Trailblazers 2017: Jack Riebel

Jack Riebel at The Lexington // Photo by Tj Turner

Jack Riebel at The Lexington // Photo by Tj Turner

Chef Jack Riebel grew up just four blocks from an iconic St. Paul dining establishment: The Lexington.

“My mom came in here all the time,” Riebel said in an interview with the Pioneer Press in January of 2017. “I remember eating the pot pie at the bar.”

So perhaps it was no surprise that after the restaurant closed in May 2013 and potential sales to two different buyers fell through, it was Riebel, along with business partners and fellow restaurateurs Josh Thoma and Kevin Fitzgerald, who took up the cause of reviving the 80-year-old institution that seemed doomed to fade into obscurity.

Riebel’s lengthy culinary career brought him through several celebrated kitchens, including Goodfellow’s in Minneapolis, La Belle Vie when it was located in Stillwater, and the Dakota Jazz Club. But Riebel hit it big with his work at Butcher & the Boar, which he opened with business partners in 2012. The restaurant garnered immediate praise from local critics, was named a James Beard Foundation semi-finalist for Best New Restaurant, and earned Riebel a nomination for Best Chef: Midwest.

Riebel may have stumbled with his next project, Il Foro, the short-lived Italian eatery he opened with Thoma and Fitzgerald in June 2015 and which closed by May 2016. But it didn’t deter from taking on the challenge of reviving a seemingly passé concept with The Lexington.

On its face, it might not seem trailblazing to reopen one of St. Paul’s oldest restaurants. But these ambitious restaurateurs could have easily started an original concept elsewhere. By taking the risk of investing their time and money into renovating The Lexington, the team made a statement that history is worth something and that, though old, the concept for The Lexington is still relevant to today’s diners.

Riebel and his partners are successfully harnessing the nostalgia of the restaurant’s elegance and injecting new energy into the space with a rooftop patio and tiki bar. Add to that Riebel’s deft hand guiding the kitchen and you’ve got a dynamic restaurant that appeals to diners who recall the golden age of The Lex and a younger crowd looking for a an elegant and comfortable experience.

Blazing trails can mean forging new paths, but Jack Riebel has shown it can also mean returning to forgotten ones, clearing away the overgrowth, and reminding us why the path forged in the first place.

Trailblazers are the people, ideas, businesses, and organizations doing necessary, important, and groundbreaking work in the realms of food, drink, and culture. See the rest of The Growler’s 2017 Trailblazers here.

About Brian Kaufenberg

Brian Kaufenberg is the editor-in-chief of The Growler Magazine.