If you grew up in Minneapolis' Kingfield neighborhood, you might remember when the corner of 46th and Grand was downright lackluster, home to a slightly dingy corner market, a video-store-slash-tanning-salon where the beds were back past the XXX-rated section (yes, really), and not much else.
Around a decade ago, the intersection blossomed: 2007 brought Cafe Ena, and King’s Wine Bar opened in 2009. Patisserie 46 followed a year later, earning a glowing write-up in The New York Times that addressed Minneapolis' bakery boom.
This is all to say that when I settled into a sunny table on the leafy back patio of Tap Society, the self-serve beer pub that opened rather quietly in June, it felt like a natural evolution for the corner, a representation of the Twin Cities' current beer, burgers, and bacon-obsessed food culture. (Here, the menu doubles down on bacon cheeseburgers, with two varieties.) The wild card was, of course, the self-serve concept.
This broaches a philosophical question: Is a watering hole without a bartender a bar, or just a wall with a bunch of taps? I’m not exactly a beer nut––for example, I’d be unlikely to mention “beer" 30 times during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing––but I vicariously enjoy listening to a bartender passionately describing even beers I don’t plan on drinking.
The Tap Society concept is simple, if not totally effortless: Head to the computer kiosks to order your food. Pay by credit card; if you want a receipt, it comes by email. A few friendly staff whose function is unclear (Managers? Food runners?) can assist with machine malfunctions.
Burgers ordered, flash your ID and hand over your credit card to one of the aforementioned staff, who will sync it to a plastic drinks card. Peruse the row of 22 beers and ciders and four wines, then slip your card into the reader above your beverage of choice. Pull a wee sample or a full glass, according to your fancy.
The chardonnay was a little fussy -- I had to slip the card in more than twice just to pour a half-glass -- but otherwise the process was fairly self-explanatory. I felt like a kid playing bartender.
On the other hand, I missed having an actual bartender, not only to solicit drink advice, but for shooting the proverbial breeze. If you show up alone, waiting for your friends, your date, or your Mom, there’s nobody to chat with as you sit idly at the high-top counter by the taps. Yes, I know that’s what smartphones are for, but I can scroll Twitter at home––isn’t human contact one of the reasons we leave the house in the first place?
If you ever dine alone, especially while traveling in an unfamiliar town, you’ll know that bartenders can be a lifesaver. They’re competent conversationalists, quick to crack a joke and chock full of local lore and advice, and they can walk you through the dark horses on the beer and wine lists. When I spent three weeks alone in Vegas researching a travel book, I’d have gone mad without bars staffed by actual human beings. Most women know that the best and safest place to sit alone in a restaurant or bar is usually right at the bar, under the bartender’s watchful eye.
With a somewhat bizarre assortment of drinks in hand, we retired to the tranquil patio. One couple, who mentioned that they’d just returned from Oktoberfest in Munich, was in full hair-of-the-dog mode, drinking beers with their little pups in tow. (Apparently the patio is both dog and hangover friendly.) They mentioned that the drink cards cut off service once you’ve hit a certain limit, ostensibly to prevent self-service benders.
The chips and queso arrived. We’d been seduced by the description––Minnesota crock pot queso, which sounded vaguely promising––but one look suggested this queso came not from someone’s mom’s crock pot but from an industrial-sized can. I don’t mind the bright orange Tex-Mex style stuff, as long as it tastes like it wasn’t made in a factory. This was congealed, cold, and plasticky-tasting. In short, a full queso fail.
Demerit noted, I prayed the rest of our order would be better, and it was. The burgers proved tasty, like fast food burgers done well, and unlike many of the third-pounder $13 burgers around town, are sized to prevent food coma. They’re also priced low enough that it might seem reasonable to make a double bacon cheeseburger ($9.50) a weekly habit. (A plain old hamburger with grilled onions is $5.75.)
Fans of McDonald’s fries will appreciate Tap Society’s version: thin, and skinless, with a good ratio of tender to crispy. We gave a thumbs-up to the fried onions that come with the burgers, and a “meh” to the French dressing-esque Society Sauce.
Minnesota earns a starring role on the tap wall, with 15 out of 22 beers and ciders hailing from breweries around the state, including Lupeling Brewing Co., Broken Clock Brewing Cooperative, and Bauhaus Brew Labs. (There’s Miller and Miller Lite, too.) I enjoyed my sample of unfiltered cider from Boston’s Downeast Cider House so much that I wandered back for a full glass.
As my friend pointed out, the cider didn’t go very well with the thick vanilla shake ($5) I ordered at the end of the meal, but hey––with no servers, I didn’t have to explain my questionable ice cream chaser to anyone.
And isn’t that the glory of the FYOB policy? It’s cheap, it’s fast, and you’re free to drink 10 different 2-ounce beers, then slurp down a root beer float, if that’s what your little heart desires.
4555 Grand Ave. S., Minneapolis