BY CHRISTINE BARBOUR
Since the day it opened in September 1976, the Runcible Spoon has been what owner Matt O’Neill calls “the comfortable lap of Bloomington,” a casual and welcoming place to drop in for a cup of freshly roasted coffee and Sunday brunch, with maybe some quiet study time, a lazy conversation, or a hot political debate on the side.
Very little of Bloomington has stayed the same since those days, but the Spoon is still the Spoon. Even the changes that “new” owner O’Neill, who replaced founder Jeff Danielson in 2001, has made have been so fundamentally spoonish that visitors entering the Spoon today can be forgiven for feeling they’ve walked through a bead curtain into the 1970s.
But today’s Spoon is more than a coffee house, though they still serve great coffee that they still roast themselves, and more than a breakfast joint, though they still serve a scrumptious lineup of morning treats. Chef O’Neill runs the place with his wife, Regen, and is also chef/owner of the Bloomington Cooking School with Jan Bulla-Baker. He has raised the Spoon’s food profile because food is what he does.
“The first thing we did was to serve food upstairs,” he says. A full breakfast, lunch, and dinner menu followed, as did a beer and wine license. But the favorites were kept on the menu and the ambiance stayed the same, right down to the legendary goldfish swimming in the bathtub. “I didn’t want to chase away whatever spirits were here,” says O’Neill, in whose native Irish brogue such fanciful sentiments sound matter of fact. And the spirits surely are there, whether floating in the ether or lounging in comfortable chairs in the form of the longtime regulars who haunt the place.
A meal at the Spoon might start with an “O’Neill”—Guinness stout, orange juice, and champagne fizzing gently in a pint glass. Follow it with fresh salmon with horseradish cream, or strip steak, or gypsy chicken (poached in olive oil and finished on the griddle to caramelize the outside), accompanied by gorgeous sautéed vegetables, black beans, and a potato cake enriched with butter and provolone cheese.
But breakfast is the real tradition at the Spoon. Pancakes, French toast, omelets, and hash browns are all delish, and for those mornings that require a bit of hollandaise sauce to get you going there is the decadent eggs Benedict (served with ham, smoked salmon, or veggie style). Birthday kids can celebrate with Chef O’Neill’s special pancake decorated with apples carved into the shape of a swan, with berries and whipped cream, if their parents order in advance.
Those who can’t imagine a Bloomington without the Runcible Spoon will be relieved to know that the O’Neills are in for the long haul. “This is more than a restaurant or a business for us—it’s a unique space in a town that makes you humble because there is so much compressed talent combined with such a casual demeanor about it,” says the chef. “Ten years from now, we’ll still be here. Not for anything would we give this place up.”