We Heart STL: Dining
If we were to write a love song in the name of our most-loved chefs and eateries, it would go a little something like this…
Best Chef: Gerard Craft
Just named the 2015 James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef in the Midwest, this prolific culinary talent is about to get even busier. He’s weeks away from opening his fifth restaurant, a fast-casual concept Downtown called Porano Pasta & Gelato, and fans are eager to see what the 30-something chef has up his tattooed sleeve. Since pioneering his fine-dining flagship, Niche, in 2005, Craft has expanded into French and Italian cuisines with Brasserie by Niche and Pastaria, and he was on the forefront of the mixology trend with top CWE cocktail bar, Taste. Multiple locations, nichestlgroup.com.
Best Restaurant: Farmhaus
Chef-owner Kevin Willmann sets a high standard with his skills—he’s been a semifinalist for the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Midwest twice—but the well-loved chef insists it’s his team that makes the winning difference. Said team, comprised of sous chefs Jeff Friesen and Jake Sciales and pastry chef/ charcuterie guru Jamie Everett, is chock-full of dedicated individuals with the talent to put just as much flair on the famous Farmhaus fried chicken dinner as the tasso-encrusted Gulf Scamp grouper with jalapeno crème anglaise. Lindenwood Park, 314.647.3800.
Best New Restaurant: Peacemaker Lobster & Crab Co.
It’s no small trick bringing the coasts to the heartland, but chef-owner Kevin Nashan does it with aplomb on a daily basis. His seafood-centric menu draws from New England and the Gulf Coast with ingredients sourced from topnotch purveyors and a flown-in catch of the day. The freshness shows in dishes like lobster rolls, fried oyster po’boys and oysters on the half shell. Since opening his second place last August, Nashan has split his time between Peacemaker and Sidney Street Cafe, where he climbed to the semifinalists round of the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef in the Midwest award nominations. Benton Park, 314.772.8858.
Best Ambiance: I Fratellini
Rather than snapping diners to attention the instant they enter, owner Zoe Robinson’s decor envelops them: The petite space oozes Italian elegance, whether you’re dining by daylight with the French doors open to the breeze or by the flickering glow of nighttime candlelight. Just like the menu full of classic dishes, the restaurant’s sophisticated ease has been a constant on the local scene since 2001, becoming a familiar, seductive embrace that never grows old. Clayton, 314.727.7901.
Best Wine List: Annie Gunn's
Earlier this year, the James Beard Foundation gave wine director Glenn Bardgett a nod by naming Annie Gunn’s as a semifinalist for the Outstanding Wine Program award. Bardgett’s expertise is evident on each of the 30-plus pages of the restaurant’s wine list—and so is his sense of humor, one of many tools he uses to make wine approachable, understandable and rewarding. He’s a tireless advocate for Missouri’s wine industry, including local vintages alongside some of the world’s most exclusive labels. Chesterfield, 636.532.7684.
Best Service: The Crossing
Owner Jim Fiala founded this intersection of Italian and French cooking 17 years ago, which has given him plenty of time to get to know his customers and for them to come to expect certain touches of elegance, like the blue cheese amuse-bouche that sets the tone for an enjoyable, relaxed meal. Countless marriage proposals, business deals and family birthdays later, there are still newcomers experiencing this high level of service for the first time—and promptly discovering that it’s hard to go back to being treated like part of the herd. Clayton, 314.721.7375.
Best Menu: Sidney Street Cafe
The menus chef-owner Kevin Nashan and his staff publish every month read like a foodie’s dream. If the ingredients aren’t enough to pique your curiosity—chicharron, bottarga, dosa, sunchokes, tomato leather, sorrel curd—the techniques surely will. However, most impressive of all are the complex flavor combinations that show just how far ahead these chefs are thinking. Beet marshmallows. Foie gras with pineapple upside-down cake. Coffee and veal reduction. We could go on forever, but suffice it to say that each month is a new compelling chapter. Benton Park, 314.771.5777.
Best Place to Impress an Out-of-Towner: Elaia
Tucked away in the up-and-coming Botanical Heights neighborhood, Elaia isn’t easily stumbled upon. But clued-in guests will be more than impressed with chef-owner Ben Poremba’s Mediterranean-inspired dishes and unique wine list. Yet another semifinalist for a James Beard Foundation Best Chef in the Midwest award, Poremba has a flair for riffing on old-school cooking techniques and simple ingredients. The result: edible works of art. Botanical Heights, 314.932.1088.
