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Bye-bye, Beffa's: Loyal customers turn out for last lunch at 113-year-old St. Louis institution

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 27, 2011 - They started lining up just before 11 a.m. But Michael Beffa wasn't quite ready. He still needed to hoist and position the 25-pound roast on the carving block. By 11:15 the line was backed up to the far northern wall and snaking toward the door fronting Olive Street.

This was Michael's last day carving the roast, the turkey, the corned beef and pork roast in a small, unmarked building at 2700 Olive Street. He is the third generation in his family to do so over the course of 113 years.

The last day was pretty much like any other day at Beffa's. Given the line, there really wasn't any time for toasts or cake cutting or a mayoral proclamation -- nor for interviews with the press. Instead, you found the usual cast of characters: the police officers, firefighters, civil servants, lawyers, stockbrokers, retirees waiting patiently with their trays for a last supper. About 80 percent of them were men, the typical turnout. Most were regulars having been brought to this place over the years by a colleague or an elder who introduced them around.

You could always find a familiar face, many you couldn't quite place but someone you'd seen in the paper from time to time or on television. Frequently, until his death in 2007, you'd find former Sen. Tom Eagleton holding court at one table (he told the late Post-Dispatch reporter John McGuire that Beffa's was his Bogey Club) and a current or retired chief of police at another. Jerry Berger would be making the rounds.

The food was nothing to write home about because it was almost exactly like home.

Everyday you had your choice of the roasts or fried fish. You could have your sandwich exactly how you liked it. Michael would ask if you liked it open-faced perhaps with mashed potatoes and gravy or with mac and cheese. Add a sweet gherkin and a deviled egg and a piece of cherry pie, tapioca or a brownie, he would suggest. There were daily specials, including tongue on Tuesdays.

Michael always did the carving and you wondered whether after all these years how or whether he avoided a repetitive stress injury. As he ticked off your choices, he made every selection sound absolutely delectable. Family members, including wife Nancy, and staff played supporting roles at the register, in the kitchen, behind the steam table and out front where you could always get someone to fetch another cup of coffee or piece of pie so you didn't have to go back through the line.

This all started in 1898 when Anselmo Beffa emigrated from Switzerland and opened a saloon just across the street from the current location. "Sam" Beffa was later joined by his brother Attilo "Till," and the two weathered prohibition by serving up sandwiches. Beffa's has been operating at the current location since 1966.

Many people considered the enterprise a throwback. But there have been notable concessions to modernity. Beffa's began taking credit cards sometime after the cafeteria hit the century mark. It has a website and an e-mail, beffas@beffas.com. At some point, the Beffas started offering smoothies and cappuccino, though this reporter, a semi-regular, has never seen either one served up much less quaffed.

Ed Finkelstein, publisher of the St. Louis/Southern Illinois Labor Tribune, has been a regular at Beffa's for about 15 years. It could have been longer given that Finkelstein has been at the Labor Tribune on nearby Ewing Avenue for decades, but he had never seen the place nor heard of it until a friend brought him in. By the second visit, Finkelstein recalled fondly, Michael Beffa knew his name.

"I was shocked when they said they were closing," Finkelstein said during a visit last week. "It's a St. Louis institution. It's tragic." Regulars remembered other iconic cafeterias that have been swept into the dustbin of culinary history, including Garavelli's in midtown (though there is a Garavelli's still open in St. Louis Hills), the Salad Bowl in midtown, Miss Hulling's downtown and the Branding Iron in Clayton.

Gene Walsh, a former aide to the late Missouri Gov. Warren E. Hearnes, said he used to dine at Beffa's daily. Walsh, who went to high school with Michael Beffa's dad, Francis, said a simple ham sandwich was his favorite and Sen. Eagleton's as well. But it's the camaraderie that made the place special. "You would never eat alone if you didn't want to."

Bob Susman, an attorney in Clayton, seconded that with a story about the day he came in alone and saw former Police Lt. Col. Jim Hackett waving at him from across the room. He wanted Susman to join him at a table with a couple of car dealers, the Suntrups and a guy named Stan Musial. "To have lunch with Stan Musial," Susman said. "I didn't have to be asked twice and I couldn't have arranged it otherwise."