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Sneak peek at remodeled Lexington as it readies for reopening

The next era at The Lexington, a historic restaurant in St. Paul’s Summit Hill, is about to begin.

Nearly three years after buying the space, owner Josh Thoma (Smack Shack) and chef Jack Riebel, (formerly of Butcher & the Boar) will open the doors to the long-awaited remake next month.

When Thoma and Riebel bought the place in April 2014, they figured it would be a standard turnaround. Then, they realized, there were 17 critical fire violations, asbestos in the ceiling and no certificate of occupancy for the restaurant.

Five and a half million dollars later, they’re finally ready to usher in customers.

The Lexington started taking reservations on Monday (Jan. 23) and booked up the first six days in less than an hour, Thoma said.

“Everything is new, from the electrical, the plumbing, structural, ventilation, lighting,” Thoma said. “It was almost like finding a Ferrari in a barn state and having to restore it from the frame up.”

The result is a crisply new, but classic take, on the supper club that originally opened in 1935 and will see its second debut on Feb. 9. While nearly everything had to be replaced, much of the original charm of the Lexington remains, which closed June 2013. The carved wood paneling that serves as walls in the 100-seat dining area has been refinished and much of the original artwork from the late 1800s and the early 1900s, restored. The bronze chandeliers were redone with new crystals and lighting. And the nostalgic feeling of an era passed is firmly in tact.

Leather abounds, along with some remade banquettes in bright blue, pink and army-green hues. Carpeting remains throughout the two dining rooms (one of which features a pair of large paned windows into the kitchen) and lounge, with the exception of the 40-seat bar area, which has been tiled. Around the corner in a 60-seat lounge area they're calling the Williamsburg room is another full bar, along with a grand piano – which will have a movable, make-shift bar around it on some nights – and a fireplace. Everything has the look of being solid and heavy, from the doors to the stools to the brass mirrors on the walls.

As for the exterior? Outside a fresh coat of paint, that iconic facade is staying.

Riebel’s menu, however, is still being kept close to the vest with staff saying only that the chef is “bringing back some classics, but elevating them.” A couple hints: Signs point to the popular popovers returning, and pot pies and the famous Lex salad – an iceberg lettuce concoction with a signature dressing – could make a comeback, in a new way.

Bartenders will churn out updated classic cocktails – the Lexington is calling them “tipples” – such as Vesper martinis, Gin Collins and a host of Old Fashioned preparations (Wisconsin-style with brandy, island-style with rum and lime, Jalisco-style with tequila and flamed orange, among others). There’s also a tiki section – think a jazzed up Singapore Sling – and a Moscow Mule and brandy sour on tap.

Eventually, the Lexington will be adding lunch and brunch services – as well as a rooftop patio in the summer time – but for now they’re sticking with dinner as well as a “social hour” from 3 to 5 p.m.

Our food critic taste-tested McDonald's new Big Macs – and lived to tell the tale

The burger: It was a first for me. Last weekend, instead of immediately tossing it into the recycling bin with the rest of the circulars, I set Parade magazine aside and later read it, cover to cover.

Parade? Yes, the celebrity-heavy magazine that’s included in the Sunday edition of the newspaper where I am employed. As it turns out, the timing was fortuitous, because the magazine had a feature-ette on the McDonald’s Big Mac.

Here’s the news peg: McDonald’s offers three versions of the Big Mac, and chose this week to roll out the new initiative on a nationwide basis.

Not to worry, the tried-and-true Big Mac will remain untouched. It now lands in the middle of a tripartite Big Mac growth curve. On the slimmer side there’s the Mac Jr., which features a 1/6 lb. patty, and arrives minus the extra layer of bread (it's pictured, below). On the heftier end, there’s the Grand Mac, a gluttony-inducing monster that features two 1/6-lb. patties and a plus-size bun. (For comparison’s sake, the plain-old Big Mac is a pair of 1/10-lb. patties).

Propelled by that fascinating information, I headed to the McDonald’s closest to my home. I don’t recall the last time I tasted a McDonald’s burger of any stripe, but I’m guessing that probably 20 years, or more, have lapsed. (That doesn’t mean that I don’t occasionally drop in McDonald’s, because I do; see Fries, below, and don't make me confess to the number of Egg McMuffins I've consumed in my lifetime). Bottom line: a person can do so much better than a Big Mac. And people deserve better.

That’s not to say that there aren’t reasons to marvel at the company, which operates somewhere around 14,000 outlets just in the U.S. alone. Here's one plus: plenty of gifted chefs got their starts at McDonald's, including Mike DeCamp at Monello and Stewart Woodman at Lela.

The young crew behind the counter couldn’t have been more friendly. Super-helpful, too; for a company that seemingly has every marketing detail nailed down, and then some, it was weird to scan the menu and not find the words “Mac Jr.” and “Grand Mac.” I had to ask.

My order arrived in two minutes, as promised. The dining room – which had all the charm of a prison cafeteria, and was lit accordingly -- was spotless. I was shocked (in a good way) at the tab, too; a Jr., a Grand, a small order of fries and a chocolate shake added up to around $12. That represented a lot of food for just twelve bucks. Although does size matter when, after a bite or two, I didn’t want to continue eating? (Except for the fries; see Fries, below).

