Here’s mud in your eye: legendary vegetarian restaurant

Liquor Lyle’s bartender will convert Whittier’s venerable Mud Pie

Goodbye tofu, hello sausages.

The Mud Pie restaurant — a trailbreaker in vegetarian dining and a Whittier neighborhood institution for three decades — is closing.

Matt Lokowich said he and his father, Carl Lokowich, are buying the Mud Pie, 2549 Lyndale Ave. S., and plan to replace it with The Bulldog — a Chicago-style restaurant. He is applying for a full liquor license.

"It is going to be habanera chiles, some hot mustards and hot peppers and different sausages and Chicago-style sandwiches.

I love that kind of stuff," said Lokowich, who has tended bar and managed at Liquor Lyle’s for the past three years.

"Me and my dad go to [the Longfellow community’s] Joey D’s all the time. We need something like that in Uptown," said Lokowich, a 30-year Uptown resident who proudly says he attended Lyndale Elementary and West High.

The sign on the Mud Pie reads: "Owner is retiring. The Mud Pie is closing its doors. Thank you for 30 years of business."

Robert "Robbie" Stair opened the Mud Pie in 1972 when he was 23.

"I was a vegetarian. I was tired of cooking at home," he said of his decision to open the Mud Pie. "Now I am going to enjoy cooking at home."

"I want to grow old not owning a restaurant," he said.

Lokowich said he had a purchase agreement and expected to close by mid-December. Stair said Dec. 10 he did not know when the Mud Pie would close, but it could be soon. He expected the sale to Lokowich to go through, but if not, he had others interested in the property.

Lokowich’s background includes

managing at the Smiling Moose in Calhoun Square and bartending at places like Champp’s-Minnetonka, he said. He hoped to open The Bulldog in February, but it could be as late as March. The restaurant needs renovation to bring it up to code, including $33,000 for a new kitchen hood system.

He plans to change the vibrant orange and yellow exteriors to more brick reds and browns, to fit in with the neighborhood, Lokowich said.

City Councilmember Dean Zimmermann (6th Ward) represents the Whittier neighborhood, and decades ago he was deeply involved in efforts to launch "whole food" co-ops in the city.

"I’m sorry to see an old institution going," he said. "The Mud Pie was kind of significant in the beginnings of vegetarian restaurants.

"Now you can find plenty of vegetarian food lots of places. It isn’t as if it is going to be a total disaster to the vegetarian

community. They were a good group, and I suspect they will be replaced by another good place, although distinctly different in their menu."

Lokowich has a draft menu (no prices yet). It has a cheese steak sandwich, the Bulldog Reuben and the Chicago burger (stilton cheese and horseradish mustard) as well as a wide variety of Vienna beef dogs. Those range from Chicago-style (green relish, onion, mustard, tomato, pickle spear and celery salt) to the Stray Dog (brown beans, cheese and onions).

Chicago has places that sell such food on every corner, Lokowich said. Here "there’s like two places, and you can’t even get a beer there," he said.

Besides a change in cuisine, the restaurant will have a change in culture.

Lokowich said he planned to make Monday nights "Firefighters’ nights," where firefighters could get a discount, he said. "We’ll probably do something for the cops, too," he said.

Liquor license pending

The Whittier Alliance gave its tentative backing to the restaurant’s concept, but asked Lokowich to return to discuss more specifics, like the planned hours of operation, site plan and possible variances needed.

Phil Schliesman, a city liquor license inspector, said Dec. 9 that he did not have the completed liquor license application. Once he got it, he would set a date for a community public hearing. The application would next go to the City Council’s Public Safety and Regulatory Services Committee, then the full Council.

That process would usually take six weeks, Schliesman said. Because of holiday schedules, an application received in December could take eight weeks — "if you don’t have any controversy," he said.

"It’s preliminary," he said of The Bulldog’s request. "I don’t have a business plan. To me, this is the exploratory stage."

Reminiscing and looking ahead

Mud Pie founder Robbie Stair said 30 years ago, when people went to a restaurant and asked for a vegetarian meal, the wait staff "started laughing and snickering."

"It was no secret when people started lining up here (at the Mud Pie) that other restaurants wanted to capture some of that market," he said.

Competition is good, Stair said, until it hits what he called "musical chairs in reverse."

"When the music stops and you put another chair in the room, competition takes a negative turn," he said. "It’s like too much of a good thing."

Stair will stay busy in retirement, he said. He has several business opportunities near his home in Wisconsin, south of Red Wing. He plans to open a Bed and Breakfast next year, called either "Walnut Ridge B&B" or "Rush River B&B."

He is also starting the Rush River Brewing Co., and he and his partner brew-masters plan to have their microbrews ready by April or May, he said. They plan to sell it to restaurants, in kegs.

"The Bulldog will be a flagship for the beer," Stair said.

The Bulldog will continue to serve some Mud Pie staples, like the veggie burgers, quesadillas, veggie chili and spinach dip.

"I want it to be a place where guys can bring their girlfriends," Lokowich said.

And tofu?

"No tofu," he said.