An open letter to those visiting St. Louis for the 2009 Major League Baseball All-Star Game:
Hello! Welcome to St. Louis. I know you have come to our fair city to watch a ball game, but you are going to have to eat something while you are here. Allow me to be the bearer of bad news: The food at Busch Stadium sucks. That might be an understatement. I can't think of a single item I'd recommend. Though, as a practical matter, if you order nachos, shell out the two bucks for an extra cup of "cheese" — concessions staff tend to be stingy when ladling the gooey stuff over the chips.
The good news? While St. Louis' restaurant scene might not be on par with New York's, Chicago's or San Francisco's, it has grown by leaps and bounds this decade, driven by a succession of ambitious chefs seeking to marry modern restaurant concepts to the natural bounty of the nation's heartland.
Here are some of the area's current standouts, serving food so good that you might want to order a second helping to bring to the ballpark. (Please note that menus at many of these restaurants change frequently.)
For a few years, we in St. Louis had Gerard Craft's Niche (1831 Sidney Street; 314-773-7755) to ourselves. No more. Last year, Food & Wine named Craft one of its "Best New Chefs." This year, he was one of five finalists for "Best Chef, Midwest" in the James Beard Foundation Awards. If you can visit Niche only once, you should order the chef's tasting menu — or, if time and finances allow it, tell your waiter you wouldn't mind a few extra courses. But if you must restrict yourself to a few courses, pork is always a safe bet, whether the unlovely head or a Berkshire pork loin. Mathew Rice's desserts, informed by his Southern background and a childlike whimsy, are fantastic.
Located just down the street from Niche, Sidney Street Café (2000 Sidney Street; 314-771-5777) is a St. Louis fixture that has been revitalized in recent years by chef Kevin Nashan. The menu (on a small chalkboard on your table) is broad, with dishes both classic (filet with béarnaise sauce) and modern (pork belly with white beans in a parmesan broth). The applewood-smoked duck breast with a confit of leg is fantastic. Sidney Street is also the rare restaurant that manages to evoke the right vibe whether you are having a casual meal with friends or a romantic dinner for two.
Also ideal for a dinner date — or, really, any excuse for a good meal — is Atlas (5513 Pershing Avenue; 314-367-6800). Tucked into a residential neighborhood, Atlas is a casual, French-influenced bistro: utterly unpretentious and totally delicious. The steak frites is the best in town, but chef Michael Roberts handles lamb, pork, seafood and vegetarian dishes with equal aplomb. Roberts' wife, Jean Donnelly, turns out the terrific desserts (get the marjolaine — thank me later) and serves as the gracious host.
Soulard is the city's French neighborhood. Soulard's Franco (1535 South Eighth Street; 314-436-2500) is actually named for the owner's nephew, but its menu is heavily French influenced, with foie gras, frog legs, escargot and pâtè among the usual offerings. The space is one of the city's coolest, with high ceilings, exposed brick and a mural above the open kitchen. Another lovely space is Terrene (33 North Sarah Street; 314-535-5100). Like many of St. Louis' newer restaurants, the cuisine straddles a middle ground between classic bistro fare and New American dishes. Here, sustainability is the watchword: Even your table has been made from recycled material.
Though situated just west of the city line, Monarch (7401 Manchester Road, Maplewood; 314-644-3995) is one of St. Louis' most urbane restaurants, with a slick design, a big-city wine list and a killer cocktail menu. All that is secondary to the food, though: Josh Galliano brings a technique honed at the Commander's Palace in New Orleans and Daniel Boulud's namesake restaurant in New York, a dedication to local ingredients — sometimes, from his own back yard! — and not a little Southern charm.
Also found in the inner suburbs is Harvest (1059 South Big Bend Boulevard, Richmond Heights; 314-645-3522). Stephen Gontram was one of the first chefs to introduce St. Louis to seasonal, ingredient-driven cuisine, and his restaurant hasn't lost a step after more than a decade. Another chef essential to the cultivation of the area's palate is Jim Fiala. His restaurants include the modern Italian spot Acero (7266 Manchester Road, Maplewood; 314-644-1790) and the high-end venue the Crossing (7823 Forsyth Boulevard, Clayton; 314-721-7375).
Looking for something more casual? St. Louis has its own style of pizza, but visitors should try it at their own risk. (See this week's Gut Check column on the next page for the details.) Thankfully, St. Louis has seen a boom of new pizza restaurants in recent years. One especially notable newcomer is Pi (6144 Delmar Boulevard; 314-727-6633). Pi serves a style of deep-dish pizza made with a cornmeal crust that originated in San Fransisco, not Chicago. None other than President Obama declared it the best pizza he'd ever had. That wasn't an idle campaign boast, either: In April, he invited owner Chris Sommers to bake the pizza at the White House.
Contrary to popular belief, St. Louis doesn't really have its own style of barbecue. (St. Louis-style ribs refer to the cut, not a seasoning.) That said, the city now has a first-rate barbecue joint, thanks to Mike Emerson and his crew at Pappy's Smokehouse (3106 Olive Street; 314-535-4340). The pork ribs are out of this world, with a rosemary-spiked dry rub, but everything is fantastic. Lunch is the most popular meal — expect a line, often out the door — because Pappy's closes once it has run out of the day's allotment of meat.
Barbecue junkies should also know that three-time Memphis in May champion Mike Mills serves his award-winning barbecue at four 17th Street Bar and Grill locations. The nearest is at 1711 West Highway 50 in O'Fallon, Illinois (618-622-1717).
The majority of the area's ethnic restaurants are located outside the city proper. There are a couple of notable exceptions. A stretch of taquerias and Mexican restaurants is located on Cherokee Street between Oregon and Iowa avenues in the Benton Park West neighborhood. If you can visit only one, my recommendation would be La Vallesana (2801 Cherokee Street; 314-776-4223), a colorful shack with a large outdoor patio. The tortas and tacos al pastor are knockouts.
Banh Mi So #1 – Saigon Gourmet (4071 South Grand Boulevard; 314-353-0545) is a mouthful to say, but worth seeking out for authentic Vietnamese food cooked by Lynne Truong and served by her husband, Thomas. The wait might be on the longer side — seriously: It's just Mrs. Truong back there, chopping your cilantro, stirring your pho and frying your banh xeo crêpe — but Mr. Truong will keep you entertained with his friendly manner and conversations.
The signature banh mi sandwich (#31 on the menu) is a steal at just $2.50. Order three or four and stuff yourself at the All-Star Game for not much more than one serving of nachos. And no extra "cheese" cup is required.