Don't go changing

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June 2, 2003 // UPDATED 10:50 am - April 30, 2007
By: Bob Gilbert
Bob Gilbert

In a town of steak joints with men\'s first names, Murray\'s is the only one that\'s survived 57 years. Pat Murray explains why.

Ask Pat Murray the secret of good cooking and he\'ll tell you without hesitation.

Butter.

It\'s the natural ingredient he melts over his 28-ounce New York Strip Silver Butter Knife steak (a $78 dinner for two) when it emerges from the broiler. It also flavors his signature garlic toast, wrapped delicately in the linen-lined bread basket.

At 62, Murray, owner of Murray\'s Steak House at 26 S. 6th St., is the dean of Minneapolis restaurateurs and the city\'s institutional memory. Murray created a salon where the sports, business and political community celebrated themselves, cut deals and lay future plans for the Mill City with cocktails, fine food and wine.

Nineteen new restaurants have emerged in the heart of Downtown in the past three years. Nick and Tony\'s, Ike\'s and Morton\'s are just a stone\'s throw from Murray\'s front door. Yet Pat Murray is still in business, running the steakhouse that\'s been in its original location since his parents, Arthur and Marie Murray, opened in 1946.

There is a framed testimonial hanging on the wall near the front door. It is an essay Garrison Keillor wrote for Time Magazine in October of 1997 about revered Minneapolis watering holes such as Charlie\'s, Harry\'s and Murray\'s. Of the three, only Murray\'s remains.

Why is that?

Murray said it\'s because he is the only one who kept the business in the family, bringing the third generation of Murrays into the fold. He and his wife Joyce have three of their five kids - sons Tim and Jamie, and daughter Jill - maintaining a dining concept that has worked for 57 years.

\"I think it is one of the great restaurants in the country,\" said Star Tribune columnist Sid Hartman, who boosts Murray\'s almost as much as the local sports teams. \"The food\'s great. And there is a terrific social atmosphere there, too. You get to see who\'s who. If the Yankees come to town, they\'ll eat there. The night before a Vikings game, you\'ll see the opposing team there; when the Gophers play Iowa or Wisconsin you\'ll see a large delegation of their fans there, too.\"

Unlike many \"legendary\" places, there are no pictures on the wall of the rich and the famous who have dined there, but there have been more than a few big names. Recently, Harrison Ford walked in for dinner unannounced. Walter Mondale is a regular. At one time, Hubert H. Humphrey was too.

\"Everyone at City Hall had lunch there in the old days,\" said Councilmember Lisa Goodman (7th Ward), another Murray\'s fan. \"For politicos, his place was the place to go. I think there are still a lot of people like me in the community who have a true appreciation for the history of the city, and Murray\'s is a part of that.\"

After more than a half-century, the old Minneapolis Murray remembers is very different from the modern incarnation that the city\'s more recent transplants know. The stories Murray tells harken back to a time when Minneapolis was the nation\'s best-kept secret, a self-contained fiefdom, a city whose inclement weather kept out the riff-raff, an island in the middle of the prairie 500 miles away from Chicago with a culture and a way of life all its own.

History lesson

Murray, an only child, started out as his father\'s dishwasher as a high school student in 1956. He confessed that once the restaurant business gets into your blood, it\'s hard to get it out. \"It\'s a people business and you have to like taking care of people. Plus there is that adrenaline rush. I like the action.\"

Back in Murray\'s early days, Minneapolis was a one-story town where businesses were right at street level, and all of it was locally owned. Dayton\'s Department Store was the fashion leader. The Nicollet, The Curtis, The Leamington and The Normandy were its leading hotels. It was long before skyways, the IDS Tower, the Vikings, the Twins, the Metrodome and the Minneapolis Convention Center put the city on America\'s cultural map. It was before the big national chain stores and franchises discovered a well-educated, prosperous populace. It was run by several powerful families like the Daytons, the Crosbys, the Pillsburys and the Cowles.

Arthur Murray played right into the family-centric scene. Norm McGrew, former Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce executive, remembers that the back door of his office was right across the alley from Murray\'s back door, and he\'d often slip in for a noon lunch.

