Best Of 2005

Recently, an RFT writer's uncle sent her an e-mail saying he'd be coming into town on business. He asked where he should take his clients for dinner. "When I think of St. Louis, all I think of is Applebee's," he wrote. That may have been the case a few years back, but not any more. St. Louis now has some of the best restaurants in the nation. Period. An American Place serves up fresh, first-rate feasts on par with the best of San Francisco, with polished service and lush appointments to match. Red Moon has wowed food-mag critics nationwide with its French-Asian fusion. And speaking of fusion, we've got a trifecta of restaurants -- Mirasol, Mosaic, Momos -- that have perfected that trendy cuisine, not just aped it for show. Chicago'd better watch its back.
Yes, we do love Woofies (1919 Woodson Road, Overland; 314-426-6291). We've composed frickin' paeans to Woofies. We're tempted to write a poem about Woofies, set it to music and force you to listen to it while you're on hold with our receptionist. But this year we're gonna sing a new tune, a DIY number we like to call "Boil Your Own Damn Wiener." Because if you're anything like us, sometimes you find yourself with the urge to eat frankfurters at home. When we're of a mind to partake, we stop in at the nearest Straub's, beeline for the meat counter and ask for a pound of Usinger's wieners. Okay, they're not technically a St. Louis product -- they've been made in Milwaukee for more than a hundred years and aren't about to move -- but Straub's has the good sense to carry them, so they're fair game. Plus, they're terrific. Usinger's was the official frankfurter of the Salt Lake City Olympics, and here's one big reason: Unlike your typical grocery-store dog, a Usinger's isn't skinless; it's stuffed in a natural casing, which betrays itself in the form of a zesty resistance that accompanies every bite. They come eight to the pound, for $4.99 a pound. (Don't bitch; it's worth it.) While you're waiting for the butcher to wrap 'em, if you harbor even the remotest doubt about the mustard situation back at the homestead, pick up a bottle of Gulden's Spicy Brown. Ditto beer. And buns (though we've been known to employ a simple slice of bread in a pinch). Here's how to cook frankfurters: Boil some water in a pot or pan. Add desired number of franks. Turn off stove, cover pot and let stand ten to fifteen minutes. Straub's tends to keep its Usinger's stock frozen, but that's OK. Just adjust the heating time nearer to the fifteen-minute mark, make ready with the mustard, sip your beer and wait.
How does "Best New Restaurant in the Past Four Decades" strike you? When we learned last year that American-cuisine pioneer/ James Beard acolyte Larry Forgione was en route to STL to open an eatery in a corner of the spiffy but iffy Renaissance Grand Hotel downtown, our hearts went pitter-pat. Hyperbole? Hardly. Understand: a veritable star in our nation's culinary firmament setting up shop in St. Louis. Ask yourself: How many internationally recognized chefs have we got around these parts? Yep, this is a watershed event. And An American Place, which opened in late '04, did not disappoint. It's a stunningly splendid setting -- the glory of the former Statler Hotel recaptured in a soaring, two-story space, from plush-carpeted floors to barrel-vaulted ceilings, from cushy booths that dominate the room's center to towering, swag-bedecked windows that face west. And the food! Forgione and executive chef John Griffiths have accomplished the improbable (if not impossible): They've spawned a love affair between St. Louisans and our local bounty. Relationships with nearby farmers have produced a different-every-day menu heavy on local vegetables and local meat (local bobwhite quail, local grass-fed lamb), local fruits and local cheeses (made from local milk). This is not to imply that the kitchen hews slavishly to area producers; the menu is all American, not all Missouri. (As if to emphasize the point, summer brought a deluge of seafood from both coasts.) But in less than a year's time, An American Place has put us in closer touch with our farm roots than we've ever been. And elegantly, delectably so.
The only reason every burger aficionado in the bi-state area isn't lined up outside Dressel's is because, well, most folks don't equate "Welsh pub" with "perfect hamburger." But we know the truth, and it's killing us to keep the secret. So if you know what's good for you, you'll head Dresselward the next time the carnivorous craving kicks in. Start off with a nice beer -- a Double Dragon Bitter Ale, perhaps, or a Fuller's London Porter. Order a basket of homemade potato chips (and don't forget the side of eat-it-with-a-spoon-good rarebit). Then request the pièce de résistance, the Platonic ideal of a hamburger: charred and savory on the outside, meaty and pink on the inside, nestled on an ace kaiser roll with a thick tomato slice and romaine lettuce leaves on the side. And, because we're already divulging our secrets, hear this: No one will think any less of you if you put some of that rarebit on your burger. Truly.
St. Louisan blood don't run much thicker than the hemoglobin that pumps through the veins of Iron Barley chef and proprietor Tom Coghill. A north-side native previously best known for manning the stoves at Frazer's Brown Bag (one of the true feathers in this city's culinary cap), Coghill opened Iron Barley in the Carondelet neighborhood a few summers ago as testament to the greasy, messy, haute-hoosier cuisine he grew up on: chili, Monte Cristos, PB&Js, roasted chicken and pork, Grandma's potato salad. Coghill pays annual testament to the art of beer-guzzling (a St. Louis tradition if ever there was one) with his Oktoberfest blasts, and he hosts live music regularly throughout the year. Iron Barley has garnered so much national attention that it's not unheard-of to bump into Memphis or Little Rock road-trippers on weekends, folks who drove to the Lou just to eat here.
