As I reflect on the year in food, I can't help but be overwhelmed by a mix of emotions. On the one hand, I've eaten some of the best dishes of my life in 2022, marveling at the restaurant owners and cooks who, in the face of incessant struggle, dedicate themselves to bringing us the particular joy that food and drink can offer. The restaurant industry is a difficult business on a good day; for the past three years, those difficulties have been magnified by forces that have exposed the industry's systemic flaws and blown up the notion of "business as usual." That dedicated folks still so strongly feel the need to share with us a part of themselves through food is not simply impressive. It's a gift.
But sometimes those forces prove to be insurmountable. As I think back on the past year, I am equally filled with a sense of loss for the places that have decided to call it a day. Each had its own reason, and as a patron, I have nothing but empathy for these difficult decisions. For some, the pressures of the past few years caused them to reevaluate what they want to do with their lives. For others, financial difficulties proved too much to bear. Then there were the institutions that ended decades-long runs when their matriarchs and patriarchs hung up their aprons so that they could live the lives they'd put on hold to dedicate themselves to making ours more delicious. There's real grief associated with their departures from the St. Louis restaurant scene. I've shed actual tears over the loss of my beloved Cafe Natasha's, even as my affection for Hamishe Bahrami makes me understand that we had to free her from the burden of restaurant ownership so she could finally live her life. My dear friend expressed the exact same emotions about Pho Grand, and a trusted colleague could barely get the words out when she called to tip me off that her favorite burger spot was closing at the end of the year.
Our reactions may sound dramatic, but they were genuine and speak to the idea that food is so much more than a way to nourish our bodies and please our palate. It's an essential part of the human experience — one that offers joy, connection, pleasure and understanding. This is why the following 10 restaurants are more than a list of places with good food, drink and service; they are places that can stir in us the range of emotions that a great meal can elicit.
As is customary at the Riverfront Times, this list is taken from the restaurants I reviewed in 2022; though some technically opened last year, not enough time had elapsed for them to be reviewed before 2021 drew to a close (a few notables from 2022, for example Wright's Tavern, fall into this category and will be considered for next year's list). I've also included two honorable mentions on this list, which, though reviewed this past year, trace their roots back much further than 2022; though delicious, I could not justify considering them for a list of this year's best.
As we mourn the loss of our favorites, we celebrate the people behind these 12 culinary gems. Though they can never replace those who came before them, they fill that void with hope that we will have new favorites and make new memories for years to come.
Bowood by Niche
There are almost too many reasons to enumerate why Bowood by Niche (4605 Olive Street, 314-454-6868) is such a delightful restaurant. The atmosphere, the food, the service, the coffee, how chef Dakota Williams can somehow pull off breakfast, lunch and dinner all with such perfection you wonder if he's been imbued with superpowers. Taken together, this is precisely what makes Bowood so special: It feels like the most complete restaurant to grace St. Louis for a very long time. Williams spent some significant time at Sardella, Gerard Craft's restaurant that people seem to have understood only after it closed, and it feels like he took all that the former was meant to be and recreated it in a fashion that just clicks at Bowood. It doesn't hurt that he's working with one of the most stunning restaurant settings in the metro area, the lovely Bowood Farms, which is a serene oasis in the middle of the city. Williams leans into this vibe, which creates a seamless experience between the greenhouse environs and the dining room. As a result, you're filled with both great food and tranquility, making Bowood as much of a feeling as it is a place to eat.
Bistro La Floraison
Tara and Michael Gallina understand that they are, in some ways, an unlikely choice to carry on the legacy of classic French cuisine — in all of its rich, cheesy, butter, meaty glory — that the storefront at 7637 Wydown Boulevard has come to be known for over the years. After all, the husband and wife have made their mark on the St. Louis culinary scene through their restaurant Vicia, a celebration of plant-forward eating where guests are more likely to see carrots and cabbage on the center of the plate than a hearty serving of boeuf bourguignon. However, when the Gallinas got the chance to take over the former Bar Les Freres space from iconic restaurateur Zoë Robinson, they jumped on it, seeing it as an opportunity to go back to the style of cuisine that sparked in them a passion for food when they were up-and-coming culinarians. That love for French cooking is evident at Bistro La Floraison (7636 Wydown Boulevard, Clayton; 314-725-8880), which showcases flawlessly executed classic dishes, an outstanding French-heavy wine list and a lovely Parisian atmosphere that is nothing short of transportative. Those gougères with gruyère mousse, alone, will take your breath away.
