Wait — what? The decade's over? You mean, after cultivating my list of this year's best dishes, I have to turn around and do the same thing for the entire damn decade?
The thing is, I didn't move to St. Louis until 2003, and I didn't have this gig until 2006, so my list of the decade's tastiest dishes or best restaurants would be incomplete. At any rate, considering how many of those dishes have been retired, what would be the point?
Why don't I do this instead: From the standpoint of where our dining scene is right now — and where I hope it heads over the next ten years — here are the Ten Most Important St. Louis Restaurant Openings of the Aughts.
(Nods of great respect to five worthy restaurants that didn't make the final cut: Acero, Erato on Main, Five, Moxy and Terrene. Also, this list doesn't include restaurants that opened prior to 2000 but underwent significant changes during the decade. Regrettably, that excludes Sidney Street Café and the remarkable work Kevin Nashan is doing there.)10. Pi (2008)
Forget for a moment that then-Senator Obama declared Pi's pizza the best he'd ever eaten. Forget too that President Obama invited Pi owner Chris Sommers and staff to cook at the White House. Consider that in only two years, Pi's cornmeal crust recipe, though imported from San Francisco, has resulted in one of St. Louis' signature dishes, packing the restaurant's three locations with suburban families, college kids, city scenesters and food cognoscenti. It's an inspiring reminder that, despite St. Louisans' reputation for having conservative tastes, we can embrace something different. Add in Sommers' dedication to green principles and his desire to keep improving (hiring talented young chef Marc Baltes and former Niche dessert whiz Mathew Rice), and you have the rare Obama position that Republicans, Democrats and independents can all support.
Three locations: 6144 Delmar Boulevard; 314-727-6633 / 400 North Euclid Avenue; 314-367-4300 / 10935 Manchester Road, Kirkwood; 314-966-8080
9. Pappy's Smokehouse (2008)
The most annoying food comment we have to make to out-of-towners: "Yes, St. Louis has its own style of pizza." The runner-up? "No, St. Louis doesn't have its own style of barbecue." But now we do have Pappy's Smokehouse, whose meteoric rise from slightly hidden midtown barbecue joint to line-out-the-door phenomenon is one of the decade's most astonishing and most welcome developments. Owner Mike Emerson and his staff serve 'cue so good that...well, put it this way: If I were to compile a list of the decade's best dishes, the pork ribs — smoked over apple and cherry woods, with a dry rub kissed by rosemary — just might come in at No. 1.
3106 Olive Street; 314-535-4340
8. Iron Barley (2003)
Tom Coghill's laidback — but decidedly not quiet — restaurant has enjoyed a recent surge in interest thanks to its appearance on the Food Network's megapopular Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. It's the rare case when I don't want to kick host Guy Fieri in his Rocky Mountain oysters: Iron Barley deserves publicity for its incredible selection of oak-roasted meats, "sammiches" and cast iron-seared fare. And it demands praise for being a forerunner of one of this decade's best trends: restaurants that sate our love of unassuming neighborhood spots yet offer us something different from and, yes, better than the typical bar menu. Think Blues City Deli, Stellina Pasta Café and the late and much-missed Pitted Olive. It's almost enough to make Fieri's goofy mug tolerable. Almost.
5510 Virginia Avenue; 314-351-4500
7. Arthur Clay's (2002)
The only shuttered restaurant to make this list, and one I include not out of sentiment — I never ate there — but because my many conversations with other observers of our dining scene have revealed that it was a harbinger of what the city's best young chefs are doing today. I turn things over to Bill Burge, author of the blog STL Bites (www.stlbites.com) and co-leader of Slow Food St. Louis:
At a time in St. Louis when you were lucky if a restaurant changed its menu four times a year, Wentzville native Steve Scherrer opened Arthur Clay's with the idea that he'd change the menu daily. Sadly, St. Louis was not yet the market to support such a concept, but for those of us that fell in love with Scherrer's boundary-pushing flavors, we can't help but feel the new guard of St. Louis restaurants has benefitted from the foundation he laid. While his creations didn't always hit the mark (tripe ravioli), dishes like roasted apple soup with peppercorn cream and berry coulis have kept those of us who were in the know back then hoping we'll one day see Scherrer take his rightful place amongst St. Louis best chefs.
6. Local Harvest Café & Catering (2009)
If Iron Barley represents how the casual neighborhood restaurant evolved in the Aughts, Local Harvest Café & Catering could serve as an example for where things should go in the Teens. Owners Patrick Hornine and Maddie Earnest run the Tower Grove Farmers' Market and, just across the street from the café, Local Harvest Grocery. The grocery and the café try to offer as much local, sustainable produce as possible. This commitment isn't only admirable, as our industrial food system because increasingly untenable, it may well be necessary. Best of all the food, from the breakfast menu to chef Clara Moore's Saturday tasting menu, satisfies your soul as well as your conscience.
