With a culinary career that reaches back across three decades, Chef PJ Severson has brought his experience, training and expertise to plant some roots in northeast Brainerd. This neighborhood is one of the oldest in town, and it grew up around the railroad. You’d be hard pressed to find any longtime locals that didn’t have a connection to the railyard at some point in time. Over the years a slow change has drifted across northeast, however. Local retailers have succumbed to larger businesses bringing in dozens of jobs, and a local school has been converted into a small business emporium after a new school facility opened in Baxter. Small shifts like these have altered the surface-area of the neighborhood while the psyche has remained blue-collared over the years, and Severson connects the two quite well. The Local is both paying homage to the earthy working-class roots of the neighborhood while at the same time elevating the typical northeast dining experience without pretension.
As you walk in, the ambiance of this new restaurant follows Severson’s professional past and conjures the industrial east coast, where he was trained at L’Academie de Cuisine. While he studied he worked at La Miche, in Bethesda, Maryland. Black and white photos adorn the walls paying homage to everything from the building’s past as a grocer; ‘50s and ‘60s era pics of old downtown Brainerd; and a beautiful picture of his parents on their wedding day, as well as an old friend that had recently passed away: Riley, the family dog.
This new restaurant’s decor also summons subtle psychic winks at the rust-belt’s industrial city-scape, invoking Severson’s experiences in Detroit working at The Whitney. The Whitney, a late nineteenth century mansion turned fine dining standard, was where Severson honed his craft out of culinary school, expanding his real-world expertise.
The inflections of the restaurant’s experiential foundation are rife with subtle comfort and warmth, enveloping you as you sit and absorb your surroundings. Soft illumination replaces bright intrusive lighting of restaurants of the past, opening a laid-back atmosphere which details another haunt of the owner’s previous experience from when he worked in southern California. Rainwaters restaurant, regarded among the city’s business elite as the place to go for that special business meeting, was yet another fine dining lens from his experience that could be connected to his new space. Not every nuance reveals itself immediately, however. Like a good book or an encapsulating painting, it needs to be experienced more than once to harness the full understanding. This is not the case, however, with the immaculate bathrooms, but those you’ll have to see for yourself.
While beckoning a southern Californian insouciance with a rustic industrial edge, Severson built his restaurant to fit the vision of a “Home Town Stomping Ground” – his tagline for the space. At the same time, he introduces a couple of menu items that could bring the locals a bit out of their comfort zone – that some would say has turned into more of a rut on the Brainerd culinary scene.
“Being a restaurateur has been a lifelong goal for me,” said Severson. “I am so very fortunate to have a shot at it. Not many people get to touch their dream. This is mine, and I am treating it with respect every single day. There will be a lot to come from The Local menu, hopefully a patio, and always the best food in town. I would like to take a part in changing the face of Brainerd’s food scene and bring it up to speed with the culinary trends of the world.”
While comfortable, calm and inviting may be the unspoken mantra emanating from the physical experience, the menu brings you in even closer to the plate and his vision for deeply flavored classics and a couple dishes that gently move you from the same old items that have been plaguing other local menus for years.
The classics: The local burger, buffalo chicken sandwich, and French dip may seem like classics, and they most certainly are, but they are created from the best local ingredients that make them stand strong against any in the area. Other classics include the Reuben, chicken wings and a spinach artichoke dip that all outshine the greasy spoons of old. These items do two things: They remember, and they envision. They bring you back to an experience from before, while their quality makes you look forward to the possibilities for the future of the food scene in the Brainerd Lakes Area that Severson is creating in real time.
On the other side of the coin, his menu does bring in selections that gently push the ways of old into a new time, but in a very approachable way. No foams or mullet roe here. The more forward looking items also play two ways. The adult grilled cheese with cheddar, swiss, tomato, and basil harkens back with a new style bravado. The seafood po’ boy and the pasta carbonara join the same category with the scallops and seared tuna as items found on menus of the past but treated in such a way as to invoke the future through small flavorful changes. These are just a few of the gems you’ll find on the food menu at The Local, while the bar anchors the center of the room in its place with favorites of old and new offerings such as a local brew, a roundhouse porter, and some specialty cocktails such as the blue warrior, an homage to Severson’s days on the local football team, and a family cocktail called The Golden Gopher.
As with any new venture there will be pangs of growth as well as a time of adjustment while the inevitable bugs are worked from a system with several moving parts. His menu has been molded to have the plates at the table at the perfect times. A lot of items take a similar time to create and thus find themselves at the table at the right temperature. This is no easy task when it comes to prep-time, cook time, and the server staff’s time from taking food orders, placing them, taking drink orders, placing them, and making sure everything comes together at the table at the right time, to the correct people - all of it done in a matter of minutes. It has been described as a juggling match of sorts, but Severson has the equation dead to rights. He’s got everything in place and timed to a point at which the experience is more akin to a dance than a math equation. Not every step is perfect all the time, and sometimes toes get stepped on during a dance, but when it’s busy and things come together the place hits on all cylinders.
Sitting down to a nice meal in a relaxing establishment is something we have come to mostly ignore, if not take for granted in our collective past. However, with the rise of the culinary world hitting television and now exploding onto the internet, a shift in knowledge and a shift in expectation has been more the rule than the exception. In a complicated business with ever expanding ideals surrounding the product, the plate, and the space, we are seeing more trends toward the simple ingredient taking the lead and the Local brings it home.
You might come in a stranger, but the feeling you get when pulling out of the parking lot will leave you feeling like a Local.