At decade’s end, I feel the temptation to make some grand, conclusive statement about the past 10 years of St. Louis dining. To resist, though, I need look no further than my list of 2019’s best new restaurants, which celebrates the ambitious tasting menus of Indo and Bulrush alongside the casual counter-service of Balkan Treat Box.
The crux isn’t simply the juxtaposition of the upscale and the everyday. At both Indo and Bulrush, the tasting menus, though expensive, aren’t solemn, white-tablecloth affairs. You sit at a counter and interact with the chefs.
The same is true at Savage, 2018’s best new restaurant. At Vicia, 2017’s top debut and currently my pick for the best restaurant in St. Louis, the roaring wood-fired hearth and family-style main courses conjure a communal vibe.
I could go on. The sense at Olive + Oak or Louie that you have been welcomed into an endless family reunion. The sleek, modern sophistication of Elmwood, Elaia and Billie-Jean. This decade has shown any number of ways to be a great upscale restaurant.
You don’t even need to be upscale all the time. At lunch, Indo shifts its format to counter-service. The quality of the food is undiminished.
Meanwhile, the cevapi, pide and other dishes at Loryn and Edo Nalic’s counter-service Balkan Treat Box can stand up against anything from more luxe restaurants. I would have said the same had Balkan Treat Box not expanded into a brick-and-mortar location but remained a food truck.
Balkan Treat Box. Guerrilla Street Food. Lona’s Lil Eats. This decade has exploded the idea of what a great, vital restaurant can be, thanks to food trucks, pop-up events, the fast-casual format and diners willing, even eager, to try these and other unconventional formats.
If anything, this decade should end the idea that there is such a thing as a “conventional” restaurant.
If I can make any grand statement about the decade, the inconclusiveness is the point. The next great St. Louis restaurant could be anything at all.
I suppose I should say something about barbecue? The boom in new barbecue restaurants that began in the late aughts — I generally mark the starting point as the February 2008 opening of Pappy’s Smokehouse — accelerated this decade. I know there isn’t a smokehouse in literally every neighborhood now, but it sure does feel like it.
Salt + Smoke is working on its fourth and fifth locations, the latter at Ballpark Village. Sugarfire Smoke House just announced its expansion to Dallas, which will be its 16th location across six states.
As the decade ends, I am grateful I don’t have to fly to Texas to eat great smoked brisket. But these days I find myself more intrigued by restaurants looking beyond the typical barbecue format: Beast Butcher & Block, where David Sandusky is swinging for the fences with a live-fire kitchen featuring a tasting-menu and collaborative dinners and an expansive Sunday brunch; or the more modest Wood Shack in Soulard, where Chris Delgado builds sandwiches around smoked meats and a variety of woodsmoke flavors.
Does St. Louis receive its just due from national dining publications and awards? We are hardly impartial judges. Did St. Louis chefs and restaurants receive at least some deserved recognition this decade? Yes.
The highlight reel begins in 2011, when Food & Wine named Kevin Willmann of Farmhaus one of the magazine’s “Best New Chefs” nationwide. Willmann was the second St. Louis chef to receive the honor, after Gerard Craft of Niche in 2008. In 2018, Michael Gallina of Vicia became the third.
Vicia’s 2017 debut earned it a place on that year’s best new restaurant lists from Bill Addison of Eater and Jeff Gordiner of Esquire. Also in 2017, Julia Kramer of Bon Appétit named Ben Poremba and then-chef Tello Carreon’s Nixta to the magazine’s list of the country’s 10 best new restaurants.
After multiple nominations, Gerard Craft won the James Beard Award for “Best Chef: Midwest” in 2015. Two years later, Kevin Nashan of Sidney Street Cafe won the same award, and the James Beard Foundation also honored Gioia’s Deli with one of its America’s Classics awards, honoring restaurants with “timeless appeal” and “quality food that reflects the character of their communities.”
(Full disclosure: I sit on the James Beard Foundation’s restaurants and chefs awards committee.)
Ian Froeb picks the 12 best new St. Louis restaurants of 2019
Indo is the best new restaurant of 2019
Nick Bognar has won numerous accolades in the two years since he took over as the executive chef of Nippon Tei, which his mother, Ann Bognar, founded in 2001. This year alone, he earned a semifinalist nod for the James Beard Foundation's “Rising Star Chef of the Year” award, and I ranked Nippon Tei at No. 7 in the 2019 edition of the STL 100.
