When chef John O'Brien and his wife, Cathy, opened Three Flags Tavern, they intended to create a simple neighborhood spot. But O'Brien couldn't help himself, and instead of simple, Three Flags turned out fantastic. As a 30-year veteran of the St. Louis restaurant business (his résumé is filled with everything from Balaban's to the Ritz-Carlton), he knows all too well what it takes to make a place successful: a creative, yet accessible menu; a kitchen full of talent; a well-appointed, comfortable space; and, most importantly, mind-blowingly delicious food. Three Flags' menu draws from Spanish, French and American culinary traditions with items like delicate lobster beignets, hearty posole with pork shoulder, and gooey fried Manchego cheese. The fried chicken is so crisp and juicy it would make even the most difficult-to-please Southern grandma proud; the mammoth brisket burger (see: Best Burger) is a masterpiece — it's a "wake up in the middle of the night with a craving" sort of food. There's not one bad item on the menu. In fact, the only problem with the place is that it has become so popular it's difficult to get a table. Once diners are lucky enough to secure a reservation, though, they can sink into the luxe velveteen chairs and dig into a spectacular meal.
It was 2003, and Kevin Nashan had just moved back to town. Hot off the heels of a stint in New York City working under the acclaimed Daniel Boulud, Nashan and his wife had plans to open a restaurant, starting from scratch. Then they were approached by Tom McKinley, who was looking to pass on the torch of his Benton Park restaurant, Sidney Street Cafe. The St. Louis dining scene was forever changed. There's no question that Nashan's ten-year run as chef and owner of Sidney Street bears a significant amount of responsibility for the explosion of St. Louis' culinary scene. Before Nashan, fine dining in this city meant a nice steak and a twice-baked potato. But once he got his hands on Sidney Street, he infused the menu with creativity and finesse that challenged diners to think differently about what a great meal means. It was a gamble. Sidney Street Cafe already had an established clientele and successful business model, but Nashan was convinced he could do something truly magical with the place. Ten years and heaps of national acclaim later, it's clear that he has.
While the phrase "farm-to-table" became so ubiquitous it lost all meaning, an increasing number of local chefs are introducing "backyard-to-table" or "rooftop-garden-to-table" at their establishments. In the last year, the number of chefs who planted their own vegetables, herbs, edible flowers and fruits just steps away from their kitchens has exploded. They're doing it in all kinds of interesting ways, from the aeroponic towers at Vin de Set to the restaurant-scrap-fed beds at Schlafly Bottleworks. The practice guarantees unparalleled freshness and an opportunity for all-star chefs — like Rick Lewis at Quincy Street Bistro and Kevin Nashan at Sidney Street Cafe — to play around with recipes that use whatever happens to be looking particularly enticing that day. It's also an entertaining experience for diners to be able to meander over and see precisely where their dinner just came from.
Seemingly overnight, many cocktail-forward bars in the St. Louis area began offering "barrel-aged cocktails" on their menus. Everyone knows wine and brown liquors are aged in wooden casks, but cocktails? Turns out the same method that brings out complex flavors in those other spirits can add new dimension to pre-mixed drinks like the Manhattan, Vieux Carre, Negroni, even daiquiris. Over the course of several weeks, the drink takes on some of the flavor and color from the wooden cask, even more if it's been charred on the inside. You can find this trend at Cielo at the Four Seasons, Sanctuaria, Taste, Salt + Smoke — the list goes on. For an extra bit of fun and edification, order a barrel-aged cocktail alongside a freshly mixed one and try to suss out the differences. It's the classiest way to double-fist.
Sometimes you've had a few — and you know that you probably want to have a few more — but you also need to feed the hungry drunken monster that's slowly growing inside your belly. On nights like these, Sandrina's is perfect. Most places that serve late-night food can't accompany it with a cocktail, but Sandrina's doesn't play like that. Its kitchen is open until 2 a.m., and the bar is open until 3 a.m. every night. Not only does Sandrina's feed you, but the food is pretty darn fantastic. In the place of rubbery Tony's pizza are real, honest-to-God appetizers like crab cakes, falafel or Sandrina's famous panko-breaded chicken tenders. Now, who's ready for one more drink?
