Tavern on the Hill, at 1102 Woodland Avenue across from UMD, is owned by the Black Woods Group, which manages a number of properties in the region, including the Black Water Lounge in downtown Duluth (while I’m not sold on their other locations, the Lounge is a cut above the rest of their properties in service and style).
My wife and I visited Tavern on the Hill last fall, when they had recently opened. Because of this, and because of a large crowd of unruly sports parents, their service was chaotic at best, but the buzz and the atmosphere had me promising to return after they had worked out the opening week jitters.
We recently returned for lunch and found the same eclectic, charming interior. We were greeted and seated quickly and cordially, amongst the murals on the walls, including a quasi-blasphemous parody of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam.
Being a workday, we behaved ourselves at the bar. I ordered Classic Lemonade (fresh-squeezed, also available in Blueberry and Blood Orange). I was a little sticker shocked at the price, but it was no more than I’ve encountered at other establishments.
My wife thoroughly enjoyed a Basil Pineapple Coconut Smoothie, complete with chia seeds and honey. Though a tad on the sweet side, that was probably to be expected, given the ingredients.
The Tavern’s menu is extremely large and attempts too much (a problem at other Black Woods Group locations, too). Better a small menu of items done well than trying to please every taste.
My lunch choice, the Blackened Tilapia Tacos, are served with house slaw, fresh cherry tomatoes, a side of Sriracha sour cream, and a house-made black bean and brown rice casserole. The fish was blackened nicely, though not traditionally, and the Sriracha sour cream is a perfect blend of spicy, plus a vehicle for getting spicy to your palate in the right dose.
Unfortunately, the slaw is unimaginative and bland. It’s supposed to be Asian-style, consisting of red onion, red cabbage, and cilantro (or was that Italian parsley?). But it carries no weight in the flavor department, due to a lack of dressing of any kind.
My wife chose the Sweet Potato Burger, served on a bun with red onion, sprouts, Roma tomatoes, house pub sauce, and fried sweet-potato strings. The sweet potato is blanched before grilling, which gives it great texture and seals in the flavor.
On another visit, we tried out the Tavern’s happy hour (3 to 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. to close, Sunday through Friday). The late-night shenanigans look enticing, with $3 pizzas and shots, $4 draft beer, and half-price Moonshine and Martinis. Alas, we are past the age for the late-night scene.
At the earlier happy hour, six dollars will get you a single-item hand-tossed pizza, or onion rings, or chicken wings, or cheese curds; beer, wine, and cocktails are $1 off—a decent deal, but judging by the lack of a crowd, no room-packing party.
The pizzas look like thin-crust paragons of artisanal virtue, but we opted for the Wisconsin Cheese Curds—little pockets of cheese delicately breaded in beer batter and served sans sauce in a quaint little basket with a garnish of greens.
Chippewa Falls would be proud. I cannot adequately describe the perfection of these melt-in-your-mouth delights, except to say you should hustle down to the Tavern and try them for yourself.
We also ordered a side of Sweet Beet Hash—diced yams and red beets sautéed to perfection with eggplant, onion, fresh garlic, and thyme. It complements the curds, but could use a dash of cracked pepper.
On this occasion, we also imbibed of the spirits, which include a remarkable beer list and quite a few regional favorites on tap or in the bottle. I scored a Hop-Slam on tap from Bell’s brewery. The wine list is not extensive, but it covers the bases, with a decent house selection.
The Tavern’s (over)large menu requires more sampling before I can offer any fair judgment of their extensive offerings, but the service and atmosphere are pleasant and welcoming, and I look forward to another chance to decipher what it is they think they are doing at the Tavern on the Hill.
Thomas Walchuk has worked in the restaurant industry for most of his long life. He is currently an event and social media consultant with Tippy Toe Tunes, a collaborative endeavor he founded to help small business entrepreneurs. Visit TippyToeTunes.com.