Thrillist's Best (and the Rest): What's the Perfect Fast Food Meal?
Cherokee Business District
Fried chicken places have been popping up all over St. Louis in the last year, but the standout is Byrd & Barrel. The restaurant's buttermilk fried chicken is a glorious deep golden brown and the meat is remarkably juicy with genuine poultry flavor, something missing from most chicken these days. B&B’s chef/owner Bob Brazell comes from a fine-dining background and offers unexpected, complex entrees and sandwiches. “The Chicken and the Egg,” pairs pillowy gnudi (gnocchi-like dumplings with ricotta cheese), chicken thigh confit, and raw yolk, while the banh mi, loaded with fried chicken livers and house pickled veg, is strangely titillating. Although Brazell seems like he has his tongue firmly in cheek, you can taste his enthusiasm and joie de vivre in every bite of his bird-based cuisine.
There are a multitude of incredible Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai restaurants in St. Louis, many of them in University City on Olive Blvd. However, THE restaurant wildly popular with locals and restaurant industry types alike since 1984 has always been Mai Lee. The ever-hustling staff serves up over 200 dishes that are super-fresh, bright, flavorful, and so consistently perfect it is almost disturbing. Pho savant and chef/owner Qui Tran will help guide you through the epic Vietnamese, Thai, and Chinese menu, but dishes like the salt & pepper calamari and rare beef marinated in lime and ginger are a must. The daily specials like the crispy bottom rice bowl with seafood cooked in a clay pot are so choice, and DO NOT pass on the life-giving elixir that is Mai Lee’s pho.
There is an inviting earnestness to the food created by chef Matt Bessler of The Libertine. No spumescent, burbling foams atop exotic game meat here. Instead, a menu of height-of-season ingredients prepared using solid classic techniques results in satisfying, generously portioned dishes. A monumental starter of roasted bone marrow and beef cheek with Medjool jam and apple frisee salad is a head turner and will have you (a bit frantically) scraping the very last nubbins of goodness from the bones. Polenta made tableside and served with a rich ragu is meant to be shared. Not to be missed here is the popular, ever so cheeky Tiki cocktail menu. Although the kitschy, fruit-speared, umbrella-donned drinks arrive in fresh coconuts, presidential busts, and vessels shaped like turkey legs, they are well crafted, balanced, and utterly nectarous.
“Makers of weird beer” is a noble moniker to be sure, but only if that beer is weird and delicious at the same time. Nothing is weirder or more delicious than Earthbound Beers' offerings, with names such as Fuzzy Pickles, Jeffeweizen, and Extinction Level 630. The team of three brewers also offer awesome descriptions for each of their six small-batch beers. Take their Dead Druid King, “black wheat beer brewed with oak leaves, based on some ancient-ass brewing history from Bavaria. Original recipe was legit found in a tomb.” This fall, Earthbound is moving into the massive historic Cherokee Street Brewing building built in 1866. It will house a tasting room with 17ft-high vaulted ceilings, a full-service restaurant, a bar, and a fermenting, bottling, and packaging operation. Stay tuned to see how weird Earthbound will become with its expansion.
Upstairs from its small casual sister bar, Olio, Elaia has an upscale dining room that's captivating, while sparse -- the place you go to get the wholly aesthetic dining experience. The dishes at Elaia are a modern, highly composed mosaic influenced by chef Ben Poremba’s lifetime of travel. The Mediterranean-focused restaurant offers dishes like olive oil poached cobia (a fish known by many names) with grapefruit, pomelo, watermelon, serrano, and rosewater. The parfait of foie gras and chicken liver mousse pairs a damn sexy liver mousse with a mix of greens, pickled hamachi mushrooms, blueberries, and slices of fresh black truffle. The wine menu, meticulously cultivated and organized like a travel guide, with wine regions described as engagingly as a novella (and about as long), is not to be missed.
“Five,” as it’s called, is altruistic in its practices both sourcing and serving food. Concepts you’ve certainly heard before, “hyper-local,” “seasonal,” “classical techniques,” actually translate here as consistently incredible meals. The menu changes daily, but the charcuterie has the power to cause eaters to swoon and speak in tongues. Both a selection of cured meats and a tremendous offering of small farm cheeses are paired with house-made pickles, jams, and breads. Located on The Hill, Five is not in a hot or trendy neighborhood and does not receive consistent attention from the press, but it is always busy -- packed on weekends -- with a huge loyal following of diners looking for substance over scene and a consistently gratifying dining experience.
