It was a very good year for the St. Louis food scene, if nowhere else. The year 2017 saw the city's chefs, bartenders, owners and restaurants staking their claims and finally coming into what they were meant to be. It also put St. Louis on the national map, pushed into the spotlight by two restaurants in the conversation for the best new restaurant in the entire country.
These places don't play it safe. One comes from a hometown son who realized that striking out on his own meant coming home and reclaiming the soil. The other took ownership of what it means to be a Mexican restaurant in 2017 America by brazenly throwing off preconceptions.
They weren't alone. The city also saw immigrant restaurateurs boldly gamble on Midwestern diners' willingness to embrace modern Chinese food and Bosnian chefs who, after years of seeing their cuisine fly under the radar, finally got the respect they deserve. A tenacious grocer and burger cook made it his mission to redefine the food system, while a James Beard Award-winning chef reclaimed the joy he felt in cooking.
We have a lot to look forward to in 2018 (including a handful of restaurants that opened too late to be reviewed and included in this list). But if there is any one thing the new guard can take away from the class of 2017, it's that knowing who you are and being fearless in showing it is the path to success. And it tastes pretty damn good too.
If you want to know why Vicia (4260 Forest Park Avenue, 314-553-9239) is the best restaurant in St. Louis, you have to look beyond the food, the hospitality and even the environs. All are, of course, impeccable. Chef Michael Gallina's mastery of flavor and texture can make you feel like you are eating a beet for the first time, even as, under his wife Tara Gallina's thoughtful direction, every last person on the staff treats your dining experience as if it is of the utmost, personal importance. Then there is the design, a light-filled room that feels modern and warm at the same time. All of these elements make Vicia great. What makes it the best can be summed up in a scene I witnessed on one of my visits. It was a busy dinner service, and the restaurant was bustling, but chef Gallina not only made time to meet with one of his purveyors, he called all the staff members he could find to gather around his chef table to examine and learn about their wares. It wasn't just his sous chef and line cooks who got in on the fun. He had servers, bartenders, servers' assistants and even a dishwasher there, empowering them with a sense of a shared ownership that, in turn, translates to the guest experience. There is national buzz about this restaurant; it's even a serious contender for USA Today's best new opening of 2017. If Vicia takes home the top prize, it's because the Gallinas have created more than just good food; they've created a culture.
With Nixta (1621 Tower Grove Avenue, 314-899-9000), restaurateur Ben Poremba and chef Tello Carreon did not just defy the cliche of what a Mexican restaurant should be; they basically created a culinary fusion never before seen. Playing around in the kitchen of Poremba's flagship Elaia, the Israeli restauranteur and the Mexico-born chef came to appreciate how beautifully Mediterranean and Mexican flavors work together. From that realization came Nixta, a tangentially Mexican restaurant that refuses to be pigeonholed by preconceptions. Just consider the one of the restaurant's most exciting dishes, the tlayuda, which pairs pomegranate molasses with guajillo chiles for a "Mexican Pizza" that is just as much Middle Eastern as it is Central American. Though he is no longer with the restaurant, much credit must be given to Carreon, who used the cuisine of his native land as a jumping off point for global culinary exploration. The flavors are riveting, and the restaurant pulsates with a sultry energy. It's no wonder the national press took notice of this thrilling spot.
If Gerard Craft's Niche made you feel like you had to sit up a little bit straighter in your seat, its successor, Sardella (7734 Forsyth Boulevard, Clayton; 314-773-7755), gives you permission to sink back into it. The difference is intentional, born of the James Beard Award winning chef's desire to shake off the heaviness he felt at his former flagship in favor of something lighter, breezier and more accessible. He's achieved that in Sardella, not just by breaking free of Niche's self- imposed hyper-local confines, but by giving diners, his staff and himself permission to have fun. You would have never sat in the old dining room for a burger, a whole roasted chicken or lasagna, but Sardella proves that you can have all those comforts while still enjoying the polish you'd expect from Craft and his team. "We open the restaurants we want to eat at," Craft said when he announced Sardella. It turns out, we want to eat there too.
4. Cate Zone
In the not-so-distant past, St. Louis diners had basically two options for Chinese food: The cloyingly sweet Americanized stuff that bears no resemblance to actual Chinese cuisine or the old guard traditional restaurants and dim sum spots that line Olive Boulevard. Recent years have seen a striking change to the Chinese culinary landscape as a crop of young, often first-time restaurateurs have given St. Louis a peek into what it's like to dine out today in the bustling metropolises of their homeland. Bing Bing, Corner 17, Yummy 17 and last year's honorable mention Tai Ke have all disrupted our ideas of Chinese food, and perhaps none more so than Cate Zone Chinese Cafe (8146 Olive Boulevard, University City; 314-738-9923), the quizzically named eatery from Daniel Ma and Quincy Lin. Both had toiled away at Americanized spots after first moving to town from China, dreaming that they could one day open a fiercely authentic yet thoroughly modern place of their own. They've achieved that in Cate Zone, with a menu of flawlessly executed and complexly spiced dishes that run the gamut of Chinese regional cuisine. One taste of the mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorn-coated "Hot Crisp Fish" will have you realize what St. Louis has been missing.
