PHOTO BY JENNIFER SILVERBERG
Chef Gerard Craft announced today he will close Clayton's Niche (7734 Forsyth Boulevard) on June 11 — and will reopen the place as a "fun" breakfast, lunch and dinner restaurant, Sardella, in four to six weeks.
Craft made the announcement this morning to a group of reporters.
The closing comes just one year after Craft was named Best Chef - Midwest by the James Beard Foundation, an event he admits factored into the decision.
“We’ve thought about closing Niche many times over the years — the worst time was during the recession in 2008,” Craft explains. “But it never felt right. We didn’t want to move on with tears involved because of balance sheets. Now, after the James Beard award, we could go out on top.”
Niche, the flagship restaurant in an empire that now includes Pastaria, Brasserie, Taste and Porano Pasta, first opened in Benton Park in 2005. In 2012, Craft moved the spot to Clayton, where it has continued to earn raves.
Of Niche, the RFT
's then-critic Ian Froeb wrote in 2012, "From beginning to end, Niche remains the most consistently appealing, engaging and — above all else — delicious dining experience in St. Louis. More important, as the dining scene here continues to gain steam, it should serve not as target at which other chefs should take aim, but an inspiration."
However, Craft says that the pressure to remain on top took a toll on him and his team. “Niche is almost eleven years old. It started as a fun, lively bistro. I was 25 when it opened, and I put the pressure on myself to keep pushing, probably because I was scared to death of failing,” he explained at today’s press conference. “That evolution, that desire to be better is what made us who we are, but being at the top is hard. Getting there is exhilarating and fun, but staying there, you lose it. I always say that one and two star restaurants are always more fun than three star restaurants because at those, you are trying to get the extra stars. At a three star, you spend all your time trying not to lose one.”
By contrast, Craft envisions Sardella as a fun, upbeat spot that will serve breakfast, lunch and dinner. Though the restaurant will take a few cues from Italian cuisine, the concept is solidly American. For breakfast and lunch, expect grain bowls, pastries, salads and sandwiches, while dinner will focus on hand-stuffed pastas and roasted meats like lamb and pork. Tasting menus will still be available, though they will be more along the lines of family-style dining rather than the small, individual portions served at Niche.
Another change diners will notice is the relaxation of Niche’s policy on using only ingredients that came from Missouri. This will allow Sardella to offer things like pasta, ocean fish and chocolate that were not allowed under the previous concept. “The Missouri-only thing was a monstrous mountain that we all learned so much from, but it also prevented us from supporting local business,” Craft explains. “Now we can use coffee, beer and chocolate that are made locally. We’ve always been about slow food. The kitchen team is the same. The mindset is the same.”
The space will see a complete redesign, courtesy of Sasha Malinich of S. Aleksander Malinich Design. Changes include moving the bar to the back of the restaurant and adding banquettes, beams and brass light fixtures to create a warm, atmosphere. “It will look completely different,” says Craft.
Craft insists that Sardella will still be a “serious restaurant,” with the same creativity and thought that went into Niche but with much more more levity. “When I think of Niche the word that comes to mind is 'obligation,'” he admits. “We open restaurants that we want to go to. Sadly, none of us wanted to go to Niche. People have been coming up to me saying 'I’m so sorry,' but I’m not. I’m really happy.”
See also: A Gallery of Photos at Niche in Clayton
Editor's note: We initially posted a short version of this story to break the news; this current version has been updated and significantly changed.
PHOTO BY JENNIFER SILVERBERG