5. Atlas (2003)
I've heard more than one person call Atlas one of St. Louis' best-kept secrets, which makes no sense because pretty much everyone I know loves the place, and those who don't are misguided wretches who probably kick puppies and leave the toilet seat up. Stroll into Atlas without a reservation and you'll have to wait for a table. The husband-and-wife team of Michael Roberts (chef) and Jean Donnelly (desserts, front of house) serves unpretentious but utterly delicious bistro food — steak frites, lamb chops and oh! let the winter wind blow if it means I can order cassoulet — that landed it among the city's best when it opened not quite seven years ago and that has remained unwaveringly excellent ever since. My favorite Atlas moment? Overhearing a fellow diner debating whether to order Donnelly's sublime marjolaine for dessert. "Is it really that good?" he wondered. Donnelly stared at him, her expression deadly serious: "Yes."
5513 Pershing Avenue; 314-367-6800

4. Taste by Niche (2009)
Like Local Harvest Café, Taste by Niche represents a potential new direction for St. Louis restaurants, with the quality of the food and drink trumping splashy build-outs and the pretensions of upscale dining. The food is terrific — it scored No. 1 on last week's Top Ten Dishes of 2009 — but you would expect nothing less from Gerard Craft and his team, especially ace mixologist Ted Kilgore. At Taste, the barrier between diner and chef is broken down, with the intimate confines encouraging a freewheeling conversation with the staff and fellow diners whom you might have met about how the food is being prepared, what this or that ingredient is, why your cocktail is so good. Without doubt, the most engaging — and one of the most exhilarating — dining experiences to hit St. Louis this decade.
1831 Sidney Street; 314-773-7755

3. An American Place (2004)
Five years, the economic plunge that stalled downtown's "renaissance" and, frankly, the disparaging comments about St. Louis diners that Larry Forgione made during a Sauce magazine interview have taken some of the luster off An American Place. Still, when it opened in 2004, An American Place was a Big Deal, bringing to St. Louis an honest-to-god big-name chef, the look and feel of a contemporary big-city fine-dining palace and, most important, the ethos of locally sourcing the best possible ingredients, transforming them into culinary wonders and giving the producers as much credit as the cooks. If St. Louis hasn't seen another restaurant quite as urbane as An American Place, the number of restaurants that now embody a similar philosophy shows that our tastes aren't quite as provincial as Forgione might believe. What's more, An American Place introduced us to one of the city's most remarkable culinary talents, blown by Hurricane Katrina from New Orleans first into Forgione's kitchen and then to...
822 Washington Avenue; 314-418-5800

2. Monarch (2003)
Josh Galliano is reason enough to rank Monarch so high: The Louisiana native, sent packing when Katrina devastated New Orleans, is everything you could want in a chef — creative yet respectful of tradition; ambitious yet humble. Yet he has been the executive chef at Monarch for only a brief portion of its existence, and Monarch attains this lofty position because it has been such a crucible of talent: original chef Brian Hale (now at the Chase Park Plaza); mixologist Ted Kilgore (now of Taste by Niche); sommelier Chris Hoel, the subject of a Riverfront Times feature story by my colleague Kristen Hinman ("The Wine Master," April 19, 2007) and now at perhaps America's most prestigious restaurant, Thomas Keller's French Laundry; general manager Matt McGuire, who founded the late beloved King Louie's; former general manager and drinks expert Chad George. It's a credit to owners Aaron Teitelbaum and Jeff Orbin, who took a chance opening a major-league restaurant in modest Maplewood and have maintained the desire to improve it year after year.
7401 Manchester Road, Maplewood; 314-644-3995

1. Niche (2005)
If a hurricane hadn't sent Josh Galliano here, both An American Place and Monarch would have had very different trajectories. And if an ambitious young chef in Salt Lake City hadn't taken the time to research emerging markets to open his first restaurant, we might not have had Niche. Can you imagine our dining scene without Gerard Craft, the first St. Louis chef to be a finalist for the James Beard Foundation "Best Chef – Midwest" award, the first to be named a Food & Wine magazine "Best New Chef"? Craft raised the bar for young chefs in St. Louis. No longer could you be content as a big fish in a little pond. No, you had to want more: a bigger profile, better ingredients, more thoughtful dishes, a greater respect for diners whose tastes were evolving. You couldn't serve the same four desserts as everyone else — you had to trust the whimsy of a Mathew Rice (now of Pi). And you couldn't rest on your laurels but constantly innovate, opening not one but two new places — Taste and Brasserie by Niche — in half a year. Niche isn't perfect, and not every one of Craft's creations is a masterpiece. But it's the best restaurant we have, and it is a signal to the rest of the country: St. Louis has arrived.
1831 Sidney Street; 314-773-7755

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