Joe Garavelli first came to the United States from Italy in 1901 when he was 17 years old. He joined his two brothers, Ben and Charlie, in New York, where they had a bar and restaurant. But Garavelli got homesick and returned to Italy. When he came back to the United States a second time in 1903, his brothers had moved to St. Louis, and Garavelli followed.
Ben and Charlie Garavelli opened a cafe at Grand and Olive; their “Garavelli’s” would remain in business until 1979. But Joe Garavelli struck out on his own. He opened a tavern on a vacant lot at the corner of DeBaliviere and DeGiverville in 1914, furnishing it with a splendid old-fashioned bar and mahogany paneled walls. At first, the only company he saw was the motorman on the streetcar which looped at DeBaliviere and went back to town. But as the neighborhood began building up, business picked up and Garavelli became THE place to go.
Garavelli was beginning to enjoy steady prosperity when Prohibition came along. While some tavern owners turned to bootlegging, Garavelli decided to stake his fortune on ham-and-cheese-on-rye.
When Garavelli was still working for his brothers, one of the things he learned was to make a good combination ham and cheese on rye. The casual observer might have thought one ham and cheese sandwich on rye was much like any other, but Garavelli would have told them otherwise. His customers agreed.
His business was built on one ham, one hunk of cheese and one loaf of bread. One of Garavelli’s sandwiches provided a square meal for the average man, and it cost 15 cents. He added hot roast beef to the menu, then various other dishes, including spaghetti and mostaccioli, and on Fridays, his famous filet of sole.
Garavelli was the first to offer drive-in service in St. Louis, with seven waiters in white jackets taking care of the automobile trade at the curb. He also claimed to be the first to institute take-out service, which proved very popular; one could always rush over to Garavelli for ham and cheese and spaghetti when last minute guests dropped in.
In 1926, a big dining room with marble walls, a crystal chandelier and a marble fountain was added to the place, and Garavelli became an institution.
In the dining room one could get a full-course dinner, but Garavelli regulars preferred the old bar with its buffet. It had reached the point where each day there were 15 carvers serving up to 75 baked hams, as many as 50 big, rare and juicy roasts of beef, and nobody knew how much spaghetti with meat sauce.
It was one of the memorable pleasures of life to step up to the buffet, watch the white-coated carvers with long, razor-edged knives cut away thick and juicy slabs of baked ham with masterly precision, dip big slices of rye bread into hot, red-eye gravy and put the sandwich together with the delicate care of men who loved their work. Then one proceeded to a little counter at back where Garavelli himself, wearing a white jacket, presided amid kosher pickles, herring, potato salad, coleslaw and a selection of cheeses. He greeted everyone with, “Hello, my friend,” or in the case of a younger customer, “Hello, my boy.” The youngsters always had breadsticks to munch on.
That was one face of Joe Garavelli, the face seen by customers who came in the front door. There was another face seen by those who came to the back door. It was the face of compassion. Garavelli used to say, “Anyone can eat who has money.” But during the depression there were many who did not. Garavelli never turned down a man because he was broke. When the depression was at its worst, Garavelli handed out as many as 150 box lunches a day at his back door.
Four times a year, Garavelli treated the children at Shriner’s Hospital to ice cream and cake, and every summer he would go to Boy Scout camp and cook a feast of baked ham, chicken and spaghetti for the boys. In 1930, Garavelli was decorated by King Victor Emanuel as a Knight of the Crown of Italy in recognition of his charitable work.
For the next 10 years, Garavelli continued to preside between the herring and the coleslaw, surrounded by signs he liked to put around the place. They all started with “Joe says” and conveyed such messages as, “Don’t ask for credit” and “No checks cashed,” neither of which meant a thing because Garavelli would always cash a check or give credit.
In 1941, at the age of 57, Joe Garavelli retired from the restaurant business. Even though in good health, he decided it was time to “take things easy.”
Garavelli tried to sell his restaurant to his employees, but ended up selling the business to August Sabadell, the catering manager of the Chase hotel. In 1952, the restaurant was sold to Stan Musial and his restaurateur partner Julius (Biggie) Garagnani. It changed hands multiple times after that, going downhill as customers moved westward and the neighborhood deteriorated.
The restaurant was auctioned off piece by piece in 1974. The 84-foot bar was sold for $70, a steam table that cost $12,000 to install brought only $275, bar stools went for $3, water glasses 5 cents apiece, and salt & pepper shakers 16 cents. The chandelier of handcut prisms that once gleamed in the dining room brought $5,250.
The building itself was demolished in 1987. All of the buildings on the block were razed – the so-called “DeBaliviere Strip,” which included Garavelli, the Stardust Lounge, the Apollo Art Theater and Sorrento’s. Preservationists worked to save 28,000 pounds of multicolored terra cotta that adorned the top of the building and its front windows.
Over the years, multiple Garavelli’s restaurants opened (and closed) throughout the area, including at Westport Plaza, on Manchester in Maplewood, on Manchester in Rock Hill and on Chippewa. The Rock Hill and Chippewa locations were institutions in their own right.
Joe Garavelli died on October 1, 1968 at the age of 84. While he had no official connection to the business after he sold it in 1941, he spent much of his retirement at the restaurant. Most any day, winter or summer, between late morning and early afternoon, he could be found there drinking coffee, talking to old friends and greeting customers with his customary, “Hello, my friend.” His establishment on the corner of DeBaliviere and DeGiverville was a friendly place. Hundreds of St. Louisians hoped for years that he would take charge again. But the man whose ham and cheese on rye had the world beating a path to his door never did.
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