All for Aughts: Let's count down the best local restaurant openings of the decade!

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?

Sigh.

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

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