None of which fully prepared me for the scale of Bognar's achievement when he opened his debut restaurant, Indo, in June in Botanical Heights. Respectful of but not beholden to sushi tradition, drawing from his family's history and his restless creativity and curiosity, Bognar has built a singular St. Louis restaurant.
Bognar's prowess with nigiri sushi is on full display at Indo — especially his facility with fattier, oilier fish. But nigiri is only part of Indo's menu, a selection of dazzling hot and cool “tastings” (think small plates) and large-format dishes: fried lamb ribs and lamb larb (based on his grandmother's recipe); the Issan hamachi, lightly brined yellowjack in a coconut naam pla; the big bowl of crab donabe rice.
The limited-availability omakase dinner is a stunning parade of nigiri sushi, smaller versions of regular menu dishes and specials. It might be the fullest expression of Indo's brilliance and potential, but you don't need to experience it to know this is the best new restaurant of 2019.
Where 1641 Tower Grove Avenue • More info 314-899-9333; indo-stl.com • Hours Dinner Tuesday-Sunday, lunch Tuesday-Saturday (closed Monday)
The rest of the year's best new restaurants
Listed in alphabetical order.
Best new restaurants 2019: Akar
Only a month after closing his downtown west restaurant Hiro Asian Kitchen, Bernie Lee debuted Akar in Clayton. Lee's new venture is a much more intimate affair, with a dining room that seats 14 and a compact menu that reflects both his native Malaysia and his global travels.
The cooking here is simultaneously bold and elegant: halibut (or the fish of the day) over black rice with the seawater pop of pickled peppercorns and capers and a warmly spiced, deeply savory curried shrimp bouillon; a tremendous beef short rib in a sambal demiglace. Lunch is more casual, but the food is impressive on its own scale, especially bibimbap with bulgogi beef and the spark of chiles, kimchi and an apple gochujang.
Where 7641 Wydown Boulevard, Clayton • More info 314-553-9914; akarstl.com • Hours Dinner Tuesday-Saturday, lunch Tuesday-Friday, brunch Sunday (closed Monday)
Best new restaurants 2019: Bait
At seafood-focused Bait in the Central West End, owner Kalen Hodgest, general manager Misha K. Sampson and chef Ceaira Jackson have created a dining experience that is sophisticated without sacrificing fun. You want to laugh and even clap when you see Jackson's oversize prawns in their flaming broth of dark beer and sherry wine or her whole fried red snapper drizzled with a spicy aioli and served with three dazzling dipping sauces (chimichurri, mango-chile and hot).
Jackson's cooking is a revelation throughout dishes spectacular and more subtle, like scallops with wine-braised pears and glazed carrots over parsnip puree. Bait's vibe is unapologetically grown-up, and due to its modest size and quirky layout (there is no bar seating), you will want to make a reservation for your date night.
Where 4239 Lindell Boulevard • More info 314-405-2797; baitstl.com • Hours Dinner Wednesday-Saturday (closed Sunday-Tuesday)
Best new restaurants 2019: Balkan Treat Box
True: I did include the food truck Balkan Treat Box on my list of 2017's best new restaurants. This February, owners Loryn and Edo Nalic opened a brick-and-mortar location in Webster Groves, but Balkan Treat Box doesn't return on this year's list because of the mere technicality of being “new” again. The Balkan Treat Box storefront is the evolution of the Nalics' vision.
The menu of Bosnian, Turkish and other Balkan fare has expanded from the truck's beloved staples — the pide, cevapi and doner kebab — to include grilled-fish and wood-fired-eggplant sandwiches, cheese-stuffed pljeskavica (aka the “Balkan Burger”) and, my new obsession, the rolled Turkish flatbread lahmacun. Anchored by the open kitchen's wood-fired hearth and the Nalics' hospitality, the Balkan Treat Box restaurant isn't the truck moved inside. It feels like home.
