They were. And they weren't. As the promise of a return to normal (whatever the hell that means) faded faster from our memories than the term "Hot Vax Summer," the St. Louis restaurant scene in 2021 found itself able to function near pre-pandemic capacity not because things suddenly got better, but because it got used to the hardship. From staffing shortages that threatened — and in some cases succeeded — to shutter restaurants, to product shortages and rising food costs, the restaurant industry again found itself dealing with one challenge after the next. That the public proved so eager to return to in-person dining was great, except that they returned to a changed industry and showed restaurant professionals way too often that they were not always pleased with the new reality.
Yet at some point, we have to meet the dining world where it is at and embrace the real successes that have happened since life as we knew it got turned upside down. In spite of — and in many cases, as an answer to — the seemingly impossible challenges thrown its way, the St. Louis restaurant industry has given us so many instances of pure joy over the past two years. Though we could discuss those that happened in 2020 as a footnote, it seems unfair to penalize the great restaurants that opened during that year and simply move on without giving them their moment to shine. In that spirit, this year's roundup is actually two years in one — the Best New Restaurants of 2020 and 2021, a ranked list of the fifteen best dining establishments to open since January 2020.
There are a few caveats to this list. First, in keeping with our traditional Best New Restaurants rules, we are including eateries reviewed or visited in 2020 and 2021, even if they technically opened in 2019. This is true of Little Fox, which opened in December of 2019, but was reviewed later the following year and would have been included on the 2020 list in a "normal" year. Also, we are only considering restaurants that we have actually been to; though a handful of other promising spots have opened this year, including Tempus (technically it opened in 2020, but it began welcoming guests in person this fall), Root Food + Wine, Botanica and Commonwealth, we feel we cannot speak on them with any sort of authority until we actually experience them firsthand. Assuming the world does not stop spinning in 2022, they will be considered for that year's roundup.
Until then, we celebrate the following fifteen for bringing us some light during times when we need it most.
1. Noto Italian Restaurant
Kendele and Wayne Sieve opened Noto Italian Restaurant (5105 Westwood Drive, St. Peters; 636-317-1143) in January of 2020 as a love song to the Amalfi Coast, but we are the ones who have ended up smitten. Out of the gate, the restaurant was a roaring success thanks to its Neapolitan pizza (hands down the best in the metro area), handmade pastas and traditional southern Italian fare, but over the past year, Noto has gotten even more exciting thanks to the addition of Josh Poletti to the team. With his mastery of charcuterie and fine-dining techniques, he's helped turn an already thrilling restaurant into one of the best restaurants in the bi-state region.
Craig and Mowgli Rivard had big plans for Little Fox (2800 Shenandoah Avenue, 314-553-9456) when they opened in late 2019, but the pandemic threw all of those out the window. Though every last restaurant in the area was negatively impacted by the pandemic, there was something particularly devastating about watching as the Rivards' dream for Little Fox was shattered by something out of their control. That they have been able to pick up those pieces and fashion them anew makes Little Fox even more soulful than it was at the outset, because it feels all the more precious.
3. The Lucky Accomplice
If there was anyone who should have struggled during the pandemic, it was Logan Ely. Known for cerebral tasting menu experiences at his restaurant, Shift, Ely delivered a form of dining that was about as contrary to eating out during a global health crisis as it comes. Instead of dwelling on that, however, Ely moved forward with existing plans for a more casual eatery just around the corner that would be philosophically similar to Shift but more accessible to the everyday diner. That restaurant, the Lucky Accomplice (2501 South Jefferson Avenue, 314-354-6100), has turned out to be one of the most exciting additions to the city's dining scene and cements Ely's reputation as one of the brightest culinary minds in town.
4. Chiang Mai
When she was a little girl growing up in northern Thailand, Su Hill resented the education in traditional Thai cooking that she received from her mother. However, over time, she grew to not only appreciate all she'd learned; she embraced it as a way to connect with her mom after she passed away. Chiang Mai (8158 Big Bend Boulevard, Webster Groves; 314-961-8889) is a reflection of that journey, imbuing each dish with meaning that you can taste in every bite.
5. Tacos La Jefa
Heriberta Amescua was a legend well before she opened the Tacos La Jefa (3301 Meramec Street) food counter in the Urban Eats food complex, making a name for herself in the city's Latin American festival circuit for her outrageously delicious birria tacos. She'd always dreamed of having a place of her own, and in the summer of 2020, she was well on her way with a small brick and mortar inside the Dutchtown food hall. Sadly, her time there would be cut short, as she passed away in April of 2021, but her family is keeping her dreams alive every Saturday, running the counter so that they can ensure people remember the beloved matriarch's name. One taste of her quesabirria, which lives on through her relative's deft hands, and there is no way you could ever forget.
6. Creole with a Splash of Soul
Ronda Walker grew up cooking soul food alongside her father, always knowing she has both a knack and a passion for the craft, but never thinking she would make a career out of it. Instead, she spent years working in the health-care field before a major illness of her own would have her rethinking her life's path. Determined to pursue her passion, she opened Creole with a Splash (4353 Manchester Avenue, 314-349-2385) of Soul this year in the Grove, delivering some of the most delectable dishes to grace this fair city in recent memory.
