Best Of 2006

Cilantro and lemon—these are the two ingredients that make Maya Cafe's guacamole so fine. Just the right amount of each, playing off each other as a zippy duet, the acidic bite of citrus foxtrotting around the soft, round-flavored notes of coriander. And texture—oh, the chunky-smooth texture of Maya's awesome guac. Put it this way: When you find yourself making plans to meet a friend at a restaurant and, in proffering the invitation, you say, "You wanna go out for some guac?" without mentioning the rest of the meal, that's saying a whole lot.
Remember when you were little and your parental unit would drag you grocery shopping and even though the place was filled with foods of all kinds all you really saw were the Dove bars, the KitKats, the mondo-size bags of peanut M&M's? Well, you're all grown up now, but Trader Joe's knows there's still a kid deep down in you just waiting to bust out. Only now peanut M&M's don't quite do it for ya any more. Now it takes cocoa-dusted chocolate-covered almonds. Dark-chocolate roasted-pistachio toffee. Entire frickin' Key lime pies. Dried apricots. (Did we just drool over dried apricots? We did indeed. Buy your own sack of TJ's dried "slab" apricots and then get back to us.) St. Louis isn't exactly bursting at the seams with quality grocery stores. Yeah, we've got our Schnucks and our Dierbergs, but you're not going to find us penning many paeans to those bastions of Midwestern meal-making mediocrity. Whole Foods and Wild Oats were welcome additions—gather ye sustainable agriculture while you can and all that—but, well, they ain't Trader Joe's. The thing about grocery shopping at Trader Joe's is that while you can, should and will fill your cart with first-rate ingredients that will make for first-rate eats when you subject them to your kitchen wizardry, there's also all this fun stuff everywhere. That's right, fun stuff. In a grocery store. The only way Trader Joe's can top what they've done so far would be to open TJ's No. 5 downtown.
It was a comparatively low-key year for new restaurant openings. Whereas the recent past brought marquee debuts (Larry Forgione's An American Place) or neighborhood-regentrifying sizzle (alas, poor JaBoni's, we knew you well), this year's fresh crop was more discreet. Which is not to say the food wasn't up to snuff. Witness Aya Sofia's bill of fare, an array of authentic Turkish/Mediterranean foods and foodstuffs, replete with legume salads, freshly chopped parsley, marinated seafood, grilled and fried vegetables, feta, goat cheese, olive oil and lemon essence—in other words, many of the things that make life worth living. Chef/owner Mehmet Yildiz put quite a few challenges in front of himself. Aya Sofia's locale, across the street from Ted Drewes in the heart of south city, isn't exactly on the map restaurant-wise. He's working in a cuisine that can get easily repetitive—all that lamb and rice and yogurt sauce—and that can be found at many other, cheaper places around town. But he has come through with colors as shining as the gold-and-maroon tones that outfit Aya Sofia's dining room. The overall result? A Turkish delight.
Cocktails are on the ropes these days. Once the province of steel shakers, sharp suits and elegant dresses, it's not rare these days to have your vodka-tonic served in a plastic cup. Need more evidence? Look no further than Anheuser-Busch's BE, whose PR machine crows, "The brew has caused a sensation in bars and clubs, with consumers enjoying the new beverage over ice as it goes head-to-head against mixed drinks." Enter Gene Lynn's, the city's redoubt for cocktail connoisseurs. The crowd's swank—men in fedoras and suits, women in (what else?) cocktail dresses. Most nights you can catch a smooth set by Trio Trs Bien, whose old-school rhythms will transport you back to the days when Gaslight Square was the place to be. The real driving force behind the bar is its eponymous host, Gene Lynn. Dressed to the nines and always ready to greet you, Lynn glides through the joint, crooning the songs of Sinatra and reminding everyone in the house that no matter how you dress it up, there's only one name for a cocktail in a can: beer.
The idea of being a bartender is romantic, like something out of an old movie—the bartender thoughtfully polishing highball glasses and dispensing advice, making it seem as though mixing drinks and emptying ashtrays is effortless. This lovely moment will probably never be brought to you by Double D's. Not that we don't love it here—heck, it's our choice for "Best Neighborhood Bar (Mid-County)"—but it's loud, and packed. Slinging drinks here is a feat all on its own, but when you can maintain a smile, a sense of humor and even get onstage to karaoke while you work—well, that gets our attention. Owner Rick Wideman's wife, Donna, is known for her Jell-O shots. She's also known for organizing her change by keeping the ones in one place (say, her bra), the fives someplace else. She's got to: She's blind. But if you didn't know, it'd be tough to tell—especially when she karaokes to Gretchen Wilson's "Redneck Woman" note-for-note and implores: "So here's to all my sisters out there keepin' it country/Let me get a big 'hell yeah' from the redneck girls like me. Hell yeah!" Hell yeah!
