Best Of 2009

Open-mic nights are a gamble, no matter which side of the mic you're on. As a performer you're laying bare your songcraft and hoping the audience applauds; as a listener you have to contend with this songcraft-baring and hope it goes down easy. This tension is nicely dissipated at the Atomic Cowboy's open mic, held each Monday. Helmed by the easy-going Ryan Spearman, a fine bluegrass guitar and banjo picker in his own right, this laid-back night attracts the usual singer-songwriters, as well as armchair strummers and even acoustic punk acts. Expect to hear songs plucked from local notebooks as well as the occasional Gillian Welch or Rolling Stones cover. Spearman, who teaches guitar at Music Folk, lets his demeanor set the tone for the evening, and most Mondays conclude with an all-in jam session. There's no better way to get your chops up to speed and to make that first step toward rock & roll superstardom.

One of the many splendid effects of alcohol is that it lowers inhibitions. Not only does this ease the nerves when it comes to pickup lines, it also makes singing in public seem like a fantastic idea. After last call at the local 1:30 a.m. watering hole, even the most self-conscious crooner will be ready to belt out a few bars at Mike Talayna's, where karaoke goes on seven days a week until the wee hours of the morning. Talayna's has all the charm of an east-side strip joint, with mirrors and neon lights all over the walls and dozens of mirror balls dangling from the ceiling. And in case you need a little more liquid courage before stepping onto the elevated stage/dance floor to sing, three separate bars are packed into the single-room establishment. Just make sure you can still read the lyrics on the prompter, and designate a driver — blurred vision is another of alcohol's effects.

A lot of older folks like to stick their noses up at the all-ages venues in town and complain how the crowds there make them feel like they're stuck in a casting call for High School Musical 4, but the reality is, if you write off the Billiken Club, you're missing out on some of the best concerts this city is lucky enough to host. The bookers do a consistently excellent job of bringing in eclectic and emerging talent, even if it is almost exclusively of the indie variety. The bands they tap range from those you already know and love, such as Beach House or Bon Iver, to those you'll be talking about a year from now, such as the Bowerbirds or Sea Wolf, about whom you'll get to brag that you saw-them-way-back-when. The stage is big enough for plenty of eager fans to get close to the action but spacious enough for old schoolers to stand back from the riffraff and stroke their graying beards. Best of all, the Billiken Club is non-smoking, liquor licensed and always free of charge.

St. Louis is chock-a-block with Asian markets. Two things separate Global Foods Market from the world-grocery pack: organization and produce. Aside from the major divisions — fruits and vegetables, meat, deli, dairy — aisles are arranged by country of origin. And even within each nation, there's an easy-to-grok logic to how the shelves are stocked. No wandering through "China" wondering where the hell the bean threads got off to. The produce area is laid out just as helpfully, and everything is just always a touch plumper, fresher and readier for your chopping block than the stuff you encounter seemingly everyplace else. Bins overflow with big hands of ginger, green and ripe mangoes, all the various Asian eggplants, cukes and squash, more kinds of chiles than you can shake a stalk of lemongrass at and limes so juicy (and cheap) you'll never buy them at the grocery store again. By the time you're ready to check out, you'll likely have taken a trip around the...wait for it...globe.

"My name is Tony. I don't give my last name," says the voice on the other end of the line before confirming that the Bagel Factory has been making bagels the same way in the same location for the past 38 years. What's so special about these bagels? Rather than steaming its bagels, Tony imparts, the Bagel Factory boils 'em, resulting in a hard crust and a shine. Then they're put in a gas oven lined with stone. The process is time-consuming, and during the summer it gets hot. ("Hot enough to die," says Tony, and he doesn't seem to be a fellow who's prone to hyperbole.) The Bagel Factory makes more than twenty different varieties, but we'll stick with the tried and true trio of poppy, sesame, plain. How does the Bagel Factory stay in business on bagels alone? Tony says it boils (pun intended) down to quality: "We've got the best in town." Couldn't have said it better ourselves!

Sugaree Baking Company opened in Dogtown in 1996. For much of its history, only those fortunate enough to attend or plan a wedding with a cake from the husband-and-wife team of Jim Pettine and Pat Rutherford-Pettine knew how wonderful their baked goods were. Finally the rest of us can partake: Sugaree now opens to the public every Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., selling pies and selected other items. If you love pie — which is to say, if you are reading this — you should take advantage of this brief weekly window of opportunity. Sugaree's pies are divine, the flaky, buttery crust baked to the gorgeous golden brown of autumn wheat, the fillings full of fruit expertly spiced. Flavors vary week to week, but you can't go wrong with the warming spice and tart fruit of the classic apple pie. A summer pie, with strawberry and rhubarb, offers an ideal balance of sweet and tart. Whatever pie you choose, know that you can purchase it in either ten- or five-inch sizes, the latter perfect for two. Or one. We won't tell.

