Hot EatsMay 25, 2011
2011 Hot List: Dining
100+ things in St. Louis we can't live without.
Story: By Amy De La Hunt
Photos: Opening Photo by Jennifer Silverberg, Photography by Attilio D'Agostino
The rising St. Louis temps don't have anything on the members of our 2011 Hot List. We seriously broke a sweat when it came to choosing this year's picks for the coveted list, but in the end, these top STL restaurants, shops, clubs, gyms and cultural destinations proved they were a cut above the rest–making us fall in love with all things St. Louis once more.
One of the best things about St. Louis dining is that you never know what's just around the corner. Sure, you have your classic steakhouses and Italian staples, but it's the unexpected culinary gems—from cozy seafood hideaways and chic small plate perches to vegan venues and ethnic eateries to die for—that really caught our eye when compiling this year's list. So, prepare for your taste buds to be tantalized because the STL dining scene is sizzling.
Best New Restaurant: Prime 1000
The art of dry-aging beef is on full display here, which for dedicated carnivores is more beautiful to behold than anything else—even the custom-designed interior. Prices for dry-aged cuts reflect the cost of the time-intensive process, but equal attention goes into the totally affordable (and delicious) lunchtime burgers, seafood entrées and dishes on the creative side. Downtown, 314.241.1000.
Best Ambiance: DeMun Oyster Bar
Although gulping down oysters in a down-home, all-you-can-eat sort of way does hold its intrigue, DeMun Oyster Bar offers a different way to experience fresh mollusks on the half shell by encouraging customers to enjoy the Pacific Coast delicacies as one would a glass of wine, tasting for the oceanic equivalent of terroir in the five or six varieties it offers daily. The décor is also reminiscent of a wine bar; tile floors and upholstered chairs give the small space an upscale vibe, while large windows and a sidewalk patio overlook DeMun Park. Clayton, 314.725.0322.
Best Wine List: Robust
There's more to Robust than a pretty face. Though its approach to wine—using the Robust Factor to group wines into categories—sounds simple, its certified sommelier ensures there's substance behind the façade. The blend of unpretentious humor (wine flights with names like "Take Me To Bed Reds") and high quality varieties guarantees a memorable, and painlessly educational, outing. Webster Groves, 314.963.0033.
Best Dessert menu: Niche
In foodie circles, Gerard Craft, the award-winning executive chef at Niche, is a household name. Following his first-class act can't be easy, though pastry chef Elise Mensing does it well—and with incredible whimsy and creativity (just try her horchata flavored panna cotta). As on the savory menu, desserts are often tied to fresh produce. Then again, chocolate never goes out of season. Benton Park, 314.773.7755.
Best Brunch: Eau Bistro in the Chase Park Plaza
Holidays call for a special brunch venue. But what about Sundays when there's no equivalent to Father's Day, like June 5? Or 12? Or 26? Eau Bistro tones down the celebratory buffet so it's just right for a weekend feast. But be forewarned: You might have a bit of explaining to do if your mom catches wind that you went without her. Central West End, 314.454.9000.
Best Business Lunch: Lucas Park Grille
The trendy nightspot that glitters after dark shines by day, too, as a top-notch lunch destination for downtown professionals. Lucas Park has always been a bit of an anomaly—a nightclub/lounge with a full menu—so it's not surprising that its kitchen can whip up smoked salmon salad and grass-fed Missouri beef burgers at an hour when neckties outnumber miniskirts. The price, however, is a surprise, especially the lunch special for just $10.50. Downtown, 314.241.7770.
Best Date Spot: Sidney Street Café
Sure, there's a passionate chef in the kitchen, but Kevin Nashan's culinary allure probably isn't the first thing that pops into a girl's mind when she's invited to Sidney Street. Food-lovers may get all poetic about the foie gras or the lobster turnovers, but for couples on a date, the house-made charcuterie and locally sourced dishes may be merely a prelude—especially if there's a ring in someone's pocket (on any given week- end, there almost always is). Benton Park, 314.771.5777.
