Makeover won't take away Murray's charm

  • Article by: RICK NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 22, 2012 - 2:12 PM

Patrons will recognize familiar elements -- and some new surprises -- when Murray's reopens next month.

Photo: Rick Nelson, Star Tribune

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The dust is flying at Murray's (26 S. 6th St., Mpls., www.murrays restaurant.com)

A busy squadron of construction workers descended upon the 66-year-old landmark earlier this month, performing some serious miracles to accommodate a tight six-week schedule. Despite the dust and noise, it was a relief to see that Murray's was still recognizably Murray's.

"We want to preserve the Murray's DNA," said architect David Shea of Shea Inc., the Minneapolis design firm behind the renovation. "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 reopens 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.

One element that won't change is the familiar 6th Street exterior, although its distinctive blend of aquamarine porcelain panels, warm beige Minnesota limestone and attention-grabbing neon is getting a much needed buff and shine.

But step inside the front door, and Murray's 2.0 appears to be 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.

A reorganized and roomier lobby will feature a gallery devoted to nostalgic photographs illustrating Murray's illustrious past, and a showy wine case will separate 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. The space has been gutted, and 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 and ceramic tile floor that predates Murray's 1946 tenancy (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.

The dining room, familiar to countless Minnesotans, has been squeezed to accommodate a pair of side-by-side private dining rooms.

Regulars will be pleased to learn that the dining room's distinctive wall of mirrors has been preserved, along with the enormous hand-forged wrought iron chandeliers and candelabra. The retro ceiling, framed by serpentine soffits and composed of square perforated tiles, is also remaining. But don't expect to find swag draperies (decorator relics from the previous remodeling) or the inelegant (and, it must be said, uncomfortable) stackable banquet chairs. They've left the building, for good.

As for the fate of the clown paintings -- and anyone who has ever dined at Murray's has the sight of those three canvases permanently etched into their cortex -- not to worry.

"They were original to the restaurant, and of course we're keeping them," said Shea.

The dining room also had tables dedicated to two longtime friends of the house: Star Tribune sportswriter Sid Hartman and semi-retired Strib columnist Barbara Flanagan. "We saved the plaques, and we'll reinstall 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."

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