The Best and Worst of St. Louis' Dining Scene in 2020

Dec 28, 2020 at 6:15 am
Charlie Gitto, who died on July 4, made an indelible mark on the St. Louis restaurant scene. - JEN WEST
Charlie Gitto, who died on July 4, made an indelible mark on the St. Louis restaurant scene.

In a year defined by upheaval, it’s impossible to understate the earth-shattering chaos and uncertainty rained down on the hospitality world thanks to COVID-19.

Ask any server, chef, bartender, prep-cook, valet, restaurateur or anyone else in the business where they were that fateful second weekend in March, and the answers are likely to sound like those given by witnesses to the Kennedy assassination or 9/11. There was a sense that the world as they knew it — as all of us who dine out knew it — was about to change, maybe forever but at least for the long-term, indefinite future. They were scared. They didn’t know how they would pay their bills. They weren’t sure that the careers they’d dedicated their lives to would be there on the other side, and in turn, it made many in the business question who they were without the jobs that had come to define so much of their lives.

And no one was coming to help them. Sure, there were the PPP loans and expanded unemployment benefits, all wrapped up in cumbersome red tape, but for the most part, the industry knew it was on its own. In the abject misery of this year, one of the brightest spots has been the way that the hospitality industry has expanded its notion of service to include one another, as well as the community at large, pulling together to see how they could help in a way that only those who dedicate their lives to service can.

This end-of-year recounting, a Best and Worst of St. Louis Dining in 2020, tries to capture that blend of despair and optimism through some of the year’s most defining food moments. This list is not exhaustive; there were too many individual moments of sadness to ever fully know, just as there were small acts of kindness performed when no one was looking.

The Worst of St. Louis Dining in 2020

Easy answer: COVID-19. The essence of all that was bad about St. Louis food in 2020 can be summed up in a single name. As calendars turned to March and the yearly hope that the dark days of winter were drawing to an end started to spring, the virus that seemed like it could maybe, possibly be a problem reared its ugly head, turning the entire world upside down. So much pain in the industry flowed from this, but, in a year of crap sandwiches, it wasn’t the only bad news.

Brennan’s Fire
When Brennan’s closed in the Central West End to make way for the ever-expanding St. Louis Chess Club, it seemed like the world was ending. Thankfully it was only temporary, as the bar relocated just down the road and was poised to reclaim its place as a beloved neighborhood watering hole. Then, this November — not even a month after it reopened its doors — a fire damaged the spot, requiring about nine months of reconstruction to repair the damage. Hopefully, we’ll be celebrating the end of the COVID-19 scourge when its doors reopen the next time.

Peaches the giraffe, before the kidnapping. - DOYLE MURPHY
Peaches the giraffe, before the kidnapping.

Civil Life’s Stolen Giraffe
Filed to the “Why are people dicks?” file, some idiots with a box truck thought it would be funny to kidnap Peaches, the iconic giraffe that graces the lot adjacent to Civil Life brewery. Though it was returned a week later, the incident is a reminder that there are some people willing to steal our joy in the year we really needed it.

Rest in Peace, Charlie Gitto
Charlie Gitto loved to regale his friends — a.k.a. anyone who’d ever dined at his iconic Italian restaurant, Charlie Gitto’s Downtown — with stories from his long career in the business. From his stool at the corner of the bar, just to the side of the restaurant’s front doors, he’d entertain a steady stream of guests with tales of celebrities, sports figures and politicians who he’d gotten to know over the years. That entertainment value is why he got into the business and, in addition to his restaurant’s classic Italian food, is what made Charlie Gitto’s so special. When we said goodbye to him this July, we said goodbye to more than just the “Mayor of Sixth Street” — we bid farewell to a legend of St. Louis dining whose barstool no one will ever be able to fill.

Rest in Peace, Robert Uyemura
If Charlie Gitto enjoyed the show of the restaurant business, Robert Uyemura basked in being behind the scenes. Though the chef and owner of Local Chef Kitchen made an undeniable impact on the St. Louis farm-to-table movement well before it was a catchphrase, he was an under-the-radar kind of guy whose talent, kindness and passion for bringing good, wholesome food to people defined his career. Losing him to cancer this February felt like losing a piece of the industry’s spirit. It was a devastating blow in a bad year.

Parlor, the popular Grove arcade bar, was the epicenter of a sexual assault reckoning that rocked the Grove. - MELISSA BEULT
Parlor, the popular Grove arcade bar, was the epicenter of a sexual assault reckoning that rocked the Grove.

Sexual Assault in the Grove
This summer, a spate of sexual assault allegations against prominent members of the Grove area’s food and beverage scene rocked the industry, setting off a reckoning that became the St. Louis area’s #MeToo moment. That so many women experienced this trauma over a decade at the hands of the scene’s boys club culture places this on the Worst side of the column, even if the survivors’ bravery puts them at the top of the Best.

So Many Restaurant Closures
Mangia. Eat-Rite. Café Osage. Cousin Hugo’s Bar & Grill. Feasting Fox. Missouri Bar & Grill. Pueblo Nuevo. We lost so many good ones this year due to COVID-19 — and this doesn’t count the temporary closures or ones whose fates remain up in the air — that it’s difficult to wrap one’s head around what the dining landscape will look like on the other side of this mess. As those that remain struggle to survive, the ones who did not serve as a stark reminder to the dining public (with the means to do so) just how important it is to support those places you want to see stick around.