Best Late-night Diner: City Diner in Grand Center
It's notoriously tricky to get dinner before a show at the Fox Theatre. One messed-up order or hard-to-catch server, and you're late for the curtain. Hold off until afterward, and head for the new City Diner location, serving familiar comfort foods like meatloaf, mashed potatoes, triple-strength grilled cheese and classic breakfast favorites. It's open late after Fox shows and until 3am on weekends, and the flagship South Grand location is open 24/7 from Friday to Sunday night. Grand Center, 314.533.7500.
Best Locally Sourced Menu: Farmhaus Restaurant
Chef Kevin Willmann grew up in a farming family, so he can talk the talk when it comes to building relationships with local purveyors. Farmhaus' menu lists many of the producers who contribute to the day's dishes. Some are familiar vendors at local farmers' markets, but others feel like hidden jewels Willmann has dug up just for your dining enjoyment. South City, 314.647.3800.
Best Coffeehouse: Park Avenue Coffee
For the record, you can get all the frou-frou toppings your heart desires. But if you're a coffee purist, this is nirvana. There's a selection of single-origin coffees, different blends, different roasts and different flavors, all from the local family-owned coffee company Chauvin. And did we mention the gooey butter cake, available in a dozen flavors daily? Lafayette Square and (newly opened) Downtown, 314.231.5282.
Best Café: Companion
About 10:30am, the cravings start. Mushroom and brie soup. Cheese-on-cheese panini. And a cookie, definitely. Making it easier than ever to get a fix of Companion's excellent artisan breads is the Gathering Sack, a $10 box lunch that's ordered online and picked up at the cafés (or delivered for orders of more than 10). Each contains a sandwich, chips or salad, and a dessert, which you can share with hungry co-workers who are craving your lunch. Clayton and Ladue, companionstl.com.
Best Bakery: SweetArt
Cupcake happy hour: a great invention. Offering it three days a week? Sheer genius. The special pricing applies Tuesday through Thursday on cupcakes like red velvet, lemon, carrot and (our personal favorite) the peanut-butter-and-banana Elvis. If you can make it past the cupcake case, there are also cookies and special-order cakes—all made without artificial flavors, preservatives, trans fat or high-fructose corn syrup. Sweet! Shaw, 314.771.4278.
Best Deli: Blues City Deli
Give yourself some time because the lunchtime line often stretches out the door at this old-style corner deli. Customers drive miles for the made-to-order po'boys and muffulettas, hot dogs and hoagies. It can also get a little tight when live blues bands are playing (Thursday evenings and Saturday afternoons), but folks are always relaxed as they wait for their taste of favorites from the length of the Blues Highway. Benton Park, 314.773.8225.
Best Vegan Menu: Local Harvest Café and Catering
Any restaurant that boasts about its "beloved vegan cheese" is either (a) Serious about animalproduct-free dining or (b) Seriously delusional. At Local Harvest, it's choice(a).Throughout the day, the vegan options might include French toast, polenta, black bean enchiladas (with that beloved cheese), chili, pot pies and a daily meat-free special. Tower Grove, 314.772.8815.
Best Steakhouse: Annie Gunn's
For a sign of how serious Lou Rook III is about meat, flip to the burger description: Each day the staff grinds USDA prime strip loin, rib eye, Angus tenderloin and brisket for its basic burger mix, then supplements it with tasty add-ons like brown sugar-cured house-smoked pork belly. Now go back to the steaks, secure in the knowledge you can't go wrong here. Chesterfield, 636.532.7684.
Best Mexican: Milagro Modern Mexican
The ubiquitous Tex-Mex version of Mexican cuisine can be tasty, but it's not exactly authentic. Milagro makes you feel that you really are south of the border, with melt-in-your-mouth tuna ceviche, rich mole poblano, tangy-sweet mango pico de gallo and a tres leches cupcake so delicious you'll be ready to relinquish your passport and stay forever. Webster Groves, 314.962.4300.
Best Pizza: Pi Pizzeria
Call it Chicago-style, call it San Francisco-style, whatever. There's nothing else quite like it in St. Louis. The distinctive cornmeal in the crust adds lightness and crunch; the olive oil adds umami. The deep dish, laden with sauce and cheese, is satisfyingly hefty, while the thin crust has just the right crispness. There's no Provel on these pies, only mozzarella and generous toppings. Multiple locations, restaurant.pi.com.
