The dust is flying at Murray’s.
I breathed some of it in on Thursday morning, during a tour led by architect David Shea of Shea Inc. A busy squadron of workers from Zeman Construction Co. descended upon the 66-year-old landmark earlier this month, and they’re performing some serious miracles to accommodate a tight six-week schedule. Despite the construction-zone surroundings, it was a relief to see that Murray’s was still recognizably Murray’s.
“We want to preserve the Murray’s DNA,” said Shea. “The goal is to bring in the next generation of customers. For that you need to innovate, although at the same time you can’t throw out the things that made the place great.”
Naturally, that would include the signature Silver Butter Knife Steak, and the famous garlic toast, among other sacrosanct dishes. Still, when the restaurant re-opens in mid-September, the menu won’t be preserved in amber. Plans include inserting a lighter touch into lunch and adding a casual bar menu, a strategy to target audiences beyond the customers who view the restaurant as a once-a-year destination.
“You can’t make a go of it by catering to the people who only come in on their anniversary,” said Shea.
From what I saw, Murray’s 2.0 is on its way to becoming a better version of itself, as if it the old gal took up Pilates, splurged on a new wardrobe and maybe even picked up a younger husband.
One element that won’t change is the familiar 6th St. exterior, although its distinctive blend of mint green porcelain panels, warm beige Minnesota limestone and attention-grabbing neon is getting a much-needed buff and shine.
But the plastic surgery -- this makeover isn't extreme, but it's more than a few Botox injections -- starts right inside the front door. A reorganized and roomier lobby will feature a gallery devoted to nostalgic photographs illustrating Murray’s illustrious past. A cutout in the lobby’s rear wall will give guests a glimpse into the previously cloistered dining room. Another first: A showy wine case, separating the lobby from the reconfigured bar.
“Murray’s has always had an impressive wine collection,” said Shea. “But it has always been kept out of sight.”
The former bar, a forgettable vestige of the smoking era, always seemed more suited to a suburban Holiday Inn than an iconic downtown steakhouse. No more. Although the square footage remains the same, the new bar is going to look completely different, and hopefully act that way, too, with an animated three-sided bar (topped in gleaming walnut, a request of the late Pat Murray, who died in July) surrounded by banquettes and booths.
Demolition revealed a find: a decorative terrazzo floor, trimmed with tiny ceramic tile that pre-date Murray’s mid-century ownership (Shea estimates that the building dates to 1900). The plan is to restore as much as possible, then fill in the missing pieces with concrete.
“It’s going to give the space an authenticity that we could never replicate,” said Shea.
A second wine display case will greet guests as the enter the dining room. The second change they'll notice is fairly significant: the space, familiar to countless Minnesotans, has been squeezed to accommodate a side-by-side pair of private dining rooms.
The smaller dining room has its advantages. On slow nights, it always felt too big, and too empty. In its new configuration, the newly compressed space -- which has slimmed from a sort-of square into a rectangle -- has the potential to become a much more pleasing people-watching platform. The bottom line should benefit, too, since Murray's will now have the revenue-generating private dining venue it has always lacked.
Regulars will be pleased to learn that the dining room’s distinctive wall of mirrors is staying, as are the enormous hand-forged wrought iron chandeliers and candelabras. The retro ceiling, framed by serpentine soffits and composed of square perforated tiles -- Shea and his staff had to sleuth around to find enough replacements to fill in the gaps -- is also remaining.
Another holdover is the overall brown-and-beige color scheme, although it’s being slightly tweaked with a few discreet pops of vintage-sensitive colors. But don’t expect to find swag draperies (decorator relics from the last remodel), or the inelegant (and, it must be said, uncomfortable) stackable banquet chairs. They’ve left the building, for good, along with the small and relatively unused stage, which is being replaced by a large banquette.
As for the fate of the clown paintings -- and anyone who has ever dined at Murray’s has the sight of those three canvasses permanently embedded into their cortex -- not to worry.
“They were original to the restaurant, and of course we’re keeping them,” said Shea. “They’re going into the bar.”
The dining room also had tables dedicated to two longtime friends of the house: Star Tribune sports writer Sid Hartman, and retired Strib columnist Barbara Flanagan. “We saved the plaques, and we’ll re-install them,” said Shea.
So far, so good, right?
“The essence of Murray’s will remain,” said Shea. “What we’re doing is transformative, but past customers are still going to be able to say that it’s still Murray’s.”