Over the past year, a nationwide dining trend (finally) touched down in St. Louis, and in a big way. Now groups of complete strangers are congregating for guided explorations of restaurant "neighborhoods." Participants may not know one another, but they share a unifying mutual mission: to eat, and eat well.
The advent of regular public dining tours of sorts spawned three relatively new guided options for avid diners: Savor Saint Louis, Dishcrawl and STL Culinary Tours. Guests pay a set fee (costs vary) for a reservation ticket that serves as a passport to sample and sip food and drink over the course of an evening's excursion through one or another of St. Louis' more restaurant-saturated areas.
Rather than compete directly with one another, Savor Saint Louis, Dishcrawl and STL Culinary Tours have evidently adopted a divide-and-conquer strategy, each carving out a different slice of St. Louis' expanding dining-scene pie to feed the heads of intrepid — and hungry — foodies.
Members of the close-knit Smith family love food almost as much as they love St. Louis. Together they own and operate south-city mainstay the Royale. During trips out of town, they've shared everything from brick-oven Neapolitan-style pizza in New York to top-rated hot dogs with the works in Chicago. After trying out tours in several major cities, they began to wonder: "Why doesn't St. Louis have a food-and-culture tour of its own?"
Savor Saint Louis food tours, run by the mother-daughter duo of Susan Smith and Jennifer Schmid, soft-launched in the fall of 2012, officially debuting a tour of the Central West End to the public during the spring. Father and son Patrick Smith and Steven Fitzpatrick Smith lend a hand in the biz as well, managing the books and acting as consultants.
"We really want to entertain people and serve them what will amount to a very satisfying lunch right out of the gate. Our goal is to deliver the best experience of an area possible," says Schmid. "While we do that, we hope to teach them something new, and there's a lot of camaraderie along the way."
Savor aims to offer a unique package to tourists and townies alike that includes a tour of the art, architecture and history of an area in addition to a sampling of food from five of its top restaurants and retailers. Small bites and occasionally family-style plates await groups of ten or so visitors at dining destinations, sometimes presented by the chefs themselves.
"You'll find people from a lot of different socioeconomic backgrounds on these tours," says Tambora Mills of Bissinger's in the Central West End. "Many people take a food tour to get a cross-slice of an area they hadn't experienced before and get a feel for its history."
For now Savor offers $44 all-inclusive weekend walking tours of the Central West End, available to book up until the winter holidays. The owners hope to expand to other neighborhoods in the near future.
Upcoming tour dates: Central West End: Every Friday and Saturday at 11 a.m.; $44.
Summed up easily enough in its slogan ("It's like a pub crawl — but more delicious!"), Dishcrawl arrived in the St. Louis market this spring, joining a surge of successful chapters that have popped up all over the nation. The California-based company got its start in 2010 and now offers tours in more than 100 cities in the United States and Canada.
Soulard native Sara Graham found her dream job as Dishcrawl's St. Louis "ambassador" via Craigslist and led her first tour along Washington Avenue in April. Since then she has "crawled" groups through Lafayette Square and the Delmar Loop, with other destinations in development. Her alter ego as a belly dancer makes Graham a natural for entertaining and socializing with groups, which typically range from 30 to 35 people per crawl.
"Dishcrawl is an event meant to bring people, food and the community together. It's focused on really supporting the neighborhood and the fantastic restaurants available there," says Graham.
The setup is simple: Buy a ticket to a scheduled neighborhood-centric Dishcrawl for $45, which includes food at each stop, tax and gratuity. Then meet up with your fellow diners at a designated location that's revealed 48 hours before zero hour.
In an attempt to enhance the fun factor, participants can decipher hints provided via social media to figure out what they'll get to eat and who they'll meet. Graham chooses four spots within walking distance for dinner and assigns a course to each, allowing chefs free rein over the offerings, plus the opportunity to speak with a rapt audience.
"It's a reasonable way to market yourself with people you know really care about food," says Eddie Neill, managing partner of the Dubliner on Washington Avenue. "We talk about how we buy our pigs from a local farmer and let people know that we care as much about the food as they do."
Upcoming tour dates and events: Washington Avenue: Wednesday, July 17, 7 p.m.; $45. Delmar Loop "Neighborfood": Saturday, July 27, 2 p.m.; $10. Clayton: Tuesday, August 13, 7 p.m.; $45.
To begin the current installment of STL Culinary Tours, participants ride the elevator to Three Sixty, the rooftop bar of Hilton St. Louis at the Ballpark, escorted by executive chef Rex Hale. Upon arriving at the 26th floor, guests are greeted by a bountiful spread of gourmet appetizers to discuss with Hale over infused cocktails, with a sweeping view of the cityscape as a backdrop.
Self-proclaimed culinary evangelist Beth Huch arranged the feast behind closed doors as the first stop on her Market Street gastro tour, one of hundreds of public and private fine-dining tours she has hosted since she launched her company in May 2012. Huch has hosted everyone from local couples to international chemists in neighborhoods including Maplewood, Clayton, downtown and DeMun.
The bubbly Huch, who for sixteen years worked in public relations for luxury hotels and celebrity chefs, prefers an old-school face-to-face approach, which makes sense considering her penchant to wine and dine. Her lengthy résumé in hospitality includes PR for L'Ecole Culinaire and founding the St. Louis chapter of Les Dames d'Escoffier.
STL Culinary Tours, admittedly a more highbrow personal experience crafted for devout foodies, offers a true behind-the-scenes experience that has caught the attention of national publications such as Wine Enthusiast Magazine.
Public tours in small groups range from $125 to $185 per person (depending on the neighborhood) and include tax, gratuity, complimentary valet parking, up to ten courses with cocktail pairings, and, of course, the opportunity to hang out with the guys (and gals) in charge.
"What I really enjoy is that it allows for chefs and guests to interact in a way that's extremely unusual and a lot of fun," says Hale. "You can't do that when you're just going in to eat at a restaurant."
Upcoming tour dates: Market Street: Saturday, July 13, noon; $150.