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Where Everyone Knows Your Name

The Hilltop Celebrates 45 Years of Creating Tasty Food and an Inviting Atmosphere

Article by Graham Johnson

Photography by Lucy Hawthorne

Originally published in Edina Lifestyle

Brett Johnson buying into his father’s restaurant in 2011 was never a foregone conclusion. What is now The Hilltop started in October of 1978 under the name, The Pantry. While Brett bussed tables there in high school and came back after graduating university, he committed to one year of trying out the restaurant life.  “I only committed to a one year trial,” says Brett. “After that year I committed to another year, and then another year.” Now co-owners, Brett and his father, Ken, are celebrating forty-five years of what they like to call their “neighborhood Cheers.”

Just like the fictional Cheers’ bar, the idea of knowing names and creating a social space is the father-son duo’s focus.

When explaining his entry into the industry Brett says, “People asked me all the time ‘Oh you’re a restaurant guy?’ and I liked to tell them, ‘No I’m more of a people guy.”  

Putting his people skills to good use, Brett has worked hard to make the restaurant a place for everyone. “We take pride in the wide demographic that passes through our doors,” explains Brett. “We have families, young people, those just coming in for happy hour, and everything in between. It’s an Edina gathering place.”

A big part of that community focus comes down to the Hilltop’s staff.  “What really drives this ship is the loyalty of the staff,” explains Brett. “We have a lot of locals working, which helps give off that ‘Everyone Knows Your Name’ atmosphere.”

Now when it comes to food, the restaurant tries to keep the menu simple.  “We try not to overthink it,” says Brett. “We do a few things and do those few things really well.”

The casual American comfort food served at the restaurant spans from omelets, sandwiches, burgers, and salads to nightly specials like their Wednesday pot roast.  

Even within the menu, one can find the legacy of those 45 years of business.  The Newberry sandwich has been on the menu since day one. “Nothing about the turkey, bacon, jack cheese and cranberry served open-faced on French bread has changed since 1978, except the price,” says Brett.

Unlike the Newberry, the restaurant itself has undergone many changes since its inception. 

The most recent renovation in 2016, which changed the name to The Hilltop, started as an answer to a question posed by the architect; What does the space feel like?

Brett and Ken would answer this with the words cozy, old-school, wholesome and family-friendly. So, the renovation kept things simple. “We moved the bar to be closer to the main door, which we think invokes that famous Cheers’ bar feel,” says Brett. “Hilltop isn’t massive, we seat around 120 people. It’s all about keeping things friendly. We changed the name during this time too as an ode to our family history.”

Long before Brett was bussing tables there, his grandfather owned a rest home called The Hilltop in Wisconsin.  Within that rest home was a restaurant that Ken eventually oversaw. As he tells it, “I started in the motel business, but wanted something more fast-paced,” says Ken. “I opened a restaurant on my own, which went well. It was exciting and I didn’t look back.”

The decision eventually led Ken to open the Pantry/Hilltop. “Not many people know that is the origin of The Hilltop,” says Brett adding, “and we sit on a hill too!” 

As one can see, a lot has changed about the Hilltop in 45 years, from locations to menus, but what hasn’t is the goal of creating a space for people to come, eat, laugh and be.

 “We’ve tried to keep it consistent which is one of the most difficult things in the industry,” says Ken. That consistency has allowed customers to return year after year, and decade after decade, bringing their kids and eventually grandchildren. “We have always wanted that generational feel for us as a restaurant and for our customers. Everyone is family here.”

5101 Arcadia Ave. | (952) 925-5628 | hilltopedina.com

  • Ken and Brett.
  • Ken and Brett.
  • Ken and Brett.
  • Ken and Brett.