These are the ten best restaurants in St. Louis, as chosen by RFT food critic Cheryl Baehr. For more on this year's Best of St. Louis: Food and Drink issue, check out our list of 20 Under $20, 20 Spots Every St. Louis Food Lover Should Visit, and, of course, our complete roster of Readers' Choice winners.
1. Stone Soup Cottage
5809 Highway N, Cottleville; 636-244-2233
We use the word "transportive" a lot in food writing — maybe too much — but it is indeed powerful when a dish or restaurant can take you to another place or time. It could be a fish taco that calls to mind a rustic beach shack in the Baja Peninsula, a Neapolitan pie that brings you back to your Grand Tour days trekking through Campania or a batch of still-baking chocolate chip cookies that smell exactly like Grandma's kitchen. At Stone Soup Cottage, chef Carl McConnell's talent is not so much about taking you somewhere else as it is about making you stand completely still in a single (wonderful) moment in time. Time stops for the evening at this magnificent restaurant, as each course of McConnell's elegant yet approachable six-course tasting menu makes thoughts of all else fade away. The setting is part of the mystique. Stone Soup Cottage sits at the end of a gravel road on a quaint farm in Cottleville, not so far from the strip malls off the Page Extension but far enough away from the city to feel almost like another reality. Inside, the feel is just as magical, one part rustic farmhouse and two parts French country manor, with floor-to-ceiling silk drapes and candlelight dancing off the gilded antique Persian cooking vessels in McConnell's collection. After he prepares and hand-delivers a lovely course of sautéed poussin, there's a good chance you'll hear him chatting about it in the dining room, sleeves rolled up with a glass of red wine in his hand. And just like the food, his conversation will leave you as mesmerized as a nine-year-old listening to a ghost story around the campfire — so caught up in the moment, there's not a place on earth you'd rather be.
6665 Delmar Boulevard, University City; 314-899-9221
Mike Randolph once described Privado as "la la land," a place where he could cook the kind of food he wanted to cook the way he wanted to cook it, unencumbered by the day-to-day realities of running a restaurant. He's definitely no stranger to those realities, having brought to life one successful concept after the next: the Good Pie, Half & Half, Pùblico and Randolfi's, to name a few. But everyone needs a place to blow off steam and recharge their creative juices, and that's what Privado represents to Randolph — a pure, almost therapeutic concept that seems almost like a weekly check-in to remind himself why he fell in love with cooking in the first place. In this sense, Privado is like a window into Randolph's mind, part chef's table, part private dinner party. That honor does not come cheap. Dinner at Privado, with alcoholic drink pairings, will set each diner back well over $200 (including tax and gratuity), though, given the opportunity to have Randolph take you on a journey through the windmills of his mind, it's a fair price. He's perfected every aspect of the tasting menu experience — the cohesiveness, the portion size, the flawless execution, the service, the drink pairings, the pacing — all while making what is so often a stuffy format easy, almost giggly, fun. This may be Randolph's la la land, but if you're privileged enough to dine here, it will become yours too.
1634 Tower Grove Avenue, 314-932-1088
If you've ever paid attention to the scores in an Olympic figure skating event, you've surely noticed that it takes much more than a nice-looking performance to make for a good outing. Behind the twirls and glittery costumes lies the technical prowess that separates the good from the great. This is Ben Grupe's cooking. A culinary Olympic gold medalist and runner-up to represent the United States in the ultra-prestigious Bocuse d'Or, Grupe does not merely produce tasty and aesthetically pleasing dishes; he produces food that is so technically flawless it gives you the feeling you might get behind the wheel of a Bugatti. Though Elaia is not strictly a tasting-menu endeavor, to opt for Grupe's ten-course chef's menu means signing on for the ride of your life, with the chef bestowing along the way pleasures such as a silken foie gras mousse, a bowl of beets and citrus kissed with cardamom or a single poached egg suspended between solid and liquid in a pool of rich polenta. However, as decadent as Grupe's food may be, Elaia's warm service makes the masterful parade of dishes seem approachable. The stylish yet cozy dining room makes you feel like an invited guest in someone's home — someone with a personal chef who happens to be one of the best in the business.