5. Nudo House
When they started their journey into the world of ramen over three years ago, Qui Tran and Marie-Anne Velasco weren't just looking to develop a good bowl of broth and noodles: They were on a mission to bring to St. Louis the absolute best. Their quest took them across the country, from New York to Los Angeles, where they learned from top chefs, including famed Japanese ramen chef Shigetoshi Nakamura. After teaching them his craft, he looked at them and said, "I have no doubt you will be successful." The man knew what he was talking about, as Nudo House (11423 Olive Boulevard, Creve Coeur; 314-274-8046) has set the standard for ramen in St. Louis — if not the entire Midwest. St. Louis waited what seemed like an eternity to taste the duo's classic pork tonkotsu, schmaltz-laden "Hebrew Hammer" and shockingly luscious vegetarian "Shroomed Out"; Tran and Velasco show that good things come to those who wait.
Turn the page for five more of the year's best restaurant openings
6. Polite Society
Polite Society (1923 Park Avenue, 314-325-2553) is less about good food, killer cocktails, attentive service and stylish digs —though those are all there — than it is about the feeling you get when you walk into a place with all the elements in perfect harmony. Restaurateurs Brian Schmitz and Jonathan Schoen recognized the need for a gathering place filled with warmth, hospitality and thoughtfulness, and that translates into an experience that makes you feel like you are an invited guest in their home. Kudos go to chef Thomas Futrell for being able to take eclectic food concepts and make them seem cohesive with near-perfect execution — if you haven't had his best-in-class shrimp and grits you are missing one of the best dishes of 2017. However delicious the food, though, Polite Society's big draw is that you walk out feeling a little better than when you walked in. You may not be able to put your finger on exactly why, but that's not because nothing stood out; it's because everything came together.
7. Balkan Treat Box
It may have taken two decades, but this year, St. Louis finally woke up to what a culinary gem it has in its Bosnian community. Granted, there have been successful Bosnian restaurants before 2017 — the bounty of this year only exists because of the Grbics of the world, who paved the way by introducing the city to Bosnian food. Yet this year, thanks in large part to a new generation of chefs, the light switch flipped on and cevapi is now a household word. Though many bright spots played a part in this phenomenon, the brightest was Balkan Treat Box (@BalkanTreatBox), a humble food truck with a tiny menu that serves up authentic Balkan cuisine with a hip, modern air about it. Owned by Loryn and Edo Nalic, Balkan Treat Box celebrates food from throughout the region, including doner kebabs, cevapi on wood-fired somun bread and a show-stopping Turkish pide filled with a mild Turkish cheese and mozzarella blend. Balkan Treat Box has become so popular, it has a legion of fans, constant lines and regularly sells out of its wares. Clearly, it's the taste we've all been waiting for.
8. Mac's Local Eats
For the patrons of the Dogtown watering hole Tamm Avenue Grill, a simple counter offering burger and fries would have sufficed as the bar's food-service option. And in some ways, that's exactly what they got in Chris "Mac" McKenzie's Mac's Local Eats (1227 Tamm Avenue, 314-479-8155). However, as someone who has made it his life's work to educate consumers on humanely raised, sustainable meat consumption, McKenzie shows with his no-frills sandwich counter what you can do good ol' greasy bar food without sacrificing your ethics. When McKenzie talks about his food, the phrase that he repeatedly uses is "respect for the animal," which he does by transforming a pig into his "Naked Pig," a sandwich of sous vide pork tenderloin the color and texture of rose petals, or a cow into his classic diner-style griddle burger. As McKenzie says, the animals just taste happy. Noshing on them with a side of McKenzie's trademark Red Hot Riplet seasoned "Rip Fries" makes us pretty happy, too.
9. Pizza Head
On its surface, Pizza Head (3196 South Grand Boulevard, 314-266-5400), with its punk rock ethos and its middle finger to anyone who would dare to tell the kitchen what kind of tomatoes to use in its sauce, could not be more different from chef/owner Scott Sandler's freshman effort, Pizzeoli, a temple to Neapolitan pizza perfection. Yet even though Sandler has left behind the rigid confines of Neapolitan style, his passion for making the best pizza possible remains unyielding. This time around, he's tackled the quintessential New York slice in all of its monstrously-sized, greasy glory, hitting the nail so precisely on the head that even the most hard-to-please New Yorker would approve. The classic cheese and (shhh, vegan) pepperoni glistens with that characteristic orange-hued grease that stains the bottom of the paper plate on which it's served. Then there's the white pizza, which dazzles with the simplicity of ricotta, garlic and olive oil. Sandler may have gone from Michelangelo to Banksy, but he proves his art is world-class, no matter what the style.
10. The Stellar Hog
When Alex Cupp took over the beloved south city dive Super's Bungalow, he knew he had a delicate balance to strike. On one hand, he wanted to honor the neighborhood bar's nearly century-old legacy, making sure any polish he added didn't shine up the joint so bright as to make it unrecognizable. On the other, he had big plans for the food service, his sights set on turning the kitchen into a bastion of fine barbecue. Somehow, he found the perfect balance, maintaining Super's character even while smoking up some of the best brisket and ribs in the area under the name the Stellar Hog (5623 Leona Street, 314-481-8448). On any given night, you'll find the bar packed with old-timers throwing back draughts of Busch to a soundtrack of Van Halen, only now what they're washing down with those cold ones is some of the most sublime brisket, ribs and pulled pork in town. Coming from the Pappy's family, where he learned from the aces of St. Louis 'cue, Cupp knows a thing or two about barbecue. That he can showcase his talents inside the legendary Super's is about as good of a homage to the place as you can get.
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