A few years back it looked as if nothing could steal the thunder of the ubiquitous à la carte steak house — manly cuts of steaks, side dishes that fed an army and big-name cabernets oozed pre-recession wheeling and dealing. What could better capture the spirit of this era than a twenty-ounce hunk of mooing beef and a pound of creamed spinach? Surely, the Mondavi would flow forever. While our bank accounts bore the brunt of the bubble burst, so too did the over-the-top dining style, but the new focus on elegant, smaller plates is a welcome change. Sure, tasting menus are not cheap (hey, the 1 percent is still doing pretty well), but they reflect a newfound ethos in which diners are OK to part with their money — but only for a unique return on the investment. For the price of an exorbitant steak dinner, diners now can experience the full breadth of St. Louis' culinary talent, spread out before them course by course in painstaking detail. These art shows on a plate used to be hard to find, but St. Louis now has multiple venues to experience this trend. Are they cheap? Not really. Are they worth it? Absolutely.
Chefs on the prowl for hard-to-find ingredients know they've come to the right place as soon as the doors to Jay International Food open and the smell hits the nose — that acrid musk that fills the air at any Asian market worth its salt. The smell that tells you there is definitely every conceivable kind of dried fish and cephalopod in one corner of the store and a stock of their freshly killed brethren on ice in the other. At Jay's, the sauce selection alone is practically mind-blowing. The aisles are tightly packed with every imaginable variety of soy sauce (light, dark, thick, sweet, fruity), and they come not just in endless varieties, but also from different brand names. That smell is also wafting from the durians, nestled in next to leafy Chinese broccoli and Japanese yams, and not far from the fresh blocks of tofu. The store is compact, but Jay's uses every inch economically. And it's just that kind of ordered chaos that makes shopping at Jay's an experience and a beloved neighborhood gem.
It can be easy to fly past Won Ton King's strip-mall façade on Olive Boulevard, but once inside it's clear from the packed tables that this is some of the most authentic Chinese food in St. Louis. Dim sum is actually served seven days a week here, but half the fun is hailing the steaming carts as they roll past, and this only happens on Saturdays and Sundays (dim-sum items are offered off the menu during the week). The star among staples like chicken feet, Chinese broccoli and fried turnip cakes are, naturally, the won tons — or dumplings or buns, whatever you want to call them. Basically, anything that comes in an envelope of starch is divine. The dumplings come both fried and steamed, filled with succulent shrimp and chives or pork in a sweet, sticky dough. Another small bonus comes from the window that opens onto the kitchen in the back of the restaurant, providing a glimpse of the notoriously difficult and involved process of creating these bite-size treasures.
For a refreshing spin on the classic diner, head over to Southwest Avenue and spice that slinger up a bit. The corner breakfast-and-lunch joint takes all the standard American diner centerpieces and runs them through a Southwest screen. Order a burger, and you'll get it slathered in green chiles. Settle for a simple staple of eggs and home fries, but sub in a sopapilla if you want. Instead of a fountain drink, grab a Mexican soda made with real cane sugar — better yet, go for a Mexican beer like Bohemia. Get an omelet, and expect some Longhorn cheese on it and filling options such as chorizo and calabacitas. The interior comes with the requisite Formica countertop, backless stools and metal-framed chairs but it is doused in theme-fitting flair: Tchotchkes and art hang in every available space, while zigzags of red and teal border walls along with murals of mountainous landscapes. At Southwest Diner, all the familiar and comforting components of the greasy spoon await, but with a welcome Southwestern take.
"Come for a quiet Sunday drive. Enjoy the early blossoms and nesting birds." This poetic phrase welcomes visitors to the website of the Golden Eagle Ferry, one of the two river routes that transport guests to Calhoun County's historic Wittmond Hotel. This is sage advice, as nothing's more pleasant than traversing the back-country roads by car, languidly gazing at the passing river, trying to catch glimpses of eagles out the window. No dining destination better captures the nostalgia of a drive along the Great River Road than the Wittmond Hotel. Its family-style, home-cooked classics and general-store vibe transport guests to a time when the chicken was fried in lard, fresh-made sausage meant the family was missing a pet pig and no one had ever heard of GMO corn. This is not complicated haute cuisine, but stick-to-your-ribs home cooking like Grandma would've made. While rustic farm-to-table cooking is all the rage in the trendiest urban restaurants, little gems like the Wittmond Hotel have been offering this cuisine for years in its original setting. It's worth the trip to experience an original.
