For the past few years, Payne Avenue has slowly but surely shown signs of new life.
The east St. Paul neighborhood’s main drag lost much of its vibrancy when big companies like the Hamm’s brewery, Whirlpool, and 3M moved on. With the industry went the goods and services that surrounded it, and much of the neighborhood became dilapidated.
But with an influx of city money and some forward-thinking entrepreneurs, things have been looking up for the charming old neighborhood.
There is the very East Side vibe of Ward 6, once a workingman's bar servicing Hamm’s Brewery employees who’d just punched the clock. There's the updated diner vibe of Cook St. Paul, and even the cheffy dining at Tongue In Cheek. Nearby, Sidhe Brewery shares space with Hamburgesas del Gordo, Frutilandia, and a smattering of other Mexican eateries in Plaza del Sol.
But the Avenue still feels like it could use a welcoming watering hole to round out the offerings. Brunson’s Pub hopes to be that place.
A brief history of the space, according to Thomas LaFleche, who now owns the bar with his wife, Molly:
First opened in 1910 as a hardware store, the building was then converted to a bar probably sometime in the following decade. LaFleche says he was having trouble confirming this, but he thinks it was a pre-Prohibition bar, meaning it would have been open before 1920. In any case, the bar eventually became Schwietz Saloon, a family-owned East Side drinking institution for around 50 years.
Schwietz closed in 2011, and then sat empty until Ed Bertges purchased it the following year. Bertges spent two years meticulously rehabbing the space, opening it in 2014, and then ran it for a year before tragically learning he was dying of lymphoma. He was only 39.
Bertges' mother tried to continue running the bar to keep up her son’s legacy, but in the end it became too much for the Florida-based kindergarten teacher. The bar was for sale once again.
LaFleche is a longtime St. Paul barman, having spent 13 years behind the bar at Selby Avenue's Fabulous Fern's. It's where he met Molly, a cocktail waitress at the time.
“Bet you’ve never heard that before," he quips.
He then went on to run the bar at Shamrock’s on West 7th for a decade, and most recently did a stint at Saint Dinette, downtown’s new-school St. Paul bar.
In other words, LaFleche has got his St. Paul barman credentials.
The pair envision Brunson’s as an approachable, affordable East Side pub where everyone is welcome, nothing more, nothing less.
“Pub comes from ‘public,’ and we want everybody coming in here. Everybody is welcome, no judgment — we just want to treat you with respect and give you what you want.”
To that end, the menu is burger-heavy. Signature “pulled bacon” is made with house smoked and cured pork belly, a ingredient that makes its way into a bunch of the house sandwiches including a pulled bacon BLT with a fried egg. A pulled bacon Hoppin’ John salad is a nod to chef Torrance Beaver’s Southern background. Also, find the Schwietz' Burger, with a beef patty and a sausage patty.
Nineteen tap beers will make up the bar list, 12 of them local, with a focus on craft brews. But PBR and Schell’s light will be available, too. They’ll also be dedicating a 20th tap line to a cocktail, the Moscow Mule. They're calling it “Tap that Ass.” (Get it?)
The bar will also be serving a smattering of craft cocktails, but LaFleche is quick to point out that all of his bartenders are “green in a good way,” so nobody is going to be trying to school you on the proper ice cubes for an Old Fashioned. Though they will be serving an Old Fashioned. A classic, good one with no frills.
“No matter what, our bar had to be in St. Paul because our heart is in St. Paul,” says LaFleche.
Is yours? You might want to check out Brunson’s Pub.
956 Payne Ave., St Paul