St. Louis restaurant finds itself in stadium blueprint

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ST LOUIS - A 90-year-old St. Louis restaurant finds itself a part of the Rams' proposed stadium plans, but the restaurant is not what is pictured on the blueprint.

Al's is more than a restaurant. It is the oldest same family in the same location restaurant in St. Louis. Three generations of one St. Louis family make up this unique landmark restaurant.

Restaurant owner Pam Neal said she is completely supportive of revitalizing the riverfront area. In fact, the restaurant has been a part of supporting the riverfront since the beginning.

It all started in 1925 when Louise and Albert Barroni, Sr. had the idea to open a place of their own. Neal's grandparents transformed an old sugarhouse exchange building into a happening lunch spot for the dockworkers along the Mississippi River.

"She used to just serve egg sandwiches to the dock workers and it became so popular that they wanted more from her," said Neal.

In the mid-60's, a nearby building caught fire and collapsed on Al's. Ironically, this revived the restaurant more than ever. Neal's father, Al Jr., decided when they redesigned the restaurant he would transform it from the lunch and egg sandwiches it was once known for into a fine dining restaurant.

Even though Neal is now a wife, parent, and grandparent currently living halfway across the country in California, she said she understood it would be her duty to carry on the family restaurant when her parents grew old and passed.

"Seeing my grandparents and my parents, and the time and the blood, sweat and tears put into here, I knew in the back of my mind my heart would be here," Neal said. 

Al's is on the very corner of the proposed stadium site blueprint. The initial renderings of the project showed the restaurant as a parking structure. The most recent renderings released early March 2015 have Al's location as a landscape area.

"As small as we are and as little as an impact we would have toward the stadium plan, it is our hopes that we can talk to someone and see about keeping us around," Neal said. 

Neal claimed she has not been contacted by anyone from the St. Louis Regional Convention and Sports Complex Authority, one of the groups heading the new stadium plans.

Neal also said no one from the governor's office has reached out to her. She said this is very surprising since Governor Nixon held a press conference earlier in 2015 on the edge of the restaurant's parking lot.

"They could've sent a letter with the governor having his conference just on the fringe of our parking lot here. Someone could've knocked on the door," Neal said.

If the restaurant is able to stay, and the stadium plans go through, Neal said she believes the restaurant could help differentiate St. Louis from other NFL cities.

"I think it would be great to integrate the history along with the new," Neal said. "If you don't have what's unique to the city and culture than you are just the same sort of cookie-cutter event facility."

Al's is known to many celebrities, including Frank Sinatra. General Manager Harold Brazzle said he was working the night Sinatra came in, and remembers it all very well.

"He asked for a small filet, cooked medium-well, cut into small pieces. I looked at him curious, and he said I have my dogs in the car," Brazzle said. "Luckily, Al was a dog lover. I think sometimes he liked dogs more than people, so once I told [Al], Al told Mr. Sinatra to bring his dogs in."

Brazzle has worked at Al's for 45 years as of March 15, 2015 and has seen many exciting transitions with the restaurant. However, he isn't even the longest employed worker at with Al's. Willie Mae Hidler, the executive chef, has worked at Al's for 60 years. 

Neal said one of the things she values most in the restaurant is her staff. Twenty percent of the full-time staff at Al's are senior citizens. The other 80 percent are African Americans. 

"We have a very diverse group of people working here and I hope [Nixon and his task force] will take that into consideration and at least want to have a conversation," Neal said. 

Neal is still waiting for that conversation, while other places near Al's have received phone calls. Trigent St. Louis Energy, just east of Al's, received conformation that it will be preserved. Shady Jack's Saloon is just a few blocks from Al's, and saloon owners have been told they can stay, Neal said. 

Al's isn't officially on the list of National Historic Landmarks. Neal said it is a process, and they are working towards it.

"We certainly are in spirit a St. Louis landmark and institution, and we are very proud of that."

Neal and her staff said they are all for reviving the riverfront area, but they said they just want to integrate their small piece of history they have to offer with the future of St. Louis.