Tales Of The Slightly Seedy, Always Beloved Liquor Lyle’s
Where Lyle’s faithful are concerned, the big bang might well have occurred in May 1926, when concrete was poured on a small Hennepin Avenue commercial lot just southwest of downtown Minneapolis. The resulting 5,800-square-foot structure was a welcome addition to the area, which had recently been branded “Uptown” by business owners hoping to replicate Chicago’s retail district of the same name. Wedged between Colfax and Franklin avenues, the building housed, at various points, a barbershop, a cafÃ©, a Laundromat and a vacuum supply store.
The vacuum shop failed, and in its place came the bar in question, opened in 1963 by Lyle Dorian, a lawyer and member of the group that raised funds to build Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington. Lyle’s started as a neighborhood joint but soon became a destination as word got out about its cheap, strong drinks and mixed clientele—everyone from artists to news anchors, soccer moms to skid-row denizens.
Lyle himself is long gone, but his eponym reigns as one of the few rite-of-passage bars left in the city (you haven’t gone for drinks in Minneapolis until you’ve survived Lyle’s infamous 2-for-1 happy hour). And in case you’re wondering where the old, weird Uptown went after the condos and contemporary furniture stores moved in, look no further than the windowless building at 2021 Hennepin. It’s been hiding there this entire time.
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Bill Lindee | former partner/bar manager, Liquor Lyle’s
Lyle Dorian’s father had owned a bar on Franklin when Lyle was growing up. That’s where he learned the business. Nice guy, real quiet.
Valorie Soberg | general manager, Liquor Lyle’s
When Lyle’s opened, it was the first liquor bar on this side of Hennepin. [Editor’s note: Until then, blue laws had prohibited the sale of hard alcohol east of Hennepin Avenue in south Minneapolis.] Lyle had previously owned a bar in downtown that was torn down, and that’s how he acquired the license for Lyle’s—he was sort of grandfathered into this area.
When it opened it was called Lyle’s Liquors. There were great rolling yellow lights out front and a neon sign that said “Liquors.” You know the granite squares on the outside of our building? That was the display area for the vacuum place, and then there was also a shoe repair place and a dry cleaner’s all in the same building. And as they all closed through the years, the bar kept taking over each portion. When it opened, though, it was just two rooms and the bar was on the back wall.
Lyle always maintained an office in the basement. He came in every day, through the back door all dressed in his suit with a stogie hanging out of his mouth. Lyle’s was a big neighborhood spot in the 1960s—a workingman’s bar, too, with a lot of attorneys and police officers drinking there. There weren’t many places around this part of town—you had the C.C. Tap [now the C.C. Club], Uptown Tap [which became the Uptown Bar until it closed in 2009] and Chip’s Tap [now Mortimer’s]. Everything else was downtown on Hennepin and on Washington back then.
Ken Meshbesher | partner, Meshbesher and Spence law firm; partner, Liquor Lyle’s
The partners in our law firm at the time—Ron Meshbesher, Russell Spence, Jerry Singer and myself—bought the bar in 1973 because Lyle wanted to open a new place around 50th and Minnehaha. It was an investment for us. We were tipped off to it by Jerry, who was representing Lyle. When we bought in we gave Bill Lindee, the bar manager, an interest. Lindee was fabulous. He ran a great bar.
I’m 87 now, so you’re asking me to remember a lot, but when we took over in ’73, Lyle’s was very busy. I put up with no nonsense. If people got in trouble, we’d bar ’em. It was a mix of customers in those days: rednecks, run-of-the-mill folks, college folks. A lot of northern Minnesota people liked it—they’d come down and say it reminded them of the bars back home. Friday was our big day. The theater people came from the Guthrie, the Aflac insurance guys came from downtown. At 4 o’clock sharp, the hard drinkers came in. Everybody got a fair shake. We kept the bartenders in line. Nobody was a favorite.
Bartender John Roberts delivers the 2-for-1s day in, day out.
We didn’t have the red vinyl booths when we bought it. We got those when the Sheraton-Ritz in downtown Minneapolis closed. The hotel had this great bar at the top called Annie’s Parlor, and when that went down, we were able to get the booths. Same ones you see today.
There was a fire at Lyle’s in the mid-’70s, and that’s when they moved the bar from the back room to the front, where it is now. A guy named Joseph Palin built the new bar—he also built the bar at Lee’s Liquor Lounge and [defunct downtown Minneapolis bar] Moby Dick’s. I worked at Moby’s in those days and used to be a regular at Lyle’s. First time I went in, I thought, “This is my kind of place.” In the late ’70s, Lyle’s started two-for-ones at night from 9 to 10. As far as I know, it was the first place in south Minneapolis to do that. I’d walk in with my friends and we could take over the place and drink for cheap.
