Sir Benedict’s Tavern on the Lake (also less formally known as Sir Ben’s) is an adorable steel-roofed, bungalow-style building next door to the Kitchi Gammi Club, and kitty-corner to Fitger’s on Superior Street. It has enormous curb appeal, featuring a chalk paint-style sign, bright bursts of cheery flowers, and a fenced-in patio. But, the building has served other purposes before its transformation into the charming tavern and restaurant that today’s Duluthians know and love.
A LITTLE HISTORY
Built in the late 1920’s as a Pure Oil Service Station, the site once served as the northern headquarters for People’s Oil Company. The building was purchased by Jack and Barb Arnold in 1978. The couple fixed it up, fought (and won) eminent domain, saving the building from being razed to make way for the I-35 tunnels, and Sir Ben’s was transformed into a pub. Viva la revolucion!
Similar to its friendly aforementioned neighbors, Sir Ben’s has a unique vibe all its own. An English-style pub, Sir Ben’s offers it all: live music five to seven nights a week, gorgeous Lake Superior views, yummy pub-style food, access to the Lakewalk, a huge beer selection, and
a hospitable attitude toward dogs on the patio! What’s not to love?
Sir Ben’s offers casual dining; you walk up to the front of the establishment to place your order, take a number, and a server brings your food out to you. If you order a beer, they kindly pour it for you to take back to your table right away.
A huge blackboard-style menu is on display, cheerily advertising the menu options in neon-colored chalk. The menu features plenty of unique sandwiches, homemade soups, pizza, and salads.
Sir Ben’s definitely has a Duluth centric vibe. They bake their own focaccia bread, but the rest of their breads come from Duluth’s own Johnson’s Bakery. According to owner Josh Stotts, Sir Ben’s tries to source local ingredients whenever possible, including fresh produce, bread, and a variety of beer.
The building itself is a big part of Sir Bens’ appeal. The décor ranges from Back to the Future figurines (tastefully contained to a curio cabinet) to old beer bottles and unique signage. There are many built-in decorative wood accents, such as carved wainscoting and beams, and your seating options include plenty of nooks and crannies.
The cute, one-stall restroom (the ladies’ room was cute, anyway … I must confess I didn’t visit the mens’) can be found down a very narrow hallway, and features several surprisingly funny bathroom-wall jokes and musings etched in marker. Example: “A Mexican magician tells the crowd he will disappear on the count of three. He says ‘Uno, dos …and, poof! He disappears without a tres.”
The clientele was incredibly eclectic … on a Thursday at 5 pm, anyway. There were a few moms eating dinner with little kids (Sir Ben’s does have a kids’ menu), a solo elderly gent drinking a beer, and several female duos dining together.
Tom O’Keeffe, a hippie-looking older dude with a Jerry Garcia-ish voice, sat on a tiny makeshift stage with his guitar, strumming and singing the theme to Sesame Street and “The Wheels on the Bus.” A bit strange, but super intriguing.
The dress code is comfy-casual; the perfect place to stop for a beer during a stroll on the Lakewalk. Those in a suit and tie may feel a bit overdressed.
Owner Josh Stotts couldn’t have been more polite and easy to talk to. He is a busy guy, between working the bar, visiting with patrons, and, along with his wife, Kaila, running the entire restaurant. But he made it a point to check in on us several times while we ate, explaining he
origins of the beer I ordered, and making sure our food was good (spoiler alert: it was).
WHAT WE ORDERED
I ordered the Sir Pesto sandwich, and I requested it with turkey. The menu explains:
“Sir Pesto: House-made pesto, provolone and tomato on 12-grain. Add turkey for $2.00.”
The hearty 12-grain bread was toasted to perfection, the cheese was melty and good, and the tomatoes were firm and ripe. The turkey was smoked, which went well with the provolone. Sir Ben’s wasn’t stingy with the pesto, either. Which is good, because the pesto was the highlight of the sandwich. There were two thick layers: on both the top and bottom of the sandwich.
Since we’re on the subject, does everyone know what pesto is? The Food Network’s pesto recipe includes these ingredients:
- Fresh basil leaves
- Pine nuts
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Kosher salt
- Fresh black pepper, and
- Freshly grated Pecorino cheese
Mmmm … basil. In my book, pesto is the best-o!
The sandwich was served with crisp, salty kettle chips and a dill pickle spear. I ate half of my sandwich, and Mike and I worked together to polish off all of the chips.
I ate the other half of my sandwich at about 8 pm that night, and it was even better left over. Have you ever had that experience? The pesto had kind of soaked into the thick 12-grain bread, like some kind of savory basil infusion. Yum!
I paired my sammy with the beer of the day: the curiously named Mother of the Gut, which is a collaboration between Surly in the Twin Cities and Duluth’s Bent Paddle. The beer is a Belgian-style pale ale infused with … wait for it … Chamomile! The beer was light and a bit sweet, and tasted like, well, flowers.
Josh explains the odd name: “In Medieval times, that’s what they called Chamomile – mother of the gut – for its medicinal and digestive properties.” The nutty flavor and saltiness of my Sir Pesto sandwich really paired well with the lighter, sweet beer.
My husband Mike ordered a homemade pizza, which is always interesting because he has difficulty digesting dairy, and orders it without cheese. Strangely enough, even without cheese, pizza is still delish!
So, Mike ordered a sausage pizza, which is served up on Sir Ben’s homemade focaccia crust. I always thought of focaccia as being a thick, fluffy bread, but this crust was thin and crisp.
The sausage was salty with a bit of spice, and the sauce was your basic tomato. The personal-sized pizza was a filling choice to satisfy, but not overstuff, a hungry man. Mike paired his salty, spicy pizza with a light, slightly sweet, refreshing Leinenkugel’s Honey Weiss.
BONUS ROUND – BEER FOR DESSERT!
On the night we dined, the weather was warm, we were thirsty, and we found ourselves in a jovial mood. Thus we made the decision to also partake in a “flight” of beer after our dinner.
A flight entails ordering several draft samples of your choosing, and the beer is served in cute little glasses on a wooden paddle. The perfect choice for the indecisive or adventuresome among us! We selected four local-ish brews: Indeed’s Strawberry Fields, Loon Juice (a hard
cider), South Shore’s Nut Brown, and Goose Island’s Oktoberfest.
The big winner in our book was the Strawberry Fields. A super sour beer, it tasted exactly like fresh strawberries! Josh explained that it is brewed with both strawberry puree and fresh strawberries, and kettlesoured for tartness. An excellent summer “dessert,” I would say!
Whether you are interested in a flight or a regularsized beer, Sir Ben’s is a great place to go for a wide variety of beer. They offer 20+ beers on tap, along with a huge domestic and import selection. “We take notes on what the tourists and locals alike are asking for, and try to serve what people want,” Josh says.
Sir Ben’s has the unique capability to cater well to tourists, but also to act as the local “neighborhood pub,” where your name and favorite beer are always at the tip of the bartender’s tongue. It is a fun and casual place to grab a bite, enjoy a cold one, and sit on the patio with or without your favorite canine.
As a unique, independently-owned gem in Duluth with a friendly and attentive owner, we would highly recommend Sir Ben’s for both a beer and a bite!
For more information, please visit sirbens.com.
Written by Andrea Busche for Duluth.com the Magazine.