The Loring Bar & Restaurant is a bit like the mythical phoenix, the glorious bird that, after a long life, bursts into flame, only to rise triumphantly from its own ashes, reborn again.
After a 16-year run that made the space’s previous incarnation, the Loring Pasta Bar, an indispensable fixture of Dinkytown, last summer saw an abrupt changing of the guard. Owner Jason McLean was out, and the longtime management team took the reins. Ten days later, the restaurant’s doors flew open under a new name: LRx: Loring & Pharmacy Bar, an homage to the building’s long-running, much-loved 20th-century tenant, Gray’s Campus Drug. After receiving a stern letter of legalese from a national pharmacy organization—apparently a business must be an actual pharmacy to use “Rx” or “pharmacy”—it’s Loring Bar & Restaurant.
“We became a sovereign entity,” says Joe Henkin, a 14-year veteran of both the Loring and the Varsity Theater, another venue formerly owned by the embattled McLean. (The short version of that scandal: McLean was ordered to pay $2.5 million in a suit accusing him of sexual abuse in the 1980s. He’s rumored to be on the lam, perhaps in Mexico, and you’re more likely to spot him on a revival episode of Dog the Bounty Hunter than at the restaurant.)
The paradox of the new Loring is that it will make two very distinct groups quite happy. The loyal regulars who have been coming for the fabulous happy hours, dinner dates, and Sunday tango nights will find the whimsical interior and the fresh pasta- and seafood-driven menu much the same. The would-be patrons who shied away during last summer’s shakeup, unsure who was running the show, should find assurance, and even inspiration, in this “staff owned and operated restaurant,” a concept that’s about as progressive and democratic as dining can get.
“It’s nice working with your owners instead of just for them,” says Levi Rickenbach, an Ashton Kutcher-esque server who says it isn’t uncommon to see management working the front of the house, seating guests and serving tables.
In a world where corporate execs present market-researched menu concepts during Powerpoint presentations in office parks, and where figurehead celeb chefs make occasional appearances at their three-figure tasting menu showpieces, there’s something inordinately satisfying about eating a meal cooked by a chef who’s a co-owner, in a dining room run by a manager who’s also a co-owner, while listening to live music curated by another co-owner. Oh, and bonus points for the fact they’ve been working as a team for a decade and a half—16 years for executive chef Pablo Jesus Palchizaca, known by his coworkers as P.J.
“Sixteen years-—that’s since day one,” says Lynn Nyman, one-fourth of the owner-manager quadrumvirate. But it’s Nyman—tall and elegant with a winsome streak of white framing her dark curls—who claims the longest history here. She ran the front of house for the original Loring Cafe, a fabled bar and restaurant smack on Loring Park crammed with Guthrie actors and patrons fresh from curtain call. (Until 2006, the Guthrie sat adjacent to the Walker Art Center.)
How many restaurants in town can brag of keeping the same executive chef for six years, much less 16? After the Twitterstorm announcement of a new chef dies down, it can be only months before a new one erupts, announcing their selfsame departure.
That number, 16, feels something like a challenge, one that fell somewhat unfairly upon the artichoke ramekin that kicked off a recent Tuesday night dinner.
I have always found baked artichoke dips—the cheesy, creamy kind that sometimes feature spinach and sometimes don’t—to be the Bermuda Triangle of starters. You may venture in under calm skies and steely nerve, but once you hit the middle, you’re lost in a sea of goopy white sauce, sending off SOS signals with no way back to your appetite. My doubt endured even as the affable waiter recommended it. “It’s our signature appetizer,” he assured me.
Perhaps it takes 16 years to perfect the kind of recipe that most restaurants fail at. In any case, Palchizaca’s version—full of meaty artichokes and piquant cheeses and flecked with red pepper—is as perfect as any you’ll ever slather onto buttery slices of baguette. “This is the artichoke dip I wish all artichoke dips could be,” my friend sighed with equal parts lust and admiration.
It’s important that the starters work in a place like this, where a long happy hour with cheap drinks (3 p.m. to 7 p.m.) takes center stage, pulling in an eclectic Dinkytown mix of students, university staff, and neighborhood locals.
“We have a lot of regulars. It’s still student-friendly. There’s still live music and a good happy hour,” Palchizaca says. His smile widens, as he adds, “But now I have the chance to be more creative.”
The chef’s joie de vivre was evident in our dinner entrees. The nightly special was a rather motley crew of shrimp tempura, scallops, and smoked salmon arranged on a bed of mashed potatoes with a rich—possibly too rich—lobster sauce. I wasn’t entirely sure that the shrimp tempura went with the potatoes, but I also didn’t care: It was fun to look as well as to eat, with a kind of unrestrained sense of decadence I’ve missed in recent dinners out. Lobster sauce on mashed potatoes? Send me some champagne, please, even though it’s Tuesday!
What about the pasta? Palchizaca’s been making and cooking the stuff longer than some of his clientele have been boiling water, and it shows, especially in house-made pastas like the goat cheese ravioli and the fettuccine carbonara. Normally, I’m not a seafood pasta girl—the sin of overcooking either is severe enough on its own, and together it can be deadly—but I’d already noticed on a recent lunch visit that the chef is serious about his al dente, even in the lunchtime minestrone soup. I was surprised to find myself making a mental note to come back and order the dish again, with its pitch-perfect linguine and seared seafood swimming in a light saffron cream sauce.
As Dan Newton’s Cafe Accordion Orchestra, a Tuesday night mainstay, broke down their set, we wandered leisurely around the newly revamped performance spaces, which feel like a cabaret club in pre-war Prague. Passing through the bar’s elaborate glow into the vast dining room, you’ll feel a flash of relief: Nothing much, at least visually, has changed. No temporary, misguided notions of 21st-century aesthetics blight the wrought-iron staircases, devouring its soaring ceilings. The funky grandeur of this longtime establishment—a cross between the lavish set of a Prince music video, the Baroque living room of an iconoclastic Parisian grande dame, and one of Budapest’s legendary ruin bars—is blissfully intact.
The music and entertainment programming is almost dizzyingly diverse, and that’s intentional, explains Joe Henkin, who curates the creative side. You’ll find rap artists on Monday nights, comedy on Wednesdays, salsa dancing on Fridays, and plenty of DJs playing stuff you’ve probably never heard in between. If the performance calendar embodies a sense of spontaneity and genre-resisting eclecticism, like the anything-goes coffeehouses of the bygone Beat era, the building may serve as inspiration. Bob Dylan, who first discovered, and then performed, folk music in Dinkytown coffeehouses, lived here circa 1960, in a second-story apartment just above Gray’s Campus Drug.
Artichoke nirvana and ghosts of Dylan aside, the time to leave eventually arrives. You can’t help but hesitate for a moment before you break the spell of this building’s tumble-down elegance: winding staircases disappearing into shadows and colored lights playing tricks on the gilded mirrors. Going back onto the street feels a little like boarding the steam train departing Hogwarts, or leaving Narnia through the wardrobe door. If there’s any magic at work at the Loring these days, it’s the good kind.
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Loring Bar & Restaurant
327 14th Ave. SE, Minneapolis