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Looking back on the past decade in dining in St. Louis

Looking back on the past decade in dining in St. Louis

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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.

Barbecue boom

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.

National acclaim

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.)

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