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The good word has been spreading about the best St. Louis restaurants. It seems not a month goes by without one Food Network program or another highlighting St. Louis’ top eats. Praise has been effusive from the upper echelons of the culinary world, as well. Three St. Louis chefs—whom all specialize in market-fresh creative cuisine—were semifinalists in 2009 for the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Midwest. Among them was Gerard Craft of Niche, whose envelope-pushing fare has set the St. Louis culinary scene on fire and racked up a host of honors in the process. What a change from 20 years ago, when fine dining options in St. Louis were largely limited to either steak or Italian food. Those are still found in abundance; a meal on The Hill (St. Louis’ traditional Italian neighborhood) remains a fantastic—and usually fail-safe—option. And there are some St. Louis specialties that never grow old: toasted ravioli, St. Louis-style pizza (with a thin cracker-like crust and provel cheese), pork steaks, gooey butter cake and frozen custard. However, now, in addition to the old standards, there’s top-quality Vietnamese, Thai and Middle Eastern fare in the South Grand neighborhood, and a burgeoning Chinatown along Olive Boulevard in University City. Perhaps the best part of all: Midwest prices. It’s easy to find a good meal for under $15. Even Niche and other top-tier restaurants offer $35 three-course set menus, which would go for double or triple the price if the best St. Louis restaurants were in Chicago or New York.
Neighborhood: Benton Park Price: Expensive
Gerard Craft has certainly made his niche in St. Louis. His arrival from Salt Lake City in 2005 electrified the dining scene, as the adventurous chef-owner introduced his envelope-pushing creative cuisine and transformed a shell of a building in historic Benton Park into one of the hottest and best St. Louis restaurants. The accolades that have followed—Food & Wine Magazine Best New Chef, two nominations for the James Beard Foundation Award—have made Niche’s 42 seats even more coveted. Craft’s artistry is in taking humble ingredients, particularly overlooked cuts of pork, and elevating them to fine fare. In particular, his Greenwood Farms pork belly—with faro, comte, strawberries and turnips—is an amazingly tender and succulent dish and an absolute must-try. If the Bistronomy set dinner is on offer, seize the opportunity to try three courses for $35. Craft has described Bistronomy as his return to his original mission to share affordable, unpretentious, modern cuisine in a fun setting. Should Niche be booked solid, check out Craft’s two other outlets: the tiny Taste by Niche next door, serving small plates and creative cocktails; and Brasserie by Niche in the Central West End. email@example.com
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Neighborhood: Clayton Price: Expensive
Good seafood in the Midwest? Impossible, you say. But Oceano Bistro proves naysayers wrong, serving innovative seafood fare that’s fresh in every respect. The Missouri stream rainbow trout and Charleston soft shell blue crabs reflect executive chef Jon Lowe’s roots; this Kansas City native refined his upscale comfort food at The Charleston Grill (in South Carolina) before returning to his home state. His sides and sauces complement and amplify the flavors masterfully, especially the white truffle beurre fondue that accompanies the George’s Bank scallops. The main dining room—divided up by columns and graceful low arches—can get loud, especially as Clayton businessmen arrive for their power lunches. Ask for a table in the glass atrium, instead, a quieter and more romantic room for the many couples who choose Oceano as the best St. Louis restaurant for their date night.
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Neighborhood: Downtown Price: Expensive
There’s no doubt that Tony’s is St. Louis’ most revered restaurant. Since the Bommarito family opened this old-school dining landmark in downtown St. Louis in 1946, this upscale, formal Italian restaurant (jacket required) has racked up as many honors as it has bottles in its vast wine cellar (which itself is a perennial Wine Spectator Award of Excellence winner). Devoted patrons (us included) rave about the veal dishes and the beef tenderloin with foie gras and port wine demiglaze, and they swoon over the highly attentive service from the tuxedo-clad wait staff. That said, the staff’s attitude can come across as arrogant rather than proud, and that you pay the steep tab for the restaurant’s past glories rather than any current ones.
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Neighborhood: The Hill Price: Moderate
Cunetto’s is one of the kings of The Hill. We’re talking traditional red-sauce Italian food to die for here, and the generous quantities come neither at the expense of quality nor at great cost. For starters, sample two St. Louis specialties: toasted ravioli, and a provel cheese-topped iceberg house salad. Among the 33 pastas on the menu, the linguine with clams and cannelloni in creamy red sauce are perennial favorites. Be forewarned: This top St. Louis restaurant does not take reservations, which can mean a long wait (up to an hour at times) for a table at dinner time. Closed Sundays; no lunch on Saturday.
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Neighborhood: Lafayette Square Price: Moderate
Drawing inspiration from Tuscany and Northern California, this upscale wine country bistro has won over local diners and the national press with its rustic, market-fresh fare. The obligatory heavier Tuscan game dishes, such as boar ragout, balance nicely with the lighter California cuisine, like poached pear-and-fig pizza and the inventive eleven eleven BLT, with bourbon apples and Maine lobster. Wine Director Scott Gaghan knows his vast and ever-changing cellar (a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence winner) inside and out. Each Thursday he selects a choice California wine usually only available by the bottle to serve by the glass with the California Trio set dinner, a bargain at $35. The interior serves up a feast for the eyes as satisfying as the one on the plate making Eleven Eleven Mississippi one of the best places to eat in St. Louis. The oversized u-shaped wooden bar and fiery display kitchen complement the warm, brick multi-level interior of this transformed former shoe factory in the popular Lafayette Square neighborhood. This size 1111 shoe definitely fits. Closed Sundays.