Taqueria Durango Fire
On March 5, a two-alarm fire blazed through Taqueria Durango, burning the beloved Overland restaurant to the ground. Run by the Lopez family for eleven years, the restaurant’s fate remains uncertain. The adjacent grocery store they’ve operated for over two decades is all that’s left — unless you include the family’s fighting spirit and the love from the community shown to them throughout their ordeal.

The Best of St. Louis Dining in 2020

If this year taught us one thing, it’s that the St. Louis dining scene’s resilience is its most striking attribute. In a year of worsts, the COVID-19 outbreak brought out the best in those who have dedicated their lives to serving others.

Adopt a Server
Local nurse Sheri Beezley could not sit back and watch her friends in the industry suffer the loss of their livelihoods due to the pandemic, so she came up with a plan to help. Her initiative, STL Adopt a server, connected those who had the means to help with industry folks in need of daily living supplies (think everything from shampoo and groceries to cat food and hygiene products). The program was so successful it not only helped those in the St. Louis industry, but also prompted other like-minded people around the country to start their own chapters.

Bakers for Black Lives represents a collective action of several prominent members of the area's pastry community to show support for the civil rights movement. - COURTESY HANNAH KERNE
Bakers for Black Lives represents a collective action of several prominent members of the area's pastry community to show support for the civil rights movement.

Bakers for Black Lives
In the wake of the racial justice reckoning that swept the country following the murder of George Floyd, pastry chefs Sharon Harter and Hannah Kerne had an idea to use their talents to help support the movement. Their event, Bakers for Black Lives, raised thousands of dollars for racial justice organizations around town and showed that there are many ways to lend your voice.

Cocktails To-Go
When the Missouri Division of Alcohol and Tobacco Control shut down struggling St. Louis restaurants’ to-go cocktail service, Adam and Jason Tilford and other area restaurateurs sprang into action. After lobbying state officials, these tenacious restaurateurs were able to effect the change we all needed this year — easier access to booze.

Polite Society's Sub Division ghost kitchen brings gourmet sandwiches like the "I Believe You Have My Stapler" to your doorstep. - COURTESY OF SUB DIVISION
Polite Society's Sub Division ghost kitchen brings gourmet sandwiches like the "I Believe You Have My Stapler" to your doorstep.

Ghost Kitchens
The pandemic may have destroyed business, but one thing it hasn’t taken away from the restaurant industry is its ingenuity. Hospitality professionals have had to be even more creative than usual in figuring out how to generate revenue, and many have turned to ghost kitchens as a way to do just that. From Polite Society’s Sub Division sandwich delivery service to BEAST Butcher & Block’s wing spot, Wing Runner, restaurants have created these sister restaurants-within-a-restaurant, finding a way to retain staff, exercise creativity and stay afloat while adding to the delicious food already on offer in town. It’s a rare win in a year without many of them.

Hospitality Professionals Offer Help
Even as COVID-19 decimated their own livelihoods, many hospitality industry professionals refused to deny their call to service and instead stepped in to help the most vulnerable in St. Louis. Pastry chef Tai Davis devoted himself to putting together and delivering boxed meals to area kids who found themselves food insecure after losing school lunches. Gerard Craft partnered up his Niche Food Group team with the North Sarah Food Hub as a way to keep his staff working while providing meals for those in need, and too many restaurants to mention made known their intention to feed those who needed to eat for free, no questions asked. This year showed us that their commitment to hospitality went far beyond the four walls of a restaurant.

Meals for Meds
Not long after the pandemic shuttered area restaurants this spring, Juniper’s John Perkins had an idea: Why not figure out a way to keep his staff employed through cooking for frontline workers? Together with Kirsten Brown of Knead Bakehouse, Perkins launched Meals for Meds, an initiative that allows the public to donate money to feed frontline workers directly to their favorite restaurants, who in turn would provide meals to area medical professionals. It was a lifeline to restaurant workers and a delicious beacon of light for frontline workers in an otherwise dark year.

National Accolades for Area Restaurants
Despite the COVID-19-induced upheaval that rocked the hospitality industry across the globe, the national press still made a point to highlight the culinary bright spots across the country — and more than a few happened to be in St. Louis. Esquire named Balkan Treat Box and Indo as two of its Best New Restaurants in America. The accolades kept coming for Indo, whose chef and owner, Nick Bognar, was selected as one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs for 2020. Food & Wine also kept the love coming to St. Louis when it put BEAST Butcher & Block, Bolyard’s Meat & Provisions and Kenrick’s Meats & Catering as three of the Best Butcher Shops in the Country. In a year of low points, these accolades reminded us why food culture is worth fighting for.

Opened in October, Tempus features Ben Grupe's playful, unique spin on familiar dishes. - VIRGINIA HAROLD
Opened in October, Tempus features Ben Grupe's playful, unique spin on familiar dishes.

Outstanding New Restaurants
This wasn’t exactly the best year to open a restaurant, but many forged ahead, taking the long view in the belief that better days are coming. The Lucky Accomplice, Chiang Mai, Nomad, Edera and Tempus added even more wonderful food to our city’s culinary landscape and gave us reason to hope that the other side of this mess will be even more delicious than before.

Welcome Neighbor Drive-Thru Supper Clubs
Jessica Bueler and her Welcome Neighbor cohorts were not going to let the pandemic halt the momentum they’d created for their Supper Club program. Instead, she and the organization continued their mission to provide meaningful income to refugee women by transitioning the traditionally in-person dinners to drive-thru events. The response has been nothing short of spectacular; as Bueler explains, the new format is reaching even more people than before and keeping the income and sense of purpose flowing to this group of inspiring women and their families.
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