The People and Places Pushing STL's Food Scene Forward

Jan 17, 2020 at 6:00 am
At Bulrush, chef-owner Rob Connoley continues to wow diners with his innovative Ozark cuisine.
At Bulrush, chef-owner Rob Connoley continues to wow diners with his innovative Ozark cuisine. MABEL SUEN

We talk about our food scene a lot in St. Louis — and with good reason. The past decade has seen incredible change and growth to the food-and-drink landscape here, with local restaurants and bars catching the attention of national publications and awards. The future of the industry is just as bright, too: From chef Nick Bognar, who is quickly becoming the city's premier sushi chef at Indo, to the opening of Little Fox, one of the most refreshing concepts to debut in recent memory, these are the people and places currently pushing the scene forward.

We couldn't forget the folks who forged the foundation for our local food scene, though; without those standard bearers, the city's dining scene never would have reached this point. Together, we believe that this collection of restaurants and chefs represents the best that St. Louis has to offer — and we can't wait to talk about where it's going next.


Pastry Chef Tyler "Tai" Davis Gets Creative

Looking at Tyler "Tai" Davis' ( stunning works of pastry art, you'd assume he was mentored by some of the best dessert makers in the world. Instead, this rising star is completely self-taught, an education he cobbled together through a mix of obsessive research and experimentation after falling into a pastry chef gig at the now-shuttered Element. While there, he got his big break on Food Network's Halloween Baking Championship, and he's never looked back, pushing the limits of what dessert can be. Davis operates at the intersection of food and art, and his unique, modern pastry aesthetic would be just as much at home in a museum as it is on a plate. His bold, creative voice has only just begun to impact the city's culinary scene, and it will be exciting to watch what he achieves. —Cheryl Baehr

Alex Henry Breathes New Life Into Cleveland-Heath

In 2017, when Jenny Cleveland and Eric Heath announced that they'd be leaving the lauded restaurant they opened in 2011, Cleveland-Heath (106 North Main Street, Edwardsville, Illinois; 618-307-4830), there was a feeling of uncertainty about its future. The restaurant was bought by Keith and Kari McGinness, who, at the time, said that Cleveland-Heath would be unchanged — as much as any restaurant that loses its founders and chefs could be. The ownership transition encountered its share of bumps in the road, but for the most part, regulars were just happy to see the restaurant survive. This summer, Cleveland-Heath celebrated another milestone when Alex Henry was named executive chef. An experienced and talented chef, Henry's first big kitchen gig in St. Louis was at Nixta in Botanical Heights; in fact, for his work at Nixta he was named a semifinalist for Eater's national Young Guns Awards in 2018. At Cleveland-Heath, Henry has continued the restaurant's mission to source as much product as possible from local farms while applying his own voice to the menu. Born in Mérida, Mexico in the state of Yucatán, Henry has added dishes at Cleveland-Heath that reflect his background blended with his fine-dining experience, such as cochinita pibil with achiote citrus-roasted Rensing pork, citrus red onions, chiles and baguette. — Liz Miller

Rob Connoley Elevates the Ozarks at Bulrush

Rob Connoley has received numerous accolades for his cooking, but all the confirmation he needed that he was doing something great at his Ozark-influenced restaurant Bulrush (3307 Washington Avenue; 314-449-1208) came in the form of a simple email. The sender, a native of the Ozark region, wanted to thank Connoley for turning the food he grew up eating from an embarrassment into something that felt important. Connoley, together with his talented sous chef, Justin Bell, may be putting out delicious food at Bulrush, but their lasting impact is a commitment to giving voice to a forgotten cuisine. Their obsessive research, use of foraged ingredients and insistence on educating guests about Ozark food has resulted in one of the most exciting, unique restaurants in the St. Louis dining scene. —C.B.

