Obituary: Matt Bristol made Matt’s Bar a local icon

  • Article by: JOY POWELL
  • Updated: July 2, 2014 - 9:05 PM

For Matt Bristol, each Jucy Lucy he grilled was a work of art, the molten cheese melted just so between two pancake-size beef patties, and three pickles on the side.

With buns warmed and onions caramelized, he crafted each burger to such perfection that the orders routinely backed up whenever he was cooking.

At Matt’s Bar & Grill — the 3.2-beer joint he bought in 1954 — the burgers became an icon, and so did he.

Bristol died at 89, of nonsmokers lung cancer, on June 26. He never knew that a few hours later, President Obama ate a Jucy Lucy at the landmark eatery that Bristol had owned for 36 years.

“He just had the American dream drive,” said daughter Cheryl Bristol, noting how her father made his niche early on with burgers, especially the Jucy Lucy. “It was back when you worked hard, and that’s what this whole place was about.”

Cheryl Bristol said she found irony in the president’s dining there with a woman who had written to him of economic difficulties and about not really having the American dream anymore.

Her father, Cheryl Bristol said, achieved that dream.

“He lived it; he worked it; he made it happen,” she said.

Bristol grew up in south Minneapolis. His mother emigrated at 21 from Germany without knowing English, and his father was a disabled war veteran.

In 1943, Bristol graduated from Roosevelt High School. At 28, he bought a full restaurant, the Glenwood Cafe, in north Minneapolis. At that time, he was wooing Donna Thompson, whom he’d come to know years earlier at Holy Cross Lutheran Church.

In 1954, they married. A few months later, he sold Glenwood Cafe to buy Nibb’s bar, the joint he’d wanted all along on Cedar Avenue S.

“He opened the bar, and he knew nothing about beer or burgers, but he learned,” spouse Donna Bristol said.

Not long before Matt Bristol bought the bar, a regular patron hankering for something different had asked for two beef patties with a slice of cheese between them.

The old bachelor took one dribbling bite and gushed, “That’s one juicy Lucy!”

Matt Bristol put the burger on the menu in 1954 as the Juicy Lucy. Later, an artist made T-shirts for the bar but misspelled Juicy as Jucy. Unfazed, Matt Bristol wiped the “i” out on a menu board.

In slacks, starched shirt, white apron and baseball cap that read “Matt’s Bar,” he was an attraction for diners who’d spot him behind the small grill or on a bar stool.

A big, impish man, Bristol loved to fish, hunt and tease. “My dad always had a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his face,” Cheryl Bristol said.

Still, he wouldn’t stand for cussing in his “family establishment” nor troublemakers, whom he used to eject.

“He would come in huffing and puffing and pick them up by the seat of their pants and collar,” she said.

Matt Bristol never much changed the dark little tavern, a 1950s throwback with vinyl booths, an old jukebox, metallic wallpaper and two metal ducks on the wall.

“They’ve been on the wall forever,” Cheryl Bristol said. “Somebody stole one of the ducks. He found out who had it, went it over to their house and got it back.”

Cheryl Bristol bought the bar and grill in 1990 and ran it with her dad until Scott Nelson bought it in 1998.

Matt’s Bar has drawn patrons from all walks of life, from sports team owners to blue-collar workers to poets to, just last week, President Obama — a surprise that would have delighted her father, Cheryl Bristol said.

“Leave it to Dad,” she said, “to go out with a bang.”

Bristol was preceded in death by parents Mathew and Barbara Bristol and sister Ruth Pochucha.

Survivors include wife Donna Bristol; children Greg Bristol, Sandra Burg and Cheryl Bristol; six grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.

Services have been held.

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