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Kevin A. Roberts
A picture of the bar in Al's Restaurant taken in early 2013 depicting a St. Louis riverfront from a century earlier. The notorious "gangplank" is in the foreground.
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Local painter Marilynne Bradley's interpretation of Al's Restaurant, in watercolor.
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Another current photograph of the bar at Al's Restaurant.
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The Filet Romano, a house specialty. A mushroom-laden Marsala sauce is served on the side.
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Double-cut pork chop with a burgundy cherry reduction
As someone who's been writing about food in St. Louis off and on for the past eight years, I was surprised that I had never heard of Al's Restaurant, especially considering it was in a more deserted part of town which I've been fascinated with for just as long. But a reservation as a Christmas present from my manfriend soon undid my ignorance.
This is not a full-blown review, because this place, to me, isn't about the food; it's about an experience that's a little outdated and, ultimately, undeniably curious.
We weaved our way around the rural folks figuring out how to parallel park on the stone streets of Laclede's Landing, past the numerous entrances to the casino and hotel, and came to a stop at Biddle where we weren't allowed to cross the tracks because of the chrome-encased 1940s Southern Pacific and Pennsylvania train cars recently dubbed the Polar Express—full of excited children, holiday lights and dancing chefs—slowly creeping north.
When we finally crossed, there was Al's—small and unassuming—with a single parking valet in front, a limo parked just down the street, and a large, empty lot. We parked and walked in to no host, but saw after a few minutes an older gentleman rushing around then motioning to us that he'd be with us in one moment.
When one of the waiters happened by, he did not check to make sure we had a reservation, nor did he take our coats, but asked if we'd like to sit at a table or have a drink first at the bar. We opted for the latter because I noticed a wall mural and large barrels labeled "rum" and "whiskey" just inside.
And then the waiter said something I've never heard before but now want to hear more often:
"Please, walk across the gangplank, and I'll meet you at the bar."
He a Maker's, me a Campari. As we sat there sipping our drinks, I noted that it felt like we were about to the murdered victims in a mystery dinner theatre with a cast of a mere seven—the total number of other diners in the restaurant at 7pm on a Friday after Christmas.
(As Dave Lowry mentioned in his 2013 review, "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.")
We were shown to our seats, where a bus man pulled out my chair and dropped napkins into our laps, the latter being a first for me. We listened intently as the appetizers were rattled off to us (as there never have been printed menus at Al's), and watched in awe as the waiter manhandled our options for a main course from behind what I now call the "meat cart." My companion wanted the full experience and ordered the house special, Beef Romano, a butterflied filet stuffed with cheese and cured pork, then breaded and pan-fried. While the romano didn't quite measure up to his expectations (Lowry thought differently), my rack of lamb arrived as ordered, a perfectly done rare.
The waiter was friendly throughout our meal and offered us coffee with our chocolate cake, so I ordered a cup and asked about the ancient, unused espresso maker in the corner of the dining room.
"We had a group of scrap metal professionals in here last week and they were drooling over it," he said.
Kevin A. Roberts
This once magnificent machine from the 1960s (above) was fully operational up until 10 years ago when it was used dozens and dozens of times a night, to the delight of patrons impressed with its bells and whistles and old-timey elegance. It now sits on a table in front of a mirror with the water pitchers, catching the eyes of people who see its value only in scrap worth. Its fall from grace as the establishment's centerpiece could be used as a metaphor for Al's itself: a once overly popular destination restaurant is now an after-thought, seen as second to the more modern approaches.
And this is unfortunate.
Speaking as someone from a generation who is not seen frequenting Al's, the appeal to me is not so much the food as much as it is the aesthetic, the traditions, and the history. There is nothing else like this anywhere here. There are no waiters who work as hard as the ones here do. And nowhere in St. Louis, I assure you, will you ever be directed to walk across the gangplank to the bar.
1200 N. First
Dinner Tue - Sat