It's difficult to decide which is more shocking: that Jalea (323 North Main Street, St. Charles; 314-303-0144) somehow manages to serve ceviche as fresh as if you were on the Peruvian coast in the middle of the landlocked Midwest or that a restaurant like Jalea exists on Main Street in St. Charles. Neither will come as a surprise when you find out that Andrew Cisneros is behind the outstanding cevicheria, which celebrates the flavors of the talented chef's heritage. For years, Cisneros has been dazzling St. Louis diners with his culinary prowess at some of the area's finest restaurants, but this past January, he and his sister struck out on their own with Jalea, an unapologetically seafood-driven spot in a part of town more known for meat and potatoes. Though some might have seen this as a risky move, Cisneros was confident that people would get it if he put out an exceptional product; he's been proven correct as local residents regularly pack the house for a taste of his vibrant fish, savory sanguchitos and a Peruvian-style seafood and rice dish that is one of the best seafood platters in the bistate area.
Grand Pied (3137 Morgan Ford Road, 314-974-8113) may have technically opened in 2021, but it became the restaurant it was meant to be in January of this year, when owners Tony Collida and Jaimee Stang had a moment of clarity. Originally, the pair signed on to Grand Pied with the understanding that it would be the complementary food component to a bar, Chatawa, which operated out of the same space. This lasted for about 10 weeks until the bar owner decided to close down his side of the operations. In the aftermath, Collida and Stang found themselves with a restaurant space, no liquor license and a concept that did not necessarily work so well on its own. Though they tried to operate business as usual for a while, they realized in January that what they should actually be doing is bringing to life a brunch and home-cooking-style restaurant that encapsulated everything they love about the business. Since leaning into what they do best, Collida and Stang have turned Grand Pied into one of the area's most comforting spots, filled with such deeply soulful dishes as hot-honey fried chicken, gumbo served over grits and the best pancakes you'll ever experience. Such delights as these make it clear that this iteration of Grand Pied is what it was meant to be all along.
Stephen Pursley was born in Okinawa to a Japanese mother and an American father, and the Menya Rui (3453 Hampton Avenue, 314-601-3524) chef and owner's foundational food memories centered on noodles. First, it was soba, the buckwheat noodle popular in Okinawa, and eventually, it became ramen, the dish he and his family would always eat in Tokyo as they were passing through to visit family after moving to Union, Missouri. It was natural, then, that he'd gravitate toward ramen when he was looking for direction in his life. This interest turned into a passion, then a quest that took him back to Japan, where he learned the art and craft of ramen in all its varied forms. After a few years doing pop-ups around town, Pursley opened Menya Rui this April on South Hampton with the goal of bringing to town the quintessential Japanese ramen-shop experience. He has succeeded, not only in capturing the feel of a traditional ramen restaurant but also in expanding our idea of all that this dish can be. It's masterful.
The experience that most stopped me in my tracks this year came courtesy of Westchester (127 Chesterfield Towne Center, Chesterfield; 636-778-0635), the Chesterfield Valley restaurant from a team of restaurant veterans, including Matthew Glickert, a protégé of the esteemed chef Bill Cardwell, that opened this past January. When I pulled up to the Anywheresville, USA, strip mall where it resides, I assumed it would be a basic, American upscale bar and grill; when I walked inside, I was shocked by the feeling of being transported to a glimmering, 1920s-era speakeasy. It's a beautiful scene but one that is only a minor part of Westchester's magic. Glickert is a striking culinary talent, embodying the philosophy of New American, farm-to-table dining that Cardwell helped pioneer in this town. As a result, Glickert's dishes — a stunning pork chop, a perfect bowl of French onion soup — have a timeless, upscale comfort feel that dazzles at every turn.
Ben Poremba's homage to Iberian dining is less a Spanish restaurant and more an immersive trip to Spain. Taking up residence in Zoë Robinson's former Billie Jean, Bar Moro (7610 Wydown Boulevard, Clayton; 314-296-3000) evokes the sexy style and elegant dining of the former, albeit with a Moorish-Spanish accent. Poremba has come to be known for his exploration of "Middleterranean" dining, most notably at his restaurants Olio and the Benevolent King, but Bar Moro expands that a little further west to a part of the world that has always fascinated him, thanks to its strong Moorish and Jewish heritage, as well at its proximity to Morocco, from where Poremba's mother hails. The result is a luxurious experience filled with tinned fish, jamón Iberico, fresh anchovy and pickled-pepper toasts, and a variety of tapas that flawlessly encapsulate what it feels like to dine in a tiny, Michelin-starred eatery in San Sebastian. His ability to create such a transportive feel is pure magic.
