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Arch Madness

St. Louis's deeply rooted entrepreneurial dining scene makes it the Midwest city to beat right now
Photo: Dennis Tangney Jr./Getty Images

The year 1904 was a banner year for St. Louis. The Missouri city hosted both the Olympics and the World's Fair. Its famous (and free) zoo and museums sprouted in Forest Park. Meet Me in St. Louis was still 40 years away, but no one needed the Judy Garland film to get in the Show Me State mind-set. One thing that wasn't of note, however, was the food.

Fast-forward 100 years, and famed restaurateur Danny Meyer, a St. Louis native, admits now that the state of St. Louis's food scene still wasn't headlining news. Sure, there were "highlights": sweet barbecue ribs, toasted (read: fried) ravioli and born-by-happy-accident gooey butter cake. Even the pizza was cause for alarm. Love-it-or-hate-it St. Louis-style pizza has a matzo-like crust, sweet sauce and controversial Provel cheese that NPR's Alan Greenblatt equated to "chewing on a candle that's lit at the other end."

For all that it lacked in restaurant buzz, St. Louis made up for it with hospitality, Meyer says: "It knew how to love you so much that you forgot the food was only OK." And while the native son brought that hospitality-first notion to New York, there's still an enormous pride in what grows and is made in the Midwestern city, which has led to an entrepreneur-led dining scene worthy of a national spotlight.

Tamara Keefe | Photos: Greg Rannells

Tamara Keefe will be the first to tell you she came "kicking and screaming" to St. Louis 10 years ago. She's now the owner of Clementine's Naughty and Nice Creamery, a microcreamery not only stormed by locals but loved around the country—she ships at least 15,000 packages a year. But before she built a dream ice cream shop on patent-pending boozy flavors and gooey butter cake ice cream, she was working in the corporate world and living in Southern California. It didn't take long for her to come around to the city: "Within my first six months, I found my first true love. It's St. Louis, and I'll never leave."

Her venture's success was in part due to the low cost of living, and its origin as a food truck before committing to a brick-and-mortar space, but the people themselves had just as much to do with it. "The city wants independents," Keefe says, which has led to a boom in small businesses. When I mentioned how long it took for me to spot a McDonald's, she said that's by design: The city's local representatives yield their governing power over occupancy permits with a mind toward small businesses. City neighborhoods won't allow fast-food chains. "St. Louisans love independents," she says. "I could never have followed my dreams in any other city."

Nathaniel Reid, chef and owner at his eponymous bakery, feels similarly. "People just have this attitude that they're going to do it themselves," he says. He certainly did, building the shop from scratch with his father. The French-trained chef has been named Pastry Chef of the Year, led the Ritz-Carlton pastry kitchen and cooked in a three-Michelin-star restaurant, but Reid just hopes to be his neighborhood's go-to bakery.

His kouign-amann recently received national attention (I watched as it quickly sold out), but Reid puts exquisite detail and focus into every creation. His domed, multilayered confections stand out, like the salted caramel Amber with local pecans. Some pastries take upward of two days to make; I can confirm they take fewer than two minutes to take down.

Photo: Nathaniel Reid Bakery via Facebook

This highly Midwestern can-do spirit doesn't mean there's no teamwork involved. Often, these successful businesses are a family affair. That's the case at Grace Meat + Three, run by Rick and Elisa Lewis, who built the restaurant with their family's help. Rick was previously the chef at Quincy Street Bistro (owned by Elisa's parents), where he earned a James Beard nomination before going on to open the chicken-focused Southern with the owner of famous barbecue spot Pappy's. It's immediately clear how his past experience manifests in Grace, where you're likely to be personally greeted by Rick at the door before ordering at the counter. (Faced with indecision, my own meat-and-three became more of a two-meat-and-seven.)

Sitting with Rick over a plate of fried chicken and cornmeal-crusted fried Mississippi catfish, a gray-haired man came by to shake his hand and tell him it was the best fried chicken he'd ever had. The man wasn't wrong—unlike other versions, it's not fried in buttermilk, and the breading doesn't fall off like a broken roof shingle. There's also a pork Bloody Mary that drinks like a meat milkshake (a good thing!), house-infused cinnamon cayenne moonshine and a fried bologna sandwich that tastes like coming home from elementary school.