Never judge a bar from its street view. From the outside, Babe's Tavern and Garden doesn't look much different from its south-city-tavern brethren. Step inside and it's a different world. Refinished hardwood, cushioned seats, a cozy fireplace in the back corner. At the bar the usual cheap beer suspects mingle with three Schlafly taps. Instead of marring the cushy drinking atmosphere with restroom access and games, that brouhaha resides in the basement, down a beautiful curved staircase. The garden's a drinking oasis worthy of Bacchus hisself. Covered from the sun and shielded from the street, this beer garden actually has plants growing in it, surrounding a verdigris fountain. Laze under the rows of ceiling fans at a polished wood table, separated from the other tables by black wrought-iron partitions. Behind the bar, the girl knows everyone's name and drink of choice. She fills the jukebox with classic rock and country. Talk centers on union meetings and the best way to not suffer electrical shock while welding. Unexpected for such sweet surroundings? Perhaps. But working stiffs deserve pretty places and cheap beer, too.

Oh, the Slider. Is there a more perfect bar food? Full of fat and protein, these little morsels mop up a gutful of booze better than any other comestible. At Mimi's Subway Bar & Grill, there's nothing fancy about the slider. Or anything else, but since when is that a bad thing? Classic quality goes a long way in a bar scene filled with frozen pizza, frou-frou gourmet offerings and not much in between. Mimi's looks like a shed tucked in the back of a parking lot. The bar's in the basement. From a window in the back, by the pool table and dartboards, customers lean in to order burgers, sliders, sandwiches and homemade chili directly from the cooks. Take a seat at the bar, and eventually a cook will bring your made-to-order food to you on a china plate, with a smile. For six bucks you get four sliders topped with melted cheese and pickles, and a Mount Fuji-size order of super-crisp fries. Filling, comforting, and cheap enough to not break the beer budget — especially when you're drinking frosted mugs of Busch for two dollars a pop. Perfection, indeed.

What's the best time to arrive at Pappy's Smokehouse? Well, the midtown barbecue joint opens at 11 a.m., so if you arrive by, say, nine o'clock in the morning, you should be OK. We kid, of course — but only a little. Arrive sometime between 10:30 and 10:45 and you'll be close to the head of the line. Wait till the lunch rush, though, and you'll find yourself at the end of a queue that stretches the length of the restaurant out to the hallway outside its back door. That's how popular Pappy's has become since its opening in February of last year, thanks to relentless media buzz (guilty), a segment on the Travel Channel's popular show Man v. Food and — above all — good ol' word of mouth. In this case, 50 million Elvis fans aren't wrong: Pappy's barbecue is tops, redolent of its own juices and apple- and cherrywood smoke. The pork ribs, their dry rub kissed with rosemary, are especially wonderful. Can you wait till the lunch rush is over? Sure, but fair warning: Pappy's doesn't reheat its barbecue, so if the kitchen runs out of your preferred meat, you might just have to wait an entire day.

The good citizens of downtown Belleville needed good coffee, bad. In July 2008 they got their wish when Oregon Trail Roasting Company opened. During his breaks from college in Chicago, Davis Cox is the guy behind the coffee, and he's damned serious about it. "These new steam-wand tips are so insanely awesome; the froth they produce is beautiful," he was recently heard to rave. Cox is pulling espresso that's so sweet it's converting frou-frou coffee drinkers into straight-shot junkies. (His enthusiasm alone is enough to give newbs the courage to imbibe the hard stuff.) When he's not at the counter, Cox is at the roaster, creating espresso roasts to beat any caffeinated concoctions in Belleville and beyond. What's his secret? Cox favors medium-roasted fair-trade Guatemalan beans for his espresso. Says he: "Medium roast makes for much better espresso than dark roast." But then he's quick to spread the credit around. "What makes it awesome is the awesome baristas."

No one denies that Ted Kilgore, formerly of Monarch, can make magic with spirits and a shaker. But if Kilgore is a great mixologist, Nhat Nguyen of Urban on South Grand is a great bartender. A great bartender must display as much facility with customers as with cocktails, and Nguyen fits the bill. Years ago at the now-defunct Mirasol, Nguyen was one of the city's pioneers in mixing drinks with tea infusions and tropical fruits. He's carried over his enthusiasm for fruit to the drink list at Urban, which features fresh ingredients such as cucumber, kiwi and raspberries (one recent departure from fruit is the "Socialite," a concoction of gin, elderflower liqueur, rosewater and a squeeze of lemon). But the fast-pouring, fast-talking Nguyen also likes mixing it up with his heterogeneous clientele. He's not shy about offering relationship advice (one common theme: Both parties are stupid, and they should just end it). Nor is he shy about joining his customers for a drink. "You know the exact moment he's had too much," observes Tom Schmidt, the owner of Franco and a regular at Urban. "He starts taking his shirt off and kissing his biceps."