Even as recently as a year ago, if you told someone that the best seafood spot in the metro area would be located on St. Charles’ historic Main Street, you would’ve been laughed all the way to the Missouri River’s headwaters. Known for its quaint boutiques, approachable American-style fare and libation-fueled clubgoing, the neighborhood is not exactly the place where you expect to find culinary innovation. Andrew Cisneros did not get that memo. Earlier this year, he and his sister, Samantha, opened the thrilling Jalea (323 North Main Street, St. Charles; 314-303-0144) as a love song to the cevicherias that define their family’s Peruvian homeland. Instead of playing it safe and offering a menu packed with familiar dishes, Cisneros went all in, serving an exclusively seafood menu (save for one braised pork-belly appetizer) that thrills at every turn. His crab salad, tucked into a semi-sweet roll, is what lobster rolls on the coast dream of being; the restaurant’s namesake, a fried seafood platter, is the best fritto misto of your life; his ceviche tastes as fresh as if you were eating it on the South American coast. However, Jalea’s crown jewel is its arroz con mariscos, a paella-like dish packed with shrimp, clams and mussels that are served over garlic rice that is so perfect it should be the rice against which all others are judged. That Jalea packs the house on the regular proves that, if you make great food, the people will come. —Cheryl Baehr
Mask mandates may be a thing of the past, dining rooms are at full capacity and diners have come back out in full force. If you’re on the receiving end of the service industry, you’d be tempted to think that the pandemic is over with restaurants basking in a Roaring ’20s-style resurgence fueled by the public’s unquenchable thirst for merriment.
But while it’s true that the demand side of the equation has not simply recovered but grown even stronger since before the COVID-19 outbreak, things have not returned to normal for the industry itself — not even close. Staff shortages, which have stressed nearly every restaurant to the breaking point, signal a long-time-coming systemic reckoning wherein service-industry employees are pushing back against an old-fashioned and, at worst, abusive culture.
Supply-chain breakdowns mean that restaurants — especially immigrant-owned mom-and-pop shops — have a difficult time sourcing what they need to run their businesses. Price increases are being disproportionately absorbed by restaurants, which know that they need to charge $22 for cheeseburgers but equally know their customers won’t stomach the cost. Add to this a stressed and exhausted dining public that pushes the limits of the now-outdated adage “the customer is always right,” and you get a situation where many in the industry are asking themselves why in the hell they are even in this business.
The following places remind us why. In looking at the names that make up the Best of St. Louis Food and Drink for 2022, what’s striking is not a particular dish, a well-balanced cocktail or a stunning view but the sheer grit demonstrated by the people behind each of these places. That they have the strength to persevere in the face of such difficulty is more than impressive — it’s the most honest form of hospitality there is. —Cheryl Baehr
*Due to the volatility in the restaurant industry, please always call or check a restaurant’s website before going.
Northwest Coffee Roasting
Tucked away in the Central West End, Northwest Coffee Roasting (4251 Laclede Avenue, 314-371-4600) isn’t your normal coffee shop. First it has a huge patio, making it the perfect spot on a cool fall day. Spend a few hours there catching up with a friend, enjoying the breeze, getting some work done and sipping some coffee. Which brings us to another reason Northwest Coffee isn’t a typical coffee shop. All of the coffee beans are roasted in-house for longer than normal at a lower temperature. This means the coffee’s subtle flavors are allowed to emerge, bringing out a certain sweetness that you won’t taste in other places’ brews. The other reason this place stands out? It has beans from all over the world, including the Yirgacheffe region of Ethiopia and a Tanzanian coffee that is harvested from plants grown on the slopes of Kilimanjaro. Worried about enjoying a cup when the weather is bad? Don’t. When it’s too hot or cold outside, the coffee shop also has indoor seating. —Benjamin Simon
Boathouse in Forest Park.
It might not be the safest thing to do, but nobody can deny that drinking and boating are so fun together. If you’re trying to have one of those perfect summer days where you meet up with your friends and day drink in the sunshine, you simply must start at the Boathouse at Forest Park (6101 Government Drive, 314-366-1555). The food is delicious, so you won’t get too messed up on booze. But once you’ve had a cocktail and loosened up a bit, you won’t be able to resist going out on the Grand Basin in one of the Boathouse’s paddleboats, canoes or kayaks. Once you’re done, your adventurous side will be activated, which is great because you’re already in Forest Park. The Boathouse neighbors a whole host of local attractions, so skip over to the art museum or the science center and keep exploring some of the best spots in St. Louis. —Jaime Lees
If you assume eating out with little ones means finding places with kids’ menus and sticking to the tedious brown items on offer (chicken strips! fries! grilled cheese!), you might not think of the city’s best Vietnamese restaurant as a good place to take your kids. But think again. In addition to being a destination for the city’s most discriminating adults, Mai Lee (8396 Musick Memorial Drive, Brentwood; 314-645-2835) also hits all the high points for the under-13 set. Among them: It’s loud but not too loud (“too noisy” is a huge problem for sound-sensitive kids in many modern dining rooms, but “too quiet” is a huge problem if Junior melts down). The service is consistently fast (they’ll get your food on the table quick enough to ward off that hangry behavior). And the voluminous menu doesn’t have the spiciness that causes many youngsters to revolt against Thai or Szechuan offerings, making it surprisingly friendly for all but the pickiest of eaters. Just make sure your order includes spring rolls and an all-important smoothie in addition to your favorite dishes, and watch as a new generation adopts one of St. Louis’ greatest dining traditions. —Sarah Fenske
