Photography by Kevin A. Roberts
At least a third of this country’s woes could be ameliorated, if not eliminated entirely, by requiring men to wear jackets to dinner. One ponders such matters while seated in coat and tie at a table of starched linen, with tableware set impeccably and lighting dialed to a level somewhere between Romantic and Formal, at Al’s Restaurant.
The place is, of course, a legend, locally and internationally. The well-known and well-heeled have dined here over the years. August Busch IV has a private beer cabinet in the dining room. Playboy has heralded the place among the top 10 steakhouses in the world. (A German edition of Playboy, tastefully displayed in the foyer, celebrates the achievement.) Among St. Louis’ most interesting eating locales, the location got its start in 1865 as a riverside sugar warehouse, and the restaurant took over in 1925. Suffice it to say, your grasp of the St. Louis dining scene is infirm unless you have visited at least once.
There are no menus—you’ll be reminded of this at least twice, as though it were some provenance of sophistication and élan. Pay attention, then, when your waiter reels off a list of appetizers. Well, not really. They’re almost entirely steakhouse standards: onion rings, stuffed mushrooms, the obligatory shrimp cocktail, creditable escargot. Some starters, such as carpaccio and barbecue tenderloin tips, seem odd for a steak place. No matter. You’ve come for the main course: meat.
There’s no mention of wet versus dry aging here or of the pasture where your steak once roamed. Al’s seems to feel that diners will be suitably dazzled by the enormous platter of raw protein, arrayed tableside for your delectation. The cuts are obviously top-grade: beguilingly appetizing, well-marbled, rosy pink, with even the petite filet looking like a caloric challenge. A few noncow offerings are crowded onto the platter. We were tempted by a salmon flank, as well as a lobster tail. How, though, could we pass up lamb chops? The lamb arrives perfectly sautéed, tender-rare, the seasoned breading lending a crusty undercurrent of herbs and butter. A dollop of wild rice alongside is a fine accompaniment.
We traded our last chop for a bite of our table companion’s New York strip steak, a dinner deal you’d do well to make, too. The strip is exquisite. It’s from the short loin, in that sweet spot between the tenderloin and the rib-eye, with the soft grain of the former and the taste of the latter. The steak that emerges from a kitchen like Al’s has marbling that adds a rich, full taste that explodes on the palate. One bite of a steak like this, and you know why Al’s is still in business after nearly 90 years.
Al’s signature dish is a petite filet mignon. It’s split open so prosciutto and Romano cheese can be stuffed inside, then massaged with garlic, dusted with Italian bread crumbs, and sautéed before being oven-finished. It’s unapologetically extravagant, slathered with a glossy Marsala sauce. You know the deal with these short-loin cuts: The texture is butter itself, but the taste is bland, which is why Al’s dresses this cut so vividly. And it works, pleasantly combining the added taste and the meat’s natural texture. A pork chop, two bones’ worth, skirted delicately with fat, gets a more restrained treatment, dressed with a Burgundy-cherry reduction. The chop is grilled, resulting in a fragrant char and intense flavor.
Salads (ordinary chopped lettuce and greens) appear with all main courses, but like the starters, their role is little more than a cameo. Sides do the job: asparagus ladled with hollandaise sauce; spinach au gratin; baked potatoes. Do not pass on the cottage fries, a rarely prepared starch these days that turns potato slices into crispy golden shingles. Pastas—like a penne with cream, tomato sauce, and anise-tinged sambuca, as well as angel hair with garlic, basil, and butter—are worthwhile.
A wine list demands serious perusal. While prices are steep, even by steakhouse standards, selections are entirely suitable and exciting. Top-flight Burgundy (think Gevrey-Chambertin) and Bordeaux (like Chateau Haut-Brion) do much for the beef. (Inexplicably, wines by the glass are listed simply as “Merlot,” “Chardonnay,” and so on.) Desserts include chocolate soufflé, macerated fruits, and cheesecake. A meal like this, though, is best finished with a digestif from the bar.
The interior has been described as “shabby”—a serious mischaracterization. Oak paneling and thick carpeting help create a subdued, dignified atmosphere accentuated by white linen, heavy cutlery, and tableside presentations. The bar is a charming, slightly campy re-creation of a steamboat salon. Yes, the artwork looks like it was taken from the set of a ’60s sitcom. And yes, the “no menu”—hence no prices before you see the bill—folderol is just embarrassing; there is nothing elegant or “traditional” about this. But the overall sensation is one of charm and refreshing formality.
Service is…gracious—and, oh, how one wishes that adjective could be more liberally used in describing restaurants today. The staff is genteel, competent, and patient in answering questions about the history of the place. From the maître d’hôtel to the busboys, every employee at Al’s looks delighted to be there. Dressed formally to make it a special occasion, you will be, too.
The Bottom Line: Steak—great steak—in St. Louis’ most iconic steakhouse.
1200 N. First
Average Main Course: Prices are unlisted, but figure at least $50 per person without wine.
Dress: As William Henry Channing put it, “Seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion.”
Reservations: Really? You think?
Chef: Mae Hibbler