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Woodworking: Let me explain about a real icon

Last month the Twin Cities newspaper fell all over themselves in front-page obituaries of Pat Murray and Jack Kozlak, who operated Murray's and the Jax Café, respectively.

Intrepid journalists described their longtime restaurants as "iconic," which seems to be the favorite word to describe anything these days by the ink-stained wretches who produce newspapers.

Other "iconic" Twin Cities restaurants that have enjoyed huge attentions from the press have been Charlie's Café Exceptionale, Chateau de Paris Harry's, Shiek's and the Blue Horse. All are long gone.

In the Minneapolis restaurant game, my favorite restaurant will always be Jimmy Hegg's Starlite Lounge, also long gone, replaced by the new telephone company building in downtown Minneapolis.

Hold on now!

Hegg's wasn't fancy like Murray's with its ashtrays that lit up when you wanted another drink or elaborately kitschy like the stained-glass windows at Jax's that depict Disney (!) characters.

Actually, Hegg's was one part shabby, one part Damon Runyon, one part cheap. Add that all together and you get a total of FUN.

In earlier days Jimmy, a genial giant, had been a U of M basketball star, a radio personality, a host at Curly's night club on Hennepin Avenue where he greeted guests with a song that played on WMIN radio.

He eventually bought a place of employment, featured big-name entertainment like Peggy Lee and Henny Youngman. Then it burned down. (Sorry, no arson was involved. Jimmy had cancelled his insurance because of tough financial times for restaurants with the advent of TV.).

Undaunted, Jimmy moved to a smaller place and with his beautiful wife Jeanette, a former showgirl, Jimmy Hegg's Starlite Lounge.

We discovered the restaurant in 1970 when we purchased a book of tickets offering discounts to diners. Often we found ourselves dining near the kitchen door or in a drafty corner.

Other times the joint inflated the prices so the discounts didn't discount. We were about ready to toss the whole book, when we noticed a two for one offer from Hegg's in downtown Minneapolis.

It was an unprepossessing place, a dimly lit room with stuccoed walls, booths that had seen better days, decorated only by a golden statue of a nude, sculpted by Jimmy's brother Theron, all that Jimmy managed to resurrect from the fire.

We received our menus and both ordered a New York Strip, hashed brown potatoes, a salad with blue cheese dressing.

The tab? $9.95. For TWO. This place had possibilities.

We paid with cash and coupon for whereupon a very big man with carrot-top hair came over to our booth and introduced himself and wondered what brought us in. I explained that we were new in town and that I taught at Augsburg.

"If you taught at Augsburg," he said, you'll probably need these. He handed me about 300 more coupons.

"These are worth about $3,000," he chuckled. "Spread them around to your colleagues who can use them too. I know. My dad was a Lutheran preacher." When we left he carved off a huge chunk of Wispride Cheese from a mountain of it always present for the asking in the dining room. He handed us the chunk and said, "Makes great macaroni and cheese."

The dye was cast. For the next 20 years we dined every week at Hegg's, who befriended us.

I was a fledgling writer and he did his best to introduce me to his prominent regulars, like WCCO's Dave Moore and old-timer Eddie Schwartz, former Minneapolis Star columnist who covered what he called "the barroom and brothel beat."

One evening we met Henny Youngman, who came in the back door and shouted "Sit down, Jimmy, you make the place look shabby."

Henny always dined with Jimmy whenever he was in town, even though there was no place in his new joint to perform.

Hegg's was always packed for its fine drinks and inexpensive food. One of our favorite items was a steak topped with a baked egg, hashed browns, a green salad and a grilled frankfurter. Two for $6.95.

It was fun at about 10 p.m. to see the actors come in from the Guthrie and other downtown theatres where they ate at a discount if they were in showbiz, for which Jimmy had a soft spot.

One of the Guthrie actors and a reserve bartender was his son, Tom, who went on to write a bestseller, "A Cup of Christmas Tea."

Another highlight occurred almost every night when an old man came in off the street in a shabby overcoat.

Jimmy quieted down the crowd and introduced the old man "who will now honor us with song, a capella."

The old man faced the diners and sang a mournful old tune called, "Bread and Gravy," after which Jimmy fed him a meal.

Now that's my kind of icon.

Dave would like to hear from you. Phone him at 715-426-9554.