Local restaurateur Matty O'Reilly has developed a reputation as something of a turnaround artist. His first project, seven years back, transformed the former Bean and Wine space in Excelsior into the 318 Cafe. O'Reilly upgraded the food offerings, switched from counter to table service, and cultivated a group of performers who turned the 318 into one of the west metro's best live music venues. Locally, the 318 was a pioneer of the Coffee Shop with Benefits model that has helped independent operators compete with the big coffee chains.
O'Reilly's next venture replaced the deli-style Bread Board Cafe in Waconia with the more upscale Green Room, which brought seasonal, chef-driven cooking to a part of the suburbs that didn't have anything like it. Chef Kevin Kvalsten's food was well received, but the housing-market crash hit the area hard and caused O'Reilly and his business partner to sell the restaurant a few years later.
The business climate was better last spring when O'Reilly and his team took over the longtime Aster Cafe and gave the under-utilized St. Anthony Main restaurant a subtle but significant makeover. The food and beverage menus were recalibrated to meet contemporary tastes for beet-and-smoked-trout salads and pear-and-prosciutto flatbread pizzas, as well as domestic craft and Belgian brews. Extended hours gave the space the flexibility to accommodate a pre-work pastry-and-coffee stop, a lazy lunch on the patio, or a late-evening concert. In its latest iteration, the Aster feels like it's finally achieving its potential.
News of O'Reilly's newest endeavor, Republic, which replaced Preston's Urban Pub (formerly the decades-old Sergeant Preston's) on Seven Corners this spring, bristled some of the college bar's loyal clientele. But if O'Reilly's past performance is any indication, every patron lost in the transition will likely be replaced by two newcomers.
Seven Corners has long been a neighborhood as funky as its street design. Commercial and residential spaces converge at the intersection, which is adjacent to a hotel, a theater, and a college campus. O'Reilly didn't do much to change Preston's character-rich space, beyond remove the flat-screen televisions, neon beer signs, and arcade games that detracted from the building's exposed brick walls, lofted tin ceilings, and ornate stained-glass windows. (Fear not, the iconic taxidermied deer, bison, and moose heads remain.) Even without Preston's perilous fishbowls of booze, the place has maintained its student-hangout cred, especially with a high-decibel soundtrack that sometimes seems designed to drive off anyone over the age of 25.
Republic's best seats, though, are on its expansive patio, which is pleasantly shady during the day and illuminated by charming vintage street lamps and strings of white lights in the evening. Here, you can work your way through selections from the short, global wine list and 32 taps, which represent most of the major regional craft breweries, as well as a few other domestics, Germans, and Belgians. Midwest favorites like Lift Bridge's Farm Girl Saison, Fulton's Lonely Blonde Ale, and Bell's Two Hearted cost $4 a pint—at least a dollar cheaper than is typical. O'Reilly jokes that he's no Sam Walton, though his pricing strategy does mimic the Walmart mantra of cutting margins to boost volume. If the value-seeking customer perceives a good deal on beer, the thinking goes, she's more likely to have two. And maybe add an order of fries.
Republic's tap list includes a few obscure brews, too, including Matacabras, a complex Belgian Dark Ale brewed at the tiny, off-the-grid Dave's BrewFarm in Wisconsin. Its flavors could be described as slightly sweet and yeasty, and, beyond that, a little hard to pin down. Republic's Belgian beers are served in specialty glassware, including the Kwak Amber Ale poured into its distinctive, wood-handled, long-necked glass bulb to help preserve the beer's delicate effervescence. Not all of Republic's servers are as well versed in the beers' nuances as the pub's list deserves, but they will bring samples. Skip the shandy, though, until the kitchen switches to a lemonade that doesn't taste like chemicals.
O'Reilly wrote Republic's menu to incorporate scratch cooking and more fresh, local, and luxury ingredients than you usually find in budget-friendly bar fare. Rare is the drinking and dining establishment that can serve a large student clientele and sell orders of white wine-steamed mussels. But the kitchen specializes in a broadly appealing mix of pub staples with a gourmet touch. Skin-on French fries arrive with house-made ketchup and a garlicky aioli. Ricotta fritters are a grown-up version of mozzarella sticks: crisp, delicate, and drizzled with a touch of honey.
For something a little lighter, Republic has four interesting salad options, including hanger steak on Bibb lettuce with blue cheese and hardboiled egg. The same steak is served as a $17 entrée, which is the only menu item that costs more than $10. The meat's portion is modest, but its rich, tender flesh has a robust, beefy flavor. It's a great budget-priced steak that tastes like something far more expensive.
Specifying grass-fed beef for Republic's steaks would have pushed their price point beyond what O'Reilly believed his customers would be willing to spend, but he was able to incorporate the more eco-friendly Thousand Hills ground beef in the burgers, and still keep the plate under $10 by serving the sandwich with salad greens instead of French fries. (For those who don't have the willpower to eat a burger without at least a few crisp potato strips, the $4 side orders are abundant enough to share and the aioli is wickedly decadent.) The turkey burgers, made with Wild Acres poultry, are as good as the beef version, as their juicy patties are flecked with flavorful bits of jalapeño, garlic, and chives. Both burgers can be ordered with four topping combinations, including guacamole and pico de gallo, and Brie and a red wine reduction. Sure, lots of bars flip a decent patty, but the details—from the soft, brioche-like griddled bun to the tiny cornichons—elevate Republic's burgers from the masses.
In terms of sandwiches, the open-face veggie is a perfect hand-held picnic: A slice of ciabatta bread is layered with caramelized onions, roasted red peppers, and asparagus spears sealed with melted burrata. The cheese choice makes a big difference—burrata's a form of fresh mozzarella with a bolder flavor and lighter texture that's still comforting and familiar. The slow roasted pork sandwich is headed in the right direction but could benefit from a few tweaks. The crunchy baguette and shredded meat form a sold base, but how about boosting the fruity/tart/hot hits from the cherry compote and pickled jalapeños?
Much of Republic's food list is traditional beer-drinking fare. The fish and chips presents plebian tilapia in fine form, as the perfectly crisp beer batter masks any trace of the species' sometimes mucky, off-flavors. A hearty plate of roasted potatoes and locally made sausage links (a mild chicken-apple and spicy andouille) is another good value for less than $10.
Republic's dessert program offers a smart group of three-bite, $2 sweets that pack plenty of satisfaction into their small size. Cupcake artist Sheela Namakkal of Miel Y Leche and the now-shuttered Cake Eater Bakery designed the mini berry cobblers and salted caramel pot au crème, which are both worth an order...or two. Her specialty, though, a chocolate cupcake with strawberry-balsamic sauce, possessed some of the same flaws that have plagued past treats: gritty frosting and a too-dry crumb.
But O'Reilly's low-risk, high-reward setup still pays dividends. Just sample the whole array of choices, then order seconds—and maybe thirds—of your favorites.