Known for baseball, Budweiser and something called toasted ravioli, St. Louis may not be on your list of must-visit foodie destinations. But it should be: a group of up-and-coming chefs are pushing the boundaries of Midwestern cooking, and there's a budding cocktail and craft-beer scene to boot.
You simply can't go to St. Louis without eating at Niche, a New American restaurant overseen by five-time James Beard Award nominee Gerard Craft. Choose between a tasting or four-course menu comprised of mix-and-match dishes. Standouts include Dia’s cheese bread, puffs of Brazilian bread that pull apart like fresh mozzarella; eggshells filled with lemon custard, shiitake mushrooms and bonito caviar; and hen of the woods mushrooms served over smoked peaches and corn purée seasoned with chorizo.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Farmhaus, a cozy cottage of an establishment specializing in, yes, farm-fresh fare prepared by chef Kevin Willmann. Expect options like sweet-potato nachos piled high with Hook’s Creamery blue cheese and housemade bacon lardoons, porchetta bao and "breakfast" (roasted pork belly, maple link, cornflour blinis and butter-poached egg). Willmann’s refined side comes out with smoked bruschetta — roasted cherry tomatoes on cherrywood-smoked ricotta with pickled red onion and balsamic.
As far as cocktails go, some of St. Louis's best can be found at Blood & Sand, a members-only establishment that also serves a menu from a former Roberta's chef. Membership runs $165 per year and is currently capped at 1,700 with a 600-deep waiting list. Fortunately, all first-time visitors need to do is make a reservation by phone. The creative cocktail list includes options like My Pen & Pad (Jamaican pot-stilled rum, four-year rum, lime juice, Averna Amaro, Angostura and chocolate bitters) plus dishes such as roasted onions stuffed with black truffles and served with fried onion rings.
For a less exclusive experience, Taste emphasizes food and cocktail pairings. ibations run from the classics to more modern options like the tart Wasted Youth (Small’s gin, Petal and Thorn, Aperol, Youthberry tea-infused honey and lemon) and barrel-aged Negronis. Counter the booze with a order of rich bacon-fat-fried cornbread. A wood-planked ceiling and wood shelves loaded with liquor bottles gives the watering hole an intimate feel.
Perennial Artisan Ales, favored for their Belgian-style beers infused with delicate flavors like Midwestern peaches, blackberries and honey, operates out of a 14,000-sq.-ft. St. Louis brewery and taproom (plans are in place to expand into a larger, more centrally located facility). It serves seven of its own draft beers plus one guest tap (right now, it's Goose Island’s Sofie) as well as a menu of beer-friendly food. Tours are led on Tuesdays at 2 PM, and every Thursday the bar taps a new, more experimental beer. Keep an eye out for barrel-aged beers from Side Project, a new brewery opening soon..
Urban Chestnut Brewing Company is like a museum dedicated to the art and science of craft brewing. The new 70,000-sq.-ft. facility acts as a production brewery, bottling plant, taproom and restaurant. Guests at the bar gaze up at a brewhouse outfitted with a catwalk and portholes, while tours offer a peek into the former Anheuser-Busch brewers’ process. The majority of the brewery’s Revolution Series (American-style beers) are produced here, while many of the Reverence Series, smaller-batch European-style beers, are brewed at their first brewery with an adjoining beer garden.
Scott Carey and his motley crew would be equally at home on a pirate ship as they are at Sump coffee shop, if its skull-and-crossbones-themed flag are anything to go by. The off-the-beaten-path shop is a destination both for its reclaimed wood coffee bar and the single-origin coffees that it serves. You won't find sugar in this establishment, and milk is reserved for specific coffee drinks like dirty chai lattes and cortados. You'll find an educated staff happy to nerd out over their selection of in-house roasted coffees. If you find yourself there on a Monday, be treated to R&D day when barrel-aged slow-brewed coffee, nitrogen-tapped coffee and coffee tonics are offered.
The group of young, ambitious bakers at Strange Donuts are making their mark on the sweet scene with pop-culture-influenced flavors such as Bart’s Revenge (a chocolate cake donut covered in chocolate icing and Butterfinger pieces). Things get even weirder with their rotating chef collaborations, which has produced options like The Takeout, a soy sauce and chicken stock donut topped with sweet-and-sour sauce, chow mein and scallions made with chef Brian Moxey formerly of Pastaria. Buffalo chicken, hot dogs and pulled pork have also made appearances. The shop recently announced plans for a second location opening later this year.
The hottest name on St. Louis’ culinary scene right now is Ben Poremba. The Israeli-born chef is rapidly growing his restaurant empire that includes Olio, a wine bar filling the refurbished Standard Oil station with music from a record player; Elaia, its fine-dining counterpart serving a tasting menu in the historic 1890s house next door; La Patisserie Chouquette, a French patisserie specializing in edible couture; and a forthcoming chicken shack called Old Standard. Brunch is an under-the-radar option at 30-seat Olio, decorated with Poremba’s antiques market finds and serving Mediterranean-inspired small plates such as beet bruschetta, egg salad tartine and chicken-fried sweetbreads with a poached egg and Belgian waffle.
To beat the line at Bogart’s Smokehouse, a sister spot to world-famous Pappy’s, it's best to arrive early. Even at 10:30 AM, you will likely be taunted by the smell of slow-cooked meat while waiting in line outside the small BBQ shack. Once inside, it's a wonderland of Memphis-style ribs, pulled pork, sliced brisket and smoked pastrami. Served on a quintessential paper-lined tray with sides in Styrofoam cups, the feast of meat is difficult to beat. Highlights include melt-in-your-mouth burnt ends and glazed ribs along with pit beans that are cooked below the smoked brisket, allowing the meat drippings to fall into the pot. Grab a sweet tea and sample all of the sauces, from Sweet Maegan Ann to spicy Voodoo Sauce.
If you're looking for dinner with a view of the St. Louis Arch, then the answer is Cielo at the Four Seasons. Located on the Mississippi River, the restaurant overlooks a rooftop pool, making it easy to forget that you are in the heart of the Midwest. The modern Italian menu covers breakfast, lunch and dinner with dishes such as compressed watermelon salad with Grand Marnier, cardamom, ricotta and porchetta, as well as brunch complemented by a bottomless Bloody Mary bar. At night, cocktails take the same approach as food — unpretentious but superbly executed with unique ingredients such as duck-fat scotch and baked-apple bitters.
Nearby, a more historic hotel hides a selection of culinary gems. The Cheshire Hotel is home to Basso, another Italian establishment with a more rustic approach. The basement gastropub specializes in wood-fired pizzas served at the stainless steel bar or in one of the cozy booths. Opposite the bar, long wood tables sit next to the open kitchen, where chef Patrick Connolly prepares crispy meatballs and steak Fiorentina. The hotel also holds a more upscale restaurant with a 1,700-bottle-deep wine list, as well as The Market, a casual cafe, and Fox & Hounds, a cocktail bar reminiscent of an English hunting lodge complete with a stone fireplace and extensive whiskey list.