Craft cocktail whisperer, mixed drink maestro, exotic elixir captain Ted Kilgore has been sent fan mail, several times. After enjoying a libation or five at Planter's House, the craft cocktail bar and restaurant located in the Benton Park neighborhood, you may feel compelled to pen a letter of adoration yourself. The snappily dressed yet modestly reserved Kilgore and his magnetic wife, Jamie, opened Planter's House on repeal day, December 5th, four years ago. A cultivated tippler's Eden, the space also houses the Bullock Room upstairs. An intimate second bar candlelit and lined with red velvet brocade wallpaper, it offers an even larger cocktail menu. Kilgore is an adroit completist, proud to offer over 100 different types of whiskeys and over 400 varieties of spirits.
Sitting in the 50-seat tasting room at the Side Project Cellar can make you feel like a bit of a dolt if you have, say, an “average” amount of beer knowledge. Holding a 100-point score and regarded as “world-class” by BeerAdvocate, it’s enough to make anyone feel like a novice. Don’t sweat it. At the Side Project Cellar there is a great deal of serious wild fermentation chatter but it’s a welcoming place (maybe even more welcoming) for someone new to barrel-aged and sour beers. If you consider yourself a beer expert, you too will find geeked-out happiness at the Cellar. Most of the offerings focus on spirit barrel-aged saisons as well as sour/wild ales. Take the time here not only to enjoy award-winning experimental beers, but also to appreciate the nuanced, finely detailed way in which they are served. From taps that are individually temperature programmable to lambics served in the traditional lambic basket so as not to disturb the yeast in the bottle, this is a place that defines great care in brewing, storing, and serving world-class beers.
Kevin Nashan, the chef and owner of Sidney Street Cafe for almost 15 years, makes dishes that are erudite, innovative, and mindfully constructed. One of the most important and influential chefs in St. Louis, Nashan was utilizing seasonal, local ingredients before it became part of the fine-dining constitution. The Chef’s tasting menu is especially complex and mature but has playful and clever elements as well. A la carte dishes like the kombu-cured fluke with charred peas, puffed rice, pickled green strawberries, and a chocolate vinaigrette are deliberately esoteric but also remarkably delicious. Delivering both a cerebral and aesthetic dining experience, Sidney Street continues to be a vital trailblazer in St. Louis fine dining.
There is nothing precious about the food offered at Cleveland-Heath. The only pair of tweezers to be found in the kitchen are for pulling pin bones from fish. Having trained at The French Laundry and Ad Hoc, chef/owners Jenny Cleveland and Ed Heath could have come to St. Louis donning tweezer holsters -- they know their stuff. Instead they came with the deliberate intention of opening a highly approachable, genuine, and straightforward restaurant. By offering both the lunch and dinner menu during, well, lunch and dinner, diners have the option to get a sandwich like the explosively flavorful BLT or the ethereal foie gras on French toast. Generous with portion sizes, the gasp-inducing behemoth pork porterhouse chop weighs in at about a pound. Cooked by diligently basting the meat with hot clarified butter, it arrives, topped with a shimmering fried egg, looking like a juicy Joy of Cooking centerfold.
Cherokee Business District
A great coffee house should have, first and foremost, excellent coffee. Second, the food and pastries should be equally as good. While St. Louis has a bevy of coffee houses serving excellent and interesting coffees, The Mud House stands apart as equal parts outstanding coffee house and remarkably stellar restaurant. Pastries include standards like scones and muffins but also fragrant downy brown butter financiers. The menu includes a popular and convincing English breakfast alongside items like grits & greens and an ever-changing daily Dat Hash. A pork confit sandwich is Midwest goodness and served with chowchow. Although The Mud House has been labeled by some gimpy Yelpers as being “too hip to function,” the always-bustling atmosphere draws both man buns and receding hairlines with stellar coffee and deeply satisfying eats.
Reeds American Table is an example of the young vanguard of chefs who are opening restaurants to great anticipation in St. Louis. Matthew Daughaday's restaurant has no ironic touches, nor is it uber-chic. It lacks Edison lightbulbs which adorn every new restaurant, but it is a beautiful and simply outfitted space with pragmatic touches. The food is also rooted in substance rather than style. The roasted chicken is almost self-effacing in its simplicity but it is also a beyond-textbook example of what a perfectly cooked chicken breast should look, smell, feel, and taste like. Beyond life-changing chicken, the eclectic dishes deliver thoughtful ingredient combinations and flavors that comfort. The sticky glazed pork belly with kimchee fried rice and green onion aioli is at once new and dynamic as well as warmly familiar, and the bacon-fried cornbread may have you licking from the small cast-iron dish it’s served in.
