St. Louis Standards: Al’s Restaurant Continues Riverfront Legacy

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  • ANDY PAULISSEN
  • Al’s is a legendary restaurant in St. Louis.

When Pam Neal looks back at the old photographs of her grandparents’ opening Al’s restaurant (1200 North 1st Street, 314-421-6399), she is upset by how different the riverside was back then. At the time, in 1925, one could find as many horses as inhabitants on the D-Day landings and its surroundings, the dirt roads and the cobblestones tailor-made for their hooves which beat as they were helping to move people around the neighborhood. . Even more striking than the infrastructure changes, however, Neal couldn’t help but marvel at the amount of energy there was in the area. Back then, the riverside was the city’s commercial hub, a vibrant hub of people and businesses – a far cry from today’s scene.

“Back then, the riverside was so different than it is now,” says Neal. “It was flourishing and lively. There were so many freighters and steamboats and all that. It really was the hub – where St. Louis was born and started. My grandparents were at the heart of the things that sparked the growth of the whole city. ”

The bustling commercial activity of the riverside is what brought his grandfather, Albert Borroni, to its streets in the first place. A soda truck driver who immigrated to St. Louis from Milan, Italy with his wife Louise, Borroni found himself making deliveries to the area almost daily. One of its stops was a former sugar warehouse – one of many that populated the riverside – which also served as a dry goods store and living room. Over time, he got to know the warehouse owner, then fire chief, Julius Vogel, and sometimes went there with Louise. One day the three started talking about how Vogel wanted to retire, and a light bulb lit up in Louise’s head.

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Al's bar is designed to look like an old river boat.  - ANDY PAULISSEN

  • ANDY PAULISSEN
  • Al’s bar is designed to look like an old river boat.

“She thought, ‘This is perfect’; she had siblings who might not be as ambitious as her, so it seemed like a good thing to take over and employ family members, ”says Neal. “Also, the business was downstairs and there was a living room upstairs, so they would also have a house.”

The Borronis had no plans to change the business they acquired, but Louise’s cooking made it impossible to maintain the same. Upstairs, in the home kitchen, she cooked for friends and neighbors who spent the mornings playing cards over a cup of coffee. Her egg sandwiches became famous in the neighborhood, and as the word spread, she brought in people just to enjoy her food. In fact, there were so many hungry guests showing up at her door that Louise decided to start offering meals at the saloon. Over time, she built a steam table and turned the place into a real cafeteria.

“It was so popular at lunch,” says Neal. “It was a big cafeteria with whole hams, roast beef, turkeys, pasta and salads. It was a thriving business. Railway engineers would stop the train right in front of the restaurant, enter and have lunch, get back on the trains, and continue the rest of their route. They served hundreds and hundreds of lunches a day.

This lunch activity evolved into an early dinner activity and continued that way for years. Along the way, the restaurant became one of the city’s most famous places to dine, and celebrities performing in town at Muny or other theaters made sure to stop for a bite to eat. , Albert leading them to and from their hotels. This popularity continued even after Albert passed away, with Louise holding the fort as the main chef and owner – a distinction that made her one of the first (if not the very first) female business owners. from the city.

“She loved going to the symphony orchestra and the Muny, but in the restaurant business you work 24/7 and you can never get away with it,” says Neal. “One day she wanted to go so badly that she walked up to a woman who was doing the dishes and said, ‘You know, I think I can teach you how to cook and how to be a good chef. ‘ She trained her and was so happy because she could finally squeeze in a bit. It lifted the woman to a higher position, and I think it’s so great that she chose to train a woman rather than a man. She ended up being the main chef for 65 years, and it’s her son who is our main chef today.

This decades-long journey is what makes Al’s so unique, even though there have been some significant changes to the restaurant over the years. The most notable came in the wake of a tragedy in 1960 when the nearby St. Louis Bag Company building caught fire one January morning and fell into Al’s. While some of the main walls remained intact, the incident caused extensive damage and prompted Neal’s father Al Jr. to think about what he wanted the next iteration of the restaurant to be. Running the restaurant after his mother’s death, young Al set out to rebuild himself into a more gourmet-style establishment, getting rid of steam tables, cutting lunches and turning it into the elegant business he remains today.

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Pam Neal is the third generation owner of the legendary Al. - ANDY PAULISSEN

  • ANDY PAULISSEN
  • Pam Neal is the third generation owner of the legendary Al’s.

Neal’s father, however, made sure not to change places too much. Although much of the restaurant had to be renovated after the building collapsed, several key elements remain, including the cobblestones along the riverside, a veritable gangway from a riverboat, a mural painted by a man who was a scenographer for the Muny and handmade woodwork. -carved by monks which gives the bar a riverboat feel. Two years ago, this historic preservation was officially recognized by the city of St. Louis when Al’s was designated as one of 130 monuments in the area.

Neal feels honored to carry on this legacy and believes that she has an obligation to her grandparents and the city of Saint-Louis to make such an iconic establishment prosper after all these years. She wishes she could say the same for the riverside in general. As she thinks back to the region’s many heyday – from the bustling days of the steamboats to the nighttime energy of the D-Day landings of the 1980s and 1990s – she can’t help but feel down on the current state of affairs. . What gives him hope, however, is the handful of business owners who are striving to make the region a destination again; Because her family has been around long enough to see the ebb and flow of activity, she’s optimistic the riverside will regain some of its former glory – and she can’t wait for Al to be a part of it for generations to come. to come.

“One of the reasons you keep going through all of these generations is that in order for a city to be successful, you really need diverse offerings to attract people,” says Neal. “There are new restaurants that are prettier, more lavish and more chic than us; some people come in and dislike our appearance because we maintain integrity and history. We redid things, and it’s not old, but they want shine. The overwhelming amount of people appreciate the feel and the story, however. It adds to the landscape and dynamism of the city. You also need places like us and cool new places. They all integrate with each other to make things interesting and different, and create the unique experiences that people find in St. Louis.

We are always hungry for advice and feedback. Email the author at [email protected]

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