Walk into Brunson’s Pub on Payne Avenue and instantly get a sense of the history behind East Side St. Paul. You can almost hear glasses clinking along the wood bar, the shuffle of boots over the original wood floors, and men regaling stories over a pint while their voices echo off the tin ceiling. The black and white pictures on the walls add to the nostalgia, reflecting what life once was like in the Payne-Phalen neighborhood.
Previously known as the family-run, post-prohibition bar “Schwietz’s Saloon,” Brunson’s Pub quickly became one of the most popular restaurants on the East Side. Behind the renovation of Brunson’s Pub is longtime St. Paul resident and bar master Thomas LaFleche, or Tom. Before sitting down with me for our interview, Tom made a point to say hi to everyone working in the restaurant. His contagious smile bounced from one employee to another. In an industry where current restrictions can derail small restaurants and bars, his positivity was a breath of fresh air. This guy cares—a lot.
Tom was introduced to restaurant life early on by his father, who sold supplies to local restaurants. As a kid, he would tag along with his father to various restaurants and pizza joints. Owners and employees would give little Tom a big hello and offer him free pizza. For Tom, it was love from the very beginning.
Tom has always played a role in various Twin Cities restaurants. Staring out at Jimmy John’s on Grand Avenue (the first in the state), he went to Figlio in Minneapolis, Chino Latino’s in Uptown, and then spent 13 years at Fabulous Fern’s before opening up and managing Shamrock’s in St. Paul. The thought of starting a place of his own place was never far from his mind.
‘I always had a dream to open up a restaurant”, Tom states. “In 2011, I became more serious about it, and in 2015 we started to talk to banks. The business plan wasn’t concrete. We had the bones of the business but needed to figure out how to stand out.”
The previous bar, Schwietz’s Saloon, was well-established in St. Paul. It was the hotspot in the ’70s, 80’s, and 90’s, opening and closing throughout the 2000’s and finally closing down for good in 2016.
Tom and his wife Molly saw their vision of opening a local pub come to life when they heard the historic bar was up for sale. “We knew this place was the one. My wife has a history here. She and her family would come here often and knew the Schwietz’s. Her uncle tended bar here; even her dad had picked up shifts back in the day. We have a lot of Shwietz’s regulars that still come here today.”
Brunson’s Pub’s namesake came from Benjamin Brunson, a historical St. Paul figure. Brunson came to St. Paul in 1847 and completed the first plat map of the city in 1849. He later served on the Minnesota Territorial House of Representatives, joined the 8th Minnesota Infantry Regiment for the Civil War, became a civil engineer for the Lake and Mississippi Superior Railroad, and worked as a commissioned merchant for the Old Steamboat Landing. His home sits about a mile from Brunson’s Pub and is the oldest standing brick building in St. Paul.
“We wanted a name with a good connection to St. Paul,” Tom states, “Brunson’s name has historical significance, and he probably stumbled on the streets of Payne a few times. We have had his family come in here.”
Onto the Food
Browse the various twin cities foodie groups on social media and try to find a negative comment about Brunson’s Pub food. I have looked, and one doesn’t seem to exist. What you will find are countless posts, pictures of food and cocktails, and comments praising Brunson’s. There is almost a cult-like fervor among foodies when it comes to this neighborhood pub.
Tom attributes much of Brunson’s successful cuisine to his head chef Torrance Beavers, “Chef has a lot of things dialed in. He trusts my palette. We create [menu items] together, but he executes. He has been here since day one, and we are best friends. I feel really lucky. We have equal admiration for each other, and both work really hard.”
Tom and Torrance met when Tom worked at Fabulous Fern’s. “He was a chef at Red Cow. He would come over to Fern’s, and we would talk over beers. I didn’t know him well at the time, but he had a great personality. I told him my dream of opening up a restaurant. He looked at me and said he was going to be my chef. When I was finally ready to start a restaurant, I called him. After a few meetings, he agreed to be the chef of Brunson’s.”
Torrance hails from Mississippi, and the menu reflects his southern flair with menu items like the Hoppin John Salad, the Cajun Tuna Sandwich, and their famous pulled bacon. Pulled bacon? Oh yes, my carnivorous friends. This tasty treat starts as slabs of pork belly, then brined for 24 hours, braised until it’s fork-tender, and finally shredded. Luckily for us bacon lovers, it’s used in many of their dishes.
Brunson’s menu doesn’t change very often, but they have weekly features like the Shrimp Po Boy or the Cubano. “We opened up with a solid menu,” Tom explains, “our kitchen is small, which is challenging. We do what we can with what we have. We like to run new and creative items and came up with weekly specials to create a menu change. People are rooting for everything here; we have to create things that are relatable but different.”
Tom’s favorite menu item? “Depends on the week,” he says, “but I do love the Classic Double Burger with our house-made pickles and fancy sauce. The #No Payne No Gain Burger is another favorite. I am very proud of our Hoppin John Salad, and our cheese curds are some of the best in the Twin Cities. It’s a follow your gut menu here.”
Brunson’s Pub has 19 taps to satisfy any beer lover’s thirst and one tap cocktail dedicated to different Tattersall Moscow Mule flavors, including Creme de Flueir and one hilariously dubbed mule, Tap that A$$.
From left to right, up to down: Hoopin John Salad, Cheese Curds, #No Payne No Gain Burger, Classic Double Burger, Rotating beer taps, Bacon Mac n’ Cheese | Photo Courtesy of Brunson’s Pub
More Than a Pub
What keeps Tom and his team going in this business isn’t just about the food and cocktails. According to Tom, it’s about the people. “I just think people are awesome. I truly enjoy someone being happy. We have a great team and little turnover.”
Brunson’s Pub has organized a handful of fundraisers over the years for the neighborhood non-profit “Cookie Cart,” an organization that works with teens to develop job experience and leadership skills.
“Giving back to the neighborhood is also really important to us, and are we very involved with creating a good environment. I am not an expert on any of this, but trying to make it better. If you are close by and part of the neighborhood, we want to know how to help. There are so many awesome people in the world. You can appreciate their plight in life, not just the guests, the co-workers too. Their determination. Getting to know what they do.”
Tom also works with TSE Inc., a community-based organization that works alongside business owners to find employment for individuals with disabilities. In 2019, Brunson’s Pub was awarded the Outstanding Minnesota Employer Awards from the Minnesota Organization for Habilitation and Rehabilitation (MOHR) for their work with TSE Inc.
As for the future of Brunson’s Pub, Tom and his wife have no intention of slowing down. “I hope I can do this for a lot longer. We have no retirement plans as of right now and still really enjoy doing this. I am so happy that we did it. The support has been amazing.”
Brunson’s Pub is open Sunday – Thursday 11:00 am – 11:00 pm and Friday and Saturday 11:00 am – 12:00 am.