Long journey for bar owner

Loring Pasta Bar owner Jason McLean combines creative passion with business.

Jared Roddy

Inspiration can come in many forms.

Jason McLean, owner of the Loring Pasta Bar, said he remembers one of those moments of inspiration.

As many actors in New York, McLean often supplemented his income with odd jobs. He and a fellow actor were walking home from construction work on a majestic Fifth Avenue penthouse. There was a light snow falling and they decided to take a detour.

His actor friend took him past a restaurant he was working on at 92nd Street, just off Madison Avenue.

“I peek in the window of this place, and it was like this children’s fantasy kind of thing,” McLean said. “Everything was cute, and charming, and mismatched, and it just went right through me.”

That day 20 years ago was when McLean first thought of opening his own restaurant, he said.

McLean is now 50, his mussed hair has a hint of highlights to it, and he is tall and thin. His blond mop-topped 3-year-old son, Jasper, stomps around the room in cowboy boots, while 9-year-old Olive is on the main level hanging out with the restaurant staff.

McLean’s first passion

The journey that brought McLean to Minneapolis, again and again, began in Anchorage, Alaska.

After ferrying between Alaska and Minnesota for much of his life, McLean attended high school in Minneapolis.

In the summer before his senior year, his friend’s mom helped him get hired as an usher for the Guthrie Theater.

“I got really turned on – I just figured out any way I could to get further and further involved in the theater of the Guthrie,” McLean said.

He took classes in studio art at the University, but never finished them, he said.

Instead, hard work and enthusiasm at the Guthrie paid off, literally. McLean was awarded a grant to attend acting school in New York.

After taking classes in New York, he built up an acting resume by working with local and summer touring troupes.

After approximately four years, Minneapolis beckoned again, and McLean was invited to join the city’s Guthrie Theater in 1977.

He was making pilgrimages to New York during his tenure there, and a year later he decided it was time to go back again, he said.

“I just got pissed off and quit,” McLean said. “It’s so long ago I don’t even remember exactly why. It was like a rock band – I just got pissed off and said I can’t work with you anymore.”

During that trip to New York, the restaurant seed was planted in McLean’s head that snowy night.

But McLean returned to Minneapolis and hitched on to the Children’s Theatre Company for five years.

The new dream

With the money he made at the Children’s Theatre, McLean was able to buy a house in Minneapolis.

He gutted it and rebuilt the interior. In 1986, with a home equity loan, McLean leased a 60-seat space in the Fawkes Building on Loring Park.

The Loring Cafe was born.

“Back then, the Loring area was really considered pretty unsavory,” McLean said. “There were murderers and rapists behind every bush kind-of-thing.”

Soon came another 60-seat space in that building, called the Loring Bar, in which he tried to create the same feel as that “cute” restaurant in New York. They would expand several more times, eventually occupying most of the building.

Over the course of 16 years, the neighborhood once known for stabbings and rapes became a hangout for artists and bohemians.

In 1999, McLean leased and later bought the building at the corner of 14th Avenue and University Avenue.

Trouble brewing

While immersed in the creative process of turning the building into the Loring Pasta Bar, several things happened.

McLean had sunk everything into the new building and he said he noticed his bank balances were dropping at the other restaurants. When he checked into it, 13 people were fired in “one fell swoop.”

“We got a lot of bad press for doing it, but I will say I had mighty good cause,” he said.

The Loring Pasta Bar opened in March 2001, with Sept. 11, 2001, just around the corner.

“We lost 30 percent of our business (after Sept. 11) and it stayed that way for four months,” McLean said. “Thirty percent, schwoop, gone.”

McLean fell behind in his rent, and after an “epic battle” with his landlords, he was out of the Fawkes Building.

But the Loring Pasta Bar was becoming a hit.

“They’re very unique in the industry,” Dinkytown Business Association President Skott Johnson said. “I think a lot of the Loring is the ambiance and the look of the building.”

The Loring Pasta Bar continues the tradition of theater, hand-made elegance and relentless expansion that the Loring Cafe was known for.

The Kitty Cat Klub, which opened in 2002, is an offshoot of the Loring Pasta Bar. Servers cover the food and carry it down the sidewalk from the pasta bar. The decor was taken directly from the old Loring.

McLean has also procured the Varsity Theater and plans to turn it into a space both for fledgling actors to try a real audience and a hangout for artists, he said.

McLean’s business plan is as it always has been, he said.

“I apply the same manner of thinking for a restaurant as I do as an actor,” McLean said. “Make something appealing, alluring, maybe something more than it is. Capture the imagination somehow.”

Most students said they are impressed with the bar, but one complaint came from Alex Tolchinsky, a psychology senior.

“They could improve the menu,” he said. “When you have an eclectic menu, it’s hard to specialize.”