Beacon Public House invites you to stay
Beacon serves a worthy burger with short ribs, gorgonzola, and a competitor for the cities' best fries. Take the tour...
During the time they first became culturally significant and starting popping up all over Britain, public houses, later shortened simply to "pubs," were meant to be distinct from private homes and to serve as informal gathering places for everyone in the surrounding community. This concept is not lost on Taryne Dixon, general manager of Beacon Public House, the latest in a string of local restaurants that have glommed on to this idea. "It's a bit of a different animal than working at a stand-alone place, but what I love about working in a hotel restaurant is that it's the place where people really come to connect," says Dixon. "People from out of town get talking to locals, and before they know it our bar becomes their regular meeting place."
Despite looking like it might be a restaurant reserved for guests of the beautiful, brand-spanking-new Commons Hotel on the U of M's East Bank, Beacon has a goal of accessibility and accommodation, Dixon says. "We like to have something for everyone, so there's a big range in what's on the menu. Even at the bar, you can get a $4 Miller Light or the $12 Chimay Triple."
Many local restaurants that opened this year have adopted that original purpose of the pub as the heart of their concept, judging by the "About Us" copy on their websites, and it's been a huge trend to reference it right in their names. Look back: Public House, Social House, Birdhouse, Gray House, Icehouse — riffing on the public house idea has become as ubiquitous as covering "Call Me Maybe" this year. Another, even bigger trend, one that appears to be (happily) more than just a fad, is chefs committing to using local ingredients, a concept Beacon has also endorsed. By now we're all so accustomed to seeing Stickney Hill goat cheese, Thousand Hills beef, and the terms "local" and "organic" on a menu that we don't think twice about it. That is, until you see line-caught tuna and watermelon salad on the winter menu of a restaurant that says it sources ingredients locally. That's precisely what provoked some eyebrow-raising from Steph March of Mpls/St. Paul magazine, who questioned Beacon's sourcing practices on her blog after sampling a dish of poached duck egg and asparagus that the menu claimed was from Bridgewater Farms.
After my first trip to Beacon, I agreed with March that the asparagus dish was undeniably tasty, but I also agreed that someone needed to be held accountable for what were pretty clearly false claims. Asparagus. Minnesota-grown. In winter. I don't think so. I got my answer (sort of) on my next visit, in the form of a reprinted dinner menu that had removed this previous locavore mission statement: "After years of importing ingredients from all over the world, we are going back to basics and staying local. Our goal is to limit the human impact on the environment. At the end of the day food should be natural, simple, and flavorful. Everybody wins, from farmer to chef...to you." Names of specific farms had also been removed, and a few new dishes had been added (including a fun and delicious Thai-inspired venison satay that you cook yourself on a tabletop grill). That weirdo watermelon thing remained (it was a bit overdressed and would have been totally fine, improved even, by leaving out the melon and turning it into a classic Nicoise), but the dish was no longer accompanied by the promise of "staying local" — an impossibility for most nonhydroponic fruit in our cold season.
"The pledge to work with local farmers and have all these great products available was what made me want to come work here," says Dixon. "I despise winter, and I still moved here from L.A. That's how much I wanted to be a part of this." So what gives? Dixon explains that the restaurant has not yet had its grand opening and it has been taking its time in developing relationships with farmers. "The end goal is still to be as local as possible, and we are working toward that. It's just taking a little longer than we expected."
So what is the aim for their cuisine now? Dixon describes it as "gastropub food with a regional twist," and Beacon is using some truly local products, like the prairie-flower honey that goes into the aioli on the sinfully good bacon-cheddar buttermilk biscuits. The honey is really key in this dish, because without it these little buttery knobs might be too salty. But the thick, perfumed sweetness of the honey tips the scales in a delightful direction. The biscuits would make an awesome(ly unhealthy) breakfast with a Summit Oatmeal stout, which is luckily on tap at Beacon. We hear beer for breakfast is another big trend, and beer is another way Beacon is staying local. It has Summit's Saga IPA, Pour Decision's Pubstitute, Brau Brothers' Old 56 Crispin, and "of course, Grain Belt. We wouldn't dare not have Premium here." Even more brews come in bottles and a small but well-chosen selection of imports, but the nicest surprise was the craft cocktails. The Desert Heat, made with Patron muddled with cucumber, pineapple, lime, and jalapeño, was fabulous, with a fresh, bright balance and subtle pops of heat. It's a new favorite of mine that I hope is still around in summer. The alcohol in Beacon's drinks was never too present, except in the top-notch Manhattan, which was loud and boozy and brassy, as it should be.
As far as the larger plates, Beacon serves many of the comforts of steakhouse classics and Midwestern meat and potatoes. It also makes a noticeable number of dishes that contain some variety of blue cheese: Maytag-stuffed dates, unidentified blue cheese on the not-so-crispy crispy chicken wings with cancha and lime crema, roquefort-crusted filet mignon, and a rather delicious burger (the turkey version was impressively juicy as well) topped with short ribs and creamy gorgonzola sauce. "I wish people ordered our burger more, actually," Dixon says, "if not just for the burger itself, then for the fries. I used to think Barbette's were the best in the city, but now I think we've taken over that title."
The elaborate way some dishes were described set up the expectation for big, complex flavors and well-paired components, but sometimes they just didn't come together quite right. At lunch, a dish of gnocchi was written up as "housemade, with forest mushrooms and preserved vegetables," but it tasted a hair too much like the penne rosa from Noodles and Company. A flourless chocolate cake with candied pineapple and toasted marshmallow sounded gooey and fudgy and fun but was ultimately lackluster and dry.
One thing that was very consistent, however, was the handling of the meat and fish. A nice, hard sear on a generous portion of salmon left the deepest part of the interior a perfect medium. The flat iron steak got fantastic flavor from the grill without being a hint dry, even at the edges. Perhaps the item that left the best impression was the lovingly prepared swordfish. I honestly haven't seen better preparations since the Strip Club, a restaurant so confident in its handling of proteins that its URL is domeats.com.
As far as hotel restaurants go, out-of-towners staying at the Commons should be pleased with Beacon's offerings and polished, gracious service, but the restaurant's challenge will be in making its food special enough for locals to want to come their way, too. I have every reason to believe that is Beacon's intention as it works to create a locally sourced menu. In the meantime, the lounge is a comfy, cozy spot to hold a meeting over drinks or for an out-of-the-ordinary first date. Should things go well, you can always order some nibbles, because the full menu is also served in the lounge. One thing Beacon will definitely make the short list for — in fact it may be the only viable option — is a place to go for a really decent craft cocktail before a U of M game. When the Gophers are playing, Beacon's bar opens bright and early at 8 a.m. Remember what I said about beer for breakfast?
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