Best Place to PitchYour Startup: Death in the Afternoon’
In an intense situation when all eyes and ears are on you, it’s always a good idea to keep things simple. Set in the Citygarden urban sculpture park and featuring floor-to-ceiling glass walls, it’s a visually relaxing space that’s still only a short walk or drive from some of the region’s most innovative offices. The menu is a state-fair-goes-international feast featuring everything from deepfried pickles to pastrami, steamed buns and turnip miso ramen. Downtown, 314.621.3236.
Best Food Truck: Guerrilla Street Food
The signature 800-Pound Guerilla dish is a perfect example of what makes this truck a favorite: Wrapped in a tortilla, there’s chicken adobo and slow-roasted pork, calamansi, sriracha, hoisin, fried garlic, paprika cream, greens and black sesame seeds. Throughout the menu, co-owners Brian Hardesty and Joel Crespo offer Filipino-influenced dishes that challenge palates and expand horizons. Their approach has been so popular that a brick-and-mortar location at the corner of South Grand and Arsenal is in the works. guerrillastreetfood.com.
Best Coffeehouse: Sump Coffee
From the day it opened in 2011, this shop has been a destination for coffee connoisseurs—and its reputation continues to grow, thanks to a combination of whiz-bang technology in roasters, grinders and brewing equipment and remarkable human element. This latter asset is the staff, who advocate for and educate about coffee with endless energy— one of Sump’s recent workshops followed beans during the 10 stages between its harvest and your cup. They also forge innovative partnerships, like the one with pop-up restaurant Kitchen Kulture. Marine Villa, 917.412.5670.
Best Neighborhood Hangout: Russell's
City-dwellers celebrated when the original Fenton location expanded onto Macklind in South City two years ago. They wanted the delicious selection of cakes, gooey butter concoctions and cookies, of course, but they also craved a place to sit around with a cup of coffee and shoot the breeze. Owner Russell Ping gave them that and much more—his restaurant is a family-friendly, three-meals-a-day operation that barely closes down at night before the bakers show up for the early morning shift. Multiple locations, russellscafe.com.
Best Bakery: Whisk
You never know quite what to expect from this eclectic urban bakery (which is one of the reasons we love it). It could be s’mores poptarts. Or duffins, those delightful lovechildren of muffins and donuts. Or popcorn cookies, lavender scones, Boston cream whoopie pies, bacon-chocolate chip cookies, vegan pumpkin brownies, or gluten-free crumb cake. For two and a half years, Whisk has been introducing its customers to that sweet spot where delicious flavors and sustainable food practices overlap—a winning combo in our book. Cherokee Street, 314.932.5166.
Best Deli: Mom's Deli
There’s a big line at this classic Italian deli most days, especially at lunch. As it snakes through the shop, it evokes a throwback community feel—to 1977, perhaps, when the deli opened, looking and tasting much the same. Customers were likely drooling with anticipation as they watched the Mom’s Special being assembled, just like they do now. Lindenwood Park, 314.644.1198.
Best Vegetarian: Frida's Deli
Once you cross the threshold at Frida’s, prepare to be surprised. Even longtime customers never know what will show up next on the seasonal menus—one week it might be a berry protein crepe with cashew cream, lavender and lemon zest; the next could be an omelet in honor of “Kale University” or a raspberry-honey sangria. The plant-based restaurant is moving into its third year of delivering delicious surprises and educating hungry customers in the process. University City, 314.727.6500.
Best Vegan Following: Lulu's Local Eatery
Three years after it launched a food truck and one year after its South Grand restaurant debut, Lulu’s continues to delight its meat and dairy-free fan base with dishes like smoked jackfruit in barbecue sauce and comfort them with favorites like crispy buffalo cauliflower bites. Strong ties to local farmers—and on-site gardens for both the restaurant and truck—ensure high-quality, ultra-fresh produce and herbs. Whether you swing meat-free or not hardly matters: Washing down a black bean burger with a local craft beer on Lulu’s plant-lined patio is a full-flavor treat for anyone with taste buds. Tower Grove South, 314.300.8215.
Best Steakhouse: Ruth's Chris Steak House
This is the place to truly appreci-ate the full range of flavor and texture nuances between a filet and a strip and a rib-eye and a porterhouse. It starts with USDA prime steaks cooked at 500 degrees and served with such precision that all you have to worry about is the next tender bite. The menu has a Cajun influence—the restaurant empire started in New Orleans, after all—so you can enhance your Midwestern steak with flavorful appetizers like the barbecued shrimp. Multiple locations, ruthschris.com.
