HOURS: Tuesday-Friday, 11 a.m.– 1:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. – 8 p.m.
Weekends, 5 p.m. – 9 p.m.
Richard Barnes runs the Town Talk Restaurant his way…and that’s not bad
The sun set in a blaze of liquid gold on our drive west to Cambridge and the sky darkened into a January evening. Cambridge streets are well-lit, though, and the town feels welcoming on a Friday night. As we turn onto the main street, there’s hardly a parking place in sight, even though the stores and banks have closed. The colorful neon of the Town Talk Restaurant’s sign casts a glow on the street as we walk inside, wondering if we’ll have to wait for a table.
We do. The Town Talk on this Friday night is jumping.
We go to the front to check our reservations and order drinks, then find some empty chairs to wait. In a few moments, we’re joined by a gregarious man and his wife who tells us he’s been coming from Wilsonville to the Town Talk on Friday night for years, and indeed, when we see him later, many of our fellow diners stop by his booth to chat.
It’s that kind of place: a high-quality family-style restaurant that’s been an institution in Cambridge for years. It’s all about community. Of course it has regulars.
A cut above
What we like about the Town Talk, as with all our favorite rural restaurants, is that they push themselves to try a little harder, to be a cut above, with interesting specials and menu items, and service that shows care and training. It’s easy to be complacent, but the Town Talk isn’t.
As we look over the menu, and are surprised at the number of seafood options that are available, and our final selection includes the Canadian Walleye and the Red Snapper special. We also order the Steak Au Poivre, a dish not common in rural Nebraska restaurants.
Entrees include the salad bar where we found crisp romaine and a small but artful selection of toppings, along with a tasty homemade red potato salad and coleslaw. The croutons look homemade too, so a couple of those go on top for added crunch.
Red snapper reminds us of cool jazz and memorable times in the French Quarter in New Orleans, and to carry on the Louisiana theme, we added a Jumbo Shrimp Cocktail with fresh homemade cocktail sauce.
I must admit we had the momentary fear that someone may reach into a bag of small, frozen, pre-cooked shrimp and serve them partially thawed surrounding a glop of jarred sauce, but we should have kept faith. These shrimp truly were jumbo, succulent and full-of-flavor, and the tangy sauce definitely recalled New Orleans with layers of flavor in each bite.
Our meals arrive
When our meals came, we found the red snapper perfectly grilled to retain the natural moistness, then glazed with a flavorful herb sauce. We ordered the Snapper with a Caesar salad, which was also well beyond the poor excuse some restaurants serve. We noted the subtle flavors of anchovies, lemon juice, Worcestershire and Italian cheese, and the toasty brown, made-in-house croutons contributed the crunch.
The steak had been rubbed with loosely packed peppercorns, then perfectly grilled and covered with a light cream sauce made from the pan scrapings. The peppercorn crust provides a pungent but complementary counterpoint to the rich flavor of the high-quality beef. We ordered the baked potato to accompany the steak, but after seeing some other plates pass by our table with the hash browns, resolved to try them next time.
And if you like Canadian Walleye — or perhaps if you think you don’t — you should try it at the Town Talk. Seriously, this is some of the best Walleye we’ve had — a thick filet of fish at the perfect point of succulent flakiness, coated in a crispy batter and deep fried to crispy goodness. We finished our meals convinced you would have a hard time making a disappointing choice at the Town Talk.
We talk to the chef
Chef Richard Barnes was fully engaged in the tasks chefs do on when we were there, but we caught up with him later in the week. We try to glean insights into the business of food and restaurants at every opportunity, and Barnes’ eleven years as a restaurant owner and manager, plus formal training in the business makes him an exceptional resource. We treasure time with chefs because we want to know them not only as chefs and business managers, but also as raconteurs.
“I don’t consider myself a chef because my formal training involved baking,” Barnes said. “I graduated from the American Institute of Baking, and I also have a business degree and worked for the Tony & Luigi Restaurant Corporation in Lincoln and Los Angeles.”
He grew up in Cambridge, left for college and career, saying, “I was determined never to return.” When his parents died, he sold all of the Cambridge property, yet when the Town Talk business opportunity presented itself, he came back from Los Angeles.
“I wanted a new challenge, and I wanted to own my own business,” he said. “I get a lot of support here, and I enjoy the spirit of the community.”
Over the eleven years Barnes has owned and managed the Town Talk restaurant, his business concept evolved. He said, “When I first bought the business, I wanted the Town Talk to be everything for everybody in the region. We served breakfast, lunch and dinner six days a week.” Today the service is limited to lunches and dinners Tuesday through Saturday, but catering is a growing part of the business; the banquet room seats 65 people, and they cater meals and hors d’oeuvres.
The quality of food, variety in the menu and the service satisfy and please the customers who drive to the Town Talk from a wide radius around Cambridge.
“Some of our customers drive from northern Kansas, Curtis, Lexington, Elwood, Holdrege and McCook because they like our specials,” said Barnes. “We make our own pizza dough and buy all fresh meats and fish. We serve quality steaks, fresh fish entrees, and we make all of the menu items here in the restaurant.”
Barnes is candid about himself and his way of working. “The restaurant business is demanding,” he said. “I plan everything, do it all, and often feel shorthanded because I need to do more. But the advantage is that I do it my way.”
And when Richard Barnes does it his way, that’s not a bad thing.