On a recent night Brunson’s Pub at 956 Payne Avenue in St. Paul the deck played host a local softball team, the bar was occupied by sports fans intensely watching the game and co-owner Thomas LaFleche was sporting a very fine sheen of sweat on his brow. He moved with athletic precision from host stand to kitchen to behind the bar. The only moment he paused was when a bartender stopped to mime the sax solo in Van Morrison’s “Days Like This.” LaFleche laughed before whisking a drinks out to a waiting table.
This year-old Eastside neighborhood bar was originally a hardware store built in 1910, but converted soon after, possibly pre-prohibition to a neighborhood saloon. When Thomas and Molly LaFleche opened Brunson’s Pub last summer it became a part of a new trend: dive bars living on in new iterations with modern owners. Brunson’s won the Eater Award for Best Dive Bar Revival in 2017.
The LaFleches are industry vets, having worked for years at the recently shuttered Fabulous Fern’s, where they met.
Thomas also worked behind the bar Shamrock’s on West 7th and Saint Dinette in Lowertown. It was at that restaurant, he began studying the art of the business, how to balance great food and craft cocktails at an affordable price. He speaks often about the tutelage he received while working behind the bar there. The drinks at Brunson’s include things like a rhubarb syrup-sweetened Letherbee gin cocktail served with the same amount of deft speed as a rail-pour gin and tonic.
In the kitchen is chef Torrance Beavers who brings gastropub fare without any of the pretension. The pulled bacon has been best described as, “a slab of bacon, brined and slowly braised until it’s like pulled pork’s more smoky cousin. Beavers sprinkles it throughout the menu like porky fairy dust.”
The neighborhood continues to change, like Ward 6 closing recently, a restaurant that was one of the first to offer elevated food and drink on this stretch of Payne Avenue. “That hit us hard,” said LaFleche. As things change, one thing: every good, urban neighborhood deserves a bar like this.