Best Tacos: Seoul Taco
To take tacos way beyond Tex-Mex, this restaurant-and-food-truck operation fuses Korean-style marinated meats, salads and sauces into the familiar approachability of tortilla wrappers. The protein choices— bulgogi beef, chicken, spicy pork and tofu—rely heavily on owner David Choi’s grandmother’s secret recipes. The unique combination works so well that the food truck has earned national accolades, and the restaurant recently expanded its taco venture to Columbia, Missouri. Back in STL, it’s grown into a larger space that also hosts Choi’s other restaurant, Seoul Q. The Loop, 314.863.1148.
Best Pizza: A Pizza Story
This pizzeria’s owners have worked hard to perfect their dough—and it’s a good thing, because they put it through some serious rigor during cooking, when temps hit around 800 degrees for the Neapolitan-style base. Then come the toppings: Again, the owners do it right, balancing the sauce and cheese with solids like prosciutto di Parma, wild mushrooms, arugula and smoked salmon. How can you say no? Maplewood, 314.899.0011.
Best Sushi: Kampai Sushi Bar
St. Louis is fortunate to have a savvy sushi community: Once a restaurant catches the attention of its members, they’re generous about letting the rest of the world know. Kampai’s 40-plus rolls are definitely a selling point, as is the quality of its nigiri (raw fish over pressed rice) and sashimi (thinly sliced raw seafood). The Central West End location has an added bonus: a low seating area similar to what one would find in Japan. Multiple locations, kampaistl.com.
Best Burger: 5 Star Burgers
Good burgers start with good meat, and Chef Steve Gontram and company set the bar high with antibiotic-free, pasture-raised, grain-finished Angus beef. From that foundation, they hand-form an unassailable signature burger embellished by toppings like green chiles, port-braised onions and roasted tomato-bacon jam. But they don’t stop with beef: There’s freshly ground pork with Asian toppings, lamb with Greek toppings, turkey with American toppings, bison with an eyeopening espresso-and-black-pepper rub and an occasional special like duck with strawberry-rhubarb jam or a crab-shrimp-lobster patty with black bean relish. Pity the poor cup of ketchup—it’s all but expendable here. Multiple locations, 5starburgersstl.com.
Best Pasta: Pastaria
Showcasing the pasta-making operation in the expansive front window brings home two concepts: first, how simple the basic process is and second, how limitless the possibilities are for the final product. The menu includes the familiar, but keep an eye out for some fun shapes you don’t come across at many other Italian eateries: strozzapreti, canestri, chitarra, bucatini, garganelli. Why? Because behind the scenes, there’s a science to matching shapes and sauces—and it’s something chef-owner Gerard Craft knows makes every bit of difference in each delicious bite. Clayton, 314.862.6603.
Best Falafel: The Vine Mediterranean Cafè and Market
You can get these deep-fried chickpea patties as a dinner and eat them with a fork, but the best way to really enjoy this traditional street food is on the go, slathered with tahini and wrapped in a piece of fresh pita bread. The Vine’s Lebanese version is rich with garlic and spices—the recipe of what’s inside is a family secret—and fried until its exterior offers a satisfying crunch. Tower Grove South, 314.776.0991.
Best Patio: Scape American Bistro
When it comes to blending Old World charm and modern amenities, Scape’s front patio and inner courtyard have long stood out from the crowd. The front overlooks the elegant Maryland Plaza streetscape and its centerpiece fountain, but Scape’s true showcase is Backbar, a meld of classic charm and trendiness that’s like no other space in the city. Near the ivy-covered walls and under twinkling string lights hanging overhead, it’s the perfect spot for game-night grill parties, live acoustic music or a dinner out with friends. Central West End, 314.361.7227.
Best Date Night: Bar Les Freres
The last thing you want on a first date is to run out of things to talk about before the main course arrives—but there’s small chance of that at this charming bistro-style bar. Talk about the art. The antlers. The whiskeys, wines and cocktails. The trip to France you took (or didn’t take). The fact that neither of you can pronounce anything in French. Hold hands across the tiny tables. Steal a kiss. It’s OK—no one is looking except the portraits. Clayton, 314.725.8880.
Best Brunch: Cafè Osage
This garden-shop-meets-eatery is a wake-up call for the senses. Indoors, the morning sunlight streams through the windows, and coffee scents the air. In the garden courtyard, the sights and smells of (cultivated) nature envelop diners. But it’s the taste buds that get the most glory: Farm-style dishes like steel-cut oatmeal, scrambled eggs with toast and mixed-grain pancakes are all about fresh, organic ingredients. Whenever possible, the menu incorporates the day’s harvest from Bowood Farms’ on-site organic produce garden and rooftop herb bed. Have a light sparkling wine or cocktail—the grapefruit-mint margarita is a favorite—for an extra sensory treat. Central West End, 314.454.6868.