Here’s the thing: the burgers looked good. McDonald’s obviously figured out a long time ago that we eat first with our eyes. And the idea of a Big Mac is genius, because its combination of beef, bread, lettuce, pickles, onions, a creamy sauce and gooey American cheese is fairly unbeatable.

But, ick. The thin, rubbery, insipid patties tasted of nothing but sodium, and were lukewarm at best. I could see evidence of char from the grill, but did my taste buds detect it? Nope.

The sauce was little more than a big blast of sugar, aka high fructose corn syrup. From the looks of it, the sesame seed-flecked bun had been toasted -- the inside surfaces bore browned traces -- but it was spongy and dry, and the bun-to-beef ratio was way, way, way out of whack.

But it looked good! That's all that counts! A major disappointment was finding that McDonald's is losing at its pickles game. Hello, it’s not so complicated, making a good pickle. Besides, a good pickle can be a burger’s saving grace, and if the Big Mac -- Jr., Original Recipe or el Grande -- is lacking something, it's a saving grace. Come on, McDonald's, try harder. Profits are up. Spend some of that dough on pickles, and the investment will pay off.

Three bites in and contemplating my upcoming stomach ache, I began to consider what the Big Mac doesn’t have -- ingredients-wise, anyway -- and that’s tomatoes. It’s wise that the Big Mac has never relied upon tomato slices, because why subject your customers – and your worldwide reputation – to the vagaries of production on a fruit that, let’s face it, really only should be consumed during the short mid- to late-summer stretch on the calendar that coincides with peak tomato season. Tomatoes are a primary component in the Whopper, and it dawned upon me that that's maybe why McDonald's has always dominated Burger King in the Burger Wars.

Long story short, I couldn't get out of there fast enough. The burger was as fake-tasting as the dreadful soft-serve shake, which was contemptuously labeled “chocolate” but was anything but. Really, McDonald’s, this is the best you can do?

And this is not a condemnation of all fast-food burgers. Far from it. My Burger, the locally owned quick-service burger chain, doesn’t offer a version of a Big Mac. Still, I’d much rather stick with its "double Original” burger, and forgo the slight differences. Yes, there's a price to pay. At roughly $9, the "double Original" runs slightly less than twice the cost of a Grand Mac, although My Burger throws in a generous handful of fries. Really good fries. Besides, the world does not revolve around Special Sauce.

Price: $2.19 (Mac Jr.) and $4.79 (Grand Mac).

Fries: Extra ($1.49), and fantastic, the ideal confluence of crisp, piping hot, salty and inexpensive. They’re the French fries standard that all other fast-fooders are measured against. If I had complaint, it’s that they were slightly undercooked. But that’s a minor one.  

Instagram goes crazy: I love how Saint Dinette chef Adam Eaton goes deep into fast-food homage mode with his “Mac Daddy.” It’s a dead ringer for the Big Mac (only, I imagine, far more delicious, given that Eaton is the grillmaster behind one of the Twin Cities’ most epic cheeseburgers), and I love how it becomes a social media starlet the moment it becomes available, which is 9 p.m. on Saturday evenings. The bar will toss in a Hamm’s for an additional two bucks. My next free Saturday night? I’m so there. To reiterate: the Mac Daddy is available Saturday nights after 9 p.m., only.

At the movies: The story of Ray Kroc, the man who took the McDonald’s name and franchised it around the world, is told in “The Founder.” Michael Keaton plays Kroc. The film opens in the Twin Cities on Jan. 20; read my colleague Colin Covert's 3 1/2 star review here. Another source for details into the company’s early days is “Ray & Joan: The Man Who Made the McDonald’s Fortune and the Woman Who Gave It All Away,” author Lisa Napoli’s recently released biography of Kroc and his second wife (and West St. Paul native) Joan. The couple met while Joan worked at the Criterion in St. Paul, and Ray was a frequent customer.

More history: The Big Mac was not created at McDonald's institution of higher learning, Hamburger University. It was introduced on April 22, 1967 in Uniontown, Penn., the invention of a western Pennsylvania Golden Arches franchise owner named Michael James Delligati.

Delligati died in late November at the age of 98, and his obituary (written by former New York Times restaurant critic William Grimes) is fascinating

Anyone who grew up in the 1970s and watched television will be able to recall the earworm-inducing advertising campaign that listed the burger’s components: “two all-beef patties, Special Sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame-seed bun.”

The Big Mac was an instantaneous smash (original price: 45 cents). Within a year the sandwich was featured on the menu at every McDonald’s, and by 1969 it accounted for 19 percent of the company’s total sales. Today, McDonald’s sells about 550 million Big Macs each year just in the United States, and hundreds of millions more overseas.

Mr. Delligati is also responsible for introducing the Hotcakes and Sausage breakfast meal to the chain. And in case you're wondering, yes, there is a Big Mac Museum. (And if you want to recreate Special Sauce at home, here's a tutorial). 

As the creator of what is arguably the most famous burger in history, Mr. Delligati surely cleaned up financially, right? Nope. The company expressed its everlasting gratitude with a plaque.

Address book: Find the nearest McDonald’s here.

Talk to me: Do you have a favorite burger? Share the details at rick.nelson@startribune.com.

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