Hi-Pointe Drive-In is one of this year's Best of St. Louis Food & Drink winners.

As the RFT’s restaurant critic for the last five years, I’ve learned to anticipate the same string of questions every time I reveal to someone new what I have the privilege of doing for a living. Do restaurants know when you are coming? (No, I dine anonymously.) Do you get to pick where you go? (Yes, though writing a weekly review means that I cover at least three-fourths of the area’s non-corporate restaurant openings.) What is your favorite restaurant? (Café Natasha’s forever.)

But one thing I have never been asked in these five years is the question that seems the most important: What makes a good restaurant? Every week, I am tasked with determining whether a given establishment — one that its owners pour their blood, sweat and tears into, in pursuit of a dream and a livelihood — makes the grade. Yet I’ve never been asked how I make that call.

Perhaps because I so seldom get a chance to share it, my answer is highly unscientific. I liken restaurant greatness to the old Supreme Court adage about pornography: I know it when I see it. Sure, if the food is awful, that’s a ding. Bad service, at least in my book, is a ding and a half. However, it’s not so easy an equation. If good food plus good service equals a great restaurant, the cream of the crop would be a bumper.

There’s an unquantifiable X factor, one that, for lack of a more concrete descriptor, I’d describe as a feeling. It can be apparent the moment you walk into a place — a sense that you are about to embark upon a ride that can be transportive, evocative, nostalgic or all the above. When you’re on it, it’s intoxicating, and when you depart, you’re giddy with joy, filled with something much more than the foie gras toast that will soon be a vague memory.

Of the truly remarkable meals I’ve had in my life, I don’t remember the food all that well. I do, however, remember how I felt while eating it. The restaurants on this list tick all of the boxes that you need for a quality establishment. But more importantly, they are the ones that have moved me beyond the plate. That, it turns out, is what makes all the difference.

In this year’s Best of St. Louis: Food & Drink issue, I’ve outlined my choices for the region’s top ten restaurants. And because “excellent” doesn’t have to mean “exorbitant,” I’ve also compiled my list of the area’s twenty best restaurants where you could enjoy a meal — both an entree and a drink, if you roll that way — for $20 or less.

That’s not all. This year I’ve included twenty additional places that make the grade even though they’re not restaurants per se (think coffee shops and ice creameries). And on top of that (phew!) we’ve presented the places that our readers have voted the area’s best in 40 categories. Because your definition might not be my definition, but you’ve certainly had some amazing dining experiences this last year as well. We hope you’ll enjoy reading about, and remembering, every last one.