Arzola's Fajitas + Margaritas
A little over three decades ago, Eddie Arzola took his passion for cooking and hospitality — as well as his killer fajitas recipe — and turned them into the beloved Dogtown eatery Chuy's Arzolas. After its lengthy run, Arzola retired only to find himself drawn back into the business earlier this year by his son, Coby, who was eager to reclaim the Arzola family's restaurant glory through the Benton Park restaurant Arzola's (2730 McNair Avenue, 314-226-9672). Together with the talented chef Tanya Key, they have achieved this and then some, bringing to life a vibrant, elevated take on Tex-Mex cuisine anchored in warm, genuine hospitality. The restaurant hits on every note, but if there is one dish that defines the place, it's the steak fajitas, a revelation of the form that begins with a 72-hour marinated flap steak that's cooked over heated lava rocks so that the fat melts into the meat, then drizzles down onto the rocks so that it bastes the meat from the bottom while adding a smoky flavor. The result of her process is a stunning masterpiece — both charred and juicy, thin but not overcooked — that looks not like strips of meat but gilded petals that have gently fallen onto the plate from a steak flower. You will taste this and realize that you have never actually had a steak fajita be fore you've had Arzola's.
Sabroso Cucina Mexicana
If you eat only one dish off this list, may it be the cochinita pibil at Sabroso (11146 Old Street Charles Rock Road, St. Ann; 314-918-5037), a stunning, slow-roasted pulled-pork masterpiece that is so tender and juicy you could spread it on a cracker. The meat is deeply porky yet kissed with a hint of citrus to cut through the richness and dressed with a generous sprinkle of diced, pickled red onions that give the pork even more balance. Chef and owner Miguel Pintor, lovingly referred to as "Chef Miguel" by those who know him from his lengthy tenure at Mission Taco Joint, has spent a large part of his career helping to bring to life Adam and Jason Tilford's vision for a California-style Mexican spot. At Sabroso, he is now captain of the ship, taking his independence as an opportunity to share with St. Louis diners the traditional flavors of his upbringing in Tabasco and Mexico City. From his humble storefront in St. Ann, he's managed to create a transportative experience that leaves you wanting for nothing more — except maybe a second platter of slow-cooked pork.
Natasha Bahrami and Michael Fricker knew that Salve Osteria (3200 South Grand Boulevard, 314-771-3411) was a risk. They also knew they had no choice but to take it. Though they were enjoying some of the busiest years their restaurant, Cafe Natasha's, had ever experienced, Bahrami's mother and the restaurant's matriarch, Hamishe, was ready to step away but could not bring herself to do so as long as it remained open. In an act of both love and independence, Bahrami and Fricker convinced Mom to retire and, together with chef Matt Wynn, reinvented the restaurant on their own terms. Anchored by Bahrami's mind-blowing gin expertise at the adjacent Gin Room, Salve Osteria is a love song to Bahrami and Fricker's passion for the Italian food and beverage experience — something that plays out through Wynn's outstanding handmade pastas, including a seasonal lamb lasagne that is one of the area's purist plates of comfort. The three understand there is a lot riding on their shoulders, but what's lovely is how they come off as less burdened by a legacy and more free to chart their own path. It's beautiful to watch.
Basil India (3183 South Grand Boulevard, 314-428-9711), which technically opened last year, flew under the radar for a while thanks to having a similar name as its predecessor, Basil Spice. That changed as more and more people simply happened into its South Grand storefront and left positively blown away by its magical subcontinental cuisine. The restaurant is owned by the team behind University City's Turmeric, but the real superstar of Basil India is Madan Chhetri, a native of southern India who has cooked at top restaurants in Bangalore, Goa, Mumbai and stateside at a modern, upscale Indian establishment in northern Virginia. His talent is mind-blowing and puts him in the conversation as one of the area's top chefs with flawless dishes like his crispy noodle salad, a stunning mélange of texture and flavor, balanced by crunch and softness, coolness and fire, tang and sweetness, or Tangra-style chili paneer, which features cubes of pan-fried cheese tossed in a fiery sauce that is a master class on spice use. The restaurant is proof that sometimes the best dining experiences can be found where you least expect them.
Cuban native Tamara Landeiro found herself craving the flavors of her home country after moving to St. Louis to support her daughter's grandmaster-level chess career — and instead of simply pining for them, she decided to take matters into her own hands. She started out with a Soulard Market food stall, then a food truck, eventually working her way up to the delightful downtown brick-and-mortar Havana's Cuisine (1131 Washington Avenue, 314-449-6771), where she serves a Cuban sandwich against which all other Cuban sandwiches should be judged. The key to this masterpiece is the bread, procured from the iconic La Segunda Central Bakery in Tampa, Florida, a fourth-generation bakeshop that has been making authentic Cuban bread since 1915. Fluffy on the inside and crusty on the outside so that it develops the perfect crispness when pressed, it's the basis of Cubano sandwiches for Florida's large Cuban community and no different than what you'd get in Havana. Layered with mouthwatering slow-cooked pork, ham, molten Swiss cheese, tangy mustard and pickles, it's not just a sandwich; it's a revelation.
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