Photographs by Caitlin Abrams
The bar at the Lexington
Was there better click-bait for local food media in recent years than The Lexington? The St. Paul institution closed in 2013 and was bought by chef Jack Riebel and Smack Shack owners Josh Thoma and Kevin Fitzgerald. The subsequent mystery surrounding its delays and the shadowy details that leaked out here and there caused a fervor among those holding out for its return. Now that it’s back, what is it about that giant, square, windowless box on the corner of Grand and Lexington that makes people so excited?
Opened in 1935, it was always a place to be seen. It’s hosted Capitol movers and shakers, land owners, and old St. Paul families who’ve used it as a clubhouse for generations. In the 1950s came The Williamsburg Room, a side lounge meant to mimic the hull of a luxury oceanliner. Other restaurants can compare in longevity and iconic reputation, but none seem to carry the personal histories that The Lex does. That’s the thing that I think sets it apart: the stories.
During a private event of supporters in the new digs, I listened to Samuel L. Kaplan, former U.S. ambassador to Morocco, talk about growing up just a few blocks from the place. I heard Linda and Peter Quinn, owners of Café Latté, wax on about bringing their kids there over the years. But it’s not just the notables. My friend Katie talks about visiting her grandparents in the neighborhood and walking up to the restaurant for ice cream floats that the family put on its house account. A man told me that when his mother came to this country from Russia, she spent her first paycheck on a bowl of soup at The Lex so that she could feel like an American. Another lady credited the place for keeping her marriage of more than 50 years going. She used to hunker down at the bar after work for one glass of wine before going home.
The Lexington meant something to the people of the neighborhood and city long before restaurants were considered important. Restaurants are made of people. Not just of staff, but also all those loyal patrons. I’m fascinated to see what The Lex means to the next generation of diners.