Let Them Eat Y2Cake

Dining out at the end of the millennium

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Here's some of what I saw on the St. Louis food scene as the second millennium drew to a close:

First, the highs. The resurrection of the Chase Park Plaza continued with the opening of Bistro Eau, a soaring, kaleidoscopic dining room with a menu featuring eclectic influences and bold flavor combinations (at least for St. Louis). The adjoining Café Eau, more of a bar and hangout than the salonlike Bistro, has proved to be such a happenin' place that overflow has helped repopulate the nearby Euclid strip. At the other edge of the Central West End, the Southern Belle Supper Club brought new life to the space that used to be Blanche's and, before that, enjoyed an extremely popular run as the Ladle.

Another big hit was Truffles, whose straightforward yet perfectly balanced Southern European cuisine drove our erstwhile colleague Jill Posey-Smith into "a wave of gushing hyperbole." Meanwhile, although we were sad to see R.L. Steamers sail west from its quaint berth in Dogtown, the resulting greatly expanded menu at the new Chesterfield location has broadened its reach to a much wider audience, and the fish there is fab. Also out in Chesterfield, the perennial favorite Annie Gunn's finally announced plans for a much-needed expansion.

On the ethnic front, 2000 saw the opening of the charming new space for Pho Grand, finally complementing the great freshness and value of its Vietnamese menu with an engaging atmosphere. The sterile space that was Pho Grand's old home was made over in warm style by the Gulf Coast Café, a midpriced, Mediterranean-themed seafood restaurant that's yet another pleasant product of the city's burgeoning Bosnian community. A limited but still authentic menu of Spanish tapas showed up at a place called Guido's on the Hill, Maharaja brought a new range of Indian specialties to West County and Sukho Thai offered a South County twin to the already popular Manee Thai in Ballwin.

Speaking of ethnic, consider the following: Although St. Louis will never rival, say, Chicago, New York or San Francisco for restaurant diversity, for a metropolitan area of our size, we do pretty well. Right now, you can find here one or more restaurants of the following persuasions: Bosnian, Russian, Indian, Cajun, Cuban, Japanese, German, Brazilian, Ethiopian, Spanish, Lebanese, Israeli, Mexican, Nicaraguan, Irish, Persian, Thai, Korean, Filipino, Vietnamese, Serbian, Welsh, Basque, Nigerian and Greek -- and, of course, French, Italian and Chinese. No doubt I probably missed one or two.

As far as personalities go, Brian Menzel at B. Tomas (in the space formerly belonging to Paul's of Clayton), Eric Brennen at Z (in the space pioneered by Hot Locust) and Larry Fuse at Lorenzo's Trattoria (in a space you'd never know used to be Rose's Bocce Courts) all staked valid claims as up-and-comers. And it was great to hear that Greg Goodrich, who several years ago developed a pleasing menu and a loyal following at the Glendale Grill, has returned to a public role as part of Zu Zu's Petals, a new David Slay property in Kirkwood.

Clayton, South Grand and the Central West End continued to prosper as restaurant hubs, but downtown sputtered a bit during the perpetual, perhaps now consummated, quest for a convention hotel. On the plus side, we saw the addition of Curry in a Hurry and Tequila as a couple of ethnic alternatives; the year-end opening of the Hungry Buddha by the indefatigable Blake Brokaw to complement his eclectic, ever-evolving Tangerine; and the introduction of Z, bringing a combination of innovation and celebration of homegrown values (e.g., a Volpi-sausage pizza).

Nonetheless, there's still a lot of ground to be made up in re-establishing downtown as a true restaurant destination. The continued gross neglect of the riverfront (over and above the closing of McDonald's, does anyone besides me care at all about the status of the Robert E. Lee, which had a public grant for renovation set aside more than a year ago?) and the disconnect between sports fans and before-and-after-game activities more than two blocks away from the athletic facility make downtown a high-risk investment for restaurateurs, as exhibited by the reduction of Joseph's to lunch-only, the dearth of late-night dining (which Z is hoping to exploit) and the lack of full-service restaurants along the Washington Avenue strip.

At the same time, the convention and hospitality industries offer rays of hope for downtown. The fabulous resuscitation of the under-demolition International Fur Exchange into a Drury Inn (God bless you, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Drury!) added hundreds of rooms and two restaurants to the downtown mix, and the Westin at Cupples and the Sheraton in the Edison Bros. Warehouse are scheduled to come on line soon. Combine that with A.G. Edwards' expansion and the creative-services corridor in western downtown, and, slow but sure, every corner of downtown is being made over, with the combination of cool new office space (as in Cupples), cool new loft housing (God bless you, Craig Heller!) and -- finally -- all the necessary conditions to host large conventions holding great promise for a sustainable downtown revival.

Among the sadder notes of 2000, we lost the great urban pioneer Herbie Balaban, who not only gave us one of St. Louis' longest-running and best restaurants but also helped spearhead the "cooling" of the Central West End in the mid-1970s. The fire went out after a long burn at Charlotte's Rib in West County, but there's apparently still a spark, because the last days brought promises of a rekindling at a new location.

And somewhat lost in the shuffle -- although a similar downgrade by the Mobil Guide made the front page of the local daily newspaper five years ago -- was the disturbing news that Tony's had been downgraded from five to four diamonds by AAA, leaving St. Louis and the state of Missouri without a single five-diamond restaurant. Couple this with the Zagat Guide's cancellations -- first of a St. Louis listing on its Web page and then of any St. Louis print guide whatsoever -- and I'm distressed at what appears to be a continuing marginalization of St. Louis' restaurant reputation in the eyes of the rest of America.

In the grand scheme of things, I doubt that many people make tourism or relocation decisions on the basis of the number of five-star or five-diamond restaurants in town. In addition, given Tony's reputation for consistency, you really have to wonder what happened between 1999 and 2000 to cause the downgrade.

Nonetheless, I think the bigger issue here is the continuing inability of anyone else to rise to the level that Tony's has long held. Part of the problem is the preferred style of restaurant in St. Louis -- you have places like Harvest, Annie Gunn's and the Crossing that offer some really superior food but don't have the multiple-waiter, formal-attire, grand-dining-room approach that seems to be de rigueur to earn five stars or five diamonds. But another problem is what I perceive as a lack of self-promotion by local restaurants of all types and prices. Granted, we're just a little ol' alternative weekly, but this column is also one of the few outlets in town for restaurant news, and it's hit-or-miss whether restaurants send us announcements of their grand openings, or changes of chefs, or new menus, or whatever. And if they're not sending them to the local papers, I bet they're not sending them to Gourmet (which listed only Tony's as a St. Louis choice among its "America's Top Restaurants" this year), Saveur, Bon Appétit or any of the other national mags.

Still, as always, the new year -- and the new millennium, which, mathematically, starts for real on Sunday at midnight -- holds some interesting promise, because many of the new restaurants listed above have opened just within the past few weeks, and several more (including Zoe Houk's new place and a fish restaurant on the Landing) are scheduled for early 2001. We look forward to continuing our culinary odyssey.

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