The burger: It was not lost on co-owner Thomas LaFleche that Brunson's Pub, his classic Payne Avenue neighborhood saloon, deserved a classic burger. That explains the presence of the “Classic Double” on the kitchen’s gastropub-esque menu.
“Pink, or no pink?” asked my server when I ordered it. I opted for the former, and that's exactly what was delivered, with the exterior taken to an occasionally crisped-up char. What's the strategy behind the two patties?
“It creates height to the burger,” said LaFleche. “Presentation is part of what you experience when you go to a restaurant.”
There's truth in that whole we-eat-with-our-eyes adage, and there's plenty to see here, burger-wise. The thin, wide patties extend to the bun’s edges, and the patties' top surface gets the seasoning treatment after they're placed on the flat top grill.
“It’s our own proprietary seasoning,” said LaFleche. “Then you flip the patty, and the heat of the grill locks in the seasoning to the meat."
Cheese is American (“Because it’s named ‘Classic Double,’ we want to stay true to what an American classic cheeseburger is all about,” said LaFleche), and it sure packs a salty -- in a good way -- wallop. Another bonus: as the cheese melts (and boy, does it melt, approaching a gooeyness that's downright Jucy Lucy-like), it fuses patty to patty, and patties to bun.
“I’d had their milk bun at other places, and that’s how I found it,” said LaFleche. “It tastes great, but it’s also the presentation. It looks good, it has such a great shine. It’s a sexy bun, and it also holds up to everything that we put into it. I probably tested four or five types of buns, but I knew that it was going to be this one. Also, Saint Agnes is maybe a mile from the restaurant, and I’m trying to keep as many things as possible local, in the neighborhood.”
Garnishes aren't treated as afterthoughts. The house-made pickles bear a gentle vinegar snap, and the “fancy sauce,” a combination of house-made garlic aioli and house-made ketchup, more than lives up to its name. Other condiments include a so-so tomato slice and nicely crisp lettuce.
“It’s our top-selling burger, for sure,” said LaFleche. “Although the Schwietz Burger [two patties — one beef, the other sausage — topped with sauerkraut and Swiss Cheese on a pretzel bun] isn’t too far behind.”
Price: $9. That's a bargain, particularly in light of all the diner-style double-patty cheeseburgers around town that blithely slip into the mid-teens.
Fries: An extra buck buys a generous handful, and they're generously seasoned.
Saintly city history lesson: LaFleche is guessing that the pub’s handsome, time-worn wood bar probably dates to the mid-1930s, just after Prohibition's end. After they bought the place, LaFleche and his wife and business partner, Molly Murphy LaFleche, labored to restore some of the room’s original luster from decades of hard use and neglect. Hardwood floors were exposed and resurrected, the tin ceiling was repainted and a beautiful mahogany wall behind the bar was discovered under layers of cork. In a room where Hamm's surely ruled, 19 of the bar's 20 taps now bear names like Pryes Miraculum IPA, Fair State Du Pounde, Flat Earth Belgian-style Pale Ale and Summit Keller Pils. Pabst, too. (And yes, Hamm's, although no longer brewed nearby, has a spot on the bar's cans list). That last tap? It's reserved for LaFleche's ever-changing variation ($8) on the Moscow Mule.
The Brunson name is a shoutout to Benjamin Brunson, a 19th-century land surveyor and territorial legislator. He built what is St. Paul's oldest standing brick house. Find it in the Railroad Island neighborhood, about a mile from the pub that now bears his name.
LaFleche’s hospitality career began 17 years ago as a bar back at the former Figlio. That led to a bartending job at Fabulous Fern’s. He helped open Shamrocks Grill & Pub and was bar manager for a decade, then went behind the bar at Saint Dinette when it opened in 2015. He’s wanted his own place for years, and he and Molly toured a lot of properties before walking into Schwietz’s.
“This is the one that just spoke to us,” he said. “It kind of picked us. It was operating as Schwietz’s when we bought it. But the Schwietzes sold the saloon in the late 1990s, and I think there were three or four owners between then and when we took over.”
It's great to see a Payne Avenue anchor filled with life once again, another restaurant-driven example of the street coming out of its long, troubled slumber.
“Schwietz’s was a really big deal on the East Side,” said LaFleche. “My wife grew up seven blocks from here. It was the spot to be, according to all kinds of people, including my father-in-law. Schwietz's sponsored all kinds of baseball teams, and sports banquets for Johnson High, and we’ve got the plaques on the bar to prove it. We’re hosting a 50th wedding anniversary party for a couple who met in the event room upstairs."
By the way, the bar's exterior is currently shrouded in scaffolding, but don't let that act as a deterrent. The place is open for business while the LaFleches have the building's deteriorating facade removed and a new storefront -- and a new sign -- installed.
"Something with pop," said LaFleche. "So people can see it when they drive by."
Where he burgers: “I love hamburgers,” said LaFleche. “Revival, Lyn 65 and Parlour are all really great, but I like to keep it to St. Paul, so the Nook and Saint Dinette are probably numbers one and two. If I’m feeling healthy, I’ll go to my friend Marshall Paulsen at the Birchwood, that’s the place to be good.”
Address book: 956 Payne Av., St. Paul, 651-447-2483. Open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to midnight Friday, 10 a.m. to midnight Saturday and 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday. There’s a free parking lot behind the building.
Talk to me: Do you have a favorite burger? Share the details at firstname.lastname@example.org.