Paul Metsa | singer-songwriter
I moved to Uptown in the fall of 1978. Mortimer’s, the C.C. Club and Lyle’s were like the holy trinity for drinkers in the area. They each had their own vibe. Mortimer’s was kind of low on the psychic totem pole—it wasn’t your first choice, sort of sad. The C.C. was a lot of musicians [Editor’s note: City Pages’ oral history of the C.C. is required reading]. Lyle’s was probably the most accepting of the three, very non-judgmental. A lot of artists and freethinkers hung out there, but it was also an everyman’s bar. There was a guy at the end of the bar, he would come in in a wheelchair. He had an oxygen tank and was smoking and could have blown up the whole goddamn block.
Lyle’s kept a lot of people fed back then, too. I remember they’d set out this block of government cheese that was the size of a small pickup truck. That and Ritz crackers. They had chicken wings and pickled herring, too—a five-star meal for the underemployed.
This woman dropped the government cheese on the floor once. She picked up the cheese, wiped it with her dirty sweatshirt and set it back on the bar. There wasn’t any cheese after that. Lyle’s also had a soup bar for a time, but that had to end, too, when one man grabbed the ladle, took a big slurp and stuck it back in the soup.
Laurie Lindeen | writer, musician, former member of Zuzu’s Petals
I moved to Minneapolis in 1985 from Madison, Wisconsin. I rented a place at 25th and Hennepin, so Lyle’s was just down the street. That was our go-to. It used to have black Astroturf on the walls. It was just really easy—big booths, free food, and it was cheap and really dark. Everything a 23-year-old needed. I went through a scotch phase at Lyle’s, which turned me into a huge liar. I used to tell lies to men at the bar. Pointless things, like that I was Irish and my grandmother was from County Cork.
I used to work with Mark Olson from the Jayhawks and when we weren’t working or playing music we’d go to Lyle’s. Our friends in Soul Asylum and Babes in Toyland were always there. We preferred Lyle’s to the C.C. Club because by that point the C.C. had developed a mystique, and we were against that [laughs].
David Carr, Tom Arnold and I ran heavy for a while. We used to have fun—none of it was malicious or violent. We were knuckleheads. We opened up Lyle’s from ’84 to ’86 semi-regularly. Cocaine helped. Everybody had it: bartenders, bouncers, my band members, the sound guy. The beautiful thing about Lyle’s was you’d walk in and it was so dark you’d lose all track of time. There were no windows so you’d have no idea if it was morning, last call or the middle of the afternoon.
We call that the black hole. There were no clocks in Lyle’s when I started. The owners wanted it to be like Vegas in that way.
David Brauer | journalist
I lived in the East Isles neighborhood in the mid-1980s to early 1990s. Lyle’s served schooners of alcohol back then, not like the smaller pours you see there today. There were a couple things going for Lyle’s—a funky name and sign, and a vibe that hit that retro thing in a way the other places didn’t. Its location helped, too, being in one of the busiest pedestrian areas in Minneapolis. And then there’s the legendary 2-for-1 happy hour, which was renowned among the young hipsters and the old chronics that sat at the bar.
I started working at Lyle’s in November of 1991 as a server. When I came in, bartenders still wore white dress shirts, black pants and an apron. The owners wanted their pockets covered so you couldn’t steal. But we changed that—today we’re known for tattoos and colored hair. There was a big lunch crowd at the time—there weren’t many places for lunch in the area back then.
In 1994, Bill Lindee sold his interest to Mike Andrews [late owner of the Loon CafÃ©, J.D. Hoyt’s, and other bars and restaurants]. When he bought in, it was a boom period. Mike knew this business inside and out. His passing [in 2014] really upset me. He was so hands-on here, and when he bought in, he had me get all the liquor up to snuff—we didn’t have much back then. He really helped bring in a lot of business.
One of the big appeals of Lyle’s in the 1990s was that Mike Andrews was there. He was a great impresario. He was very good at making people who mattered feel comfortable. David Carr and I were friends and we’d go in and get the charming treatment. I don’t know that there was a guy like him at the C.C. or Mortimer’s.
Paul Magers | news anchor, CBS2 Los Angeles; former anchor, KARE 11
I lived near Lyle’s and was best friends with Mike, so after he assumed a partnership into it, I stopped in now and then for a scotch. The place cracked me up. I liked people-watching there—you could go in and sit next to a college kid or a Pillsbury executive. Once, after church, I went to Lyle’s with my daughters. We wanted a burger. They said, “Sorry, Mr. Magers, you can’t have kids in here.” I go, “What?” and walk out to the car to call Mike. I asked what the hell was going on and he says, “Least of all your kids!” [laughs].
