Eat Drink Man Woman

Taking some time to let 1999's dinners digest

What did you have for dinner two nights ago? I don't remember, either. Unremarkable restaurants are as thick as clotted cream around here. Judging by the feedback I get, I conclude that this is because they are dumbly supported by a dining public who believes that as long as they haven't been poisoned, they've eaten well. Some folks go to surprisingly vociferous lengths in their impassioned defense of boring food. So it is not without a gnawing sense of futility that I submit my thoughts on The Year in Restaurants.

The unforgettable meal is what every rational restaurateur seeks to deliver. Thus, I reason, the year's dining highlights should pop, unaided, right into my head. To this end I have performed an experiment. I've hidden my notes, lit an unscented candle, seated myself cross-legged on the floor and closed my eyes. What fond food memories will wash over me?

I determine that since I started keeping track, I've consumed roughly 70 dinners in as many restaurants. Of those, I can recall in detail maybe 10. Some of the 10 were noteworthy repasts (Cardwell's on the Plaza, Chez Leon), but I remember the rest only because they were such cheesers (a boiled-pig's-foot incident comes to mind). This leaves 60 second-rate, utterly forgettable meals. Sixty!

Lisa's Diner in Granite City, Ill.: The chicken-fried steak's weird white gravy is like unto library paste but is elemental to this quintessential diner experience.
Jennifer Silverberg
Lisa's Diner in Granite City, Ill.: The chicken-fried steak's weird white gravy is like unto library paste but is elemental to this quintessential diner experience.

Location Info

Map

Cardwell's At The Plaza

94 Plaza Frontenac
Frontenac, MO 63131

Category: Restaurant > Fine Dining

Region: Des Peres

Chez Leon

7927 Forsyth Blvd.
Clayton, MO 63105

Category: Restaurant > French

Region: Clayton

Charlie Gitto's-The Hill

5226 Shaw Ave.
St. Louis, MO 63110

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: St. Louis - The Hill

Lisa's Diner

1621 Madison Ave.
Granite City, IL 62040

Category: Restaurant > Deli

Region: Granite City

Shenandoah Bar & Grill

2855 Shenandoah Ave.
St. Louis, MO 63104-2343

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: St. Louis - Soulard

Seven Gables Inn

26 N. Meramec Ave.
Clayton, MO 63105

Category: Hotels and Resorts

Region: Clayton

King Louie's

3800 Chouteau Ave.
St. Louis, MO 63110-2331

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: St. Louis - Tower Grove

Bonds' of Chesterfield Valley

280 Long Road
Chesterfield, MO 63005-1207

Category: Services

Region: Chesterfield

Balaban's Wine Cellar & Tapas Bar

1772 Clarkson Road
Chesterfield, MO 63017

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Chesterfield

Annie Gunn's

16806 Chesterfield Airport Road
Chesterfield, MO 63005

Category: Restaurant > New American

Region: Chesterfield

It isn't surprising, by the way, that I ate so many of these second-raters on the Hill; I lost count of the endlessly cloned dishes of bland cannelloni hurled at me by stoners in crusty tuxedos (if you must dine on the Hill, go to Charlie Gitto's and get the tenderloin Siciliano). Or that Romo's, possibly the worst restaurant ever, is now -- mercifully -- closed. Or even, perhaps, that at Tony's I was served the sandiest mussels on record and that a delusional assistant waiter actually argued with me over when to serve the cognac.

But I digress. What follows is the stream-of-consciousness result of my gastrocentric saunter down memory lane. I've listed exemplary dishes that captivated me in one way or another, but in almost every case they spring to mind because the dining experiences of which they were a part left a pretty good taste in my mouth. Despite a preponderance of the unexceptional, St. Louis is home to some glittering gems. To wit:

· Snails broiled in butter and blue cheese at Sadie Thompson's. These were so enchanting that my girlfriend, until then a fervent mollusk-o-phobe, instantly morphed into a voracious snailhead. She would subsequently order escargots whenever she saw them (that is, if I was buying), but none would match the flirty delicacy of chef Erv Janko's exquisite dish.

· Chicken-fried steak at Lisa's Diner in Granite City, Ill. It was bigger than my head. I stand by my assessment that Lisa's weird white gravy is like unto library paste, but the stuff is elemental to this quintessential diner experience and should appeal on many levels to any student of the genre.

· Duck confît at Grenache. I have since been informed by an actual French guy that this was nothing like the dish as it exists in his native land. No matter; it still rates as one of most palatable substances I've encountered all year. I look forward to sampling the work of chef Justin Keimon, who recently replaced Bryan Carr at the stove.

· T-bone steak at our city's only Serbian tavern, the Shenandoah Bar and Grill. Just like Pop used to cook out in the backyard.

· Bruschetta at Bar Italia. So simple, so perfect: bread piled high with chopped tomatoes at their absolute seasonal peak, kissed with Parmesan and teased by the broiler. The grooviest appetizer, period. Bar Italia has long been on my A-list, and it's even better now that it's moved to roomier quarters a block west of its old storefront.

· Banana tart at the Seven Gables Inn. This unpretentious yet thoroughly toothsome confection of caramelized banana, custard and caramel sauce capped off a nearly flawless dinner. David Slay's been in the house since September.

· Spinach salad at King Louie's. Last spring I was so addicted to this salad's peerless roasted-garlic vinaigrette that I never minded the half-hour wait for a table. Let's hope that some recent inconsistencies in the kitchen have been resolved.

· Cinnamon ice cream with caramel sauce at Zoë Pan Asia Café. At first this sounded really awful, but the server twisted my arm ("You don't want mango sorbet -- there's no fat in it!") until I relented. I am a convert. It's a different, exotic delight; I washed it down with a chocolate-dipped macaroon.

-- Jill Posey-Smith

First, the happy part of Happy New Year: For the fourth or fifth year in a row, a year-end reflection on the state of restaurants in the St. Louis area results in many, many more positives than negatives. As has been the pattern for several years now, a flurry of promising new places opened near year-end, so we don't have much to say in detail quite yet, but we're excited about the early returns. My colleague Jill Posey-Smith has already pronounced Chez Leon as way-cool, and I was duly impressed by the new Bond's of Chesterfield. Several more newcomers are on the schedule for the next few weeks.

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