PHOTO BY WILL CONLEY / WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
There wasn’t ever a “Liquor Lyle,” or at least Lyle never seems to have given himself that honorific.
“Lyle” — just Lyle — was Lyle W. Dorrian, who in 1963 moved his establishment Lyle’s Bar from 1011 4th Ave. S. to its current (and potentially final) location at Hennepin and Franklin. Dorrian’s bars had meandered across town since the 1930s, staying just ahead of the wrecking ball. His first was the Emerald Club on Franklin Avenue, perhaps named as a joke after the august Irish fraternal organization, in reference to its Irish working class clientele. That bar was condemned in the redevelopment of Franklin and Cedar the early 1950s. Following that, Lyle moved to its location on 4th Avenue, rechristening the place Lyle’s Bar. Like a lot of downtown bar owners in the early 1960s, development drove him out again — the bar was located at what’s now the on-ramp to southbound I-35W, right by the Francis Drake Hotel on the outskirts of downtown. The spot he chose for his third location was a quarter century-old windowless commercial building at 2021 Hennepin Avenue, where it’s been for nearly sixty years.
Lyle’s new neighbors threw a fit. Seventy-five Lowry Hill business owners crowded into Hennepin Avenue Methodist Church in September 1962 to yell at the city councilman about the transfer of the license. (Some of the grandchildren of those business owners are likely yelling now about the bar’s closure.) Transfers of liquor licenses were dicey and profitable businesses in those days. Lyle was well-known in the community, though, as both a bar owner and a pro sports booster, and he got his license transfer. He later served on the Metropolitan Area Sports Commission, and was key in the push to build Met Stadium in Bloomington. If you ever sat in Lyle’s watching a Vikings game, know Lyle had something to do with that. “Watching sports is one of the finest things a non-athlete can do,” he once opined. This was, in fact, occasion for one of the greatest corrections in the history of the StarTribune: a 1990s-era article solemnly reported that the bar was so spartan that it had no TVs, followed the next day by an apologetic note clarifying that the owners had been in touch, and actually, they had eleven TVs.
Lyle sold the place in the late 1970s, along with the name. The new owners, partners Russell Spence, Ken Meshbesher, and Ron Meshbesher, took a hands-off attitude about changes to the place that continued for the next few decades. There were only two changes instituted: 2-for-1s were introduced for the first time (some say anywhere in south Minneapolis), and the red vinyl booths were brought in from another doomed bar, Annie’s Parlor at the top of the old Sheraton-Ritz downtown. Both of those remained a part of the experience until Lyle’s closed down about a year ago in the early days of the pandemic.
The secret to Liquor Lyle’s success was a stubborn unwillingness to change. Maybe that’s why it was a shock when the original neon was replaced to some consternation in the early 2000s with the current purple and yellow signage on the Hennepin side (which, from the perspective of 2021, already looks sixty years old). It’s a quirk of neon signage that the place became known as “Liquor Lyle’s,” a name that doesn’t seem to have appeared in print until the 1990s, but in use colloquially long before. LIQUORS, said the old neon. LYLE’S, said the other sign, and so therefore: Liquor Lyle’s. It takes an out-of-towner, maybe, to appreciate the weirdness of that name. Who calls himself “Liquor Lyle”? This Lyle is…like, a liquor guy?
Even the lowest dive bars reveal something interesting about the flow of money, influence and power through a city. This flow was made a lot more explicit back in the days when liquor licenses were traded more brazenly, but that exchange of influence and capital is always there, even in recent times. There’s been something wonderful about seeing people learn on social media that Ron Meshbesher — yep, the famous attorney! — was one of the partners in Lyle’s since the 1970s, until his death in 2018. How could a place as unpretentious as Liquor Lyle’s, the place that Slug wrote a song about and where you got in that major fight with your college boy- or girlfriend that one night, have been sold by a major Vikings backer to the best-known personal injury attorney in the state? It’s just one of those mysteries of capital.
It’s why the speculation about the potential sale of the place has been met not with the feeling that it’s a new chapter for an established and beloved brand, but more like a death knell for a dying way of life. Rich people with diversified real estate and investment portfolios aren’t really buying up bars anymore. It’s certainly possible Liquor Lyle’s will be snapped up and continue to serve 2-for-1s in Lowry Hill. However, it seems more likely that the ghostly memory of Liquor Lyle will vacate the premises and ascend through the expensive air rights above Hennepin Avenue directly to that great last call in the sky, where he will meet for a brandy old-fashioned with his erstwhile crosstown colleague Al Nye.
Most people have a Lyle’s story; if you search Twitter, you’ll find countless reminiscences from the verified and unverified alike. Look, seriously, go read those first (or better yet, the oral history that Chris Clayton put together for MinnPost a few years ago). Mine is a lot less interesting than most, but just as telling as some of them: it’s from when I had just moved to town, in 2005, and the only person I knew was a former co-worker’s brother. He took pity on me and brought me along with his friends for a night out in Uptown, a neighborhood that seemed then (as now) largely populated by young people who’d also arrived recently from the least glamorous small towns and suburban developments in the seventeen-hundred mile stretch of the Midwest between the Missouri and Ohio Rivers.
“What beer do people drink here?” I asked, sitting down and looking at the beer list, referring as much to Liquor Lyle’s as Minneapolis generally.
“That one,” he said, pointing to Grain Belt Premium sign on the wall.
“No, no, no,” he corrected. “Never Grain Belt. Premium. Or Premo.”
So I went up the bar, and asked for a Premo. Shit, man, I probably thought. I sound like a local! And there you go. I guess I was.
Again, a small thing, but that was more or less my baptism into Twin Cities bar culture. A place like Liquor Lyle’s is a place where you become a local, just by showing up.
Liquor Lyle opened his bar in the very early 1930s, when the saloon industry was finally crawling back after thirteen years of Prohibition, a period kicked off by World War I and another global pandemic that killed more than a half-million Americans. Not many bars in Minneapolis (St. Paul, as you know, is a different story) trace a lineage back that directly to the 21st Amendment.
You study the history of bars in the Twin Cities, or at least hear about it from the old folks sitting on the stool next to you, and you know that the local saloon industry has had wild cataclysms of public health, morality and real estate development befall it in the past, including at least one actual pandemic. And you know the whole thing somehow crawls back in some form, like a hungover patron that got the boot the night before, looking for their credit card the following afternoon. Maybe that’s so, but it sure doesn’t make it hurt any less to watch a place like Liquor Lyle’s go down.
Special thanks to Bill Lindeke