RFT's Best of Food & Drink in St. Louis 2022 [PHOTOS]
Mask mandates may be a thing of the past, dining rooms are at full capacity and diners have come back out in full force. If you’re on the receiving end of the service industry, you’d be tempted to think that the pandemic is over with restaurants basking in a Roaring ’20s-style resurgence fueled by the public’s unquenchable thirst for merriment. But while it’s true that the demand side of the equation has not simply recovered but grown even stronger since before the COVID-19 outbreak, things have not returned to normal for the industry itself — not even close.
Staff shortages, which have stressed nearly every restaurant to the breaking point, signal a long-time-coming systemic reckoning wherein service-industry employees are pushing back against an old-fashioned and, at worst, abusive culture. Supply-chain breakdowns mean that restaurants — especially immigrant-owned mom-and-pop shops — have a difficult time sourcing what they need to run their businesses. Price increases are being disproportionately absorbed by restaurants, which know that they need to charge $22 for cheeseburgers but equally know their customers won’t stomach the cost. Add to this a stressed and exhausted dining public that pushes the limits of the now-outdated adage “the customer is always right,” and you get a situation where many in the industry are asking themselves why in the hell they are even in this business.
The following places remind us why. In looking at the names that make up the Best of St. Louis Food and Drink for 2022, what’s striking is not a particular dish, a well-balanced cocktail or a stunning view but the sheer grit demonstrated by the people behind each of these places. That they have the strength to persevere in the face of such difficulty is more than impressive — it’s the most honest form of hospitality there is.
*Due to the volatility in the restaurant industry, please always call or check a restaurant’s website before going.
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Jack Nolen’s (2501 South Ninth Street) owner Jim Grindstaff doesn’t have a phone in his Soulard establishment. What he does have is the city’s most quintessential smashburger, a stunning specimen created after he traveled the country on a quest to discover what makes for a delicious burger patty. He paid attention to the key details — the ideal blend of beef, the perfect melty cheese, the right type of bun — and the culmination of that effort is Jack Nolen’s double cheeseburger, a magical smashburger that is a perfection of the form. The key is the beef mix, a blend of brisket, chuck and short rib that is so well marbled it remains buttery and tender throughout when smashed on the flattop, save for the crispy edges that are like a beefy lace. Gooey American cheese seeps into every crevice, and a simple garnish of lettuce, tomato, onion and dill pickle slices crown the beauty before it’s tucked into a soft potato bun. That you can enjoy such a classic while bellied up to the bar at such a quintessential watering hole only adds to the mystique. It’s a good thing he doesn’t have a phone; it would be ringing off the hook.
When Basil India (3183 South Grand Boulevard, 314-428-9711) opened in April 2022, the restaurant had big shoes to fill: those of beloved South Grand mainstay Basil Spice. But any concern among south-city foodies was quickly dispelled the moment they tried chef Madan Chhetri’s crispy noodle salad, chili paneer or nasi goreng (an Indonesian rice, tofu and shrimp dish). The fare is outstanding. Chhetri is a nationally recognized chef known for innovative Indian and Indo-Chinese cuisine. For anyone new to Indian food, start with Basil India’s red curry or the chicken tikka masala. A side of flaky paratha is the perfect complement to both dishes. Explore the menu and expand your taste buds from there. Wash it down with a mango smoothie or a Thai tea.
Bowood by Niche
Less a place to go for a bite to eat than an opportunity to bask in nature’s splendor, Bowood by Niche (4605 Olive Street, 314-454-6868) is a true culinary oasis. Located inside the stunningly beautiful, glass-enclosed Bowood Farms garden center in the Central West End, the restaurant feels like the culinary gem of the Garden of Eden. In such a lovely setting, you’d expect the atmosphere to shine more than the food, but thanks to chef Koda Williams, it’s the opposite. The talented Williams was chosen to head the restaurant’s culinary operations after his boss, Niche Food Group’s Gerard Craft, took over the space last year. On Williams’ watch, the restaurant’s breakfast menu has become the food equivalent of a warm hug filled with so much love it transcends the traditional daytime-fare playbook. Familiar items such as eggs Benedict become transcendent in Williams’ capable hands; flawlessly poached eggs, prosciutto, brown-butter hollandaise and toasted semolina bread elevate the brunch classic, while rustic, blueberry-flecked buttermilk pancakes provide easy morning comfort. Even a dish as humble as oatmeal is revelatory, served in a deep-blue Le Creuset and topped with brown sugar, apples, dried and jammed fruit, almonds, almond milk and cultured butter. Like all of Bowood’s breakfast fare, it’s a dish worthy of its gorgeous digs.
Nearly 40 years ago, the Prapaisilp family opened their South Grand restaurant the King and I, introducing St. Louis diners to Thai food and cementing themselves as one of the city’s most beloved restaurants. In 2019, they channeled that success into Chao Baan (4087 Chouteau Avenue #5, 314-925-8250), a deeply personal regional Thai restaurant that represents who they are as a family. Owner Shayn Prapaisilp says Chao Baan’s combination of Thai dishes only exists because of his parents; his father hails from the Malaysian-inflected south, while his mother is a native of the northern part of the country, which borders Laos. As he tells it, the two areas’ culinary styles are as different as those of Miami and the Pacific Northwest, but at Chao Baan, they coexist beautifully and offer a regional approach to Thai cuisine unlike any other in the area. Prapaisilp notes that a meal at Chao Baan is a window into a meal at his family’s home dining-room table — we’re lucky to be invited.