Where 8103 Big Bend Boulevard, Webster Groves • More info 314-733-5700; balkantreatbox.com • Hours 11 a.m.-3 p.m. (or until sold out) Wednesday-Sunday (closed Monday-Tuesday)
Best new restaurants 2019: Beast Butcher & Block
Beast Butcher & Block isn't a clone of Beast Craft BBQ Co. Yes, its menu features the dishes that have made David and Meggan Sandusky's original Belleville restaurant the area's best all-around barbecue experience: the wagyu brisket, the pork steak, the pork ribs. Here, though, you will also find a retail butcher shop, Sunday brunch and the Skullery, the open, live-fire kitchen where David Sandusky and chef Ryan McDonald host an ambitious tasting menu with an appealing why-the-hell-not? attitude.
More than a decade has passed since the beginning of the St. Louis barbecue boom. Taken together, the Beast locations are its pinnacle, and Beast Butcher & Block charts a bold, new course for the idea of what a barbecue restaurant can be.
Where 4156 Manchester Avenue • More info 314-944-6003; beastbbqstl.com • Hours Lunch and dinner daily, brunch Sunday
Best new restaurants 2019: The Bellwether
Owners Brian Schmitz and Jonathan Schoen, chef Thomas Futrell and beverage director Travis Hebrank scored one of 2017's best new restaurants with Polite Society in Lafayette Square. The team has done it again this year with the Bellwether, which occupies the second and third floor of the City Hospital power-plant building just east of Polite Society.
The Bellwether boasts a swankier vibe than its older sibling, and Futrell's cooking is even more exciting here: scallop carpaccio with chanterelle mushroom and Asian pear in a lemon-bacon vinaigrette with rosemary oil and fresh herbs; cheese-stuffed ravioli with English peas, rosé-braised chicken and chicken skin; a pork steak (cooked sous-vide, finished in the oven and briefly on the grill) with German potato salad and compressed cabbage.
Where 1419 Carroll Street • More info 314-380-3086; thebellwetherstl.com • Hours Dinner daily
Best new restaurants 2019: Bulrush
Rob Connoley's long-gestating Bulrush is as serious a culinary project as St. Louis has seen: a contemporary approach to historical Ozarks cuisine (circa 1820-1880) featuring local ingredients, many foraged by Connoley himself and his team, in a tasting-menu format. On paper, it sounds like school. In practice, Bulrush is a revelation.
The tasting menu, served by Connoley and sous chef Justin Bell at the chef's counter around their open kitchen, is smartly paced, with each course concisely — sometimes even humorously — explained. I am still thinking about dishes from my dinners, especially strawberry amazake suspended inside a cattail-pollen shell and a savory acorn-flour doughnut that evoked the autumnal forest. (The menu changes frequently.)
Not a tasting-menu fan? Bulrush's bar offers a more casual a-la-carte menu without sacrificing its principles.
Where 3307 Washington Boulevard • More info 314-449-1208; bulrushstl.com • Hours Dinner Thursday-Sunday (closed Monday-Wednesday)
Best new restaurants 2019: Chao Baan
The Prapaisilp family has been a fixture of St. Louis dining for 40 years with restaurants including South Grand Boulevard institution the King & I and international grocery stores such as Global Foods Market in Kirkwood. At Chao Baan in Forest Park Southeast's Grove district, the Prapaisilps — husband and wife Suchin and Sue and their adult son, Shayn — introduce us to the food they eat at home, dishes from Sue's native northeast Thailand and Suchin's native south.
The flavors pop, whether the balance of heat, funk and sour in the northern khao tod nam sod (fried rice with cured sausage) or the fiercely spicy southern gaeng som (a soup with fried fish and papaya). Fittingly, for a family-run restaurant, Chao Baan is best experienced with a group, eating family-style.
Where 4087 Chouteau Avenue • More info 314-925-8250; chaobaanstl.com • Hours Dinner daily, lunch Monday-Saturday
Best new restaurants 2019: Elmwood
Elmwood marks a welcome return to restaurant cooking for the talented Adam Altnether, an alum of the late, great Niche. Altnether and fellow Niche veteran and front-of-house ace Chris Kelling have based their sleek Maplewood restaurant around a coal-fired grill and oven. Altnether uses this to coax deep, sometimes surprising flavors from proteins and produce alike. Even my desserts — lemon ash atop a lemon tart; a whole charcoal-roasted apple — benefitted.
