Nick Bognar came back to St. Louis on a mission to help his mom breathe new life into her longtime west-county restaurant Nippon Tei. A couple of James Beard Award nods, national acclaim and a celebrated restaurant of his own later, it’s safe to say that Bognar has helped out and then some. However, no matter how far he’s gone in the couple of years he’s been back in town, it all comes back to what he did for the sushi menu at Nippon Tei. Under his watch, the restaurant has come to be seen as the place in town to feast on fish, thanks to his commitment to sourcing the absolute best of the best seafood and preparing it in a way that honors its flavor as opposed to covering it up as is so popular in American-style rolls. Though he’s now focused on his own place, Indo, his legacy remains intact at Nippon Tei as the unquestionable king of sushi in St. Louis, if not the Midwest. — Cheryl Baehr
If there is one thing this terrible pandemic has taught us — besides the fact that our president* is a semi-sentient garbage fire — it's how much dining out means to us. A once joyful activity, the simple act of sitting in a restaurant and feeling the passion of those who bring the dining experience to life seems like a beautiful memory that we wonder whether we will get to relive.
Times are fraught, uncertain and downright sad in the world as a whole; the restaurant industry is at the center of such sentiment, having been impacted terribly since March by the COVID-19 outbreak. As such, it feels odd to celebrate anything, especially when balancing the notion of wanting to help an industry in serious trouble against the reality that, to curb the spread of this terrible virus, perhaps dining out is not the best thing to do.
This balance has guided our coverage of the St Louis food scene over the past seven-plus months, and it's in the front of our minds as we put together the 2020 Best of St. Louis Food and Drink. We've chosen to view this issue as a celebration of the bright spots in an otherwise dark time, and, happily, it wasn't hard to find them. However, for every winner, we asked ourselves a series of questions: Do we feel comfortable that the establishment is doing its best to navigate the health and safety challenges the pandemic presents for both its patrons and staff? Would we feel safe patronizing the winner? Do we think that the winner grasps the gravity of the current situation and understands the shifted dining landscape in such a way that it informs every decision they make?
There is a pall over this year's Best of St. Louis, for sure, but there's also a joy in watching the unbreakable spirits of each and every one of these winners as they refuse to give up, no matter how difficult the times. That we can still have such moments of joy courtesy of their dedication is the hope we need to get us through.— Cheryl Baehr
In a former life, Sleiman “Sam” Bathani was the lead singer of a touring group in Lebanon, and then the war broke out and he and his family immigrated to the United States. Four decades later, he’s still making beautiful music, though this time it’s in the kitchen as the patriarch of the Loop mainstay Al-Tarboush Deli. For twenty years, this unassuming storefront has served as the epicenter of the city’s best eastern Mediterranean food, served with a side of Bathani’s warm, welcoming smile that makes everyone feel like a regular. Of course, Bathani isn’t the only one who is smiling at Al-Tarboush; after noshing on the deli’s chicken shawarma with an extra side of garlic puree, how can you not be grinning from ear to ear? — Cheryl Baehr
For eight-plus decades, Super’s Bungalow existed as a battle-tested example of the neighborhood bar. But it wasn’t until 2016 that we realized it was missing a world-class barbecue spot to be truly great. Chef-owner Alex Cupp trained in the art of smoked meats under St. Louis barbecue godfathers Mike Emerson and Skip Steele of Pappy’s fame after he bolted from the world of fine dining and resurfaced at Adam’s Smokehouse. Reborn a pitmaster, he now turns out some of the finest brisket you’ll ever eat. Add pulled pork, a killer burger and excellent sides, including an always-worth-it seasonal vegetable, and you’ve got a menu packed with amazing options. Cupp gave the Bevo bar a light facelift, adding some (inter)stellar decor, after taking over, but it still maintains its bone structure as a neighborhood dive. As a bonus, the former farmhouse has a huge backyard with covered picnic tables and plenty of space for the tastiest social distancing around. — Doyle Murphy
David and Meggan Sandusky don’t do anything small, so it’s no surprise that the brunch at their Grove smokehouse, BEAST Butcher & Block, is an embarrassment of riches. Originally envisioned as a buffet experience set up in the restaurant’s live-fire venue, the Skullery, the Sanduskys have reconfigured things for outdoor table service or takeout without sacrificing the indulgence. House-cured salmon, housemade sausages, made-from-scratch biscuits and omelets cooked over the open fire are the best versions of brunch fare you’ve experienced; seriously, you’ll question whether you’ve ever really had bacon once you get a bite of BEAST’s. The restaurant’s secret weapon is chef Ryan McDonald, whose thoughtful dishes, such as a peach and lonza tartine, give an elegant touch to this incredible spread. In an ideal world, you’d be able to go in for thirds and fourths of this magnificent dish — thanks, COVID. — Cheryl Baehr
