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Black Woods’ Tavern on the Hill puts on finishing touches

Mike Simon, associate general manager, trains new employees on bar service procedures Tuesday. The Tavern on the Hill features a large bar area where food is also served. (Bob King / / 4
Invited guests from the College of St. Scholastica enjoy lunch Tuesday in Tavern on the Hill’s sunroom. (Bob King / / 4
Cassandra Carlson spins up some dough Tuesday to make a crust for a Greek pizza at Tavern on the Hill. (Bob King / / 4
Guests walk to the entrance of the Tavern on the Hill, which will be open to the public on Monday. The restaurant features heated sidewalks at the entrance to keep snow and ice away in winter. (Bob King / / 4

Nine months after construction began, Tavern on the Hill is gearing up for its much-anticipated public opening on Monday.

And by the look of things, customers won’t be disappointed by its combination of urban industrial chic and classic pub décor with dark woodwork.

“We’re excited,” said Bryan Flaherty, the owner and president of Black Woods Group, which is behind the project just east of the University of Minnesota Duluth. The Black Woods Group also owns the area Black Woods restaurants.

But Flaherty didn’t set out to open another Black Woods restaurant.

He wanted a different venue in the 1100 block of Woodland Avenue. He wanted something that would appeal to both residents and local college students, something casual with a broad menu that would fill a void of sit-down restaurants in the neighborhood.

The result, he says, is what he had envisioned and more.

“When it comes to fruition even better than what you envisioned, that’s good,” he said of Tavern on the Hill, which will offer light, healthy dishes at medium prices. It also will offer takeout, online ordering and a “Grab and Go” counter with ready-made items for commuters.

Staff have been getting ready for next week’s public opening with a private soft opening this week for contractors who worked on the project and nearby college staff and with a big fundraiser planned for Thursday.

“This is more than a business, it’s a way to connect with the local community, to encourage people to connect,” said Julie Thoreson, Black Woods’ president of operations. “We were going after a comfortable atmosphere where people can relax and have a good time.”

That’s especially important to Flaherty, who grew up nearby. He even named their pepperoni and sausage pizza “Kissing Rock,” after the rock on the hill where he had his first kiss.

Going for quality

The 10,000-square-foot, stand-alone restaurant can seat 350 and features a large bar area, dining room and outdoor patio.

Inside and out, the materials used and the attention to detail — from the copper-topped bar, multicolored polished concrete floors, chandeliers fashioned out of salvaged steel and, fittingly, blue boulders used in the landscaping — suggest the owners chose quality over cost-cutting.

Inside, the exposed industrial-style ceiling rises nearly 18 feet in the large pub area, lined with high-backed booths and an expansive mural of patrons and jazzy musicians that exudes good times. The artist, Brian Olson of Duluth, also did smaller murals in the bar, including a group of young adults gathered at the beach, watching a moonrise.

“We wanted to create an atmosphere where people felt happy,” explained Thoreson. “We felt this was the best way to reflect that.”

In the adjoining sunroom, a wall of tall windows can be pulled aside, folded like an accordion, opening the room to the outside patio where there is seating for 130 additional people. There, a contemporary wall fireplace and a firepit will provide warmth on chilly fall evenings.

“I like the way the doors open to the outside,” said Mike Mattson, who was among the College of St. Scholastica employees who were invited guests on Tuesday. “The atmosphere is wonderful. It’s a nice upgrade for the area.”

Mattson gave the Buffalo Chicken pizza he was eating two thumbs-up.

The menu of 80 items was 1½ years in the creation and includes burgers, sandwiches, pizza, flatbreads, pasta and salads. Some standouts include sweet potato burgers with beet chips, fried avocado tacos, bison pot roast, sushi rolls and Neapolitan thin-crust artisan pizza.

Out of more than 1,000 applicants, the Black Woods Group hired 125 employees, with experienced staffers from their other restaurants serving as trainers for six weeks. Most of the new hires are college students, Thoreson said.

She declined to say how much the company spent on the restaurant project.

Among the tavern’s modern amenities are the thermal sidewalks and patio to melt snow and ice. In the restrooms, cutting edge sinks not only feature motion-triggered water dispensers but also built-in hand dryers that actually work. While the restaurant encourages people to connect face-to-face to build real-life relationships, it also offers free Wi-Fi and numerous plug-ins for smartphones and laptops.

Beginning Monday, Tavern on the Hill will be open daily for lunch and dinner. Most prices will be $10 or less for lunch offerings and up to $15 for dinner.

The restaurant is the latest addition to BlueStone Commons, a multi-use housing and retail development at the site of the former Woodland Middle School.

Tavern on the Hill hosts fundraiser

The public can get a preview look at the new Tavern on the Hill restaurant from 5-9 p.m. Thursday, when it hosts a fundraiser for Northwood Children’s Services in Duluth.

The 131-year-old nonprofit provides residential, mental health, day treatment, foster care and other services to children. The new restaurant at 1102 Woodland Ave. is less than a mile from Northwood’s main campus on West College Street. Restaurant officials said the fundraiser was a way to introduce the new business to the public, while giving back to the community.

The $20 donation includes complimentary hors d’oeuvres. All proceeds will go to the nonprofit.