Welcome back to “Five Things,” Racket’s recurring rundown of new, new-to-us, or otherwise notable Twin Cities restaurants.
Today we’re taking you inside Gray’s—a newish Dinkytown restaurant that’s also… not so new at all! Open since December, Gray’s is the latest iteration of the Loring, that storied pasta destination that opened more than two decades ago.
5. First, a quick history lesson.
The Loring’s story is the stuff of Lifetime Original Movies. It begins back in 2001, when owner Jason McLean opened a restaurant over by Loring Park (you’ll notice it wasn’t called “The Dinky”). It was only there briefly, until a dispute with their landlord—one that culminated in a block party complete with a landlord effigy—forced a move to Dinkytown, around the corner from the Varsity Theater, which McLean also owned. There, it became the Loring Pasta Bar.
Then, beginning in 2015, five women came forward and accused McLean of sexually abusing them while he was their acting teacher at the Children’s Theater Company. McLean fled to Mexico and resurfaced in California in 2019. Here in Minneapolis, the Loring Pasta Bar chugged along under new ownership—who laid off the entire staff and abruptly closed the place in August 2017. A week later, the restaurant reopened under staff ownership with a new name: Loring Bar & Restaurant.
4. After a rebrand, you get Gray’s.
Take the effigies, address changes, assault allegations, abrupt layoffs, and staff takeovers—then throw in a pandemic for good measure—and you get Gray’s, the Loring’s new student-friendly campus cafe form. An A-frame outside on the drizzly evening we visited last week boasted “prices for students that corporate chains can’t beat” and made note of the 10% student discount. “Have you been here before?” our host asked, guiding us to a table by the restaurant’s open kitchen. “It’s the same group of us from the Loring; we reopened as a coffee shop during the pandemic.”
As an all-day cafe (Gray’s opens at 8 a.m. daily) the menu is made up of affordable and approachable food. You’ve got appetizers ($6-$9) sammies and burgers ($9-$11), and wings and fingers (you can get 25 wings for $24). Most tables were occupied by students on laptops sipping smoothies or splitting an order of fries, though a few groups like ours were focused on food.
3. Order the artichoke dip.
Gray’s calls the artichoke dip their “signature dish,” which struck me as odd. You just don’t see a lot of restaurants hanging their hats on dip! But Gray’s is right to claim this dish. Their version is a fluffy, creamy, zesty little number that arrives alongside a soft, toasty, buttery baguette—and costs just $8. T.G.I. Friday’s could never.
(I realized in researching this recap that I’m not the first person to be wowed by it, either. In a City Pages’ review written right after the Loring opened in its staff-owned iteration, Sarah Chandler—a baked artichoke dip skeptic—admitted she was wowed by this one, “full of meaty artichokes and piquant cheeses and flecked with red pepper” and “as perfect as any you’ll ever slather onto buttery slices of baguette.”)
2. Bring on the bar food.
Many predicted the pandemic would be the end of fine-dining as we knew it, and though that hasn’t quite been the case, it has forced many restaurants to reimagine what fine dining is. Some, like Gray’s, have opted to gussy-down the whole operation to stay afloat: lower your prices, de-fine the menu, keep people coming in. And let’s not sugarcoat it, The Loring it ain’t. The artichokes may have made the cut, but gone are the decadent seafood linguini and silky cremini mushroom penne you would’ve encountered at its predecessor.
Instead, Gray’s serves up bar fare like a De-luxe Grilled Cheese and a bacon cheeseburger. There are some unexpected appetizers—not a lot of places to get hush puppies around here—and several soups and salads (Cobb, Caesar, quinoa avocado, etc.). Ecuadorian braised pork shows up on the menu quite a few times: as a platter, on a sandwich, and as an optional add-on with fries or nachos. And there are a few pastas! They’ve got mac and cheese and spaghetti and meatballs, but I opted for the “bastardized carbonara” with hunks of pancetta.
1. The grandeur endures.
Gray’s takes its name from the historic space it occupies—the stained-glass “DRUGS DRUGS DRUGS” wrapping around the building once belonged to Gray’s Drugstore. (Also? Bob Dylan briefly lived upstairs.) Their century-old space has always felt otherworldly, and though the menu and clientele have shifted somewhat over the course of the pandemic, the beautifully dilapidated splendor of the building is intact.
“It really does feel like Hogwarts,” I murmured nerdishly as we looked around the space full of students toiling under exposed beams and bricks. They even have a library across from the bar now. Or maybe, given the cozy feeling of the space, it’s more like a hobbit hole. (Gandalf the Grey’s.) In any case, it’s a treat to see this historic space humming with life again.