3137 Morganford Road; 314-772-8815
5. Atlas (2003)
I've heard more than one person call Atlas one of St. Louis' best-kept secrets, which makes no sense because pretty much everyone I know loves the place, and those who don't are misguided wretches who probably kick puppies and leave the toilet seat up. Stroll into Atlas without a reservation and you'll have to wait for a table. The husband-and-wife team of Michael Roberts (chef) and Jean Donnelly (desserts, front of house) serves unpretentious but utterly delicious bistro food — steak frites, lamb chops and oh! let the winter wind blow if it means I can order cassoulet — that landed it among the city's best when it opened not quite seven years ago and that has remained unwaveringly excellent ever since. My favorite Atlas moment? Overhearing a fellow diner debating whether to order Donnelly's sublime marjolaine for dessert. "Is it really that good?" he wondered. Donnelly stared at him, her expression deadly serious: "Yes."
5513 Pershing Avenue; 314-367-6800
4. Taste by Niche (2009)
Like Local Harvest Café, Taste by Niche represents a potential new direction for St. Louis restaurants, with the quality of the food and drink trumping splashy build-outs and the pretensions of upscale dining. The food is terrific — it scored No. 1 on last week's Top Ten Dishes of 2009 — but you would expect nothing less from Gerard Craft and his team, especially ace mixologist Ted Kilgore. At Taste, the barrier between diner and chef is broken down, with the intimate confines encouraging a freewheeling conversation with the staff and fellow diners whom you might have met about how the food is being prepared, what this or that ingredient is, why your cocktail is so good. Without doubt, the most engaging — and one of the most exhilarating — dining experiences to hit St. Louis this decade.
1831 Sidney Street; 314-773-7755
3. An American Place (2004)
Five years, the economic plunge that stalled downtown's "renaissance" and, frankly, the disparaging comments about St. Louis diners that Larry Forgione made during a Sauce magazine interview have taken some of the luster off An American Place. Still, when it opened in 2004, An American Place was a Big Deal, bringing to St. Louis an honest-to-god big-name chef, the look and feel of a contemporary big-city fine-dining palace and, most important, the ethos of locally sourcing the best possible ingredients, transforming them into culinary wonders and giving the producers as much credit as the cooks. If St. Louis hasn't seen another restaurant quite as urbane as An American Place, the number of restaurants that now embody a similar philosophy shows that our tastes aren't quite as provincial as Forgione might believe. What's more, An American Place introduced us to one of the city's most remarkable culinary talents, blown by Hurricane Katrina from New Orleans first into Forgione's kitchen and then to...
822 Washington Avenue; 314-418-5800
2. Monarch (2003)
Josh Galliano is reason enough to rank Monarch so high: The Louisiana native, sent packing when Katrina devastated New Orleans, is everything you could want in a chef — creative yet respectful of tradition; ambitious yet humble. Yet he has been the executive chef at Monarch for only a brief portion of its existence, and Monarch attains this lofty position because it has been such a crucible of talent: original chef Brian Hale (now at the Chase Park Plaza); mixologist Ted Kilgore (now of Taste by Niche); sommelier Chris Hoel, the subject of a Riverfront Times feature story by my colleague Kristen Hinman ("The Wine Master," April 19, 2007) and now at perhaps America's most prestigious restaurant, Thomas Keller's French Laundry; general manager Matt McGuire, who founded the late beloved King Louie's; former general manager and drinks expert Chad George. It's a credit to owners Aaron Teitelbaum and Jeff Orbin, who took a chance opening a major-league restaurant in modest Maplewood and have maintained the desire to improve it year after year.
7401 Manchester Road, Maplewood; 314-644-3995
1. Niche (2005)
If a hurricane hadn't sent Josh Galliano here, both An American Place and Monarch would have had very different trajectories. And if an ambitious young chef in Salt Lake City hadn't taken the time to research emerging markets to open his first restaurant, we might not have had Niche. Can you imagine our dining scene without Gerard Craft, the first St. Louis chef to be a finalist for the James Beard Foundation "Best Chef – Midwest" award, the first to be named a Food & Wine magazine "Best New Chef"? Craft raised the bar for young chefs in St. Louis. No longer could you be content as a big fish in a little pond. No, you had to want more: a bigger profile, better ingredients, more thoughtful dishes, a greater respect for diners whose tastes were evolving. You couldn't serve the same four desserts as everyone else — you had to trust the whimsy of a Mathew Rice (now of Pi). And you couldn't rest on your laurels but constantly innovate, opening not one but two new places — Taste and Brasserie by Niche — in half a year. Niche isn't perfect, and not every one of Craft's creations is a masterpiece. But it's the best restaurant we have, and it is a signal to the rest of the country: St. Louis has arrived.
1831 Sidney Street; 314-773-7755