Since 1920

Falb’s still stands

By Paula Johnson

Photo: Country fried steak dinner at Falb’s

When Falb’s opened in 1920, the country had 48 states. It was the year women were afforded the right to vote. It was also the year prohibition was instituted as the law of the land. The most popular car was the Ford Model T, and Woodrow Wilson was president. Warren G. Harding was elected in a landslide and took over in January of the next year, defeating newspaper publisher and Ohio Governor James Cox, making national politics truly local in Dayton that year. It is easy to imagine the working men’s political discussions that must have taken place at Falb’s back in the day over a quick sandwich before clocking back in. Those same kind of discussions are still taking place at Falb’s, an indicator of how little has changed in a day in the life of this, the granddaddy of Dayton lunch counters (and one of the last still standing). It is worth noting that Falb’s has seen 17 presidents thus far, with number 18 coming this November.

Things at Falb’s in 1920 weren’t exactly the same as today, though. Falb’s opened as a dry goods store. In the early ’30s, Joe and Dwayne Falb’s grandfather began making lunch sandwiches for the workers from the local manufacturing industry, including Dayton Casting, General Motors, and other tool shops. The dry goods business morphed into the restaurant it is today. The brothers Falb took over from their father Joseph Falb in 1993. Grandfather Karl, the original Falb, worked on the Barney Smith railroad boxcars. Using his skills as a carpenter, he expanded the space to accommodate a restaurant right in the original structure of the family home.

Having the family home and business in the same building has helped Falb’s survive the economic peaks and valleys of Dayton’s industrial manufacturing economy. The departure of Dayton Casting and General Motors, two of Falb’s customer mainstays, really impacted things, but Falb’s managed to hang on through it all. These days, workers from Pepsi and Select Tool & Die make up a lot of the restaurant’s current customer base.

Smoked Out

According to Joe Falb, the smoking ban in bars and restaurants has significantly affected their livelihood in terms of alcohol sales. Falb’s has one of the oldest (second oldest, according to Joe) continuous liquor licenses in Dayton. They’ve been serving up cold ones nonstop since prohibition ended in 1933 with the 21st Amendment.

“It’s our bar business that has suffered. Working guys in the afternoons and evenings would sit around and have several beers when they could still smoke. After that, those guys will have only one and head home,” he laments.

Same As It Ever Was

You might think that time travel is possible when you enter Falb’s front door. It feels exactly like a lunch counter you’d see on an old black and white TV show. There’s even a calendar hanging on the wall from the 1940s, which contributes to the illusion. The chairs, the tables, the paneling, the menu board have all been there since the beginning. At the counter, you order from Joe or Dwayne, and they make and place your food on a plastic cafeteria tray. There is a line of metal steam trays holding much of what’s available at the ready. The menu is basic: hamburgers, bologna sandwiches, Polish sausage, Swiss steak, fries, soup, and some daily specials. The prices might make you think you’re in a time warp as well: $2.90 for a chicken sandwich, $2.00 for bologna, $2.90 for Swiss steak or meatloaf. There are containers of condiments on the counter, where you can dress your sandwiches yourself then find a table out front or in one of the dark paneled dining rooms adjacent.

After my lunch visit, I wanted to ask Joe Falb a couple of other questions, and tried several times to reach him by phone with no answer. There wasn’t a machine, and I began to get concerned that maybe Falb’s had closed. Nope, Joe was just too busy to answer the phone. “My brother was on vacation, so it was just me last week,” he explains, unconcerned with anyone thinking they might have gone out of business. When we finally got to chat, I asked him about his early memories of the place. “My mom would pick me up from school, and I would play upstairs with my grandma,” he recounts. “When I was old enough, I would help clean tables. I started working here full time in 1971.”

I wanted to know how the food is different. “Back a long time ago my aunt would mix up the hamburger meat every day with her own recipe,” he shares. “And, there was a bigger variety. We even had turtle soup and goulash. Those were family recipes that got lost when she died.”

And what’s the future for Falb’s?  “Well, my brother is 15 years younger than me. We have five daughters between us, but they all have their own careers and don’t have anything to do with the restaurant. We’re just going to keep going as long as we can.”

Stayin’ Alive

As a food critic, I can’t recommend Falb’s as a destination for dining. Sadly, the loss of the Falb family recipes means that Falb’s doesn’t do anything unique. The food isn’t freshly prepared; it’s of the standard industrial, ready-to-hit-the-fryer variety. If you order a salad as one of our party did, you’ll be handed a bottle of supermarket dressing. So no, don’t go to Falb’s for the food; go and make peace with the grease. Go for the experience and for the history of a place that has seen so much and has managed to stay alive.

Falb’s is located at 201 Kiser St. in Dayton. For more information, please call 937.224.4496.

Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Paula Johnson
Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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