An insider's travel guide to a burgeoning foodie hub six hours to the west of Columbus

St. Louis has always had a cuisine all its own—the barbecued ribs, toasted ravioli, gooey butter cake—but in recent years it’s developed a reputation as a buzzworthy dining and drinking scene. The city was rated in the top five of Food & Wine’s best places to eat in 2019, James Beard nominees and awards multiply annually, and a new generation of culinary creatives have either returned here or arrived of late.

Ask restaurateurs and mixologists and you’ll frequently hear about the camaraderie that elsewhere would be competition, the chill pace of life that’s possible while still maintaining a big-city feel and the amazing array of local farmers, producers and suppliers delivering top-notch ingredients. That’s been the experience of Kristina Goodwin, co-owner of Earthbound Brewing on Cherokee Street, who moved from Washington, D.C., six years ago. “You almost never need a reservation, and you can roll into a restaurant that is unbelievably delicious any night of the week and not break the bank,” she says. “I’m not sure how the secret of St. Louis as a place to live, eat and drink has been kept for so long.”

And here’s the beauty of this city of neighborhoods, each with a distinct identity and institutions: It’s not just one culinary scene. Take a look at some of the following districts and what they offer beyond the stereotypical “barbecue and a Busch beer.” If you plan carefully, you can get at least a couple of delicious meals and drinks every time you park the car.

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The sleeper hit of the moment is the charming Fox Park neighborhood, hidden in plain sight between downtown and some of the city’s popular architectural and historical areas. Right now, it’s arguably the epicenter of food. Lona’s Lil Eats offers healthy, customizable dishes based on the rural hill-tribe upbringing of owner Lona Luo, in an area of southern China bordered by Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. The simple, intense flavors made an impression on the James Beard folks, who gave a nod to Luo as a Best Chef: Midwest semifinalist.

Around the corner, the dinner service at Savage packs 18 seats for a tasting menu of what chef Logan Ely has called “common foods, cooked with primitive techniques” that still manage to look like kitchen sorcery. And brand-new Little Fox brings the vision of two well-respected Brooklyn chefs to life, with everything from tempura delicata squash (harvested only a handful of blocks away in the community’s garden) to whole Missouri trout with preserved lemons and creamed greens.

A mainstay of adventurous dining, the South Grand district retains its title as the champion of international cuisines. Longtime spots like Pho Grand (Vietnamese), Café Natasha (Persian) and Wei Hong (Chinese) have been joined by The Vine (Mediterranean, plus a juice bar), Guerilla Street Food (Filipino), Alta Calle (elevated Mexican) and Sheesh (Turkish). Throw in a vegan, punk-rock pizza joint (Pizza Head) and a vegetarian fast-casual place with an upstairs pingpong bar (Lulu’s Local Eatery), and you’ll see why St. Louis isn’t just the gateway to the West but to cuisine the world over.

It’s only fitting that the most cosmopolitan city stretch, encompassing the Central West End and Cortex, would be home to some of the most sought-after reservations, too. The vegetable-forward Vicia, from a star couple in the realm of farm-to-gourmet-table dining, continues to wow with flavorful, modern dishes and a menu that changes almost daily. Classic French techniques and menus rule at Brasserie, one of several highly regarded spots in the fold of chef-owner Gerard Craft. Next door, Craft’s Taste bar is a revelation, pairing inspired cocktails with small plates that punch far above their weight as “bar food” (think wild boar meatballs and bacon fat-fried cornbread). Yellowbelly brings a beachy elegance to its corner, with seafood and great rum drinks. Even familiar concepts like pizza joints and Irish pubs get exceptional treatment here, from homegrown Pi Pizzeria (smashed scallion with hot honey is a favorite combo) to Dressel’s Public House, respectively.

Transformation no one would’ve imagined 15 years ago means adjacent areas The Grove and Botanical Heights now boast some of the city’s hottest tables: Urban Loafers sells exquisite bread and pretzels from its side-door entrance, but the front of house is packed for sandwiches, salads and pizzas that sing. Across the street at La Patisserie Chouquette, acclaimed pastry chef Simone Faure brings the mad whimsy of a modern-day Wilhelmina Wonka to her macarons, stuffed croissants, elegant French pastries and shaped cakes that defy easy description. Olio (in a refurbished service station), Elaia (in a renovated two-family brick flat) and Nixta (another repurposed brick garage) represent part of the burgeoning empire of owner Ben Poremba, who’s made reviving the neighborhood a goal on par with wowing the dining public. And to get a glimpse of the vitality of the brewing scene beyond Anheuser, step into the convivial (and cavernous) Urban Chestnut Brewing Co. German-inspired bar food and stellar suds are right at home in the beer hall setting.

The inner-ring suburb of Maplewood presents a unique experience for foodies with its diverse mixture of offerings. Great restaurants such as The Benevolent King (Poremba’s Moroccan spot), Acero (modern Italian), Southwest Diner (New Mexican breakfast fare with lunch specialties and damn fine bloody marys) and a vegetarian-friendly coffee house, Foundation Grounds, share the bustling sidewalks with a clutch of gourmet purveyors. So Penzeys Spices, Larder & Cupboard [Editor's note: Larder & Cupboard closed after the issue went to press], Kakao Chocolate, Bolyard’s Meat & Provisions, Traveling Tea, Pie Oh My and Vom Fass can help you load up on ingredients if you eat something in St. Louis that you just have to replicate at home.

If you feel like heading out on a focused mission beyond these culinary clusters, some worthy destinations include Bulrush (modern interpretations of Ozark cuisine from celebrity forager-chef Rob Connoley), Kounter Kulture (a carryout with a small but mighty menu of Asian-inspired dishes using prime local ingredients, such as a pulled chicken bibimbap bowl) and Nathaniel Reid Bakery (a showcase for the talents of a nationally acclaimed pastry chef). But if you get a craving for St. Louis’ traditional tastes, you needn’t worry: Chances are still good you can find great toasted ravioli and ice-cold domestic beer along your route.

Amanda E. Doyle loves St. Louis, where she leads food tours and has authored books on the city’s culture, history and architecture.

Reprinted from Columbus Monthly Best Driving Vacations 2020.

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