Forty years ago, an irreverent alt-weekly boldly launched in a city's whose restaurant scene was anything but. Granted, by 1977 St. Louis had begun to grow a handful of promising spots, including the old Duff's and the original Balaban's, which were working to bring the city out of the dining Dark Ages. For the most part, though, if you were looking for good food in a restaurant, you'd have a hard time finding it outside of a private club, a few decent Italian places, some diners and a steakhouse or two.
That situation, obviously, has changed. New American pioneers like Cardwell's, Harvest and the Crossing brought seasonal cuisine into the local lexicon and, in doing so, modernized St. Louis dining. An American Place and Monarch didn't just make a great leap forward — they were the training grounds for many of the people defining the city's food scene today. Kevin Nashan took over Sidney Street Cafe in 2003, turning it from a meat and potatoes spot to a restaurant on the knife's edge of modern, yet classically anchored, cuisine. Then came Gerard Craft and Niche in 2006. Today terrific spots seem to open almost every month.
And so when the RFT set out to choose the 40 restaurants we love in St. Louis, in honor of our 40 years in business, the biggest problem we had was limiting the list to just 40. Today there are simply too many good places. And yes, you'll notice we cheated a little — with 40 restaurants we love, a few more places that aren't quite restaurants that we nevertheless adore, and then 40 categories where we let readers have their say. (Did we mention limiting ourselves proved difficult?)
To us, this admittedly incomplete list is a celebration of those places that define dining out in St. Louis. It's not a litany of the best, and there is no rank order to the selections. Rather, it's a nod to the spots that make the St. Louis restaurant scene what it is today, places that we believe will help define the next 40 years and shape what things will look like in St. Louis come 2057.
Some will still be around. Most will not, but one thing is certain: If the Riverfront Times makes it to 80 (dear God!), wherever the food critic is dining out will owe a debt of gratitude to these bold pioneers.