4260 Forest Park Avenue, 314- 553-9239
Buzz will eventually cool, the spotlight will fade, and over time, even the most anticipated hotspot will have to prove its worth or be relegated to the background noise of a city's restaurant scene. It's no surprise that Vicia has managed to excel even under the weight of tremendous expectations, but to take the restaurant's success for granted is to belittle the lengths to which owners Michael and Tara Gallina have gone to create one of St. Louis' defining dining experiences. Though the pair came to town from the revered Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York, they took pains to get to know their community — and let their community get to know them — well before opening Vicia. In this sense, the restaurant is less their conception of what dining should be and more an ongoing conversation between themselves, their diners and the local environs. The result is a lovely fusion of what the Gallinas have learned throughout their careers and the bounty of Missouri. Michael Gallina's embrace of local agriculture turns on its head any prejudice damning the Midwest as a "meat and potatoes" region, with flawless presentations of vegetable-forward cooking; just try the grilled beef-fat beets and ask yourself if you need a steak. Add warm yet impeccable service under the watchful eye of Tara Gallina in a modern setting smack-dab in the middle of the city's innovation hub, and you'll understand why there is so much hype about Vicia —and why it succeeds in spite of it.
5. Sidney Street Cafe
2000 Sidney Street, 314-771-5777
What would the St. Louis restaurant scene be like without Sidney Street Cafe — or, more importantly, Kevin Nashan's Sidney Street Cafe? Though the city has been blessed with a handful of forward-thinking chefs and restaurateurs who have over the years transformed the way we dine, few have done as much as Nashan in terms of pushing us out of our comfort zone, and, in the process, inspiring fellow chefs to reach for the sky. For fifteen years, Nashan has been going strong, never wavering from providing the impeccable cuisine and service that we've come to expect from Sidney Street Cafe, even while making sure that the restaurant stays relevant — no easy task in an ever-changing business. Part of this relevance stems from his ability to make the venerable Benton Park mainstay both innovative and exquisite without being stuffy or unapproachable. You'll find octopus confit and tuna crudo alongside the restaurant's famous lobster turnovers and filet béarnaise, and no one will bat an eye whichever you choose. (Maybe all of the above?) Last year, the James Beard Foundation chose Nashan as Best Chef: Midwest, a selection that clearly caught the chef by surprise. However, to anyone who has dined at his wonderful restaurant, his selection was less a shocker than an honor long, long overdue.
3257 Ivanhoe Avenue, 314-647-3800
If you want to understand Kevin Willmann's style, consider the dish he served one recent evening as part of the chef's tasting menu at Farmhaus. Housemade guanciale, shaved paper-thin and then fried, smokey oyster mushrooms and peas so fresh they pop in the mouth crowned a generous disc of Grana Padano cheese custard the texture of crème brulee. Beautifully presented and flawlessly executed, the dish felt haute yet hearty, exotic and yet as familiar as carbonara with peas and mushrooms, minus the pasta. The custard was French and Italian, but the produce and the smoky pork wallop felt Missouri through and through. No chef is better at capturing the spirit of Midwestern fine dining than the multiple James Beard nominee Willlmann, whose beloved Clifton Heights restaurant is a comfortable setting for enjoying the area's bounty. Any chef worth his or her salt these days uses local, seasonal ingredients, but at Farmhaus these are less components and more the restaurant's entire reason for being. You see elements of Willmann's upbringing on the Gulf Coast in his seafood dishes, but the restaurant remains all Missouri — and the place has never tasted so good.
1621 Tower Grove Avenue, 314-899-9000
Not two months after Nixta was named one of Bon Appetit's best new restaurants in the country, the unthinkable happened: Executive chef Tello Carreon decided to leave. To anyone who had dined at the restaurant up to that point, the news was not only shocking; it was terrifying. Under Carreon and owner Ben Poremba, Nixta had become one of city's most thrilling concepts, a chic hotspot that showed us the many connections between Mediterranean and Mexican cuisine. We need not have worried. Under Poremba's guidance, the eatery weathered the transition with aplomb, maintaining its excellence even while reinventing itself as a bastion of Yucatanian cuisine courtesy of its new executive chef, Alex Henry. Henry, whose family hails from Merida, saw Nixta as an opportunity to put an elegant spin on the dishes he'd grown up with and give the city's diners a fresh, regionally-focused taste of Mexico unlike anything previously available in town. Granted, this means the food has changed, but what's impressive is that Nixta hasn't. The restaurant still remains true to its original vision: to be a forum for exploring upscale Mexican cuisine that causes American diners to check their preconceptions. An ethos like that transcends individual plates — and results in transcendent food.