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Neighborhood: The Delmar Loop Price: Moderate
It doesn’t take a mathematical genius to understand Pi Pizzeria’s winning formula: originality. Owners Chris Sommers and Frank Uible eschewed the usual thin, cracker-like crust of St. Louis-style pizza and the deep-dish Chicago-style pie for something new. Their crust recipe—a chewy cornmeal creation—comes from a San Francisco restaurant, and the inventive topping combinations come directly from their fertile imaginations. Try the Central West End, a thin-crust pizza whose toppings include goat cheese, arugula and locally made Volpi prosciutto. Or consider the Berkeley, a veggie deep-dish with Portobello mushrooms and kalamata olives among the mix. Open just two years, Pi has developed a huge following—including President Obama, who asked Sommers to whip up 20 pies for his family and staff at the White House. Pi now has two more branches (in Kirkwood and the Central West End) but you can still expect a wait at all three; reservations aren’t accepted at this top St. Louis restaurant.
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Neighborhood: The Hill Price: Budget
Devotees of this family-run Sicilian deli counter on The Hill have lively arguments over which of the 23 sandwiches on the board is the best. Is it the Gorgonzola Dip? The Italian Tuna? Or Nana’s Favorite, a salsiccia topped with roast beef, provel cheese and red sauce? There are no losers in this debate, for every one of the oversized sandwiches served on freshly-baked bread is a crowd pleaser making Adriana's one of the best places to eat in St. Louis. There usually is a crowd at this lunch-only destination, but the line at the counter moves quickly. (You should, however, definitely stake a claim on a table ahead of time.) If you’re not in a sandwich mood, sample their St. Louis-style pizza or a slice of gooey butter cake, another St. Louis tradition. Closed Sundays.
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Neighborhood: Midtown Price: Budget
Like Memphis and Kansas City, St. Louis has a long and storied barbecue tradition. Pappy’s does the city proud, serving brisket, tender pulled-pork sandwiches and meaty ribs (dry-rubbed with 18 secret ingredients) that are smoked over apple and cherry woods for four to 14 hours to perfection. Pick from three sauces, served on the side: Pappy’s Original, Sweet Baby Jane or Holly’s Hot Sauce. Owner Mike Emerson stakes the restaurant’s reputation on freshness; nothing is reheated. If the long lines of customers have already devoured a full day’s share of ribs by noon, sorry; you’ll just have to order something else from the menu. So get there early to ensure your first choice. And if you’re able to carry out, call ahead with your order: You’ll get to skip the long line at the register.
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Neighborhood: South Grand Price: Budget
Long before pho became a culinary phad (um, fad), Pho Grand was already a magnet for diners seeking authentic Vietnamese food in St. Louis. For more than 20 years, the restaurant’s winning combination of delicious food and cheap prices has made it a cornerstone of the South Grand neighborhood’s multicultural dining scene. The broad menu—nearly 120 dishes—includes pho, of course, six varieties of this traditional beef noodle soup. The garlic- and onion-grilled bo luc lac, or shaking beef, is a top seller, as are the fresh bi cuon, or summer rolls. The fast service sometimes borders on rushed; the no-reservations policy ensures there’s usually someone waiting to take your table. But do linger long enough to enjoy a cup of café sua da, a strong brew of iced Vietnamese coffee. Closed Tuesdays.
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Sweetie Pie's at the Mangrove
Neighborhood: Forest Park Price: Budget
Owner Robbie Montgomery used to sing backup for Ike & Tina Turner. Now everyone sings her praises for the fantastic soul food she serves up at Sweetie Pie’s. A full meal—a meat, two sides and a drink—will set you back a mere $10 to $13. The fried chicken and macaroni and cheese are hands-down favorites, especially when washed down with a glass of sweet tea. But there are lots of other gut-busting Southern favorites to choose from on the cafeteria-style serving line: catfish and smothered pork chops, okra and black-eyed peas, cornbread, and peach cobbler for dessert. You'll have a hard time deciding on just one thing to eat at Sweetie Pie's, truly one of the best St. Louis restaurants. It’s open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but closed on Mondays.
Neighborhood: The Hill Price: Budget
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The ice-cream cone made its American debut at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis; since then the city has taken its ice cream very seriously. Therefore, no visit to St. Louis would be complete without a stop at Ted Drewes Frozen Custard, a local tradition since 1931. Custard is richer and has a higher fat content than ice cream; at Ted Drewes, the staff hands customers their orders upside down to show off just how thick and rich they are. The custard comes in only one flavor—vanilla—but can be garnished with 30 different toppings and served either as a concrete (think of a Dairy Queen blizzard) or as a sundae. Top-sellers include the Cardinal Sin, with tart cherries and hot fudge, and the Terramizzou, with chocolate and pistachios. It’s a splurge well worth the 20-minute drive southwest of downtown and one of the best places to eat in St. Louis if you have a hankering for something sweet. Don’t be daunted if you see long lines when you pull up; they move very quickly. Closed January-mid February.
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