Michael and Tara Gallina Debut Winslow's Table

Late last year, a beloved local restaurant and market was revived with a refreshed concept in a redesigned space. In November, Winslow's Table (7213 Delmar Boulevard, University City; 314-725-7559) opened its doors, serving breakfast and lunch. Located in the former Winslow's Home space, the renamed and reimagined concept comes from Michael and Tara Gallina, the husband-and-wife team behind acclaimed Vicia. The restaurant power couple first announced the purchase of the space in August under their Rooster and the Hen Hospitality Group, quickly remodeling the restaurant alongside a team from Sasha Malinich of R/5 and Casco Architects. The selection of large-format dishes gives executive chef Michael the creativity to offer a more casual dining experience from Vicia, which is now focused on dinner service only. For breakfast, at Winslow's Table, choose from plates such as the Winslow's Pancakes with preserved blueberries, maple syrup and whipped butter or the buttermilk biscuit sandwich with a fried egg, applewood-smoked ham, Cheddar and apple mustard. On the lunch menu, sandwiches include the braised brisket sammie with Provolone, horseradish, Dijon and pickled banana peppers, an homage to Winslow's Home. By stewarding the restaurant into this next chapter, the Gallinas are not only investing in a beloved neighborhood eatery but also further investing in St. Louis. —L.M.

click to enlarge The Prapaisilp family draw from their heritage to serve excellent regional Thai fare at Chao Baan. - MABEL SUEN
The Prapaisilp family draw from their heritage to serve excellent regional Thai fare at Chao Baan.

Nick Bognar Emerges as an All-Star Chef

Before he was a James Beard-nominated Rising Star, before the critical acclaim and national recognition, Nick Bognar was a kid rolling egg rolls and crab rangoon in his parent's West County restaurant, Nippon Tei. He was destined to follow in their footsteps, but he wouldn't know how far that would take him until a job at an acclaimed sushi restaurant in Austin, Texas, opened his eyes to all that cooking could be. In the time since, Bognar has returned to St. Louis where he helped re-conceive Nippon Tei and developed a reputation as the city's premier sushi chef. The acclaim propelled him to the Botanical Heights hotspot, Indo (1641 D Tower Grove Avenue), where he combines the exploration of his Thai heritage with his sushi skills into one of the most exciting restaurants around. He's no longer a talented chef on the rise — with Indo, Bognar has ascended to star status. —C.B.

Tiny Chef Shines in a Dive Bar

Melanie Meyer, a.k.a. Tiny Chef, knows that a Korean restaurant attached to a pizza joint in a south city pinball dive might raise some eyebrows, but her delicious food is proving that the odd bedfellows are actually a winning combo. One half of Party Bear Pizza and Tiny Chef (4701 Morganford Road), Meyer's side of the business is inspired by a yearning to learn about her Korean heritage, a part of her that she only began to explore a handful of years ago. Adopted as a baby from South Korea, Meyer's culinary journey of self-discovery has translated into some of the most exciting Korean food being served in town — and the fact that you can get it while guzzling a Stag over a game of Iron Maiden pinball makes it all the more delicious. —C.B.

Munsok So Invests in the Landing

You'd have thought that Munsok So would have given up on the Landing following a near-death experience involving his building's collapse. After all, it seems that the rest of St. Louis has. Once the area's premier nightlife destination, the city's riverfront entertainment district has become little more than a ghost town that just can't seem to reestablish itself. Munsok So has not given up, though: In fact, the Drunken Fish owner has doubled down on his commitment to the neighborhood, opening a massive events space and the delicious Korean fried chicken restaurant, Kimchi Guys (612 North Second Street, 314-766-4456) in the very building where he could've lost it all. Walking out of the restaurant, a belly full of chicken and glancing at the gorgeous, newly renovated Arch grounds, it's hard not to share his optimism. —C.B.


Indie Eatery Brings Fresh and Sustainable Food to St. Peters

There aren't a ton of family-owned restaurants serving fresh, local and sustainable food in St. Peters. This was a problem that Shannon Thompson sought to solve when she debuted Indie Eatery (7827 Mexico Road, St. Peters; 636-387-1000) in fall 2018. Her journey to opening her own restaurant and catering business is an unlikely one: For twelve years, Thompson served in the U.S. Air Force, which afforded her the chance to travel around the world (meanwhile, her husband, A.J., spent six years in the Missouri Air National Guard). After retiring from the military, the couple launched a catering company, Indie4, as an outlet for sharing the food they'd enjoyed around the globe. Two years later, the Thompsons opened the cafe, which serves organic and sustainable comfort food. With Indie Eatery's menu, Thompson is trying to put her own fresh and healthy spin on hearty classics; for instance, the cafe's take on waffles for brunch offers organic brown butter waffles with espresso brownie pieces, sea salt caramel, all-natural vanilla bean ice cream and vanilla bean whipped cream. By investing in her hometown of St. Peters and staying committed to serving healthy and fun food, Thompson is having an impact well beyond her own community — she's helping elevate food across the St. Louis area. —L.M.

