Alex Dooley grew up in south St. Louis and
attended St. Mary’s and Chaminade high schools. He got
into the restaurant trade as a teenage busboy at Rigazzi’s on the
Dooley opened his restaurant on the ground
floor of the Chemical Building, at 308 North 8th Street, between
Olive and Locust. He put plaid wallpaper and wooden crests on the
wall, and hung chandeliers. Dooley originally opened his restaurant
as Beef Eaters, with an Old English facade. When an agent for
Beefeater Gin dropped by to discuss copyright, Dooley put his own
name on the sign instead.
Dooley's started as a burger joint, and over
the years, the "Dooley Burger" became a staple of the downtown diet.
Customers ordered in a cafeteria line and watched their burger as it progressed from six ounces of
raw ground beef to a full-meal sandwich with toppings of their
choice. There were many, but the definitive Dooley’s topping was a
small scoop of Port wine cheese spread. The result was a juicy and
tender burger, with good flavor, which filled the toasted sesame
seed bun. In 1975, TWA called the Dooley Burger the best in
When time was important and privacy not, Dooley’s was the perfect place for lunch. Food came rapidly, and since customers carried their own trays past the condiment counter and on to a table, there was little waste of time. Chairs were available, but most seemed content to stand as they ate their burgers from paper baskets. Those with more time sampled free popcorn or sat at the bar, where full liquor service and draft beer were available.
Dooley’s eventually grew into an almost
full-sized lunch restaurant with a lengthy menu, including salads, club
sandwiches, steaks, fried chicken and even appetizers like crab
Rangoon and toasted ravioli. A favorite was Dooley's beer frank, a fat juicy
hot dog, split in half and grilled so the edges were slightly blackened.
Dooley's glory days were in the ’70s and ’80s. Customers lined up for 45 minutes to wrap their hands around one of Dooley's succulent burgers. But in the '90s, things were starting to change. Alex Dooley described "a creeping cancer" of emptiness moving eastward from Tucker Boulevard. "Eighth Street is not the hot spot it used to be," he lamented. "Downtown looks better, but it's not as active."
In 2006, the Chemical Building was acquired by Heisman Properties, a group of investors from Los Angeles. They planned to turn the historic skyscraper into a posh new condominium development to be known as the Alexa Lofts. This should have been good news for Alex Dooley's eatery, but the new owners wanted Dooley's space for an underground parking garage. At first Dooley resisted, but in the end, a deal was struck to pay off his $35,000 credit line and end his lease early.
After almost 40 years in business, Dooley’s
Ltd. turned out its last Dooley Burger on March 17, 2008 – St.
Patrick’s Day. There was hardly a place to stand as customers pushed
their way through the crowded restaurant to give Alex Dooley a pat
on the back or a hug. "We’re having an Irish wake," said Dooley.
"It's very sad," he continued. "Downtown is losing its charm."
In 2011, Dooley's son Sean opened Dooley’s Beef N Brew House at the corner of Grand and Washington, where Dooley Burgers were again served until the restaurant closed in 2015.
Alex Dooley died on February 20, 2014 at the
age of 74. In his heyday as a downtown restaurateur and pub owner,
Dooley was second to none as a champion of the "little guy." He was
a tireless voice for small businesses, which he felt were overlooked
and abandoned by government and big business. He was always
battling. But through it all, when you walked in his door, no matter
who you were, he always greeted you with a smile.
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