410 Market Street, 314-231-7007
You'll have great food at Tony's. You'll eat carpaccio kissed with truffle that melts on the tongue and lingers like a lover's embrace. You'll have life-changing risotto or a black-pepper-rubbed prime strip steak proferred by tuxedoed waiters with all the pomp and circumstance of old-school service. There is also great wine, desserts and everything in between, but that's not what makes Tony's so special. No, the reason that, year after year, Tony's remains the gold standard of St. Louis dining is less about any individual detail and more about how they all conspire to make you feel something the second you walk through the doors. It's hard to put your finger on what exactly that is. Maybe the place's reputation precedes the experience so much that your heightened expectations give everything a certain sense of import. There's no question that having Vincent Bommarito Sr. himself take your coat and walk you to his "finest table" bestows a certain weight. But perhaps Tony's biggest accomplishment is how even a refined, upscale experience can feel so lighthearted and easy. It's not just Bommarito; servers, assistants and maître d's have all mastered the art of making every last person feel like a VIP in on a secret as they whisper clever asides to the table or laugh amongst themselves as they prepare the antipasti — in a way that always lets you in on the joke. You feel less like their esteemed guest and more like a friend by the time dinner ends — something you'll pray never has to happen.
7734 Forsyth Boulevard, Clayton; 314-773-7755
At this point we all know Sardella's origin story: Acclaimed chef Gerard Craft wanted to reinvent Niche, the restaurant that made his reputation and won him a James Beard award, as something less burdensome, more approachable. Enter Sardella, a lighter, more free-spirited concept that reflects not only where Craft is as a chef, but also as a diner. A year and a half later, though, it seems unfair to color a description of the vibrant Sardella with shades of Niche — no less than insisting on comparing a new girlfriend to a long-gone ex. Sure, the former occupant was the place that shot Craft to the top of the city's restaurant scene, but he's moved on, replacing it with a wonderful restaurant that stands tall in its own right and would have been just as successful no matter what came before it. Much of the credit for Sardella's success belongs to executive chef Ashley Shelton, whose talent and passion for Mediterranean-inspired cooking strikes the difficult balance of both piquing curiosity and warming the soul. At times, sinking into the lovely, orange-hued banquettes and reveling in Sardella's stylish, comfortable digs, you don't even realize the show she is putting on for you, with dishes as viscerally comforting as warm, sea-salt flecked dinner rolls, prosciutto with whipped pork belly or the simple pleasure of braised lamb. Yet each has a thoughtful detail that shows off her deft yet non-showy touch, making us revel in the present .... no matter how great the past may have been.
10. Olive + Oak
102 West Lockwood Avenue, Webster Groves; 314-736-1370
Olive + Oak is so popular, it's virtually impossible to eat there. Reservations book months in advance, and attempting to walk in and secure a barstool, even mid-week, is an exercise in futility. It's a situation that makes you want to curse owner-general manager Mark Hinkle and chef Jesse Mendica, until you realize it would be silly to blame them for doing their jobs — namely, creating a restaurant so outstanding the whole town wants to eat there. The pair were destined for success: After spending a good part of their restaurant careers at the venerable Annie Gunn's, the pair brought with them the west county landmark's refined approachability, now on display in a stylish yet warm neighborhood eatery right in the heart of Old Webster. Olive + Oak is the type of restaurant where you can don jeans and a t-shirt and settle into a burger and fries or dress up for cocktails, oysters and a cowboy ribeye for two — all flawlessly executed by Mendica, who has quickly proven that she is one of the city's biggest culinary stars. Now, if we could only get a damn table.