It would be easy to feel pessimistic about the St. Louis dining scene. The economy is in rough shape — thanks in no small part to the sharp rise in the cost of milk, corn and other staple foods — and if another year has seen more restaurants close, we don't remember it. Even such institutions as Busch's Grove and Balaban's shut their doors and turned off the lights. Yet the past twelve months haven't been all doom and gloom. Gerard Craft, owner and executive chef of Niche in Benton Park, made the long list of nominees for the James Beard "Best Chef: Midwest" Award and was named one of the nation's best new chefs by Food & Wine magazine. Acero, chef Jim Fiala's Maplewood restaurant, was featured in a Bon Appétit article on the best Italian food in America. And this year has welcomed new restaurants that, though small and casual, are raising the bar on pizza, neighborhood pubs and numerous other things that we too often take for granted. Eating out is a luxury, no doubt, and most of us will be tightening our belts into the new year. Still, when we do want to treat ourselves, we have a better selection of restaurants now than at any time in the recent past — proof that the St. Louis dining scene is surviving the tumult and may just be ready to thrive.
There's a saying among St. Louis barflies: "Nothing good ever happens after 1:30 a.m." — a reference to the closing time of most watering holes on the Missouri side of the river. Evidently these folks haven't been to Jack Patrick's. The downtown establishment (located at Olive and Tenth streets) has a pronounced sports-bar feel, thanks to numerous television sets blasting ESPN, plenty of old-school sports pennants and patrons sporting Cardinals gear. But non-fans have every reason to feel comfortable too; the music blaring is often mopey alt-rock and modern indie rock, while mismatched furniture gives the place a funky feel. Better yet, Jack Patrick's is never crowded late at night, offers plenty of free parking and always features cheap, well-poured drinks (including Guinness on tap!). Throw in friendly bartenders — including a few members of local indie band the Hibernauts — who make sure their patrons are well taken care of, and Jack Patrick's is the perfect place for a nightcap.
If you're sixteen and looking for a place for your band to play its first real show outside a garage or basement — and if your musical chops can hold their own against your peers' — Fubar might just be the place for you. Looking to fill out its near-nightly lineup of live music, the newly minted midtown venue quickly became known for giving chances to new bands to open for national and regional touring acts. On any given night, the under-21 crowd nearly equals the beer drinkers on the other side of the drinkers' fence. The venue has now moved beyond its "new Creepy Crawl" rep, thanks to a slew of solid shows and a comfortable atmosphere for teenagers and tattooed rock vets alike.
The pig is the unquestioned star of the contemporary food scene, but until you have visited the Olive Farmers' Market — not a farmers' market at all, but one of the area's biggest Asian grocery stores — you have absolutely no idea just how diverse Porky's culinary offerings are. Here you will find everything from the gently folded pork face that we lovingly call snoots to dark red bricks of coagulated pork blood to pork intestines to, yes, pork uteri. (They are excellent in hot pots. Apparently.) That extraordinary variety extends to the entire selection at the Olive Farmers' Market. Here you can sample drinks in unexpected flavors (chrysanthemum, anyone?) and enough different kinds of ramen noodles that you might be able to feed yourself through college without any repeats. And while the market might not gleam like the newest supermarkets, you can't feel any closer to your food: Nothing separates you from the whole fish laid out on ice, and the live crabs scuttle over an open pen, their claws snapping at your curious fingers.
A real bagel, a true bagel, is made with yeast and malt, and — and this is perhaps most crucial of all — is boiled before it is baked. That's right: The dough, after being allowed to rise, should be dropped into boiling water. Anything else is just round bread with a hole in the center. For a real bagel, a boiled bagel, a bagel with an inside that is tender and soft but not doughy, and an outside that is chewy without being tough, go to Pratzel's.
Three cheers for three twos: 222 Artisan Bakery is worth the drive to Edwardsville. Plan a Saturday morning around the trip, but don't dawdle: the bakery closes at noon on Saturday. Or play hooky from work. You won't be disappointed, whether you're starting your day with a cup of one of 222's terrific single-origin or blended coffees (sold as Goshen Coffee there and in the area) and a pastry or getting a loaf of bread for dinner. The name refers to the address, of course, but the key term is "artisan." Owners Debbie Sultan and Matt Herren approach their craft with seriousness born of a love for great, honest food. Choose among numerous different breads, from rustic sourdough and French baguettes — crusty without being brittle; chewy without being tough — to special varieties like cranberry-walnut, spinach-cheese. Pastries will satisfy both sweet and savory tooths — the plump, flavorful muffins, especially, are a meal unto themselves. As if that's not enough, 222 offers a lunch menu of sandwiches Monday through Thursday, and the bakery's pizzas, served only on Friday, are rapidly gaining a cult following among area foodies.