The crazy thing at Mac’s is you’ve got multiple contenders for St. Louis’ best burger. Do you go for the dry-aged beef or fresh-ground pork? One of each? Do you order your burger classically adorned with ketchup, mustard, pickles and American cheese or loaded up with made-from-scratch aioli, Pimento cheese or even a fried green tomato? All the burger options come smashed pleasingly thin, the crinkly edges grill charred and perfect. And that hasn’t changed even as Mac’s has moved across town to a spot inside Bluewood Brewing Company from its Dogtown origins, continuing on even in the curbside-delivery era. Proprietor Chris “Mac” McKenzie’s not-so-secret advantage has always been his connection to the best-available meats, established while operating his CSA Mac’s Local Buys. But he also knows what to do with those prized ingredients, making the argument for local sourcing through the example of delicious burgers, not table-side soliloquies. Pile those patties up to four high (maybe a little much, but do it your way) and wash them down with a beer. Any of the burgers you choose will be amazing, but we’re picking favorites, so here’s the order: the Dirty Sancho — two pork patties, pepper jack cheese, Bourbon molasses, pickled jalapeños and Mac’s negra aioli. It’s just irreverent enough to disarm you, while delivering an unforgettable combination of flavors — sort of like Mac’s itself. — Doyle Murphy
When the full extent of what the COVID-19 pandemic was going to do to the St. Louis restaurant community became apparent mid-March, many stepped up to help lead their distraught industry colleagues. Gerard Craft got a crash course in legislative politics, advocating at the national level for the C.A.R.E.S. Act and Paycheck Protection Program. Jason and Adam Tilford led the fight to change Missouri law to allow for to-go cocktails. Michael and Tara Gallina are currently lending their voice to pressure lawmakers to pass a restaurant relief act, and numerous others have simply been bringers of hope with their steady leadership and the way they’ve been taking care of their employees. From this group, Juniper’s John Perkins has emerged as an unofficial shepherd, guiding the city’s hospitality community through the storm with a steady hand, unbreakable wit (his regular emails about Juniper’s specials will always put a smile on your face), honesty about not having all the answers and willingness to change course when he feels like the situation necessitates it. The founder of Meals for Meds, a program that provided meals to frontline workers by numerous local restaurants, Perkins has been a beacon of light throughout these fraught times and a source of strength that cannot be overstated. — Cheryl Baehr
Leave it to David and Meggan Sandusky to turn a pandemic-induced restaurant downturn into culinary gold. When the pair found their dining rooms shuttered and businesses negatively impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak, they rallied, creating a ghost kitchen inside BEAST Butcher & Block called Wing Runner as a way to use their existing capacity to branch out into something new. They thought they were building a new revenue stream, but what they ended up creating is the best place for chicken wings in town. And for anyone who thought the wing experience was limited to chicken, their vegetarian-friendly cauliflower wings steal the show, giving us a satisfying, plant-based alternative to the traditional form. Who says 2020 was all bad? — Cheryl Baehr
Two hurricanes may have tried to take them out, but Jerk Soul’s Zara Spencer and Tellie Woods are themselves forces of nature when it comes to cooking. Brought to St. Louis from the U.S. Virgin Islands in the aftermath of hurricanes Irma and Maria, the pair realized their dream of opening a restaurant together, first in Hyde Park and now in their new digs on Cherokee Street. Anchored by old family recipes Spencer learned from her grandmother, Jerk Soul has become essential eating for those who long for a taste of old-school Caribbean cooking. The jerk chicken, the restaurant’s signature offering, does not simply dazzle, but will change the way you think about the dish one delicious bite at a time. — Cheryl Baehr
Over the past decade — and ramping up over the last three years — St. Louis has been blessed with a host of authentic Chinese restaurants, mostly up and down Olive Boulevard in University City. Whether traditional dim sum or modern street food made by young, up-and-coming restaurateurs, these restaurants dazzle by taking diners on a journey through real-deal Chinese cuisine. Then there’s Yen Ching, an unapologetically American-style Chinese restaurant that serves up the sort of familiar comfort that only a plate of crab Rangoon and some General Tso’s chicken can provide. Since 1972, this Richmond Heights institution has been the go-to for St. Louis diners looking to enjoy the best this genre has to offer. The place has almost a country-club-like feel as multi-generation families who’ve been coming for years take time to chitchat with the longtime GM as he bags up to-go orders and assures them the restaurant is making it on to-go business. Any thoughts to the contrary would be too much to bear; it’s hard to imagine the St. Louis dining scene without this institution. — Cheryl Baehr
In a former life, Dipak Prasai was working in a five-star kitchen at a hotel in his native Nepal following his training at a prestigious culinary school in India. Fast forward several years, and he’s at the helm of the south-city restaurant Himalayan Yeti, where the digs may be much more humble, but the flavors are no less world class. Prasai prepares both Nepalese and Indian dishes, showcasing the unique flavors of the two countries that influenced his culinary style. Both are a testament to his skillful hand; the chola (or chana, as it’s often called) masala is a revelatory dish with layers of cinnamon, ginger, garlic, onion and clove that come together like a beautiful symphony. Even go-to dishes like chicken tikka masala are extraordinary; its freshly milled spices and tart tomato punch a beautiful counter to the overly creamy versions so often passed off as the real deal. Prasai may no longer be working in an officially five-starred establishment, but the food that comes out of his kitchen is as elegant as it gets. — Cheryl Baehr