Best Slinger: Southwest Diner
Removed from its hometown of St. Louis and re-imagined in New Mexico, this slinger subs home fries for hashbrowns, red or green chile for chili, and colby cheese for cheddar. Keep the hamburger patty and eggs, add a ladle of gravy and voila! Not surprisingly, the combination works—both because these talented folks know their way around the kitchen and because slingers are just plain delicious, however they’re doctored up. Ellendale, 314.260.7244.
Best Bloody Mary: Gamlin Whiskey House
When a restaurant known for its extensive whiskey selection gets serious about extending weekend brunch into Saturday as well as Sunday, it’s all but guaranteed to have an enticing selection of bloody mary options. Sure enough, the Bloody Ghost sets the tone with a pepper-infused Jacob’s Ghost white whiskey. There are also other options for spirits without the kick of peppers, but aren’t weekends made for living dangerously? Central West End, 314.875.9500.
Best French Toast: Local Harvest Cafe
This is really a double nod, since LHC serves both a regular and a vegan option. Both start with fresh bread layered with cream cheese or vegan spread, stuffed with an ever-rotating array of seasonal ingredients and baked. The crowning touch is organic maple syrup. Tower Grove South, 314.772.8815.
Best Barbecue: Pappy's Smokehouse
No one argues that Mike Emerson’s dry-rubbed, slow-smoked ribs are epic. But it takes a savvy restaurateur to turn excellent barbecue into a national phenomenon—and to keep satisfying masses of customers day in and day out without sacrificing quality. Midtown, 314.535.4340.
Best Pan-Asian: Hiro Asian Kitchen
These Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Malaysian and Korean dishes yield a continent’s worth of flavor in a short journey. The menu ranges from the familiar and comforting, like ramen, to curiosity-inducing items such as lotus-leaf-wrapped sticky rice. Adding wine pairing suggestions is a helpful touch that shows just how much thought has gone into every choice on the menu. Downtown, 314.241.4476.
Best Vietnamese: Mai Lee
There’s an old saying that food tastes better when it’s served with love—and nowhere does it ring more true than at the Tran family’s restaurant. Their genuine hospitality extends from the kitchen to the floor and then into cyberspace, where social media feeds show the love and reflect it back. Tellingly, there’s no single favorite dish, but front-runners in popular opinion include salt-and-pepper calamari, chicken pho, roasted duck with ginger-soy sauce and salted fish fried rice. Brentwood, 314.645.2835.
Best Spot to Celebrate: Franco
The classic French dishes here (like rib-eye with bone marrow bearnaise and pomme frites) parallel the best restaurants in the city, but it’s the innovative touches (like sweetbread and foie gras parmentier) and seasonal menu that keep Franco fresh in our minds when we’re looking for a memorable fine dining experience. To begin or end the evening in full celebratory mode, take time to savor a drink at the bar, where the worn wooden touches are a reminder of the cuisine’s ties to the land— some of which are right next door at the farmers market. Soulard, 314.436.2500.
Worth the Wait for Reservations: Three Flags Tavern
With about 40 seats inside, patio space and a slew of good reviews, this small-but-mighty restaurant is on everyone’s shortlist right now. Failure to plan ahead, however, could mean you’ll miss out on this mosaic of Spanish, French and American culinary influences that manifest in spring lamb with smoked rhubarb barbecue sauce, manchego frito and dauphinoise potatoes—so whip out that iPhone and get busy booking next weekend’s table. Southwest Garden, 314.669.9222.
Best Working Lunch: Cafè Ventana
Need to brainstorm a lunch location? This laid-back coffeehouse will please everyone. The boss, because the two meeting rooms tucked in the brick-and-glass annex behind the main cafe are distraction-free oases. The admin, because the cafe’s staff is professional and prone to friendliness. The out-of-town client, because the location is easy to find and the coffee is excellent. The hungry staffers, because the sandwich platters have enough variety to satisfy everyone (and the kitchen specializes in desserts). Meeting adjourned. Midtown, 314.531.7500.
Best Artisanal Lunch: Winslow's Home
Although its namesake 5-acre Winslow’s Farm in Augusta is too small to provide everything this popular restaurant needs, the farm’s approaches toward food infuse the whole menu. First is the belief that recently harvested produce tastes better, which leads the kitchen to source as much locally as possible. Second, simplicity allows the ingredients’ flavors to shine, whether it’s the bacon sandwich or the superfood slaw bowl with kale, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and brown rice. Third is a desire to serve food that’s memorable. Let’s just say they’ve got this one in the bag. University City, 314.725.7559.
Photo credit: Jennifer Silverberg