MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — It is often described as St. Paul’s most famous restaurant: The Lexington on Grand Avenue dates to 1935, and was in danger of being closed forever.
“I was nervous, it might’ve been maybe the biggest challenge of my career,” chef and co-owner Jack Riebel said.
Riebel helmed the kitchen at the Twin Cities’ most critically acclaimed restaurant, the now-closed La Belle Vie. He soared at The Dakota Jazz Club. He helped create and open Butcher & The Boar.
Fear is not something he deals with often.
“I was a little bit awestruck. I grew up the neighborhood but we didn’t come here as a kid. We were the bad neighborhood kids from the other side of Summit,” Riebel said, laughing.
In 2013, The Lexington closed for remodeling, with a mystery surrounding who the new owners would be. It turned out to be a trio of St. Paul natives: Riebel, along with Smack Shack owners Josh Thoma and Kevin Fitzgerald.
“I thought to myself, wow, this is my moment when I come back to St. Paul after 30 years cooking in Minneapolis, and try to revitalize an institution,” Riebel said.
He turned to menus from the 1960s and before for a starting point, but outside of steaks and some basic fish dishes, there wasn’t a ton to go on.
“When you look back at the 1964 menu there were four appetizers. Chicken liver mousse with a sauce I can’t remember the name of, fresh oysters, shrimp cocktail and stuffed mushrooms,” Riebel said.
Today’s version of surf and turf uses Minnesota-raised beef, grilled over Minnesota oak, red oak and maple. The beef is rubbed with a porcini sauce.
As for the surf, it’s Bristol Bay Alaskan King Crab, seasoned with a herb and red onion butter.
“Everything gets a rub or a sauce,” Riebel said.
This dish is emblematic of Riebel’s key challenge:
“How do you continue something that has all of these memories and all of these facets of people’s lives,” Riebel said.
Every dish has those nods to the past but leaps into the future. The French Onion soup has sage and onion jam on the crouton, with melted truffled gouda, and boillon poured tableside.
“We had guests who spent 1948 prom here. And they’re coming back because they want to relive that nostalgia,” Riebel said.
The Lex has several separate dining experiences. You can do white tablecloth dinner in the more formal dining room.
“I wanted to have an elevated level of service, feel more formal. It was the antithesis of what’s happening in the dining scene, but I felt it was an opportunity to recreate something that doesn’t really exist in the Twin Cities anymore,” Riebel said.
Or show up for snacks and drinks at the famous martini bar.
“Where the big shots sit with the sanitation director, you know what I mean,” Riebel said, laughing.
The Williamsburg room used to be private dining, now there is often live music on weekend nights. And in the summer, the rooftop is converted into a tiki bar.
If breathing life into this grand icon once gave Jack pause, it was nothing like the fear he had to face in August of 2019. Riebel had been diagnosed with the same rare form of cancer that killed Steve Jobs. It’s neuroendocrine cancer — unpredictable and uncurable.
“It was an enlighting experience for me to get cancer. You realize in a hurry, you look back and self-reflect. What’s the value of everything I’ve done?” Riebel said.
There is no cure. But his cancer is reduced about 99%. He’s switched from aggressive chemotherapy to a maintenance regimen. And Jack isn’t slowing down in life or at the Lex.
“I just wanted people to know I was grateful,” Riebel said.
Indeed, he is grateful – for the pause and self-reflection, and for the chance to revitalize a hometown icon.
“I think we’re attracting a new clientele and I think Saint Paul is growing up in the restaurant community, it’s great,” Riebel said.
1096 Grand Avenue, Saint Paul, MN