LAKELAND — Working down the list of breakfast offerings at Highland City Diner, the challah French toast called loudly, especially the part about bourbon, cream and apples.

Happily, the rewards lived up to the hype, though the dish could do with a better grade of pastry cream, or maybe do without altogether. The challah, baked on-site and light as air, needs little embellishment beyond its brief bath in egg mixed with a hint of whisky. The sweet apple compote was a nice touch, but it works better as a side than a topping.

Paired with lean, just-crisp bacon, it was illuminating to experience a local diner willing to step outside of the box. Who goes to the bother of baking fresh challah these days, in these parts?

That would be the team of Russell Colleran, the diner’s owner, and his chef, Ronald Mayer, who recently left his post as executive chef at Florida Presbyterian Homes in Lakeland, where Colleran previously worked as director of dining services.

Colleran, a former Air Force master sergeant, has a resume steeped in chain restaurant operations with stints as general manager for TGI Friday’s and First Watch, and front of house manager for The Cheesecake Factory and Outback Steakhouse.

Such is the firepower behind this not-so-humble café at Highland City Town Center, in a space that once was home to Anna’s Diner, which closed Dec. 31. Colleran’s eatery is at the south end of the center, which is anchored by a Publix Super Market.

Highland City Diner is mostly about breakfast and lunch, but the kitchen broadens into full entrée territory with extended hours on Fridays and Saturdays. A good number of desserts — think cheesecake with a dark chocolate crown, and muffin-shaped brownies with gooey centers — are made in-house.

Colleran and Mayer elevate breakfast fare with substantial omelets filled with quality ingredients, as in a Denver model with lean chunks of savory ham, onion and green peppers. Biscuits fall into the rolled, buttermilk variety and serve as fluffy foils to dreamy sausage gravy. It’s a truly addictive pairing that demonstrates the kitchen’s finesse with even the most basic.

Burgers here are top-notch, especially a version smothered in melted Swiss, provolone and caramelized onions and paired with a bowl of beefy au jus. The French theme extends to the bun, in this case a soft, buttery brioche.

There’s scant evidence of any serious shortcuts, even with a simple turkey sandwich that finds a stack of thinly sliced breast meat, lettuce and tomato, embellished with a slip of Dijon and cranberry relish. A classic Reuben sandwich is lightly grilled and fashioned with TLC. Equally impressive is a bowl of cheese-and-broccoli soup that’s silky, fresh and seasoned perfectly.

We experienced minor hiccups on three visits — as in limp, lifeless french fries on one occasion, an aberration that was remedied on a follow-up visit with crisp, textbook pomme frites.

Mayer has twice held the title of Polk’s Top Chef, an annual benefit for Achievement Academy where local restaurateurs and staff create a five-course, upscale menu. It’s a friendly battle, but the competition is tough, and Mayer’s wins speak of his prowess in the kitchen, and in beautifully executed diner fare that’s anything but ho-hum.

Service as you might expect is laid-back, but efficient. And good luck waltzing past the dessert case that’s front and center near the diner’s entrance. Your good intentions of skipping on sweets will be severely tested.

Eric Pera can be reached at eric.pera@theledger.com or 863-802-7528.