Farmhaus is an understated space seating 40 with utilitarian steel metro racks holding dishware and other essentials tucked into the corner of the dining room. In the bar area are Kevin Willmann’s discreetly displayed James Beard semifinalist awards for Best Chef Midwest. Having spent a large part of his life as a fisherman along the Gulf Coast, Willmann’s fish dishes are prepared masterfully but with the same easy style the entire menu shares. Traditional items like The Butcher's Plate -- a monumentally generous collection of house-made charcuterie and local cheeses -- are offered with items like sweet potato and blue cheese “nachos.” Willmann’s seven-course tasting menu is altogether more serious and indeed James Beard award-worthy. Farmhaus lacks pretension and high polish while delivering cultivated fine-dining flavors.
St. Charles, MO
When you walk into Sucrose, you can order an espresso (it serves excellent St. Louis-based Blueprint coffees), or you can simply beeline it to the two large glass bakery cases in the center of the shop. Aaron and German-born Agi Groff, the husband-and-wife team behind Sucrose, bake everything utilizing classic French and European techniques. Frangipane tarts are filled with glistening seasonal fruits while classic cakes like Opera and Sacher Torte stand tall and fancy. Crumb-topped fruit pies, custard-filled eclairs, decadent chocolate croissants, and a selection of over a dozen different flavors of the supreme macarons are just a portion of the daily offerings. Upon your first profiterole, bite of citrus lavender olive oil cake, or earl grey macaron, you’ll agree the pastry is profoundly good -- otherworldly good -- and it will forever change you.
Offering hand-cut, pasture-raised pork, chicken, beef, and lamb from locally sourced farms seems like a no-brainer. However it wasn’t until former chef-turned-butcher Chris Bolyard opened his meat shop in the Downtown Maplewood neighborhood last fall that there was one reliable source solely offering altruistic meaty goodness. Everything is hand-cut here. Want a Flintstones-sized pork chop? Ask Chris and he will cut you a 3in chop. Hungry meat eaters who don’t want to cook themselves can enjoy any of the smoked meat and poultry offerings or charcuterie prepared with a chef's adept precision. Also notable are the daily lunch sandwiches, the remarkably flavorful bone broths, and the varied provisions (including phenomenally fresh prepared lard). Ethically sourced meats paired with genuine service and skilled butchering equals a business that has established itself as essential in less than a year’s time.
Central West End
Taste is built solidly on craft cocktails that range from whimsical to cerebral as well as outstanding small plates. People watching on the patio is the perfect opportunity to try the vibrant “No More Tangles” -- St. George Terroir gin, Dolin Genepy, passion fruit, lime, peach, and cucumber, or the sentimental “How Fucking Romantic” -- blueberry-infused pisco, Aperol, hibiscus, lemon, and lavender honey. Make sure to come hungry as well as thirsty as chef Heather Stone’s offerings are as thoughtfully crafted as the drinks. A dish of greens, pig face croutons, strawberries, rhubarb, and walnut is the best face you’ve ever tasted while the sweetbreads with hot sauce, celery root, and shallots is sure to be the best thymus gland you’ve put into your mouth.
The definitive place to enjoy and imbibe gin from around the world, The Gin Room is located inside Cafe Natasha, a Persian restaurant on South Grand. Masterfully run by Natasha Bahrami (yep, the restaurant is named after her too), it offers quite possibly the most complete, exhaustive, curated collection of over 100 gins to be found in the US and certainly the Midwest. “The Gin Girl,” as Bahrami is called, is a true ambassador of the spirit, and her enthusiasm over the history, distillation process, and particular qualities of the different gins she offers is infectious to anyone with a soul. She is graciously willing to share all her knowledge with you if you are interested, or she'll just pour you the most sublime gin & tonic you’ve ever tasted and leave you be.
Visit the Arch. Go to a Cardinals game. Eat at Pappy’s. This is the list of essential “must-dos” for anyone visiting St. Louis. Pappy’s smokes up a variety of meats daily, but the pork baby back ribs are reason alone to visit the city. Smoked for 14 hours over fruitwood, Pappy’s ribs are a glorious, tender bite of meaty succulence. Not cloyingly sweet or dripping in sauce, they follow the Southern style of BBQ with a dry rub and a hit of glaze to finish. The line that forms around the building daily is testament to its continued popularity amongst not only locals but many out-of-state visitors as well.