First Look: Wright's Tavern in Clayton Celebrates Steakhouse Classics

Industry veterans Matt McGuire and Cary McDowell created the restaurant they longed to dine at

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click to enlarge The steak frites from Wright's Tavern is sure to become a St. Louis classic.
Spencer Pernikoff
The steak frites from Wright's Tavern is sure to become a St. Louis classic.

Matt McGuire and Cary McDowell may have opened Wright's Tavern (7624 Wydown Boulevard, Clayton; 314-390-1466)  just a little over a week ago, but the restaurant has been in the making for much longer — about 23 years.

"I met Matt 23 years ago at King Louie's; I met my wife, Holly, there, so my love affair with Matt began with my love affair with Holly," McDowell says. "I started holding court there, and we became best friends. I can't remember a time he wasn't my best friend, and we'd always talked about one day doing something together. This is it."

It's difficult to imagine a more impressive culinary dream team than McDowell and McGuire, two industry veterans who, over their many years in the business, have helped to shape the St. Louis culinary landscape.

For McGuire, that began with his gone-but-never-forgotten restaurant, King Louie's, the south St. Louis establishment that defined the perfect upscale neighborhood tavern for the modern diner. McGuire went on to work for some of the city's revered restaurants, serve as director of service for Niche Food Group and eventually open the highly acclaimed Louie in DeMun, which stands today as one of the area's most essential restaurants.

click to enlarge Matt McGuire and Cary McDowell are the dream team behind Wright's Tavern.
Cheryl Baehr
Matt McGuire and Cary McDowell are the dream team behind Wright's Tavern.

McDowell's resume is no less impressive. From working for revered chef Daniel Boulud in New York to opening the Crossing in Clayton with Jimmy Fiala, McDowell spent much of his career at the apex of fine dining before decamping to help Chris Sommers run his pizza powerhouse, Pi, which grew to include other properties like Gringo and Pi-Rico.

Earlier this year, McDowell found himself ready to take on a new challenge — and, serendipitously, it was around the same time McGuire was in talks with legendary St. Louis restaurateur Zoë Robinson to take over the space that housed her former Italian restaurant I Fratellini. It was the sign both men needed to recognize that the timing was right to finally bring to life the restaurant they had always envisioned.

"In this business, timing is the most important thing — that and the people who are in the room," McGuire says. "If I conducted a nationwide search of the person I wanted to get for this, it would be Cary. He is the best culinary instructor in St. Louis, the best chef in St. Louis. We just agree fundamentally about how things should be. And we like each other."

click to enlarge Photos adorn the walls in the Wright's Tavern dining room.
Cheryl Baehr
Photos adorn the walls in the Wright's Tavern dining room.

Though McGuire describes Wright's Tavern as a neighborhood steakhouse, he is emphatic when he says that he and McDowell are less hung up on a concept and more focused on creating a place that embodies what they want to experience when they go out to eat. A restaurant is a feeling, McGuire insists, and he and McDowell hope to create a special kind of alchemy based on the fundamentals: outstanding, well-executed classics; consistency; and the kind of hospitality and overall experience that just makes people happy.

"Good is good," McGuire says. "You don't need to be told why. People get so caught up in the provenance of things, but you don't need to be told why a tomato is good. You just experience it and you know."

To that end, McDowell and McGuire have built Wright's Tavern to be a celebration of iconic dishes. A perfectly executed caesar salad. A crab cake comprised of actual crab meat, not breading and shellfish shreds. A flawlessly seared ribeye. As McDowell explains, he sees it as his duty, at this point in his career, to nail the ideal forms of these dishes and remind people why they are quintessential.

click to enlarge Shrimp scampi.
Spencer Pernikoff
Shrimp scampi.

"Matt and I have always shared the opinion that good is good, and there is a certain genuineness about certain things," McDowell says. "Often, the things that are the most complicated things to do are often thought of as the most easy thing. It's challenging to make a really good caesar salad every time. You have to know your part and play it. I get excited about a perfectly seared ribeye steak and pomme puree or really good creme brulee. This might sound grandiose, but I find beauty in purity. I feel an obligation to put forth what the correct iteration of things."

To that end, the menu at Wright's Tavern hits all the notes you'd expect from an ideal steakhouse. Oysters on the half shell, crab cakes, shrimp scampi or cocktail and a wedge salad are examples of classic starters, while a filet, ribeye, strip and steak frites comprise the bulk of the entree section. As McDowell and McGuire both emphasize, these may be dishes that seem simple, but they require flawless technique and uncompromising sourcing because there is nowhere to hide. They come at a traditional steakhouse price point; McGuire admits that Wright's Tavern is not cheap (steaks range between $39.95 and $74.95), though, atypically for a la carte steakhouses, all entrees at Wright's Tavern come with side dishes.

Like I Fratellini, Wright's Tavern is small and shotgun style, though the black and white color scheme has been replaced by deep green (almost black) painted brick and a  light wood colored ceiling. White tablecloths, amber glass candles and brass chandeliers adorn the space, and photographs depicting scenes from McDowell's and McGuire's lives hang on the walls. A sparkling, three-seat bar is tucked in the back of the room, and the open kitchen, with slightly higher ceilings than the dining room, gives the illusion of a grander space than the footprint suggests.

The overall feel — from the menu to the atmosphere to the service — is one that is both elegant and comfortable, stylish and welcoming. As McGuire explains, this is not only what he looks for in a restaurant, it's what drives him to create.

"For me, everything I do is born out of enthusiasm," McGuire says. "It's why I say yes or no to anything. I am never going to be the audience member, but if I think of things as if I am audience and if I am not pleased with the place, why do it? If you are trying to proselytize about what you think someone else likes, you'll miss. You have to make sure you do things that are true to you. Then if it does't work out, at least you are not wearing a hat you don't want to be wearing. It has to be a place where you want to go, where you want to be the audience member."

Wright's Tavern is open Monday through Thursday from 5 until 10 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 5 until 11 p.m. Scroll down for more photos of Wright's Tavern.

click to enlarge The burger and fries at Wright's Tavern are perfection of the form.
Spencer Pernikoff
The burger and fries at Wright's Tavern are perfection of the form.
click to enlarge The Wright's Tavern crab cake features generous hunks of crab meat.
Spencer Pernikoff
The Wright's Tavern crab cake features generous hunks of crab meat.
click to enlarge Filets cooking on the grill.
Spencer Pernikoff
Filets cooking on the grill.
click to enlarge A painting in the Wright's Tavern dining room.
Spencer Pernikoff
A painting in the Wright's Tavern dining room.
click to enlarge Cary McDowell is committed to serving quintessential versions of classic dishes. - Spencer Pernikoff
Spencer Pernikoff
Cary McDowell is committed to serving quintessential versions of classic dishes.
click to enlarge A chef coat embroidered with the Wright's Tavern logo.
Spencer Pernikoff
Wright's Tavern is now open in Clayton.


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About The Author

Cheryl Baehr

Cheryl Baehr is the dining editor and restaurant critic for the Riverfront Times and an international woman of mystery. Follow her on the socials at @cherylabaehr
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