It starts with the right cut of beef brisket, not eye of round.
That’s the first step to making good corned beef said Matt O’Neill, the chef and owner at Bloomington’s Runcible Spoon. The restaurant’s corned beef hash, a traditional English dish served with eggs, is one of its most popular dishes, as well as the one Esquire magazine referenced when it named the Runcible Spoon among the 50 “Best Breakfast Places in America.”
But more than its hash or house-roasted coffee, it’s the restaurant’s eccentric customers and warm atmosphere that has made it an iconic Bloomington restaurant for almost 40 years, O’Neill said.
“The restaurant has a sense of place — it’s allowed its surroundings to define it,” O’Neill said. “If I opened another restaurant somewhere else, it wouldn’t be another Runcible Spoon.”
In a small residential building on East Sixth Street, Jeff Danielson opened the Runcible Spoon in 1976. Serving mostly breakfast and house-roasted coffee, he charmed students and locals alike — one of those being O’Neill.
Born in Dublin, O’Neill moved to the United States in 1973 to work as a chef, starting at the Signature Room at the 95th in Chicago. He later transferred to La Tour in Indianapolis, where he worked with Wolfgang Puck, and then the Walden Inn in Greencastle, Ind.
After working at the Inn for about 15 years, O’Neill moved to Bloomington with his wife, Regen, with the intention of retiring. But because of Danielson’s persuasion and the Spoon’s “soul and eccentricities,” the O’Neills walked into the restaurant on Dec. 15, 2001, not as customers, but as owners.
Today, the restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as house-roasted coffee and loose-leaf tea from local vendors. The only dining room was originally situated in the basement but, since taking ownership, the O’Neills have opened three dining rooms and a deck upstairs.
Wooden shelves hold worn-leathered encyclopedias, and whimsical paper collages and paintings by local artists adorn the walls in the rooms upstairs. Over the stairs to the basement hangs a weathered wooden sign with a painted carving of a nuzzling owl and cat, the two characters from Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussycat.”
The poem reads, “They dined on mince, and slices of quince/ which they ate with a runcible spoon,” which Danielson used as inspiration when naming and decorating his restaurant. The owl and cat adorn the coffee bags the restaurant sells, as well as some of the wooden dining tables.
Jasmine Bechlem, a returning IU student, has brewed those very bags of coffee and set up those tables at the Runcible Spoon for four years. She worked at the restaurant for two years before leaving Bloomington to enter the workplace, and when she decided to return to Bloomington to continue her studies, she also knew she wanted to return to the Spoon.
“As employees, we’re allowed to also be people and have conversations with customers,” Bechlem said, comparing the restaurant to others at which she’s worked. “It’s good to be able to go to work and see familiar faces and ask them what’s going on with the project they’re working on.”
She said she’s become close with many customers over the years, as the restaurant draws everyone from IU freshmen to regulars who have been coming in every day for 40 years.
Among the familiar faces is retired IU professor Dave Jones.
Jones has been frequenting the Runcible Spoon two to three days a week, every week since it opened in 1976. As a graduate student, he walked in at 8 a.m. everyday and sat at his favorite table, where he wrote his dissertation.
In the forward to his dissertation is an acknowledgment to the Runcible Spoon.
Today, he didn’t sit at his favorite table, though he can see it across the room, and he ordered ravioli — a break from his favorite Bonne Femme Omelet, stuffed with bacon, onion and potato. His day at the restaurant is unlike those he spent as a graduate student, but Jones said the O’Neills have maintained the same warm environment with which he fell in love as a young adult.
“Very interesting, hardworking people have turned this into a special place,” Jones said. “It’s exactly the kind of place that really belongs on the edge of a fine university.”
Though new customers, unaware of the restaurant’s history, may simply come for the famous corned beef hash, O’Neill said he hopes new faces leave with sentiments similar to those of his employees, regulars and himself.
“I want people to leave thinking, ‘that was a nice time,’” he said. “The best compliment I could get is a couple saying, ‘we met at your restaurant.’”
Follow reporter Amanda Arnold on Twitter @aMandolinz
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