ST. LOUIS, MO - Between the Eads Bridge and the Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge, there's a restaurant that's a bit off the beaten path. But when you see this neon sign at First and Biddle, you know you're in the right place.
"It's right on the other side of the tracks. I like to call it the right side of the tracks," said Suzanne Corbett.
Al's Restaurant has been in the same location on the St. Louis riverfront for 92 years. Food writer Suzanne Corbett was so enamored by the history, she wrote about it in her book "Unique Eats and Eateries of St. Louis."
"What's great about this place is the food, the style, it's great tableside service," she said.
Italian immigrants Louise and Albert Barroni, Sr. opened Al's in1925 in what was an old sugar warehouse.
J. Gary Neal, who married into the family business, said, "It started off humble beginnings... where dock workers would come and eat egg sandwiches."
But in the mid-60s, there was a fire, as depicted in this painting on the wall.
"The building behind us caught fire and fell on this half of the restaurant," he said.
After the fire, the owners son', Albert, Junior, turned the restaurant into a fine dining institution. That's also the same time this steamboat bar was built.
Neal said, "The wood inside the bar was carved by monks from one of the local monestaries."
Corbett said, "The floor boards came off of a steamboat itself."
Neal said, "We've been told there's no other bar like this in the world."
Corbett said, "The painting was done by a mural set designer renowned for his art."
Neal said, "If people want to know what the Mississippi looked like in 1880s 1890s, come on in and look at the mural."
You might also notice, there's just one window in the whole place.
Neal said, "That's where the front door used to be... when the railroad came into being, Al didn't want people walking out the door and into a train."
And as for the menu, well, there is no menu.
Neal said, "At Al's, we do not have a printed menu we have a visual menu."
It takes about 10 minutes for servers to recite the menu. The recipes are all 92 years old from Milan, Italy. Like the menu here, none of the recipes are written down, but passed down. Executive Chef Mark Hibler learned them from his mother who worked here for 63 years.
Hibler said, "She was the head chef before I got here."
Many famous faces have sat in these chairs including Frank Sinatra, and that's quite a story from 1982.
Neal said, "Frank and Al were very close friends. And one night Frank came in by himself. And Al says, 'Frank, what can I get you?' He says, 'I'd like two steaks.' He says, 'Two steaks? Frank. What in the world do you want two steaks for? You're here by yourself.' And he said, 'Well, my driver is out in the car watching my dog. and the steak is for his dog.' He says, 'Bring that dog in here.' So Frank and his dog ate at Table 8."
Al's was the place to be and it still is.
"Most recently, we had John Oates of Haul and Oates," said Neal.
Al's continues to be a destination and a history lesson. As well as St. Louis' oldest single-family, locally owned and operated restaurant that has never moved.
Neal said, "We've never advertised, it's all by word of mouth."
And when the food is this good, that's all you need.
Corbett said, "That is truly amazing."
Al's is located at 1200 North First Street and the number for reservations, which are suggested, is 314-421-6399.
Hours: Tues-Thurs 5-9 PM - Fri & Sat 5-10 PM
Suzanne Corbett's book, Unique Eats and Eateries of St. Louis, is available on Amazon, Left Bank Books, The Novel Neighbor and many other bookstores.
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