For all the diversity that Uptown accommodates—just the other day I watched a long-haired guy extract himself from a vintage Cadillac, hoist a pet rat onto his shoulder, and skateboard off into the sunset—the neighborhood notably underserves the sports buff. Sure, a couple of pizza joints on Hennepin might show the game, but they don't exude quite the same jock-strap-snapping machismo of a bona fide sports bar.
Perhaps the new Lyndale Tap House, in the former jP space at Lyn-Lake, will fill the void, with its lengthy beer list, meat-heavy menu, flat-screen TVs, and pinup-girl photos on the walls. (True to the area's agricultural roots, the gals cavort with farm animals.) During games, you can barely hear your dinner companions on the other side of the booth over the blaring sportscaster narration. All other times, the result is nearly the same, but the source of the din is an electronic jukebox. But what else would you expect from a place intended more for hosting large groups than intimate conversations?
The Lyndale's namesake 18 taps include the standard Miller Lites and Blue Moons and Guinnesses, plus a decent selection of Midwestern craft brews. (They don't have Surly because the brewery is running a months-long waitlist for new accounts.) One night I tried to order two beers rarely seen on local taps: Cane & Eble from Two Brothers Brewing in Illinois and Three Beaches Honey Blonde from Wisconsin's Tyranena. Unfortunately, the server apologized, neither was available. With an 0-and-2 count, I settled for a more mainstream brew, feeling disappointed by the missed opportunity.
On another visit, I sampled from the Lyndale's cocktail drink list, which tends toward sweet, fruity potions. If toddlers drank cocktails, here's what they'd mix: Pit Juice, in which Jameson is masked with Apple Pucker and Woodpecker Cider, or Granny's Big O, which tastes like the alcoholic version of McDonald's orange drink.
But the Lyndale Tap has aspirations of being more than a neighborhood watering hole. Owner Gene Suh, whose background is in investment banking, partnered with the team behind Barrio (Ryan Burnet, Tim Rooney, and Josh Thoma) and other experienced restaurateurs, which means the menu is more serious than an ordinary pub's—they're tacking a "gastro" on the front of it, though that doesn't mean it's 112 Eatery.
The Lyndale's signature beef sandwich inspired me to revisit the category's gold standard, Maverick's, a place whose ambiance is zilch (strip-mall digs, mechanical deer head on the wall, dirt clods tracked in on construction workers' boots), but its roast beef is sliced as thin as rose petals and has the same tender texture and blush-pink color. The beef's flavor is bold enough to forgo condiments: It's a sandwich that warrants a drive to Roseville.
The first time I tried the Lyndale's pit beef, a Baltimore-style preparation in which top round is rubbed with spices then slow-cooked over an oak-fired grill, I didn't think it was worth the trip—not even a six-block walk. The meat was flavorless and gummy, rare enough to resemble one of Wisconsin's famous cannibal sandwiches. (Perhaps I'd received slices from the very center of the round, untouched by spices or flame?) But when I tried the sandwich again, a few weeks later, I found a whole different animal. The meat had been cooked to a pinkish-brown, with a ragged, toothsome texture, and was infused with enough seasoning to boost its beefy flavor. It was an uncomplicated delight of beef, onions, and a horseradish sauce tucked into a slightly sweet, cake-tender bun. And it was good enough to scrap any subsequent journeys to Maverick's.
The pork sandwiches I tried—the Pit Pork and the Cuban Pit—weren't as good as the onion-and-horseradish-topped Pit Burger, though all the sandwiches and burgers come with a choice of side, including cheesy potatoes; a mellow, sticky macaroni and cheese; buttery Brussels sprouts; or lightly dressed coleslaw. Vegetarians will find themselves in the proverbial outfield, though the grilled romaine salad is tasty, and a better choice than the hot pretzels, thick breadsticks that had the tough texture associated with bread that's been reheated in a microwave.
The Lyndale's entrée selection includes fish and chips, steak frites, ale chicken, and a grilled ham steak, which was big enough to cover nearly the entire dinner plate. The thick pink slab was topped with Guinness-braised onions, an over-easy egg, and sweet habanero relish, and harbored a pile of potatoes underneath. It was a dish more suited to fuel an NFL running back than a barstool-perched television spectator.
I was thrilled to see Whoopie Pies on the Lyndale's menu, and could hardly order one of the cream-filled sandwich cakes fast enough. Unfortunately, the cake didn't have much chocolate flavor, and the filling just tasted greasy and tooth-achingly sweet. They didn't come close to the Whoopies that once graced the cover of Gourmet magazine.
But the Lyndale's aims are perhaps closer to the more modest, value-oriented, middle-of-the-road approach of Bon Appetit. If you can stand the crowds and the scene, its food is better than what you'd expect for a place with so many TVs.
THE UPTOWN BAR and Cafe's recent closure hit a sour note on the neighborhood's soundtrack: Would its denizens of musicians and concertgoers have to schlep downtown or to Cedar-Riverside or St. Paul to perform or see a show? Not if things continue to pick up at Sauce Spirits and Soundbar, which moved into the former La Bodega space at the corner of Lyndale and Lake Street this past summer.
Sauce's two-room setup—a performance-space room with a stage in one corner and a narrow, booth-lined dining room—is similar to that of the Triple Rock. The venue's a bit raucous, the dining room far mellower, and both are linked by the music being piped in via a free jukebox near the kitchen. Overall, Sauce has a comfortable, arty vibe. Abstract paintings and photographs of Twin Cities performers line the walls, and a vending machine sells CDs by local up-and-coming bands. (If you recognize more than one of their names, I'll concede you some serious scenester cred.)
Sauce's owner, Mike Riehle, who left his corporate job to focus on his zest for music, emphasizes the space's triple-function as restaurant, bar, and music venue. (He hopes that his Beastie Boy-themed cocktail list will one day lure his favorite MCs to perform.) Riehle recently expanded the club's food offerings to feature more of the Italian comfort food he grew up on—the red-sauce recipe originated with Grandma Delia, who's pictured on the front of the menu—plus a selection of all-day breakfasts to dispense with the need for a post-show trip to the diner. The majority of Sauce's fare is straightforward, stick-to-the-ribs sort of stuff: artichoke dip, chicken-cutlet sandwiches, pizzas, and pastas. After customers begged for French Fries and chicken wings, Riehle brought La Bodega's fryer out of retirement.
Earlier this summer, the kitchen suffered a few hiccups with sourcing ingredients and fine-tuning recipes. Tomatoes on a Caprese salad were mealy and bland, even though it was peak tomato season. A whole-wheat pasta dish tasted like somebody poured balsamic vinegar on a pile of cardboard toilet paper tubes. (Fortunately, it didn't make the cut on the revised menu.) But several of the items went above and beyond the banal bar food most music lovers typically put up with. The red-pepper pizza offered a rich, spicy sauce of roasted red peppers and Italian sausage on a crispy crust. A bowl of fusilli, sausage, and veggies was smothered in a lovely gorgonzola-garlic cream sauce. A meal pairing either with a slice of Franklin Street Bakery carrot cake would easily establish Sauce as an establishment with ambitions to be equal part restaurant—and not just a music venue that serves food as an afterthought.
The newer menu items I tried, including the vegetarian lasagna with hot cherry pepper sauce, cheese, mushrooms, and walnuts, and the rigatoni Calabrese with house-made meatballs, are not pushing any culinary boundaries. And how you judge them will depend on your expectations. A stand-alone dinner at Sauce is likely to underwhelm, compared to the neighborhood's other restaurant offerings. But I'd guess that showgoers will be thrilled to find more interesting fare than the typical rock-club mozzarella sticks and burgers.