W&S’s STL 20
Lists. They're so hot these days. In putting together this list, I thought of it like this: if a renowned restaurateur, chef, or diner came to town and told me I had 20 restaurants to prove to them that St. Louis' food scene did not suck, what places would I take them to? The 20 below are the places I enjoy the most—not necessarily 'the best'. It reflects my personal taste (which really just means that you shouldn't be expecting fine French fare nor American Italian). They're roughly in order, but that can change any given day.
A few notes: I haven't included pastry shops, coffee shops, or sandwich spots —only places you can have a full sit down meal. I haven't been to Stone Soup Cottage (see French note above), and I haven't been to Elaia or Nixta since their current chefs took over—Ben Grupe and Alex Henry, respectively. I'll update the list at that point in time, though knowing my tastes, I will be more interested in Nixta than Elaia.
If I've got fine-dining friends in town, Sidney Street is the first place I book. I've always been drawn to Kevin Nashan and exec chef Bob Zugmaier's contemporary American cuisine, playfully mixing classic and creative. The 5-course chef's tasting menu is an absolute steal at $75. If you're not a picky diner, the tasting menu should be what you order every time.
While ordering a la carte is acceptable at Sidney Street, I think ordering Vicia's $85 tasting menu is an absolute must. The menu changes seasonally and sometimes daily, so I can't tell you what you're going to have, but it's always an experience. You'll leave with the realization that you are really, really bad at cooking vegetables. It's one of my favorite places to grab lunch, too.
I'm good with a tasting menu meal once every couple months, but it's not really my thing. I much prefer a casual meal with great food, and I don't think anywhere in St. Louis does it better than Publico. In all honesty, it's probably my favorite restaurant in town. The cocktails are great, the menu is always changing, and everything is cooked in the hearth, meaning you're getting char and/or smoke in almost every dish—my favorite.
Privado is more or less a look inside Mike Randolph's head (scary!), and that's what makes dining there so exciting. In the same meal, you will probably have a classical French dish followed by a steak with fermented green curry followed by a handmade pasta covered in truffles—and yet it all flows together. Plus, once a month or so, they do a casual, no reservations night with a theme (curry, Peruvian food).
Sardella had some growing pains early on, but it's certainly found its footing. Like Publico, it's an upscale-casual spot that works just as well for small plates and a drink as it does for a full-on celebratory food fest. My favorite way to experience the modern Italian menu is to order with sharing in mind—a lot of small plates and snacks, then maybe an entree or two. If they have the crispy octopus (pictured above), get it.
Louie may be the new kid in town, but its team—both FOH and BOH—is made up of some St. Louis' all-stars. Most restaurants open with training wheels on, but not Louie: they came out of the gate swinging. Do you know anyone who's gone and didn't like it? I didn't think so. It's a testament to the idea that simple food executed perfectly is best.
What I like most about Reeds is how comfortable it feels; it's got that neighborhood restaurant feeling to it, where the waitstaff remember your name and what you like. Chef Matt Daughaday's food is the kind of stuff you or your mom would make at home—Brussels sprouts, gnocchi, pork shoulder—but done on a much, much higher level. If you're a drinker, they have one of the best wine and cocktail programs around.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: Grace Meat & Three is destined to become a St. Louis iconic spot, like Crown Candy, Gioia's, Mai Lee, and so on. Comfort food flows through chef Rick Lewis's veins. Everything he touches, whether it be BBQ pork ribs or pecan pie, seems to turn into the best version I've ever had. He's just like your grandma, but better.
There's not much more one could ask for from Union Loafers (aside a space two times as large). They sell the best bread, sandwiches, salad (little gem, add bacon), and pizza in St. Louis. I want to eat every thing that Ted Wilson and Brian Lagerstrom make.
Mai Lee's menu has nearly 300 items that are all made to order. Think about how crazy that is. This Vietnamese icon is packed all day, everyday. If you snag a seat at the bar, you're likely to be sitting next to one of St. Louis' chefs, as this has become the industry favorite for good reason. The servers know the menu inside and out—tell them what you like or don't like and they'll guide you. My favorites: 17, 54, 90, 99, 133.
I know I said I'm not a big French food fan, but I make an exception for Brasserie's, um, brasserie-style cooking. I'll never tire of their gougeres, chicken liver pate, and iconic roasted chicken with shiitakes. They also have one of—if not the—best brunches in St. Louis, and a surprisingly great cheeseburger.
Pastaria is everything St. Louisans like—big bowls of pasta, pizza, and ice cream—made fresh by Gerard Craft's team. There was a period of time where I was going in to get a half Roman and half nduja pizza weekly, simultaneously a low and high point in my life.
What's not to like about high quality seafood boiled, steamed, and fried but some of the most talented cooks in town? Kevin Nashan took inspiration from the Gulf and East coasts to create Peacemaker, not only one of the most beautiful restaurants in town, but one of the tastiest. If I wasn't trying to keep this sexy figure, I'd eat those po' boys and wash them down with a boozy slushy every day.
Ben Poremba has a handful of acclaimed restaurants under his belt, but I'm not sure any will speak to me more than Olio does. The contemporary Israeli cuisine is loaded with bright flavors from herbs and lemons, making me feel like I'm eating the best healthy food in town (though eating a tray of pita bread probably negates that).
I came back to St. Louis from Asia and was severely disappointed in the quality of the local Asian food. Then I tried Fork & Stix. The menu has some common Thai dishes, like pad see ew, pad thai, and green curry, but it's the northern Thai dishes that you want: khao soi, hung lay curry, sai oua sausages with naam prik nuum. Thank me later.
I would say Vista is up there with Publico as far as doing some really inventive, modern dishes, and that's what keeps me interested. I often think about whether a St. Louis restaurant would survive/thrive in a more competitive restaurant market (Chicago, D.C., etc) and I think Vista would be packed to the gills in any of those cities. Forget the ramen, go for the small plates.
OMG, it's a St. Louis restaurant list and a Pappy's group restaurant isn't filling the BBQ slot? Sorry to disappoint, but I just enjoy going to Salt & Smoke more these days. I don't have to wait in line, I don't have to pray for a table, I get to hug Tom and/or Haley, and they have one of the best briskets in town. The menu has something for everyone, and the whiskey collection is impressive. I will say that Pappy's group ribs are better, but for a single experience, I'm going with Salt & Smoke.When I'm in the mood for a great fish dish, Farmhaus is where I go. Downside: the regular menu doesn't change much. Upside: their nightly tasting menu, made up entirely of things that are not on the menu, is fantastic, and absolutely the best way to experience what they can do.
Look at the Fork & Stix write up and just substitute Thai for Taiwanese. St. Louis likes to talk about its great Chinese restaurants when, in reality, they're all pretty damn weak—but not Tai Ke. Tai Ke is my boo.
It goes without saying that Taste has amazing cocktails and is probably the #1 spot in St. Louis for an awkward Tinder date. Taste is it at its best when its food menu is constantly changing, the kitchen team tweaking and creating new dishes as produce becomes available. I don't support their decision to swap out fried cheese curds for fried bananas, but I'll live.
If I had, say, Danny Meyer in tow, I would take him to these shops in between eating at the places above. They're not restaurants, so they're not on the list, but they are all worth a visit.