Chicks dig me. Marines crave my meat. Even preppies adore getting their piece. My home—"The Village" to those in the know—is a dive next to a wig shop. There's only one waitress, and a take-his-time dude who mans a griddle I doubt has ever seen a good scouring. But that's to your benefit. They call me "The Better Burger," but I like to think of myself as El Mejor. Come and get me. You'll see.
A first kiss can take your breath away. But that all-over-tingling sensation requires a good first date, and a good first date requires a good venue. Enter the Boathouse in Forest Park. Meet at the Boathouse around 4 p.m.—evening dates are so 2005. And bring the dog: The restaurant provides water bowls for the puppy to stay hydrated, and a date's rapport with Fido is always a good barometer. Rent a paddleboat or rowboat ($15 per hour, weather permitting). Ladies: If he helps you into the boat, he's charming; if not, he's either nervous or an ass. Gents: If she squeals when the dog splashes her or refuses to wield an oar, get out while the getting is good. Assuming all goes well on the boat ride, return to shore and avail yourselves of the Boathouse's outdoor seating. The restaurant offers plenty of date-friendly options, including pizzas. If things went really well, there's Champagne, just in time to watch the sun set as you gaze out over the lake. First kiss? From here on out, friend, it's up to you.
Sweet Lord Almighty, the menu at the Shangri-La Diner can read our mind. We've been enjoying Patrice Mari's excellent veggie burger ever since the Shangri-La opened its groovy doors in 2005. We've tried in vain to find a veggie burger as tasty, as juicy—what the hell, as meaty as the Shangri-La's. Aiming to sample this stellar sandwich just one more time before placing the Best Of crown atop its fluffy bun, we stopped by the diner on a recent afternoon. Took a seat. Opened the menu. Ordered...The Best Veggie Burger in Town! (!) Consider our thunder stolen. But really, who cares? The menu speaks the truth. Mari makes her patties with AuraPro. She's keeping mum about her exact recipe—"We have to keep some secrets!" she laughs—but we detect garlic, salt, maybe a little red pepper. Top with lettuce, tomato and onion, serve on a pillow-soft egg bun, and there you have it. We like to order oven-baked fries on the side, dipped in Mari's awesome curry ketchup. (But confidential to the mind-reading menu: Cut it out. That's just spooky.)
There's something about second-floor bars. Maybe it's the altitude, or how winded we get climbing the stairs, but drinking up there makes you feel more special. At Maryland House the sensation is only enhanced by the casual but sophisticated dcor, the exposed brick walls and the sturdy bar that could hold the weight of a million cocktails. Maryland House is one of three different establishments in the storefront in the Central West End. The flagship Brennan's on the main floor is a wine and cigar shop; the basement houses a speakeasy; the upstairs is a hopping bar and restaurant. Bar manager Todd Wrice is relieved to report that the initial rush of looky-loos who descended upon opening has cooled a bit. "It's not packed all the time the way that it was right when we first opened," he says. "Which is great. It's still crowded, but now you can move around and find a seat." We'll see you in a few hours.
They call <\#213>em fat cats for a reason. The hey-big-spenders who traditionally sup at Busch's Grove—and we do mean traditionally, as this bastion of all things gluttonous has been around since the century before last, aside from a three-year dormancy that ended earlier this year—do so with gusto. They gorge themselves on whole fried lobsters (advertised for two or more—pshaw!), king crab legs the size of a child's arm, grilled double lamb chops, double-cut pork chops and 22-ounce cowboy rib-eyes. They complement those big-boy slabs of flesh with over-the-top sides like the onion ring tower, jumbo buttered asparagus, and all manner of spuds (garlic mashed, roasted new, hashed and browned, just plain baked). As for the menu's South Beach-friendly "simply grilled" seafood selections—those are for the ladies-who-lunch who prefer to do in their waistlines via the bar's cutesy-tinis, so sugary they may as well be melted ice cream served straight up. After the feast has ended, Busch's Grove diners don't even bother walking off a couple of calories on the way to the car. That's what valets are for, dammit.
Here's what you do: Take in a Saturday-night show at the Pageant. Grab a drink or three afterward at the Halo Bar. Tip generously—you're a bon vivant, after all—but make sure to hold back three or four bucks. At about 3 a.m., go outside. Look around. You'll spot a guy selling hot dogs from a cart. Buy one. Don't expect conversation, however; your vendor is a man of few words—but many wieners.