Rosie's is located in the heart of the Central West End, across the street from glitzy joints Moxy and Chez Leon, but it could easily pass for the bluest-collared watering hole in town. Crammed into a single narrow room, the establishment is, simply put, a drinking person's bar. A place where people booze, laugh and commiserate. The air is smoky as hell, the drinks are stiff and cheap, and there's no beer on tap, only $1.50 bottles of Bud all night long. A plastic-tipped dartboard is crammed into one corner. An old-fashioned jukebox, heavy on soul and '80s music, provides the soundtrack. Depending on the day of the week, the bartender is either a heavyweight MMA fighter who can chug a beer faster than you can say, "Please don't hurt me," or a loud and thoroughly entertaining woman who may or may not be Rosie herself (she usually talks in the third person, as in, "Rosie only takes cash.") Be on the lookout for a couple of regulars who spontaneously break into a choreographed dance straight out of Godard's Bande à part.
To have great bar food, you first need to find a great bar. You're not going to get the munchies if you don't hang around for a drink or four. Tip Top Food & Spirits is a great bar in the old-school St. Louis style: a small, smoky neighborhood joint in a mostly residential area of Soulard. Owner Djordje "George" Korac's nods to both halves of his Serbian American heritage. Enjoy a shot and a beer with a plate of the delicious Serbian sausages called cevapcici or sample some of the city's finest fried chicken. The "Tip Topper" burger, served with "Serbian slaw" on Texas toast, is sure to satisfy your hunger, and the appetizer menu features all the nibbles you could want — from hummus to jalapeño poppers — to accompany an evening's revelry.
The most important thing at Pappy's Smokehouse — after the smoker, of course — is the dry-erase board. Here the restaurant lists which meats have sold out for the day. You see, owner Mike Emerson doesn't believe you should reheat barbecue. He wants you to have Pappy's pulled pork or pork ribs or beef brisket at its best or not at all. And, oh baby, is this barbecue at its best. Dry-rubbed and cooked slow and low (up to fourteen hours) over apple and cherry wood. The result is meat as tender as a farewell and full of rich, natural flavor lightly accented by smoke. The sauce is where it should be: on the side, in squeeze bottles. Pappy's offers three varieties: regular, spicy and sweet. Each is excellent, but it's meant to be dabbed, not poured. Not sure which sauce is best with which meat, or which meats don't need sauce at all? Don't worry. You'll be back again and again.
How many baristas can say they actually roasted the French roast being sipped by their customers? In St. Louis, Eric Schaefer of the Central West End branch of Northwest Coffee Roasters might be the only one. Three days a week Schaefer tends to the shop's antique German roasting machine, feeding batches of green coffee beans into the cooker and listening carefully for the telltale cracking of a perfectly roasted batch. The other two days, he steps behind the bar and turns those beautifully blackened blends into espresso and coffee. Short of moving to Costa Rica to pick the beans himself, Schaefer does just about everything a barista can do to provide customers the perfect pour.
Ted Kilgore doesn't know your name. It's not that Monarch's bar manager is unsociable; his focus just lies elsewhere — namely, on the drink he's about to pour for you. No matter what you decide on, this cocktailophile knows the drink's history, all of its variations and everything else you can think to ask. That's when Kilgore's on top of his game: when he's talking, mixing and inventing that drink. In doing so, he's created quite a buzz: Beverage Media tapped him as one of this year's "10 Trendsetting Mixologists," and in the past both Food & Wine and Wine Enthusiast featured his original concoctions. Friend and coworker T.J. Vytlacil believes all Kilgore needs to know is your clothing or dating style and he'll have a blueprint of your palate mapped out in his head. "He's very carefully creative," Vytlacil says. "He puts a lot of thought into each drink." And in Kilgore's case, it's definitely the thought that counts.