Little Fox Redefines the Neighborhood Restaurant

In late November, after more than a year of planning and almost five months of construction, Little Fox (2800 Shenandoah Avenue, 314-553-9456) opened in the Fox Park neighborhood. Envisioned as a modern neighborhood restaurant by owners Mowgli and Craig Rivard, the dining experience balances the best of fine dining in a more casual environment. Serving a seasonal menu that the Rivards describe as "simple food done well" with New American influences, Little Fox sources as much fresh produce and ingredients as possible from local farms. Little Fox is currently open for dinner only but eventually the Rivards plan to expand into weekday breakfast and lunch as well as weekend brunch. The couple hope to add brunch service in early 2020 and continue expanding their hours from there. For now, though, they're perfecting dinner service at the restaurant — and Fox Park and St. Louis is better for it. —L.M.

Balkan Treat Box Expands Bosnian Food in STL

Although the Bosnian community has been a major part of the fabric of St. Louis since the early 1990s, Bosnian cuisine never really integrated outside of the Bevo Mill neighborhood and into the city's greater culinary scene. This changed when Loryn and Edo Nalic launched their food truck, Balkan Treat Box (8103 Big Bend Boulevard, Webster Groves; 314-733-5700), in December 2016. Underpinned by a respect for tradition, Balkan Treat Box offers modern interpretations of food from throughout the Balkan region, including its Turkish pide, a boat-shaped, wood-fired flatbread that has become the restaurant's signature dish. Now a brick-and-mortar, Balkan Treat Box has turned into one of the hottest restaurants in town and has garnered national acclaim, but most importantly, the Nalics have shined a spotlight on edible treasures that have been hiding in plain sight all along. —C.B.

Cate Zone Pushes Comfort Zones

In its own right, Cate Zone (8148 Olive Boulevard, University City; 314-738-9923) is a magnificent dining establishment, but it's so much more than that. The University City restaurant stands as just one shining example of a burgeoning scene of modern East Asian restaurants run by young immigrant entrepreneurs that is changing the city's dining landscape. Eschewing the American-Chinese food template, restaurants like Cate Zone, Corner 17 and Taiwanese street-food spot Tai Ke are unapologetically showing St. Louis diners what it's like to dine in and around East Asia today. Their success shows that taking a chance on what you believe and pushing people out of their comfort zones is always a recipe for a delicious experience. —C.B.

9 Mile Garden Food Truck Garden to Open in Affton

There's no shortage of food trucks in St. Louis, with the list growing each month, and soon, they'll have an open-air hub to call their own. This spring, 9 Mile Garden (9375 Gravois Road, Affton) will open in the Affton Plaza shopping center, featuring a family-friendly entertainment destination with a rotating assortment of food trucks, community events, outdoor movies, live music and more. The project is a collaboration between Guerrilla Street Food chef and co-owner Brian Hardesty and Seneca Commercial Real Estate, which owns the shopping center. The food truck garden is expected to operate six days a week, offering both lunch and dinner service. In addition to queuing up "a daily rotation of St. Louis' best and most beloved food trucks," 9 Mile Garden aims to be a hub for entertainment of all types, from livestreams of sporting events to live performances. The garden's name is inspired by a time in St. Louis history when streets didn't have formal names or road markers and therefore landmarks were known by their distance from the courthouse. As you may have guessed, 9 Mile Garden is located nine miles from the Old Courthouse in downtown St. Louis. —L.M.

Chao Baan Goes Bold

When the Prapaisilp family was presented with the opportunity to open a new restaurant in the Grove, they had a choice: Go the safe route with a second location of their South Grand mainstay, the King & I, or take a chance by showing St. Louis Thai food in a different light. Thankfully, they opted for the latter with Chao Baan (4087 Chouteau Avenue, 314-925-8250), a wonderful restaurant based on the family's diverse culinary heritage that spans both the far south and extreme northeast parts of Thailand. Meaning "of the people" in Thai, Chao Baan is an edible autobiography of the Prapaisilp family that features dishes that are lesser-known than the food from the central part of the country that is typically found at Thai restaurants in St. Louis. It was a bold move — almost as bold as Chao Baan's fiery flavors — that paid off in a thrilling dining experience. —C.B.

click to enlarge The Flaming Wicked Prawns are just one of the all-star dishes at Bait. - MABEL SUEN
The Flaming Wicked Prawns are just one of the all-star dishes at Bait.

