A Farewell to Fabarre's?

There's a place in your heart for Papa Fabarre's -- even if you've never been there

Papa Fabarre's

601 Olive Street (second floor)

Famous French onion soup $4.45
Reuben $6.50
Tuna melt $5.95
Carrot cake $2.25

314-425-3634. Hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Mon.-Fri.

Everybody remembers Papa Fabarre's.

For me Papa Fabarre's is the Wedgewood Cafeteria, a bygone restaurant in downtown Montclair, New Jersey, where we used to go for fancy dinners when I was a kid. Even though the food was dished out by old ladies in black-and-white uniforms (disconcertingly like grade school), the Wedgewood boasted vaulted ceilings -- it was housed in a 1930s, Art Deco-style former post office -- and plush red carpets. Plus, it had a man in a tall paper chef's hat who sliced your roast beef right off the rib. So when you went, you dressed up.

For my friend Mike it's the restaurant inside Seattle's Bon Marché. His grandpa managed a Bon -- one of the Northwest's regional department-store chains -- that anchored a mall in Seattle's southern suburbs, but around the holidays he'd always take his three grandsons into the city for lunch at the Bon downtown, the more regal flagship location.

For my mother Papa Fabarre's is Carolina Gardens, inside the old B. Altman at 32nd and 5th, where, back in her bachelorette days, she'd have lunch during her twice-yearly excursions into New York to buy her spring and fall wardrobes. It's also the Soup Bar, the Lord & Taylor lunch counter on that store's eighth floor that still exists today (although not on the eighth floor), and it's the story of how she once saw Dustin Hoffman carrying his dry cleaning along Fifth Avenue in the spring of 1969, not long after The Graduate came out, as she was about to go into Bonwit Teller to pick up her wedding gown.

More prosaically, what Papa Fabarre's is, is a lunch-only restaurant on the second floor of the downtown St. Louis Famous-Barr, the second of founder William Barr's area stores, which has continuously operated in the Railway Exchange Building at Sixth and Olive streets since 1880. In 1913 both it and Famous Dry Goods were bought by May Department Stores and subsequently merged to form Famous-Barr. Forgotten but not gone, the downtown Famous-Barr is a seven-floor department store where "This Car Up" signs still light up in the elevator lobby, where the sales help consists of polite, well-dressed adults and not teenagers with headsets strapped to their faces like they're performing in a boy band. It's patronized almost exclusively these days by nearby office workers on break and Cardinals fans who swing by before or after day games to browse.

Just as Cincinnati-based Federated Department Stores, Inc., owner of Macy's and Bloomingdale's, finished rebranding the lion's share of its holdings -- including Rich's, Goldsmith's, Burdines and Lazarus, not to mention Bon Marché -- as Macy's, it moved to purchase May, which also runs Lord & Taylor, Marshall Field's and Filene's (among others) from its headquarters atop the Railway Building. While it is expected that many of May's corporate jobs higher up in the Railway will be lost, the future name and very existence of the downtown Famous-Barr housed below them -- and Papa Fabarre's along with it -- remain in flux. A July 13 closing date has been set for stockholders on both sides to approve the $17 billion buyout. [Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this paragraph; please see end of article.]

Even if you've never been to Papa Fabarre's, you've been there, and even if you've never been there, you wish you could go back. Papa Fabarre's is the 80-year-old man in matching vest and bow tie ripping tickets at the movie theater, the knife-sharpener's truck that would roll past your house on Saturday mornings, home-delivered milk. It is the showbiz crowd carousing in Sweet Smell of Success, the boisterous happy-hour scenes in The Apartment. (Truth: Back in the day, a house band played Papa Fabarre's on weekdays after 5 p.m.) Everything other, modern-day, retrofitted restaurants may try to evoke through an ornate, dark-varnished bar or brass-rail décor -- halcyon days of martini lunches, manners, gentlemen in hats and ladies in gloves -- Papa Fabarre's just is.

