to be a pastry chef.

“I came to work for them in a year … a year turned into 13 now, and so I’m here,” she laughed.

“Le Town Talk” is a name part by choice, part by force. The bright lights of the “Town Talk Diner” sign were declared a historic landmark in Minneapolis in 2013. The city’s Heritage Preservation Commission made the choice because the sign is considered an example of Streamline Moderne design, dating to 1946.

For Cellai and her husband-business partner Ben Johnson, it was a challenge. They couldn’t make any physical modifications to the sign. But they didn’t want to open another Town Talk Diner.

“We thought ‘Le’ would be respectful to the sign, and just adding our French touch, so people would understand that it is a French diner,” Cellai said.

The “Le” is actually attached to the building, not the sign.

At least three owners had diners on this site: Cellai talked with Tim Niver, one of the the last restauranteurs to operate the Town Talk Diner before opening her spot.

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“It’s inspiring and exciting. They were successful and supported by the neighborhood and community, and that’s why we thought we’ll take a shot at it,” Cellai said.

It’s still a diner: they have brunch, they have burgers, a Croque Madame is essentially a ham and cheese sandwich topped with an egg.

Cellai hopes people get the idea that French food doesn’t have to be for special occasions only.

“Simple, casual French food. So, kind of opposite of what people think of French food … fancy amd expensive. But that’s not what we eat every day,” she said.

She has learned in the first year of operation that she needs to keep her menu focused on the neighborhood diner.

“When you talk about challenges, it was too French at first. They didn’t understand the wording. We tried to make it more accessible,” she said. “They were like ‘what’s bechamel,’ ‘what’s nicoise,’ they were scared of ordering things because they couldn’t pronounce the words.”

It may be a French diner, but for Cellai, Le Town Talk is the American dream.

“I love it!” she said.

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Le Town Talk French Diner & Drinkery
2707 East Lake Street, Minneapolis
Open 11-Midnight Tuesday-Friday; 9am-Midnight Saturday/Sunday, Closed Monday

Jason DeRusha