Bait Tackles Swanky Seafood

After lamenting St. Louis' lack of swanky seafood options, Kalen Hodgest decided he would stop complaining and do something about it. The result of his efforts is Bait (4239 Lindell Boulevard, 314-405-2797), the stunning Central West End seafood lounge that has quickly become one of the city's brightest hot spots. Much of the credit goes to former executive chef Ceaira Jackson, a rising star whose talent for seafood dazzled on menu items such as Bait's seafood boil, which puts all other seafood boils to shame. It's packed with flaming prawns and a red snapper that might make you think you have taken a wrong turn and landed in the Caribbean. In addition to proving that the Midwest is capable of doing seafood right, Bait also joins Prime 55 as a small but growing group of black-owned restaurants operating in the fine-dining side of the business. It's a welcome development that's making the city all that more delicious. —C.B.

Mac's Local Eats Moves to Bigger Digs Inside Bluewood Brewing

After a brief hiatus in 2019, one of the best burgers in St. Louis found a new home. In September, Mac's Local Eats (1821 Cherokee Street, 314-479-8155) opened inside Bluewood Brewing, a new brewery from owners Cameron Lund, Grant Lodholz and Jerry Moberg. The beloved burger spot was previously embedded in Tamm Avenue Bar. Now located inside the building that once housed the Lemp family's stables, the brewery and burger joint plans to make full use of the space's expansive footprint. Fans of chef-owner Chris McKenzie's smashed burgers and #RipFries — flecked with Red Hot Riplets seasoning — can now find the same menu items from the original location, although the chef says he'd like to expand options in the future. Mac's Local Buys, the retail market and sister business that McKenzie previously ran inside Tamm, has also made the move to Cherokee Street. The brewery's significantly larger footprint means more space for Mac's, which was something McKenzie says the restaurant desperately needed. It includes a large patio that's perfect for crushing beers and burgers during warmer months. —L.M.

Nomad Sandwich Shop to Open Inside Tamm Avenue Bar

More delicious food is coming to Dogtown this winter when chef Tommy Andrew debuts Nomad (1227 Tamm Avenue, 314-261-4902) inside Tamm Avenue Bar. At Nomad, Andrew will serve a range of sandwiches, burgers and more, with several of his early menu items inspired by his impressive culinary resume. Andrew is a familiar face to many in the St. Louis restaurant scene, having previously worked at top spots including now-shuttered Monarch and Randolfi's, as well as local favorites such as LoRusso's Cucina and Cinder House, where he worked as senior sous chef until leaving to launch Nomad. Bob Brazell, co-owner of Tamm and chef-owner of Byrd & Barrel, approached Andrew with the opportunity to open a concept inside the bar after Mac's Local Eats exited in August. Customers can still expect to find a couple of burgers at Nomad, although decidedly different from the ones served at Mac's. The opening menu is set to include a meatball sub inspired by the meatballs Andrew developed for Randolfi's — and aptly named the RIP Randolfi's — as well as a killer housemade pastrami sandwich. Nomad will also feature a small grab-and-go sandwich shop and retail market, because let's be honest, St. Louis — there is no such thing as too many sammie stops in town. —L.M.

Jerk Soul Bets on Hyde Park — And Wins

Telie Woods and Zahra Spencer were on the cusp of opening their debut restaurant in the U.S. Virgin Islands when their dreams were washed out to sea by the devastating Hurricane Irma. Unsure where to go from there, a friend helped Woods evacuate to St. Louis where he found himself absolutely smitten by the city's Hyde Park neighborhood. He was also struck by the lack of Caribbean food in town and convinced Spencer to join him in his new city to open a restaurant. Less than two years later, Jerk Soul (2016 Salisbury Street, 314-601-3871) has become the city's most beloved Caribbean restaurant thanks to a menu of dishes influenced by recipes from Spencer's family. It's also serving as an anchor for Hyde Park, which has been depressed by decades of neglect but contains glimmers of better days to come. With the smell of that wonderful jerk chicken in the air, how can you not be hopeful? —C.B.