World's Fair Donuts generally has a line out the door in the mornings, but it's well worth the wait. Terry and Peggy Clanton have been serving up the delicious breakfast confections almost every day since 1976, and the no-frills storefront looks like it hasn't changed much since they opened the doors. All the classic flavors are offered: long johns, fritters, glazed, jelly- and custard-filled, cinnamon twists, chocolate, powdered and more, all glistening in perfect uniformity in the glass case. If you're looking for something slightly different, try the blueberry-chip cake doughnut, a fruit-filled Danish or a crescent-shaped fruit pie. Pair it with a cup of Bunn-O-Matic coffee, and you've got yourself a satisfying morning.
Every day of the week is a special day at Hammerstone's, the beloved Soulard institution known for its large patio, frequent live music and infamous Mardi Gras festivities. Now add to that list its brilliant drink specials. Monday through Thursday are all strong contenders for best drink deal in St. Louis, but our personal favorite — and the most popular one, according to the bar — is "Mug Night." BYOM every Thursday, and for just $3 you get up to 48 ounces of beer. It's a fun, environmentally conscious, affordable way to jump-start your weekend. If that's not special enough, try Hammerstone's Missouri Mondays, during which all local craft beers and spirits are just $3. Give your week a much-needed Tuesday boost with $4 pitchers of PBR, or spice up your Hump Day with $2 rails...and congrats, you've made it again to Mug Day! Above average but still very affordable pub grub makes these specials extra tasty. That includes breakfast seven days a week for you early-morning drinkers.
Once a hollowed-out Dairy Queen, one might mistake Kim Cheese's façade for a lesser hut. In actuality this is the home of an independently owned and singularly brilliant restaurant concept: Mexican-Korean fast food. For those hooked on getting a quick fix of fusion, Kim Cheese provides both size and quality for the cash. Its "burgers" are really steak sandwiches stuffed with pungent kimchi, and the subtly sweet meat satisfies without sitting too heavy. The burritos and tacos come crammed with Korean barbecue, and as a side, the restaurant offers everything from cheese fries to dumplings and tofu soup. This mashup marries speedy service with quality consciousness, which means you can hit the drive-through lane without that guilty "When did I give up on life?" feeling.
Try one of Cha Cha Chow's seasoned french fries. Maybe two? Oh, you've been so good, why not? Get that hand in there and do what your heart tells you. This taqueria on wheels isn't about fine dining or tickling a refined palate. Rather, a Cha Cha Chow meal offers convenience wrapped in a taco shell and drizzled in "Cha Cha Sauce," a concoction of cream blended with cilantro, lime, chipotle, salt, pepper and a few secret "others." The beef short-rib taco is a standout, and chefs Kandance Davis and Linda Jones have hit on the perfect combo of crunchy red slaw, lemon juice and that aforementioned sauce. The whole package lets the flavor of the meat shine through while a pleasant amount of hotness does the cha-cha on your tongue.
OK, so a church gymnasium is not technically a restaurant, but no one in the area serves up more authentic Greek food than Assumption Greek Orthodox Church. By now, the Friday Luncheons at Assumption should be well known, as this St. Louis tradition has been going on for years. Every Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Assumption turns its little corner of Town & Country into an Olympian feast, with parishioners proudly sharing their Greek heritage through food. This is no ad-hoc potluck, however. Assumption's website dedicates prominent, permanent space to the endeavor, where it displays the month's rotating menu selections, broken down week by week. The gym/dining hall accommodations are (ahem) Spartan, but what does one expect from a pop-up, cafeteria-style facility? Sure, you can find favorites such as moussaka, pastitsio and gyros at fancier Greek restaurants in town, but they won't be served up with the extra dash of love that comes from the hands of your adopted Greek yia yia.
Llywelyn's is all over St. Louis now with six locations, plus the one in Kansas City, but the original Central West End location is still the best. The daily happy-hour specials are not only good deals, but they're also different every day. End your weekend with Llywelyn's "Sunday Funday" from 9 p.m. to close with $3 pints, $3 premium wells, $2.75 house wine and $12 domestic buckets. Who cares if you have to work Monday morning? Besides, you can throw back a little hair of the dog on Monday night, which features several buy-one-get-one deals and appetizer specials. Tuesday is "Flights n' Bites," featuring $6 wine flights, and Wednesday is "Beer Lovers Night." Thursday's deals have an Irish theme: $3 FECKiN shots, $3 Guinness, Harp, Smithwick's and Magners, $5 Irish car bombs, plus specials on pretty much everything else, too. On Friday, knock off early and celebrate with $3 pints, $3 premium wells, $2.75 house wine, $12 domestic buckets and half-price appetizers from 3 to 6 p.m. After a tough week of drinking fast and cheap, you've earned it.