Altnether's ingredient palate is global. Sichuan peppercorns and Aleppo pepper enlivened the best mussels I've eaten in St. Louis; the terrific lamb cruda nodded to the Indian street food kheema pav. Elmwood already shows the poise of an established restaurant, and with Altnether and Kelling guiding it, its potential seems limitless.
Where 2704 Sutton Boulevard, Maplewood • More info 314-261-4708; elmwoodstl.com • Hours Dinner Monday-Saturday (closed Sunday)
Best new restaurants 2019: Malinche Mexican Culinary Experience
The new restaurant from the family behind the late Señor Pique is unlike any other Mexican restaurant in town. At Malinche Mexican Culinary Experience in Ellisville, Angel Jimenez-Gutiérrez and his mother, María Gutiérrez Molina, serve a selection of small plates. These might riff on a familiar dish (the Del Trompo, an oversize taco al pastor) or follow a thought experiment (what if the chimichanga, which Jimenez-Gutiérrez had never eaten before coming to the United States, were the creation of Mexican immigrants?).
Several dishes draw on family history: visiting Jimenez-Gutiérrez's grandmother in the small town of Ozumba (the tamalito frito and mole Ozumbeño); his father's love of bone marrow, which accompanies the Arrechera Calavera taco. Everything is a must-order at the remarkable Malinche.
Where 15939 Manchester Road, Ellisville • More info 636-220-8541; malinchestl.com • Hours Dinner daily, lunch Saturday-Sunday (closed Tuesday)
Best new restaurants 2019: Mayo Ketchup
Chef Mandy Estrella is also known as Plantain Girl, and you are unlikely to visit her new fast-casual restaurant in Lafayette Square without enjoying some tostones or maduros. You are also unlikely to come away from Mayo Ketchup without raving about its Puerto Rican, Domincan and Cuban fare.
In fast-casual fashion, the menu focuses on sandwiches and bowls. Of the former, the highlight is el Cubano, served on traditional Cuban bread. The standout bowls include ropa vieja and (my favorite) pork pernil over arroz con gandules. Plan ahead for the beloved Puerto Rican dish mofongo (Wednesday dinner and all day Sunday) and a traditional Dominican breakfast of mashed green plantain, Induveca salami, fried cheese and two fried eggs (Saturday lunch and all day Sunday).
Where 2001 Park Avenue • More info 314-696-2699; plantaingirl.com • Hours 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday (closed Monday-Tuesday)
Best new restaurants 2019: Sultan Mediterranean Restaurant
Sultan Mediterranean Restaurant is the first restaurant for chef Jenar Mohammed and her husband, Akram Saeed, who came to the United States in the mid-1980s as refugees from the Kurdistan region of Iraq. Sultan's menu includes family recipes, and its signature dish might be the Sultan Pilau, or pardu pilau, an Iraqi and Kurdish dish of lamb with basmati rice cooked in lamb broth, nuts, carrots and raisins in a phyllo shell.
Mohammed also taught herself new recipes by watching YouTube videos, and each dish here will be a competitor for the best version of that dish you have eaten, from the lentil soup at the meal's beginning to main courses such as the Palestinian flatbread musakhan, chicken biryani, and a lamb shank perfectly seasoned with lemon, garlic and black pepper.
Where 4200 Manchester Avenue • More info 314-390-2020; sultan-stl.com • Hours Lunch and dinner Tuesday-Sunday (closed Monday)
The 12 establishments on my list of 2019's best new restaurants stand apart, but they are certainly not the only places that excited me this year. Here are six more new restaurants worthy of your appetite and attention.
Honorable mention 2019: Alta Calle
A tight menu of vibrantly flavored, artfully plated Mexican fare distinguishes Alta Calle, from sisters Veronica and Dulce Morales and Veronica's son, Steve Suarez. (Tello Carreon, the former chef of the acclaimed Nixta, consulted with Suarez on the menu.) The signature dish might be the pollo alto, chicken cooked sous-vide and then flash-fried and served in a pepián mole verde. Seafood is also a highlight: scallop ceviche in a brilliant aguachile; shrimp tacos on a tortilla coated with Chihuahua and Jack cheese. Don't overlook the vegetable dishes, though, especially the mushroom flautas and the black-bean hummus with both fresh and pickled vegetables.