If we could marry a slider, we would race to the altar with Tasha Smith’s at Burger 809 (1821 Cherokee Street, 314-809-5959). Gone are the days of gladly suffering through a White Castle belly-bomber: We have entered a blissful utopia of pretzel and toasted buns. Smith’s sliders are not simple culinary craft — they are works of art that belong in the Louvre. A wide variety of snack-sized burgers are available, and every single one melts in your mouth. Smith takes it a step further by also making each one memorable — you’ll walk out wondering the next time you’ll be able to come back. Seriously, we dream about these sliders. And you will, too.
In the summer of 2021, husband and wife Sean Lee and Erica Park opened Chicken Seven (6312 South Grand Boulevard, 314-354-6349) in a former bar in the city’s Carondelet neighborhood with the goal of bringing the Korean fried chicken and street-food experience to St. Louis. It’s been a struggle. From finding themselves stymied in their efforts to get a liquor license to being harassed by their neighbors (don’t even think about parking in the adjacent apartment building’s lot), the pair have faced adversity at just about every turn. Miraculously, they haven’t let it stop them from turning out the gold standard of Korean fried chicken. Lee’s bird has a coating that’s as crunchy as a kettle-cooked potato chip but also impossibly light, wrapping the searing-hot meat in a layer of savory flavor so crisp you can hear someone bite into a drumstick from across the room. Alone, it is magical, but Lee’s sauces, like a honey soy garlic or sweet chili yum yum sauce, push it over the edge. The chicken alone is worth a visit, but Chicken Seven also dazzles with snacks such as the Korean corn dog, which is like the offspring of a mozzarella stick and a cinnamon-sugar doughnut, and the SDSD, a glorious hot-dog-topped sticky-rice dish paired with yum yum sauce. That the parks can continue to put out such good food in the midst of adversity is a testament to their talent and tenacity.
Earlier this year, a social media influencer felt firsthand the ferocity with which the St. Louis restaurant community comes to the defense of its own when he dragged Corner 17 (6623 Delmar Boulevard, University City; 314-727-2402) online after the restaurant refused to give him free food. The telling thing about the incident is not only the strength of our civic pride but that Corner 17 is such a beloved spot people were willing to come to its defense. If you’ve dined at this Delmar Loop eatery, you understand why. Known for its hand-pulled noodles, Corner 17 offers an expansive menu of delectable delights, like cumin lamb, a wide range of bao and dumplings, and twice-cooked pork belly that is positively life-changing. Add to this a wonderful selection of bubble tea and it’s clear why everyone in town has its back.
Best Fast Food
While working as a one-man show at his food counter Eat DuckBill (4501 Manchester Avenue, no phone), it’s not uncommon for owner Grant Heman to get error messages on his point-of-sale system alerting him of duplicate orders. Silly point-of-sale. Were his computer a sentient being, it would know that the reason the same customers keep reupping on his signature Chooch’s popcorn chicken is because one order is never enough. Heman may be serving humble bar snacks out of the popular watering hole Platypus, but he puts the same care into his food as you’d see in a high-end establishment. Crispy tofu, roasted cauliflower, caramelized Brussels sprouts and hand-cut fries are all outstanding noshes, but it’s Heman’s popcorn chicken that makes this food window utterly transcendent. Inspired by his daughter, Chandler, who he lovingly refers to as Chooch, his popcorn chicken is perfection, made from chicken thighs that he butchers himself and then brines before coating them in a seasoned flour and dunking them in the fryer. Paired with one of his mouth-watering housemade sauces, it’s such a perfect snack food you understand why people keep coming back for more.
Best Neighborhood Restaurant
When Tony Collida and Jaimee Stang opened Grand Pied (3137 Morgan Ford Road, no phone) in August of last year, they envisioned an entirely different place than what the restaurant has morphed into. Originally conceived of as the food part of a bar-restaurant shared concept, Collida and Stang had to pivot when the bar side of the operation shuttered. That change created uncertainty for the pair, but over time, they saw their situation as an opportunity to create a restaurant on their terms. Since the beginning of the year, Collida and Stang have repositioned Grand Pied as a cozy neighborhood spot, focusing on brunch all day and easy comfort-food dishes that are approachable yet show off Collida’s undeniable talent. His fried chicken, dirty grits, beignets and pork steaks are the sort of country-inflected comfort you’d find on your grandma’s table. But no dish showcases Collida’s culinary prowess better than his pancakes. These fluffy wonders, which are like a marriage of pancakes and flan, are so fluffy and creamy they jiggle when set down on the table. Grand Pied may not be the restaurant its owners thought it would be, but it turned out to be the restaurant we all need.
J. Devoti Trattoria
J. Devoti Trattoria (5100 Daggett Avenue, 314-773-5553) may be an Italian restaurant on the Hill, but it is anything but a “Hill Italian restaurant.” Instead of Provel-covered, red-sauce pastas and sweet vinaigrette-saturated salads, chef and owner Anthony Devoti stays true to the way they do it in the old country, offering a menu that changes every day to reflect the best of what’s available from local farms. Ever since he opened his former restaurant, Five Bistro, in 2006, Devoti has been quietly turning out some of the best dishes in the area — elegant yet approachable, impeccably executed yet unfussy, his food is a master class in farm-to-table dining. Whether it’s a pizza topped with housemade sausage, handmade ricotta and mushroom ravioli, or Devoti’s legendary pork and beef burger that should be brought up in conversation as the town’s best cheeseburger, J. Devoti delights at every turn. Add to this a thoughtful, dignified kids’ menu that tells you you’re welcome to enjoy a great meal in a lovely dining room with the littles, and you have a perfect restaurant that can be as family friendly as it is a romantic spot for date night. It doesn’t get any more Italian than that.