Editor's Note: A caption in the previous version of this story referred to Rosemary Failoni and Stephanie Failoni. The photo is of Joey Meiners, Rosemary Failoni and Vic Failoni. We regret the error.
When he thinks back on Failoni's Restaurant & Bar's storied history, one particular incident stands out in Vic Failoni's mind. Even though it occurred well before he was even a glimmer in his parents' eyes, the tale is so legendary, and it resonates with him so deeply, because of how much it encapsulates his family's century-old restaurant and bar.
"During Prohibition we operated as a speakeasy. We never advertised it, but it's not like it was hidden," Failoni says. "They'd always hide the liquor when they'd catch wind that the agents were coming by, but one day, in 1924, my grandfather was behind the bar and they showed up when he wasn't expecting them. He looked at my uncle, who was seven years old, and said, 'Go upstairs and pour it down the toilet!' My grandma and others were all sitting around a table freaking out and yelling, 'They're here! They're here!' It was so funny. It's a big part of our family history."
Nearly 100 years after that attempted liquor raid, Failoni's main concern is keeping alive the iconic bar and restaurant founded by his grandfather, Alessandro Failoni, in 1916. Back then, the place had already been in operation for several years, owned by the Lemp Brewery as a neighborhood tavern that catered to the steel mill, Scullin Steel, located across Manchester Avenue. Alessandro, an immigrant from the northern Italian town of Tione di Trento, worked at the mill, but he'd always dreamed of opening a bar. When he found out Lemp was willing to sell, he purchased it for a modest price, renamed it after his family and quickly established its reputation as a welcoming watering hole and restaurant that featured the home cooking of his wife, Rose.
From the outset, Failoni's was a family affair. Even after purchasing the bar, Alessandro continued to work for Scullin Steel, relying on Rose and his brother to keep things running while he was at his day job.
Even during Prohibition, Failoni's semi-secretly kept on chugging, then reopened officially in the summer of 1933, anchored by its low-key atmosphere and Rose's excellent daily specials such as roast beef, liver and onions, and meatloaf.
When Alessandro passed away in 1950, it was left to his four sons to keep the bar running. They did so successfully for roughly three decades, until three of the brothers decided to pursue their own interests and sold their shares to the youngest of the bunch, Vic Failoni's father, Alex Sr. It was a difficult time for the business; Scullin Steel, the heart of the bar's sales, shuttered and left Failoni's without its 2,000-person-strong customer base. With that gone and no other industry around, Alex Sr. knew he had to turn it into a destination place. That's when he got creative.
"My dad brought in an accordion player in 1985 two days a week, and he started barbecuing," Failoni says. "The accordion player would play from 1 to 5 [p.m.], and it was crazy how that one thing he just tried out started snowballing. The next thing he knew, people were reserving tables, and the next thing after that, you couldn't even get in. People would bring in the whole office, and they'd be four-deep at the bar in the middle of the afternoon. News people would come and take pictures, and people would be hiding because they weren't supposed to be there in the middle of the workday. From the mayor to the guy who dug ditches up the street — it was just a great time and was a different world back then."
In addition to the accordion player and his father's barbecue, the restaurant had another important reason for the large crowds: Failoni's brother, Alex Jr. Though no one in the family knew it before he started belting it out on stage one day, Alex Jr. had an incredible voice that was as velvety as Frank Sinatra's, the crooner he was often compared to. Failoni vividly recalls the moment his family realized his brother's gift.
"We went to Catholic grade school and sang in choir, but it's not like in second-grade choir people would know you could sing," Failoni says. "My brother was working at the bar in the '80s, and the accordion player kept asking him up on stage to sing. One day, he did it. I was away at college at the time, and my mom called and said, 'Your brother is singing and he's actually really good. He sounds like Frank Sinatra.' He became so well known that he was hired to do parties for Boatmen's Bank and was flown all over the country to do private events. He could've really pursued it, but he was happy being at Failoni's."
Vic Failoni describes the time period from the 1980s through the 1990s as the glory days — a time before cellphones made tracking your every movement standard procedure. Describing the afternoon scene at Failoni's as a release for people, Failoni laments the loss of that freedom to play hooky from work to blow off steam, and understands that major cultural change ushered in a new era for the restaurant and bar. Fortunately for his family, those fun times did not go away; they just got pushed later in the evening.
Another big change for Failoni's has been a dramatic increase in food sales. Though his grandmother's cooking nourished the steel workers and drew acclaim from those who were looking for a quick lunch, Failoni credits his mom, Rosemary, with drawing crowds for her food.
Now 81 years old and still working in the kitchen, Rosemary prepares sauces, salad dressings, meatballs and soups that have become so popular they've turned Failoni's from a bar first and restaurant second into an equally food- and drink-focused operation.
"She'll also get up on Friday nights when Tom Kelly is performing and sing 'Crazy' by Patsy Cline," Failoni says. "The crowd goes crazy."
Though Kelly's music has been a constant at Failoni's — the singer has been performing at the bar and restaurant every Friday night for the past 30 years — the past two years have presented challenges.
But Failoni notes that the pandemic has also shown him and his family how much their establishment means to its legion of regulars.
"We did carryout March, April and May of 2020, and people would religiously come to get it and really supported us," Failoni says. "People got so used to our food that we're now doing so much more of it than we used to. Now, hardly anyone comes here without eating, and it's not just for our homemade pizza. We have great grouper, appetizers, pastas; we look like a little bar, so people come in not expecting much, and they are surprised. It's good to hear their feedback, because we take a lot of pride in it and try to do it right."
Beyond the pandemic, the Failoni family recently suffered a significant loss that has left a hole in everyone's hearts.
This past November, Failoni's brother Alex Jr. passed away from cancer at the age of 60 (he followed Alex Sr., who passed away in 2015).
It has been a very difficult time not only for the family, but for those regulars who came to know and love him as much for his warm presence as his outstanding voice.
Though no one can take his place, Vic Failoni credits his nephew, Joey Meiners, with being a major source of support. Since coming on board and partnering with Failoni in 2009, he has breathed new life into the longtime establishment and is helping to ensure the place carries on through the next generation — something Failoni feels is vital not only for his family and their legacy, but for the St. Louis hospitality community as a whole.
"You don't see many places like this anymore, and we probably take it for granted," Failoni says. "We have such a good clientele and like to say that Failoni's is for everybody. You can have 80-year-olds listening to music with kids sitting right next to them. It's such a family atmosphere. On Friday nights, you come in and see everyone having a great time — you can't explain it; you have to experience it. Everyone in the crowd has such a smile on their face, and it's just such a refreshing release from life."
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