7. Asador Del Sur
Maria Giamportone and Daniel Gonzalez had originally planned on opening a restaurant where they lived in Miami, but after visiting family in St. Louis and noticing the lack of traditional Latin American grills, they felt compelled to change their plans. Their wonderful restaurant, Asador Del Sur (7322 Manchester Road, Maplewood; 314-802-8587), represents their desire to recreate the experience of dining in their respective homes of Ecuador and Uruguay through some of the best steak and seafood you can find in the city. The food, coupled with a bright, chic atmosphere, Latin American wines and joyful service is a great reminder of just how transportative a well-thought-out restaurant can be.
8. O+O Pizza
When chef Mike Risk was running the kitchen at the Clover and the Bee, he took every opportunity to infuse the menu — especially at dinner time — with the sort of Italian cooking he'd been perfecting his entire career. With O+O Pizza (102 West Lockwood Avenue, Webster Groves; 314-721-5422), part of the Olive + Oak brand, he is now able to show all he can do with a dedicated storefront, one dazzling dish at a time. If you need evidence of how outstanding his cooking is, consider that St. Louis Blues captain Ryan O'Reilley loves the eggplant parmesan so much, he has it shipped regularly on dry ice to his parents in Canada. If that's not an endorsement, what is?
A St. Louis outpost of the famed Michelin-starred restaurant Don Alfonso 1890, Casa Don Alfonso (100 Carondelet Plaza, Clayton; 314-719-1496) brings the magic of the Amalfi Coast to the The Ritz-Carlton, St. Louis in Clayton. With outstanding southern Italian fare and a palatial dining room that positively drips in coastal Italian elegance, Casa Don Alfonso has quickly established itself as one of the city's essential Mediterranean restaurants.
10. Terror Tacos
Brothers Bradley Roach and Brian Roash wanted to create a different kind of vegan restaurant — one more steeped in metal and hardcore than the kumbaya hippie vibes typically found in plant-based eateries. They've done that in more with Terror Tacos' (3191 South Grand Boulevard, 314-260-9996) loud aesthetic; with exciting vegan takes on Southwestern and Mexican cuisine, the brothers are serving an in-your-face dining experience bursting with flavor — and redefining a genre in the process.
11. Timothy's the Restaurant
Partners Steve Manns, Timothy Metz and Sean Olson often found themselves lamenting the lack of traditional fine-dining options around town — so they decided to take matters into their own hands. Their Creve Coeur eatery, Timothy's the Restaurant (12710 Olive Boulevard, Creve Coeur; 314-786-5301), is an unapologetic love song to the sort of upscale dining that eschews bar towel napkins and Edison light bulbs in favor of a classic aesthetic. Anchored by Metz's expert cooking, this exciting new addition to the St. Louis restaurant scene proves that good food, service and atmosphere never goes out of style.
Tommy Andrew, also known as "Tommy Salami," needs a new name. You understand this once you bite into his outrageously smoky, impossibly luscious pastrami, one of the many delights on offer at his restaurant, Nomad (1221 Tamm Avenue, 314-696-2360). Located adjacent to Dogtown's Tamm Avenue Bar, this humble sandwich counter is anything but, serving the sort of casual fare that comes from a truly talented culinarian. Can we just call him "Tommy Pastrami" already?
It all started with a breakfast sandwich — a classic egg and bacon on griddled sourdough sprinkled with sea salt and drizzled with honey. That dish, known as the "Combo," took the Tower Grove Farmers Market by storm when Kounter Kulture's Chris Meyer and Mike Miller introduced it a couple of years ago, giving the pair an idea for a daytime restaurant that would create new opportunities for their restaurant family. That spot, Songbird (4476 Chouteau Avenue, 314-781-4344), is one of the city's most essential breakfast and lunch eateries, serving easily recognizable yet inspired dishes that provide the warm comfort you need to get you through your day.
Brothers Patrick and Spencer Clapp set out to bring St. Louis a taste of ethically sourced, specialty coffee from their home country, Honduras, but the Fox Park roastery has quickly turned into an essential destination for Central American fare. With a menu filled with such delights as empanadas, burritos, choripan and a Cuban sandwich that will knock your socks off, Coffeestamp (2511 South Jefferson Avenue, 314-797-8113) is dazzling at every turn.
15. Fire Chicken
Located in a shoebox of a building off Page Avenue in Overland, Fire Chicken (10200 Page Avenue, Overland; 314-551-2123) seems unassuming until you taste the food. Based loosely on traditional Korean fried chicken, Fire Chicken is the brainchild of husband and wife Min and Michelle Baik, two restaurant veterans who, after years of running restaurants focused on Japanese cuisine, are now proudly showing off their Korean culinary heritage. The restaurant's namesake dish, a sticky sweet and searing hot concoction of deep-fried boneless breaded chicken akin to the hot braised chicken you'd find at an American style Chinese restaurant, is something Min has been perfecting for years; noshing on this masterpiece, you can tell that time and care have paid off.
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