Best Sushi: Chi
Blink and you might miss this little storefront lounge, where sushi and sake share top billing. In-the-know customers order with a sense of adventure—an attitude that's summed up perfectly in the signature Chi Roll's ingredients: avocado, eel, salmon, shrimp, kiwi, masago (flying fish roe), scallions and eel sauce. Central West End, 314.367.2209.
Best Burger: SubZero Vodka Bar
So let's say you can't find quite what you want among the 22 hamburger variations at SubZero. The burger bar lets you customize your burger from a list of nine proteins, nine cheeses, 16 sauces and 18 toppings. Tuna, American, vodka sauce and BBQ eel? Bison, pepper jack, chipotle mayo and fried egg? We won't stop you, no matter how crazy things get. Central West End, 314.367.1200.
Best Italian: Lorenzo's Trattoria
In northern Italy, today's generation doesn't eat exactly the way their Nonna did 50 years ago... so why should you? Lorenzo's is traditional enough to revere the classics like ossobucco and house- made potato gnocchi but gives itself the flexibility to add truffled tomato bread pudding to a T-bone steak. One bite, and Nonna would approve. The Hill, 314.773.2223.
Best Mediterranean: Aya Sofia
Anyone who's been to a foreign country knows how well a traveler can eat via point-and-smile ordering. At Aya Sofia, you may feel like you've been teleported to Turkey. True, the menu has handy pronunciation guides, but we're still a little tongue-tangled by dishes like Akdeniz Usulü Tavuk (chicken with basil, sundried tomatoes and potatoes with lemon-garlic-butter sauce). South City, 314.645.9919.
Best Chef: Josh Galliano, Monarch
In a culinary world where top chefs sometimes feel like PR creations, Galliano is refreshingly real. His enthusiasm for food is evident on every plate— and you can get a tantalizing preview via his tweets (@cookingkid), where Southern favorites like Nilla wafers and catfish pop up alongside sophisticated, farm-fresh fare destined to appear on the chef's tasting menu. Maplewood, 314.644.3995.
Food Trucks: Sarah's Cake Stop
Lunch on the go has taken off. Food trucks are dotting several pedestrian-friendly corners in the metro area, and a good location may have Italian one day and tacos the next. Hungry customers can check the Twitter feeds to find out when and where their favorite truck will be stopping. But sweetest of all is Sarah's Cake Stop, an offshoot of Sarah's Cake Shop in Chesterfield, with half a dozen flavors onboard daily. Around town, @Sarahscakestop.
The best STL dining experiences you never knew you were missing.
Best Pop-up Restaurant: The Mud House
Most of the time, The Mud House is a breakfast and lunch café. But every once in awhile, it opens in the evening for a culinary treat. These multi-course chef's dinner feature unusual ingredients and techniques, from Pop Tart-like pastries to sweet potato biscuits with gizzard gravy and quail eggs. To find out when the next one is happening check The Mud House Facebook page. Cherokee Street, 314.776.6599.
Best Underground Dining Club: UnderWAREs
The aura of mystery surrounding underground dinners–secretive chefs, unnamed venues–typically comes at a hefty price. Not so at UnderWAREs' home-style monthly dinner parties. Though organizers Geraldine Co and Joseph Fischer maintain the mystery, their dinners run only $10-$15 per guest. For the next one (June 25), the budget-friendly fee includes home brewed beer pairings. Around town, 708.323.6867.
Best Members-Only Experience: Sanctuaria's Cocktail Club
There are many perks to the Cocktail Club at Sanctuaria. The $20 fee entitles members to a free drink, discounts on retail items and an $8-per-drink price on the 150 item Club Menu. Best of all, they're invited to events like Cocktails by Candlelight, were they can mingle with members of the United States Bartenders Guild while enjoying all-you-can-drink cocktails and a buffet matching the evening's theme. The Grove, 314.535.9700.
Best Unexpected Dining Spot: Bixby's
For an institution dedicated to preserving the past, the History Museum is certainly placing itself in the present of the city. Most patrons would be hard-pressed to name the restaurant inside, but Bixby's is worth discovering. Open for lunch six days a week and brunch on Sundays, it features local ingredients in modern dishes overlooking a lovely landscape. Forest Park, 314.361.7313.
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