Looming over the bar at the former Sgt. Preston's is a large, picturesque piece of stained glass. Its ornate design, depicting a kaleidoscopic wilderness, wouldn't be entirely out of place in a church. I had never noticed it before.
"It was here the whole time," said new co-owner Matty O'Reilly.
When he and business partner Rick Guntzel bought the aging Seven Corners bar last month, a long banner with the words "PIZZA BUFFET" covered the multicolored glass, which had been above the bar for three decades. They tore down the banner immediately.
They removed a lot more, too. O'Reilly said they must have taken down 45 neon beer signs and maybe 200 liquor posters.
It was like unwrapping a gift. The more they stripped away -- does any bar really need a Jack Daniel's neon NASCAR hood? -- the more they liked what they saw (more stained glass, plus original oak woodwork throughout). Three weeks ago they reopened the Minneapolis pub under its new name: Republic.
Their reimagining of Preston's Urban Pub (as it was last called) hasn't come without its critics. The former bar was famous for its "fishbowl" community cocktails -- 100-ounce mixtures of pure inebriation served in a plastic fishbowl. O'Reilly and Guntzel ditched the concoctions. Take away a college student's fishbowl and there's no telling what they might do. O'Reilly said old regulars got a little peeved.
The bar owner isn't used to being greeted with animosity. In the past six years he's turned around two ailing establishments, transforming both -- the 318 Cafe in Excelsior and the Aster Cafe at St. Anthony Main -- into hot music venues with a taste for great food and drinks.
His goal with Republic -- and I think it's an admirable one -- is to give Seven Corners craft beer and pub food at prices that are friendly to penny-pinching college students (and penny pinchers everywhere).
Keep the animal heads
Sgt. Preston's opened at Seven Corners in the mid-1970s and was immediately a hot spot. Much has changed. The Town Hall Brewery is now the dominant bar on the block. The towering Grandma's Saloon is a hole in the ground. And Bullwinkle's closed earlier this year.
To complete their remodeling, O'Reilly and Guntzel also took down nine flat-screen TVs and removed the arcade games (goodbye, Big Buck Hunter). A couple of things they didn't throw in the trash: the animal mounts, including the giant moose head, buffalo, bear, buck and what looks like a Bambi.
"Our entire vision is we don't want to alienate people who were coming here, but I think we'll attract people who weren't coming here, too," O'Reilly said.
When previous owner Mark Habben bought the bar in 2008, he flirted with turning Preston's into a bona fide beer bar. He had mixed results and kept the fishbowls.
Republic is a true beer bar. With 32 taps, the new brew list hasn't reached Muddy Pig or Happy Gnome levels of beer heaven, but it's an impressive lineup. O'Reilly has six Belgians and four Germans on draft, with the rest being very Midwest-centric. Sticking to his charge of staying affordable, O'Reilly is offering Bells, Fulton and Furthermore beers at $4, a happy hour price at other beer bars. One of my favorites on the list is Matacabras from Dave's BrewFarm, a wind-powered brewery in Wilson, Wis. The Belgian-style strong dark ale -- on tap at only a few Twin Cities bars -- is named after northern Spain's "goat-killing wind."
If this all sounds too snooty, there's Hamm's in a can for $2.
Republic is home to a monster patio, with seating for more than 150. Expect a lot of beer events out there this summer. On June 23, O'Reilly will pair local cheeses with Ommegang brewery's Belgian-style beers. In mid-July, the patio's first full-on beer dinner will feature Two Brothers, with a $50 ticket getting you a five-course meal paired with the Illinois brewery's beers.
As for the food, almost everything except for a couple of steaks is under $10. Again, local is the focus. The plainest thing on the menu -- a burger -- is made from Thousand Hills beef, with Widmer Wisconsin cheddar and a bun from the New French Bakery. The traditional pub fare gets thrown out the window after that. One burger is made with garlic confit ($8), while another features a red wine reduction and brie ($9). The appetizers include mussels ($9) and ricotta fritters with honey ($6). There's a spicy sausage plate ($9) featuring meats from Kramarczuk's. One of Republic's best late-night snacks is a squash and potato hash with poached eggs and tangy chimichurri ($8).
Across the street last Saturday, Town Hall's patio was full, while Republic's outdoor tables entertained only a few patrons. I have a feeling the lack of fishbowls isn't the problem. It's just going to take some time for Republic to stake its claim at Seven Corners.
O'Reilly already is planning his next move. Inside, the bar is partitioned into three rooms with one of them already equipped with a stage and sound system. Loud amplified music was once a problem at Preston's, O'Reilly said, and the city shut it down. He's applying for an upgrade to his existing license that would allow for live musicians. He plans to keep it low-key with acoustic sets by solo artists, duos and trios. Look for that addition by summer's end.
In the meantime, it's all about conjuring up the old-school charm that once made this a destination bar.
"I remember coming here 20 years ago," O'Reilly said. "It's still the same place, but with different food and different beer."