Where 3131 South Grand Boulevard • More info 314-282-0840; altacallestl.com • Hours Dinner Tuesday-Saturday, lunch Tuesday-Sunday (closed Monday)
Honorable mention 2019: Han Lao
Thom Chantharasy showcases the cuisine of his native Laos at his latest venture, Han Lao in Brentwood. (He also owns the Maplewood sushi and ramen restaurant Robata.) The menu offers guidance to newcomers to Lao cuisine: Order sticky rice to go with Lao sausage and the chile paste jeow bong; pair roasted and then flash-fried baby-back ribs with thum muk huong, a funky, sour and intensely spicy mash of green papaya. Other standout dishes include khao poon (ground pork and vermicelli noodles in a pork broth with red-curry paste) and nam khao (fried rice with pickled pork, dried chiles and fresh herbs.
Where 1250 Strassner Drive, Brentwood • More info 314-932-1354; hanlaostl.com • Hours Lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday (closed Sunday)
Honorable mention 2019: The Last Kitchen
The Last Kitchen is worth visiting just to marvel at the gorgeous lobby of the new Last Hotel inside the old International Shoe Co. building in downtown west. Chef Evy Swoboda makes it a compelling dining destination, too, with a casual bar menu and upscale dinner options. Highlights of the former include boudin ravioli and Buffalou Chicken Bites (the chicken brined, smoked and then battered and fried). Standouts from my dinners were frog legs with red beans and rice seasoned with fermented hot sauce and a dry-aged, pan-seared duck breast with wild-mushroom spaetzle. A Pastaria alum, Swoboda also serves an excellent wood-fired pizza.
Where The Last Kitchen, 1501 Washington Avenue • More info 314-390-2500; thelasthotelstl.com • Hours Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily
Honorable mention 2019: The Midwestern Meat & Drink
Ben Welch traded his small Maryland Heights barbecue restaurant Big Baby Q & Smokehouse for the sprawling Midwestern Meat & Drink downtown, a partnership with the trio behind the nearby Wheelhouse and Start Bar. Welch has brought along the dishes that won the late Big Baby Q acclaim: brisket, pork ribs, pastrami. To this, the Midwestern adds a burger in the modern skinny-and-stacked style and an expansive whiskey list. The standout dish is the weekend-only whole pig's head smoked, cooked confit-style in lard and finished at high heat. You must order this 48 hours in advance, but it is worth planning a trip around.
Where 900 Spruce Street • More info 314-696-2573; midwesternstl.com • Hours Lunch and dinner daily (closed Tuesday except during major downtown events)
Honorable mention 2019: Morning Glory Diner
At Morning Glory Diner, Ari Ellis doesn't try to reinvent the classic diner, nor does she approach it with irony. She loves this food, and she is an excellent chef. The result is an appealing storefront on Cherokee Street in Benton Park West. Ellis previously operated the Cut, a sausage stand inside the nearby Fortune Teller Bar, so buttermilk biscuits with sausage gravy is a sure bet here. Equally compelling is a plate with buttermilk-brined fried chicken thighs over johnny cakes with butter and syrup. At lunch, the menu expands slightly to include a fried chicken sandwich, a BLT and a griddled burger.
Where 2609 Cherokee Street • More info facebook.com/morningglorydinerstl • Hours 7 a.m.-3 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday (closed Monday-Tuesday)
Honorable mention 2019: Sides of Seoul
Sides of Seoul opened in early 2018, but the Lee family took ownership late last year and changed its format from a focus on prepackaged banchan, soups and other Korean fare to a winning combination of fast-casual service and homestyle Korean cooking. The menu includes an array of gimbap and rice bowls (of the latter, the spicy pork bop is a standout), but don't overlook the soups and stews, especially the fiery kimchi jjigae and the deeply savory seolleongtang, a product of three days' patient cooking. True to its name, Sides of Seoul still sells prepackaged banchan, including its terrific kimchi.
Where 10084 Page Avenue, Overland • More info 314-942-8940; facebook.com/sidesofseoulfoods • Hours Lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday (closed Sunday)