For 12 years, Aaron and Agi Groff have been dazzling St. Charles sweets lovers with their European-style pastries, first as Four Seasons Bakery and now as the aptly named Sucrose (700 South Fifth Street, St. Charles; 636-410-8505). The Culinary Institute of America-trained chefs have developed a fiercely loyal following, not just because of their dazzling sweet treats but because they seamlessly blend their technical know-how with the easy comfort of the old-world family recipes Agi experienced growing up in Germany. Though Sucrose turns out stunning, haute pastries, the shop has a warmth to it and feels more like a neighborhood bakery than the high-end patisserie its wares suggest. From chocolate-and-peanut-butter tarts to macarons to olive-oil cakes and scones, this gem is the epicenter of sweets in St. Charles — and well worth the drive for those on the east side of the Missouri River. —Cheryl Baehr
RFT file photo
Fox & Hounds Tavern
In the decades it’s been in operation, Fox & Hounds Tavern (6300 Clayton Road, Clayton; 314-647-7300) has seen beverage trends come and go. Apple martinis and cosmos, Red Bull vodkas, the wine boom, the craft cocktail movement — all have come, some have gone while the Clayton pub has remained the same. That’s a beautiful thing. Located inside the English-inflected Cheshire hotel, Fox & Hounds is a warm, quintessentially British pub, complete with dark wood, a roaring fireplace, leather chairs and even a painting of dogs playing poker. Its wooden bar may be small, but it’s been home to one of the city’s bartending giants, the late Mark Pollman, whose book Bottled Wisdom is an irreverent ode to libations. He may have passed away over a decade ago, but his presence is still felt in a place that honors the timeless spirit of the English pub. It’s the sort of place that never goes out of style. —Cheryl Baehr
Pastaria Deli & Wine
Long before the pandemic upended the way we eat and drink, chef and restaurateur Gerard Craft wanted to open a deli — not a New York-style, pastrami-on-rye sandwich shop, but the type of Italian-influenced food counter he fell in love with on his many travels to the Old Country. That opportunity presented itself to him when his beloved restaurant and wine bar Sardella fell victim to the COVID-induced sea change in sit-down dining. In its ashes, Craft brought to life Pastaria Deli & Wine (7734 Forsyth Boulevard, Clayton; 314-773-7755), a casual-dining and carryout-friendly spot featuring beautifully executed sandwiches, salads and snacks concocted by its talented chef, Brian Moxey. The deli shines with deceptively simple dishes such as the Volpi heritage prosciutto sandwich, paired with cultured butter, Agrumato lemon and housemade giardiniera, as well as more decadent comfort fare like Moxey’s meatball sub. Sardella was a difficult loss for the city’s restaurant scene, which is why it feels important to have something so special come to life in its hallowed space. —Cheryl Baehr
St. Louis has its fair share of lovably greasy diners, but Morning Glory Diner (2609 Cherokee Street, 314-261-4842) off Cherokee Street elevates the greasy spoon while still maintaining the laid-back, homey diner atmosphere. Helmed by chef Ari Jo Ellis, Morning Glory serves up all the classic diner staples with taste and class. The diner’s slinger — two golden hash browns and a sausage patty topped with eggs and American cheese — is a delicious (and surprisingly non-greasy) take on a St. Louis staple. Make sure to try the diner’s breakfast hoagies, or “boagies,” with sausage, eggs and bacon sandwiched between a toasted hoagie roll from Union Loafers. Have a sweet breakfast with the diner’s homemade pie and French toast bread pudding. Really, anything on Morning Glory’s menu tops that of a stereotypical diner. But beyond the menu, the diner’s friendly and vivacious staff are what makes a morning at Morning Glory truly glorious. —Monica Obradovic
Cinder House's patio.
Sometimes you want to eat and stare at something beautiful. Sometimes you want to dress up and go out for a classy evening. For nights that you want both of these things and some truly mouth-watering fare, head to Cinder House (999 North Second Street, 314-881-5759). Situated atop the Four Seasons Hotel in downtown St. Louis, the restaurant is the work of the city’s renowned chef Gerard Craft. The inside of the restaurant is filled with classy decor and attentive waiters, but the real treat is outside on the well-appointed rooftop patio, which offers fantastic views of downtown, the riverfront and the Arch. Go at night and St. Louis’ flaws melt away into the darkness, but it’s a great daytime spot as well and is full of excellent people-watching. Don’t forget the food, which is Brazilian cuisine brought to life by wood-fire cooking techniques. There’s something for everyone here: succulent steaks, an amazing piri piri chicken set over creamy polenta, tender branzino and even bold vegan fare as well as great starters, salads and decadent desserts such as coconut cake and flan. —Jessica Rogen
The Crooked Boot
As a young girl growing up in Louisiana, Coria “CC” Griggs was dragged kicking and screaming into the kitchen by her father, who insisted she learn how to cook. Fast-forward a few decades, and Griggs has now made cooking her life’s work with her outstanding food truck the Crooked Boot
. After leaving a job in corporate America to follow her passion, Griggs opened the Crooked Boot in 2016 and has been going strong ever since. Her dishes are a thrilling blend of the Creole food she grew up on and the Haitian cuisine she’s fallen in love with through her travels to the Caribbean country. Her po’boys, red beans and rice and cornmeal-crusted fried shrimp are outstanding versions of Louisiana cuisine, but the real stunners are her Haitian specialties, such as the Ayiti bowl, which is filled with rice, jerk chicken and sauce pois, or the Haitian akra, a seasoned and fried root-vegetable fritter that is the ultimate comfort snack. It’s the dish Griggs first fell in love with from the island nation, and when you get your first taste, you’ll understand why. —Cheryl Baehr