Tara and Michael Gallina of Vicia | Photos: Kevin Roberts

Other married duos abound, like Tara and Michael Gallina, who met while working at New York's Blue Hill at Stone Barns and opened the vegetable-forward Vicia last year to accolades. Then there's Loryn Feliciano-Nalic, who runs the Balkan Treat Box food truck with her husband, Edo, a Bosnian refugee.

St. Louis has the largest population of Bosnians in the United States, and the largest one outside of Europe, as they were relocated to the city in the early 1990s as a result of the Bosnian War. Upon meeting Edo, Loryn was inspired by the region's cuisine and cooked her way through Bosnia in people's homes, learning how to make the pide, cevapi and doner for which the truck is now nationally known.

"I could have done a lot of safer things," Loryn says. But the St. Louis native knew her city would help them rise up. "It's not just big chefs with big names supporting each other. The biggest chefs will support the little guys. It's one big St. Louis culinary family." And St. Louis has become a landing pad for others after fleeing home. Popular ramen shop Nudo House, led by Qui Tran, is the latest from the Mai Lee family, who opened St. Louis's first Vietnamese restaurant after arriving as refugees from Vietnam.

Photos: Greg Rannells

No discussion of St. Louis's dining scene is complete without mentioning Gerard Craft, who moved to St. Louis from D.C. Everywhere else already had a culinary scene, so he took a chance on the city, as he wanted to go where it was, in his words, "trickling up." His now-closed Niche put him on the map, and his handful of restaurants now are what keep him there. Most notably, perhaps, is Sardella, where you can get brunch every day—including impossibly fluffy cacio e pepe eggs and eggs Benedict raviolo (get the recipe).

There's also Zoe Robinson, who has proven herself as one of St. Louis's leading restaurateurs, with places like the endlessly sleek Bar Les Freres and recently opened Billie Jean. And Israeli-born Ben Poremba, who made waves with places like Nixta, Elaia and Olio, just opened The Benevolent King with food inspired by his childhood (and impressive cocktails from bartender Tony Saputo) and shows no signs of stopping. Then there's Mike Randolph, the chef behind popular breakfast spot Half & Half, who's hit his stride with Privado, a Friday-Saturday-only dinner tasting menu affair that's had a full house every service for the last six months. He calls it his "culinary dreamland," and if you had the pleasure of experiencing his oxtail-stuffed morels on one recent menu, you would have found it to be your dreamland, too.

Mike Randolph & Privado (left, center; Photos: Spencer Pernikoff) | Gerard Craft (right). 

All of these innovative restaurateurs are carrying on that teamwork spirit in culinary form. "Instead of fighting the current, we're all working together to build something," Craft says. And the entrepreneurial camaraderie goes beyond the restaurants. Take Big Heart Tea Co., whose products—especially the turmeric sunshine dust—you'll find on restaurant menus throughout the city. Mofu Tofu, the result of people who put Missouri's booming soybean crops to good use, is also supplied in restaurants around the city—most notably, in the mapo doufu at the just-opened Good Fortune.

The mapo tofu at Good Fortune | Photo: Cory Miller

Yet the city's attractions go beyond its culinary wonders. The cocktail scene is growing, with rum-focused bar Yellowbelly opening next season from the talented duo behind Retreat Gastropub. Handfuls of boutique hotels are sprouting up in the near future, and a massive aquarium—Ferris wheel included—is underway.

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St. Louis is known as the Gateway to the West, a nickname born of its position marking the start of uncharted territory acquired in the Louisiana Purchase and commemorated by the Arch monument, a major tourism draw. Gateway Arch Park will have its grand reopening on July 3, after a $380 million renovation that's added green space and a new museum but kept intact the Jetsons-like egg mobile that transports visitors 630 feet high inside the stately metal structure.

All cities have entrepreneurs. But the ones in St. Louis capture the Midwestern spirit and distill it through their cooking with a uniquely forward-looking pioneer mind-set—not unlike the city they call home.

 

Welcome to TT on Tour, where Tasting Table's editors guide you through everything you'll want to eat, drink and do in rising travel destinations around the world.

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