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Thursday, October 21, 2021

St. Louis Standards: Al's Restaurant Carries On the Riverfront's Legacy

Posted By on Thu, Oct 21, 2021 at 6:00 AM

click to enlarge Al's is a legendary St. Louis restaurant. - ANDY PAULISSEN
  • Al's is a legendary St. Louis restaurant.

When Pam Neal looks back at the old photographs from when her grandparents opened Al’s Restaurant (1200 North 1st Street, 314-421-6399), she is overwhelmed by just how different the riverfront was in those days. Back then, in 1925, you could find as many horses as people on the Landing and its environs, the dirt roads and cobblestone tailor-made for their clopping hooves as they helped move people around the neighborhood. However, even more striking than the infrastructure changes, Neal can’t help but marvel at how much energy there was in the area. At the time, the riverfront was the city’s commercial center, a vibrant hub of people and businesses — a far cry from the scene today.

“Back then, the riverfront looked so different than it does now,” Neal says. “It was thriving and bustling. There were so many cargo boats and steamboats and all of that. It really was the hub — where St. Louis grew out of, and its beginning. My grandparents were in the thick of things that started the growth of the entire city.”

The riverfront’s buzzing commercial activity is what brought her grandfather, Albert Borroni, down to its streets in the first place. A soda truck driver who had immigrated to St. Louis from Milan, Italy, with his wife, Louise, Borroni found himself making deliveries in the area almost daily. One of his stops was an old sugar warehouse — one of many that used to populate the riverfront  — that also served as a dry goods shop and saloon. Over time, he got to know the warehouse’s owner, then-Fire Chief Julius Vogel, and would sometimes go there with Louise. One day, the three got to talking about how Vogel wanted to retire, and a lightbulb went off in Louise’s head.

click to enlarge The bar at Al's is made to look like an old riverboat. - ANDY PAULISSEN
  • The bar at Al's is made to look like an old riverboat.

“She thought, ‘This is perfect’; she had some brothers and sisters who maybe weren’t quite as ambitious as her, so this seemed like a great thing to take it over and employ her family members,” Neal says. “Plus, the business was downstairs and there was a living area upstairs, so they would have a home too.”

The Borronis had no plans to change up the business they acquired, but Louise’s cooking made keeping things the same impossible. Upstairs, in the residential kitchen, she would cook for friends and neighbors who would stop by in the morning to play cards over a cup of coffee. Her egg sandwiches became famous in the neighborhood, and as word spread, she’d get people coming by just to enjoy her food. In fact, there were so many hungry guests showing up on her doorstep that Louise decided to start offering meals at the saloon. Over time, she built a steam table, and turned the place into a bona fide cafeteria.

“It was so popular at lunch,” Neal says. “It was a large cafeteria with whole hams, roast beef, turkeys, pastas and salads. It was a thriving business. Railroad engineers would stop the train right there in front of the restaurant, come in and have lunch, get back on the trains and go on with the rest of their route. They were serving hundreds and hundreds of lunches a day.”

That lunch business turned into early dinner business, and continued that way for years. Along the way, the restaurant became one of the city’s most famous places to dine, and celebrities who were in town performing at the Muny or other theaters would make sure to stop in for a bite to eat, with Albert driving them to and from their hotels. That popularity continued even after Albert passed away, with Louise holding down the fort as the main chef and proprietor — a distinction that made her one of the first (if not the very first) women business owners in town.

“She loved going to the symphony and the Muny, but in the restaurant business, you work 24/7 and can’t ever get away,” Neal says. “One day, she wanted to go so badly that she walked up to a woman washing dishes and said, ‘You know, I think I can teach you to cook and be a good chef.’ She trained her and was so happy because she could finally sneak off for a bit. It elevated the woman to a higher position, and I think it’s so great she chose to train a woman instead of a man. She ended up being the main chef for 65 years, and it’s her son who is our main chef today.”

That decades-long throughline is what makes Al’s so unique, even if there have been significant changes to the restaurant over the years. The most notable happened as the result of a tragedy that occurred in 1960 when the St. Louis Bag Company building next door caught fire one January morning and toppled onto Al’s. Though some of the main walls remained intact, the incident caused extensive damage and prompted Neal’s father, Al Jr., to think through what he wanted the next iteration of the restaurant to be. Running the restaurant after the death of his mother, the younger Al decided to rebuild as a more fine-dining-style establishment, getting rid of the steam tables, cutting out lunches and turning it into the elegant affair that it remains today.

click to enlarge Pam Neal is the third-generation proprietary of the storied Al's. - ANDY PAULISSEN
  • Pam Neal is the third-generation proprietary of the storied Al's.

Neal’s father made sure to not change the place too much, though. Despite having to renovate most of the restaurant following the building collapse, several key features remain, including the cobblestones from the riverfront, an actual gangplank from a riverboat, a mural painted by a man who was a set designer for the Muny, and woodwork hand-carved by monks that gives the bar a riverboat feel. Two years ago, that historic preservation was officially recognized by the City of St. Louis when Al’s was designated as one of the area’s 130 landmarks.

Neal feels honored to carry forth that legacy, and feels that she has an obligation to both her grandparents and the City of St. Louis to keep such an iconic establishment thriving after all these years. She wishes she could say the same for the riverfront in general. When she thinks back on the area’s many different heydays — from the bustling days of the steamboats to the 1980s and ’90s nighttime energy of the Landing — she can’t help but feel down about the current state of affairs. However, what gives her hope is the handful of business owners who are putting in the effort to make the area a destination again; because her family has been around long enough to see the ebbs and flows of activity, she is optimistic that the riverfront will reclaim some of its former glory — and she is eager for Al’s to be a part of it for generations to come.

“One of the reasons to keep on through all these generations is that, for a city to thrive, you really need diverse offerings to attract people,” Neal says. “There are new restaurants that are prettier and glitzier and fancier than us; some people come in and don’t like the way we look, because we maintain the integrity and history. We’ve redone things, and it’s not ancient, but they want shiny. The overwhelming amount of people appreciate the feel and history, though. It adds to the landscape and vibrancy of the city. You need places like us and new trendy spots, too. They all fit in with the others to make things interesting and not the same, and create the unique experiences that people equate with St. Louis.”

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