Wednesday, February 7, 1996
Lunch loyalty spans 50 years at McAlpin's

BY CLIFF RADEL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Jeane Moser needs to find a new place to eat lunch downtown.

For 50 years, she ate at McAlpin's. She was no casual diner. She went there almost every day, five days a week, 50 weeks a year for 50 years. That's roughly 10,000-plus lunches.

Monday through Friday at 2 p.m., she'd leave her receptionist's desk at Stan Chesley's 15th-floor law offices in the Central Trust Tower, take an elevator to the first floor, walk two doors down Fourth Street and hang a left under the sign that still reads: ''Join us for lunch at our 5th Floor Grill.''

Jeane's favorite lunch spot disappeared Friday when McAlpin's closed its grill. Saturday, the entire store closed. For good.

On Sunday, the department store's trademark clock, the one that had kept time on Fourth Street for 95 years, vanished. It was moved to the Verdin Co.'s Eastern Avenue plant for safekeeping until that day arrives when the city forks over enough money for McAlpin's to open a new downtown store.

At the old store, closing signs were posted on the doors. In bland corporate-ese, they make the vague promise of ''looking forward to announcing our new location on 5th Street in the near future.''

Not one word was wasted on thanking generations of Cincinnatians for shopping and eating at the downtown McAlpin's.

Last lunch

Before McAlpin's went away, Jeane had one last late lunch. She was in fact, the restaurant's final customer.

''I had to go the last day,'' says Jeane sitting at her command post, the tidy antique desk - dominated by the huge multibuttoned white phone - in the law firm's foyer. ''It was sad. But the people who worked there were so nice.''

They festooned her table with balloons and bought her the restaurant's last plate lunch.

''All I wanted was soup,'' she says. ''But they fixed me up a plate of fish and peas. All on the house! Just because I was their last customer.''

As Jeane tells her story, Janet Abaray, a lawyer in Chesley's firm, approaches the receptionist's desk.

Ms. Abaray is on her way to lunch. But she'll be darned if she knows where.

''I'll go some place,'' she says. ''But it won't be McAlpin's.'' And she'll miss it. Especially fish day.

''On Fridays, it seemed like every attorney in town would go to McAlpin's for the fish,'' Ms. Abaray says. Lawyers would gather to talk shop, sit in judgment of judges and eat. ''Fish day at McAlpin's was a huge deal.''

Reasons for going

Between phone calls, Jeane explained her 50 years of loyalty to McAlpin's. Clearly in charge and stylishly dressed, the receptionist who cheerfully sings out the high-powered law firm's full name to all callers knows exactly why she made almost a daily pilgrimage to the store's restaurant for lunch.

''It was a short walk. The food was good and inexpensive. You never had to wait long to be served.''

And the best part: ''You could sit down, eat off real china, relax and just get away from the office.''

She sighs sadly. As she adjusts an out-of-place flower in an arrangement on her desk, the phone rings. Before answering, she glances my way and says: ''I just don't know where I'm gonna eat!''

After the call, Jeane is certain where she's not going to dine: At her desk.

''Stan frowns on that.''

Nor will she visit any McBurger stand, the Starbucks or the new Bruegger's Bagel Bakery across Fourth Street or the restaurants in the food pit at downtown's version of a shopping mall, Tower Place. ''They're too noisy and too bustling,'' she complains. ''At fast-food places, the sandwiches are all fixed when you get there. You don't know how long they've been sitting. Plus, I just hate to eat on Styrofoam or paper plates. Yuck!''

She likes the kind of lunch ''you'd fix at home . . . where the bread is still warm, not cold and soggy, from being toasted.'' She wants to go where the food is freshly prepared and served on plates that can break by waitresses who ''treat you like a person instead of a number.''

Jeane believes some place, somewhere is still serving that kind of sit-down meal.

She hasn't found it yet. And, she's open to suggestions.

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.