There are many great outdoor-dining options in St. Louis, but a lot of them are on the sidewalk or ground-level patios. There is something to be said for a rooftop meal — cool breezes and dreamy vistas just seem to make everything taste better, yet only a handful of restaurants around town can offer this experience. Luckily, from Cielo Restaurant and Bar's eighth-floor Sky Terrace at the Four Seasons Hotel, the views of the Arch, the Mississippi River and the St. Louis downtown skyline are magnificent. Enjoy a white-tablecloth, contemporary Italian dinner, or just a glass of wine poolside in the summer, and fireside spring through fall. New executive chef Gian Nicola Colucci has completely revamped the menu, infusing authentic flavors of his hometown, Turin, and the rest of Italy into each flawless dish.
Saturday night is arguably the best night of the week, so there needs to be a compelling reason to get out of bed on Sunday morning. Scape's brunch is it. Start with the rich, creme-filled beignets. Next move on to perfectly executed dishes such as the eggs Benedict or the green molé chicken and chorizo chilaquiles — a spicy tortilla dish so good you may find yourself setting an alarm before you pass out on Saturday. A well-stocked bloody-mary bar also provides a delicious adult-beverage pairing to any menu option. Located in the Central West End, Scape is the perfect launching pad for an afternoon of walking the neighborhood and window shopping once you're properly restored and ready to hit the town again.
Whisk: A Sustainable Bakeshop works hard to accommodate the complicated nutritional requests of its customers, and the best example of this is the "Healthy Choice" cookie. Not only is this the best vegan treat around, but the cookie contains no sugar or gluten, meeting the needs of even the most conscientious eater. The simple list of ingredients — cocoa, almond butter, oats, coconut, agave, salt and vanilla — create a flavor somewhere between Girl Scout Samoa cookies and homemade fudge brownies. The only indication that this treat is not terrible for you is the texture, which is similar to a Clif Bar. Although the "Healthy Choice" cookie might not be as nutritious as, say, a bunch of raw kale, it will satisfy your sweet tooth without the shame spiral afterward.
It can be tough being the baby of the family — always being compared to one's successful, impossibly awesome older siblings. But Adam's Smokehouse, the third in line in the Pappy's Smokehouse family, shows that it is up to the challenge. Adam's tender pulled pork, hearty ribs and savory brisket are every bit as good as those at Pappy's and Bogart's, but the fledgling restaurant's signature smoked salami is its calling card. The 70/30 blend of pork and beef is flecked with large crushed black peppercorns and mixed with an obscene amount of garlic. The key, one of the pit masters divulges, is that Adam's smokes the garlic before blending it with the meat, giving it a softer flavor and creamy texture that melds with the pork and beef. The salami is then smoked with fruitwood (usually apple, but sometimes cherry or peach), infusing the meat with subtle sweetness. With such a signature offering as this, Adam's proves that the baby brother can ably run with the big kids.
Located just north of where Watson and Hampton meet, SOHA Bar & Grill has served up a great beer selection for nearly two years now — though given the way it has endeared itself to regulars, it feels like it has been around much longer. SOHA's beer menu is populated by local favorites from Schlafly, Perennial Artisan Ales, Civil Life and others on about a third of its 31 taps. Among the rest, you can find topnotch national brands like Firestone Walker, Bells and Deschutes. Add to that an extensive canned craft-beer selection — and the usual macrobrews for the uninitiated — and there will be something for everyone in the party. Get there there at the right time, and you might even be able to snag some rare limited releases, such as Goose Island's Bourbon County Stout and Cantillion's "Lou Pepe Gueuze."