When Matty O'Reilly and Rick Guntzel, buddies since high school, decided to venture into business together, they figured they had two options. One was starting from scratch, "and spending a half-million dollars to build out a kitchen," said O'Reilly. The more fiscally prudent choice was remaking an existing establishment, "something that had lost its momentum," said O'Reilly.
They chose the latter, and settled upon the former Sgt. Preston's, a Me Decade landmark that had long since faded into the background of its Seven Corners neighborhood. O'Reilly, co-owner of the Aster Cafe in Minneapolis and the 318 Cafe in Excelsior, and Guntzel, who spent a decade in the Jake's sports bar empire, took title of the property in May. Seventeen action-packed days later, they rechristened it Republic (emphasizing "pub," get it?). The turnaround has come to symbolize the modern-day neighborhood tavern.
Craft beer lovers will feel right at home. The bar taps a hefty 32 labels, leaning toward the ever-proliferating number of fine locals, but leaving room for noteworthy nationals and a few Europeans. The average price is a reasonable $5, and a three-pour flight ($10) encourages exploration.
But this isn't just a drinking story, because someone in the kitchen clearly cares about food. His name is George Finn, and while his work isn't propelling bar food into a new culinary universe, it does quietly demonstrate how basics can taste anew, given care, imagination and first-rate ingredients.
That attention-to-detail message comes through loud and clear in the well-executed burgers. They're made with beef (ultra-lean, wonderfully flavorful meat from grass-fed cows) or turkey (Minnesota-raised, the clean flavor fortified with jalapeño and chive) and grilled to perfection. The embellishments don't miss a trick, right down to the toasted brioche buns, the first-rate cheeses, the excellent slab bacon and the obviously fresh guacamole.
There are long, meaty, slow-roasted pork ribs, marinated overnight in orange and soy, glazed in a hoisin-honey sauce and seasoned with a traditional five-spice mix. The flavorful, sweetly caramelized meat can be nudged off the bones with very little effort. Soft corn tortillas, overflowing with lightly fried tilapia, crunchy slaw and tons of cilantro and lime, are irresistible.
Yum, yum, yum
Count me a fan of the ricotta fritters, the kind of labor-intensive snack that doesn't make the rounds in too many beer joints. Finn binds fresh ricotta with Parmesan and rolls each cork-shaped snack in panko before gently frying them, their delicate bite accented by a drizzle of pale, floral-scented honey. Ditto the hearty plate of grilled Kramarczuk pork and chicken sausages, served with a kicky raisin mustard and a pretty medley of roasted potatoes.
Not many corner bars go to the trouble to cut their own potatoes, par-fry them, freeze them and then fry them again, creating wonderfully crispy French fries. Or forgo Heinz for a house-made ketchup. Or roast their own pork, chicken and turkey and use them as the starring attraction in well-made sandwiches.
There's a daily soup, and guess what? Finn doesn't pull them off the back of a Sysco truck. Vegetarians don't have to settle for a defrosted Gardenburger; instead, Finn piles creamy burrata, sweet caramelized onions and roasted asparagus on ciabatta, and tops roasted root vegetables with poached eggs and zesty chimichurri. Salads, heaped high with fresh-from-the-co-op ingredients, also practically shout, "Hey, let's make something tasty for our vegetarian friends."
True to form, Finn doesn't leave dessert to an outside purveyor. For $2, he offers a decent salted caramel pot de crème, or a chocolate cupcake that nails the ideal cake/icing ratio (it's 50-50, for those who didn't know), or a cream-splashed fruit crisp. Each one offers just a few restorative bites, nothing more, and isn't that just what Jennifer Hudson for Weight Watchers ordered?
There were missteps. Mussels were flavorless and rubbery. Salads tend to be overdressed, and a lively chipotle vinaigrette can be too aggressive. The soggy beer-battered fish and chips don't stand up to those superb fish tacos. A $17 hanger steak -- decent, but nothing out of the ordinary -- doesn't fit in with the rest of the menu's winning $9-and-under formula.
A campus destination
At its roots, Republic remains a college bar; witness the 4-to-6 p.m. happy hour, with its dorm-friendly $5 burgers and fish tacos, and $3 beers. That proximity to campus also means it can get rowdy. But at lunch, or dinner, before the volume gets cranked up in the adjacent music room, the mellow bar keeps reminding me what a pleasure it is, in this age of omnipresent media, to park it in a watering hole and enjoy face-to-face conversation -- remember that? -- over a terrific pale ale and a well-seasoned, brie-topped burger.
Particularly when it doesn't include that annoying visual distraction of a gigantic flat-screen television. To my everlasting gratitude, O'Reilly and Guntzel yanked all nine of the building's TVs off the walls, along with enough schlocky beer and booze signage to fill a Dumpster.
Stripped of its cheesy bling, all the qualities that made Sgt. Preston's such a draw for so many years began to materialize: handsome wood details, a pressed tin ceiling, stained glass and a collection of enormous stuffed animal heads.
So what if the air still lingers with the slight stale-beer whiff that recalls my fraternity's basement? What had been a raggedy stop on the "Girls Gone Wild" bus tour is now a welcoming refuge with vague but cozy 1970s fern bar overtones. Minus the foliage.