Meet Tavern 4&5 Chef Dave Merchant

Tavern 4&5 Chef Dave Merchant offers a new interpretation of traditional bar food.
Tavern 4&5’s Tower of Power onion rings are a house specialty.

In three short years, Tavern 4&5 has turned an inconspicuous corner near Highway 212 and 78th Street into a drive-worthy destination that serves pub food with a twist, topped off with a cocktail menu and 22 draft beers. Located in an Eden Prairie strip mall across the street from Sterling Ponds Apartments, the tavern has rejuvenated an address where previous restaurants had failed, attracting all ages with its blend of comfort bar food, a kids’ menu and salads. “I don’t draw a lot of attention to myself,” says head chef Dave Merchant. “I just make it happen.”

Merchant prefers to go by “Merch,” and with more than 35 years in the industry, it’s a name with some pull. “There are too many Daves,” he explains about his nickname since age 10. At his side is Tavern 4&5’s general manager Dave Guistolise. Merch is blue-collar, quiet and collected. He’s worked his way up in the kitchen, from dish room to directing, and he looks the part of an experienced leader who is comfortable in all roles. Merch prides himself on his work ethic and productivity, managing an efficient, consistent and happy kitchen.

To Merch, workflow is just as important as the creative process. That approach is perfectly suited to Tavern 4&5, one of six restaurants in Scott Foster’s Nova Restaurant Group (which owns three restaurants in Rochester and one in Tonka Bay). “I don’t consider myself in the chef category,” he says, understating his contributions to the menu itself. “I’m more into management and running of the business.”

As a restaurant veteran—Merch was head chef at The Lexington in St. Paul for 17 years, then worked at Jake’s City Grille before moving to Tavern 4&5—reputation and kitchen culture are what drew him to his current job a year after their opening. “As soon as I heard Scott Foster’s name, I was very interested,” he says. While Foster’s name appealed to him, it was Merch’s experience and personality that landed him the job.

“It kind of found me,” Merch says, reflecting on his path that started in 1979. “I started on the ground floor in the dish room. They were short on cooks and I started and learned it from the guys next to me,” he recalls. “About four to five months later, they lost their kitchen supervisor and I was the most responsible guy around.”

Merch continued to climb the ranks, reaching sous chef and then head chef. He’s loyal and dedicated, having spent the majority of the past three decades between The Lexington, Jake’s, and now Tavern 4&5. He’s worked at six restaurants over roughly 36 years. He’s learned from high-level chefs, some intense and harsh, others passive and easy going. Along the way, he has absorbed knowledge and put his own stamp on the kitchen management and menu creation.

A key element of the Tavern 4&5 research and development department is the collaborative nature, where sous chefs and Merch work together on seasonal menu updates and daily specials. However, it’s the customers who make the final decisions. Surrounded by young families and retirement communities alike, the pub’s goal is to match its surroundings. “We’re not ego-driven,” stresses general manager Guistolise, and the tavern is constantly putting out feelers to the community on what they enjoy. With “tavern” right in the name, there is an accessible approach to the business.

Merch prefers a democratic process to creating concepts. When the groundwork is laid out, he takes over. “Once I get an idea on the table, I have a really good way to spin it, to plate it, present it, and to make it better,” he says. Besides the variety of specials (often five or six a week), Merch’s mark is familiar tavern food with a twist.

The food is from scratch and made fresh. Instead of a basket of onion rings, Tavern 4&5 serves the Tower of Power onion rings, a Leaning Tower of Pisa of deep fried goodness. Lobster mac & cheese is topped with house-made potato chips and served with a shot of beer on the side to bring out its beer cheese base. “It’s an original concept on a simple dish,” he explains.

Merch’s favorite items include a year-round chili mac and his grilled double loin pork chop with house seasoning. Each item is focused on comfort and familiarity, but accented with fresh and diverse ingredients. “My stamp is quality product every day, fresh and creative,” he says.

Items Merch has helped create for the spring menu include chicken sliders, jalapeño fritters, and a watermelon salad with watercress. The striking thing about Tavern 4&5 is the ability to merge everyday tavern staples with more delicate flavors.

From its quiet strip mall exterior, Tavern 4&5 is garnering attention. They were finalists for Rochester Magazine’s Best Restaurant Worth the Drive, in the same category as Minneapolis institutions Fogo De Chao and Manny’s Steakhouse.

Always humble and focused on the job at hand, Merch concludes, “I’m just happy to do what I can.” His influence has created a consistent product, and also a consistently happy kitchen with more than 30 employees. At this point in the conversation, Guistolise cuts in.

“Merch is short-selling something that’s really important,” Guistolise notes. “It’s a lot of work and a lot of discipline. He is a hard working guy, and that work ethic carries through the kitchen. It’s at his core.”