\"Pat is very good, as his father was, at meeting the public,\" said the 83-year-old McGrew. \"I really enjoy the atmosphere. Professional and business people flocked there. It was a place to see and be seen. Not only because of the food but because it was so handy right in the middle of everything. I have enjoyed every minute that I have ever been there. Now that I am retired, I miss it.\"

Says Murray, \"It was easy to be a follower in those days, because those root families had high civic pride, supported the arts and contributed greatly to the success of the community. They had a vision and a sense of community that made it the city it is today.\"

More than his competitors, Murray played to red-meat sports personalities who would push Minneapolis - symbolically at least - into the big leagues.

Hartman has been dining at Murray\'s for almost 40 years. He knew Art Murray very well and remembered him as a big sports fan whose restaurant was the place where the Minutemen - a group of local businessmen who sold bonds to build stadiums to lure sports teams - hatched their plans.

McGrew was one of the \"Minutemen.\" Table number five belongs to him; table number two belongs to Hartman - and they have plaques beside them to prove it.

When dining there Hartman likes the Silver Butter Knife steak-medium well. Getting his own table at the restaurant a decade ago was a nice compliment, he said.

The Butter Knife name

Restaurants are one of the first things people cut out of their budget in tough economic times. Murray admits that business is a little soft right now, plagued by 9/11, which cut business travel, as well as the sluggish stock market, the war in Iraq and that fewer people who like coming Downtown anymore. He said the one thing that is saving restaurants right now is the Minneapolis Convention Center - which he calls his lifeblood during the week.

Tim Murray, Pat and Joyce\'s oldest child, said the family learned the hard way that changing was the wrong way to deal with changing times.

\"The menu changed a few years ago to more contemporary items, but we found that that was not what people expected or wanted from Murray\'s,\" said Tim Murray, a 19-year veteran who is now general manager of the restaurant. \"Murray\'s has pretty much been an American restaurant that specializes in meat and potatoes. After trying to serve some new upscale dishes, we decided to return to what we know has been good for us and got us here in the first place.\"

On a Saturday night, 85 percent of Murray\'s customers still order steak, and the Silver Butter Knife steak has been the signature dish since 1956.

The trademark started with a man named Maurice Dreicer, a self-proclaimed gourmet who wrote a 1955 book called \"The Diner\'s Companion: A Guide to the Fine Art of Dining Out.\"

According to Pat Murray, Dreicer was a multi-millionaire jet-setter who lived in the Canary Islands and traveled around the world attending big showcase events like the Kentucky Derby and the Rose Bowl.

\"When he found a steak that he felt was a perfect steak, he would give the restaurant a silver butter knife,\" said Murray. \"He had given out 390 silver butter knives around the world and 19 gold butter knives. We also earned a gold butter knife for our four-pound porterhouse steak (now $120). My dad made it our trademark. He promoted it, and I continued it.\"

Pat Murray\'s mother, Marie, was old-school, he says - which explains why the restaurant\'s wait staff was exclusively female until about 1980. Marie didn\'t hire male waiters or young girls. When she ran the dining room, the archetype Murray\'s server had some size to her, was strong, moved with speed and had a good personality. Marie was stickler for detail, too. Waitresses served from the left and removed from the right.

Arthur Murray, however, was not afraid to innovate. He had the patent on the first insulated plastic coffee pot - which his servers still pour tableside - and the first insulated steak platter. Today, Murray and his other two children, Tina and Megan, and Megan\'s husband Mark Blohowiak, run a restaurant supply company, Service Ideas Inc., featuring those items and dozens of others.

They do business all over the world, and supplies are now a larger business than the restaurant. The company is headquartered in Woodbury, where Pat Murray usually spends the day before coming Downtown to be at the restaurant through the dinner hour.

\"Having my dad and granddad before me really helped,\" said Tim Murray. \"I\'d hate to have to start out today without that history. Having them blaze the trail for me has made it easier. But there is also a lot of pressure because there is a reputation to live up to. I like that legacy and I intend to do every bit as well as they did with it.\"