Three cups o' joe and sixteen ounces of Gatorade into Thursday morning, and the hangover still ain't abating. Of all the days the boss could be yammering, "I want that report!" it had to be this one? Alas, there's but one potion -- short of magic -- that can correct this injustice. Here's how to get it: Park on Pershing, at Union. See the red-and-white striped awnings on the corner of the Congress apartments? That's Café Mensé: home of the $2 martini. Strong or subtle, appletini or cosmo, take your pick. Then do like the delivery guys and order yours to go. A minute later, your libation appears in a Styrofoam cup with a plastic top. Everyone knows you can't drink and drive, but there's no law against carrying that clandestine cocktail back to your desk. If anyone asks, it's just coffee!
The chef in the back builds the Nightmare with a shovel. He dumps a pile of chopped onions in a pot, backs up a cement mixer and pours fifteen tons of veggie chili onto it, pushes a Cheddar cheese log through a wood shredder, and then pours the mixture onto your choice of either garden or black-bean burger. We say rock the black bean. It kicks major ass, spicy and black-bean buttery. He wipes his brow and summons the server, who delivers the Nightmare to the table with forklift, hands you a pitchfork and a scythe and scoots away. Tip for the out-of-towners: Locals know the legendary joint as simply the Stagger in Edderdsville.
A new bar is like a puppy. It's all fresh and cuddly and clean, reckless and cute. In a puppy, as in a new bar, lies hope. Hope that it will be a devoted companion, that it will provide respite from the drudgery. And that it will be a chick magnet. Men with dogs are handsome, like Sam Malone on Cheers. But as the puppy grows, the master begins to realize that the little devil gets dirty, that it requires constant attention, that you never get a day off from its pissing and shitting. Congrats. Your puppy's now a dog, and you are Moe Szyslak. The customers at your bar are goddamn drunks who will not shut up. They come here, meet each other, get plastered then go home and fuck. It's pathetic. Read a goddamn book. As is the case every year, we've seen our share of bars come and go. Good riddance to the old; we weren't welcome anymore anyway. But so far we're not barred entry to the Royale, which serves the freshest drinks in town; we've been welcomed with open arms at the new (and improved) Baileys' Chocolate Bar. But the cleanest, most adorable puppy of the lot is the Lucas Park Grille, which resembles a baby beagle: pretty in a downhome way, always drawing a crowd, well manicured and majestic. Snoopy, downtown. A little pricey, sure, but corduroys are expensive. Still, Washington Avenue's been starving for a clean, well-lighted, Cardinals-fan-friendly environ. Here it is. May its customers venture out and spread the love, and may the puppy turn into a well-trained, regal companion.
Successful freeloading is equal parts poker, theater and ballet. It doesn't begin when the check arrives. Rather, the curtain rises when the plans are made, and a well-rehearsed script is a must. Got a birthday coming up? Win an award? Have a baby? Anything will suffice. Just casually mention it without any hint of entitlement. You want them to come up with the notion that you deserve a free dinner. If, by the end of the conversation, they haven't bought in, you're going to have to gamble and try a different approach. Once you arrive at Arthur Clay's in downtown Maplewood, suck up to your companions. Sparkle. Order big. If someone chooses a $12 single-malt, raise "em a $16 snifter's worth. The place serves exquisite baby back ribs, the best we've ever had. Recommend them; it'll score you bonus points. Arthur Clay's must have a private hotline to the coasts, because a rare piece of their tuna is still breathing on the inside. Definitely order dessert and a tawny Port (it reinforces the notion that this is a celebration). All the while, befriend your server; speak to him with your eyes. Finally, when the check heads your way, smile and eye-point the bill in the other direction. Then, just as the bill hits the table, the ballet: a subtle, graceful lean-back and eye twinkle with a ting. Oh yes. Life's good on the dole.
The kind still with the potato skin on 'em, fried crisp but not too much, so the soft velvety white on the inside is still supple to the touch, still steaming. Oh, sweet starch. A touch of salt, uh-huh. Malt vinegar sprinkled over the pile, just enough spicy ketchup to provide a balanced, salty-sweet tension. It's a miracle what potatoes, oil and accoutrements can accomplish when they cooperate. You can order a basket of fries, or you can get them as part of the fish-and-chips plate (which is how we usually do it). Either way, it's a victory. Either way, you get more fries than you deserve.
Remember the South Park episode where the boys open the Super Awesome Talent Agency? Like Cartman says upon ushering in a prospective client, "As you can see, we are quite a successful company. Did you notice the fountain? Pretty nice, hmm?" Blue-collar haven Stratford Bar & Grill seems to have adopted the same philosophy for their Super Awesome Watering Hole. It's the kind of place where BIGGDICK has achieved the Erotic Solitare high score (569,205 points). Where arcade games, pool, Foosball, darts, Club Keno and 40-plus TV sets airing everything from Judge Judy to the Little League World Series compete for your attention. Where Kid Rock and AC/DC rule the sound system. And yes, where a faux-marble lion's head spews forth water between the Men's and Ladies' rooms. Adjacent to the Stratford Inn off Interstate 44, the SB&G not only offers killer daily happy hour deals and even-killerer Sunday bargains, but on the third Friday of every month draft beer and house mixed drinks are free from 4 to 6 p.m. And from 5 till 6, a free buffet permits you to cram as much thin-crust pizza, pasta, salad and roast beef/ham sandwiches into your gaping maw as humanly possible. Two hours and a table littered with Styrofoam plates and twelve-ounce plastic cups later, if you're not Super Awesomely Drunk and Full, you just go to hell and you die.