Tim Martin | Lyle’s bartender, 1991 to 2004
Mike put some life into the place. He got rid of pinball and pull-tabs, redecorated a bit and made it more accessible for a large volume of people. He changed the jukebox, too. It used to be country-western standards, and we made it hip. Put some local bands on there. Turned the music up and created an atmosphere that brought people in. In the mid-1990s, the hipster kids started digging us. There’d be a line out the door. We went from doing $2,000 or $3,000 a night in liquor sales to $10,000 a night. It got crazy there for a few years. I once saw a guy come out of the bathroom naked, get kicked out the front, then come back through the back door wearing a robe.
So many different people hung out at Lyle’s in the ’90s and early 2000s. Local celebrities like Vince Flynn—who was friends with Mike Andrews—used to write at the bar. Josh Hartnett used to come in all the time. He’s a good guy. One Saturday morning he came in and he had his sunglasses on and baseball cap and he goes, “Hey Val, how’s it going?” I said, “Can I see your ID?” We’ve always had a strict ID policy. And I see it’s Josh and he looks at me and goes, “Shh.” And we started laughing. Dave Pirner and the Soul Asylum guys loved us—still do. They wore Lyle’s T-shirts on the Letterman show in the mid-’90s. A genetic scientist used to sit at the end of the bar every day working on something. I asked him what he was doing and he told me he was developing a patent for an artificial heart cell. He said, “I bet no one’s ever done that here!”
Isaac Becker | chef-owner, Burch Steakhouse, Bar La Grassa and 112 Eatery
I was working at a place called Lowry’s, basically across the street from Lyle’s. I worked there for five years starting when I was 20, in 1989. My first time at Lyle’s was my 21st birthday. We were going to bar-hop but ended up staying there the whole night. Lyle’s became my second home. One thing that really sticks with me is this bartender named Howie [longtime Lyle’s bartender Howie Wenlund, who died in 1996]. After last call, he would say, in a very distinct way, “Drink ’em up, we gotta go.” I think he carried a blackjack knife in his back pocket, but I thankfully never saw him use it.
Katy Thomasberg | Lyle’s bartender
I started at Lyle’s as a cocktail waitress in 1998. It was always packed. There was a real community here. The staff was a little wild. We’d smoke behind the bar. I remember a couple of the bartenders used to grab the edge of the dumbwaiter and swing under it and land on their feet in the basement. The owners had to put a backing on the dumbwaiter to shut down those types of stunts. But the smoking ban came in 2004, and that really hurt us for a while.
We had to reinvent ourselves after no smoking came in. Mike Andrews and I added a longer happy hour. We offered a free drink with breakfast. We put in HDTVs. And then when all the rooftop patios came in, we were hurt for a time, but things are pretty steady now. Not as good as they used to be because there are so many more restaurants and bars in Uptown, but we’re holding our own. We sell more craft beer than domestic these days because that’s what people want. A lot of the younger kids from the condos are coming in, which is great. They’re very polite. We hear a lot of “please” and “thank you.”
Part of why we last is we respect our customers. We don’t belittle them or downgrade them because they’re wasted. Lyle’s is hard-drinking, but it’s far from seedy or scary.
Our heyday was probably in the early 2000s, but we’re doing all right. Bars close left and right, but Lyle’s is iconic. We own the property, which helps. We don’t change much, and that’s our secret.
A lot of places can’t pay their bills; we do. And we have always paid above minimum wage. We really think highly of our servers and our help. Our cook, Inez, has been there for almost 20 years. She’s terrific. And Val runs the place with an iron hand.
I don’t know what the future holds for Lyle’s. We have no plans to close for now. But we’ll see what happens. Look at Nye’s. Who would ever believe Nye’s would close? Nye’s is to Northeast what we are to Uptown.
After David Carr died [in February], they held a wake for him at Lyle’s, which was fitting. I hadn’t been back there for years until that night. I’d like to say the memories flooded back, but the thing about going to a bar you haven’t been to in years is that memories aren’t at the top of the list of things you can access.
I still go to Lyle’s. In fact, I got thrown out three years ago for being belligerent. There’s a bunch of local journalists who get together in town on a semi-regular basis, and we decided to meet at Lyle’s. We had like 20 people in the back room and somebody went to get a chair from the middle room. This pissed off one of the managers. The chairs had to stay in their various rooms for whatever reason. I was feeling owly that night, so I got into it with the manager. When you pick a fight with Lyle’s, Lyle’s wins, so I was thrown out. There was a “boycott Lyle’s” hashtag on Twitter for a while. It took me until I was 52 to get 86’d from Lyle’s, but you can’t stay away from that place for too long.
Chris Clayton is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer whose work appears in a variety of local and national titles.