Located behind the Sean John collection in the men's casualwear section, Papa Fabarre's consists of a short-order kitchen and an astonishing two rooms of table service. The restaurant's ceiling fans operate in tandem along an exposed belt-and-pulley system that has turned the ecru, pressed-tin ceiling coal-black in stretches. The floor is laid with white hexagonal tiles like the ones in un-updated St. Louis apartment bathrooms. Fake flowers sit in white stem vases atop each table; so do white, scallop-edged paper placemats. Numerous framed portraits of bounteously coiffed women holding Victorian poses line the walls haphazardly. At the entrance, a two-tiered dessert cart displays various cake slices plated on saucers and tamped down under clear plastic wrap. A row of six booths, straight-backed and upholstered in smudged and stained red velvet, line the main room's south wall; they are designated by a hanging sign as "Tables for Ladies," and each is framed by a set of heavy green velvet curtains that lend them the look of old-fashioned train cars. Atop the mirror-backed mahogany bar opposite the booths stands a row of old trophy cups and a gilded cash register that's no longer in use. Neither is the bar itself, practically; singles tend to sit there only if all the tables are taken -- which between noon and 1 p.m. they often are, a busied and glorious din ringing off that tin ceiling and tile floor -- and though the laminated menu lists $2.75 cocktails, nobody ever seems to order them. The liquor bottles, mostly well brands, are stocked in glass-doored cabinets at the bottom of the bar, out of sight.

The restaurant's French onion soup is considered famous, one of the few raisons d'etre remaining on the menu. "Famous French onion soup" is what it's actually called, though whether that's because it's truly renowned or just because of the store's name is anybody's guess. Served in a classic French onion soup cauldron and microwaved in plain view before being served, it is a cartoonish calamity...that somehow works. It's tantamount to a bowl of Mom's thick Thanksgiving turkey gravy, with onion bits dropped in like fallen eyelashes conveying the slightest trace of sweetness. The baked cheese crust sometimes covers the cup evenly and completely; other times it huddles along one side, and only a knife and fork can coerce it into bite-size pieces. A chunk of store-bought French bread serves as a lone crouton. The soup is hopelessly blunt and viscous, yet it's also sweet, salty, tangy and cheesy all at once.

A Reuben's single slice of corned beef, ridiculously spongy, likewise required sharp cutlery before it would submit to being eaten. (Attempting the sandwich at every possible angle, I could not get my fangs through the dang meat. Finally it just fell out from between the bread. The remaining cheese-kraut-and-dressing sandwich, however, tasted great.) An entrée order of "shrimp cocktail," at least on certain days, means breaded coconut shrimp, with a taste and texture eerily resembling macaroons.

Burgers and sandwiches come out just fine, even if shredded Cheddar is pressed into service whenever a cheeseburger, tuna melt or chicken salad melt is called for. The burgers' well-cooked beef patties resonate with a really savory, meaty flavor. The tuna melt, unimpeachably decent, is made with a big soft tomato slice that covers the whole sandwich and tuna salad that could stand to be a tad less watery. Most sandwiches come with a choice of fries, chips or fruit salad -- lo and behold, a sprightly, fresh, delightful fruit salad composed of fresh strawberries, cantaloupe, oranges, red grapes...and canned pears in syrup on the bottom.

The milkman and the knife-sharpening guy may be long gone, but Papa Fabarre's waitstaff remains. They are career servers of a different sort -- not the white-linen, serve-from-the-left-clear-from-the-right kind, but diner workers whose black rubber soles have trod wizened traffic patterns in the tilework for decades. I want all of them to wait on me, so familiar and comforting are they. And for the most part they do: No beverage reaches half-empty (or, in a place like this, half-full) before whoever happens to be speed-walking by refills it with near-comic swiftness and asks a genuine "How are you doing?"

Papa Fabarre's carrot cake is outstanding, loaded up with big walnut chunks, raisins and inch-thick cream cheese icing, light and summery. I asked one of the women who seats parties and works the register whether they made their desserts in-house.

"I wish I could say we did," she replied. "We used to have a baker. Of course, that was when the French onion soup cost 65 cents."

Correction published 6/29/05: Rose Martelli's review of Papa Fabarre's erroneously indicated that Federated Department Stores, Inc. only recently acquired Bon Marché, Rich's, Goldsmith's, Burdines and Lazarus stores. In fact, Federated has held those companies for years. The above text reflects this correction.

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