The Best New Restaurants 2009
Open a restaurant during a recession? Here are 15 reasons to say yes.
Photograph by Katherine Bish
Starting up a new restaurant is never easy. Doing so during stormy times—and succeeding—is almost impossible. Yet we found 15 restaurants, all of which opened within the last year, that have beaten the odds and given us the incentive to again go out to eat—no, make that to dine—recession be damned. Since this is a biennial article, we have also named the 12 best sophomore restaurants ("The Missing Year," page 90), "forget-me-nots" that have accomplished something even more remarkable: They've celebrated that infamous one-year birthday, a restaurant milestone that most often indicates a "pass," rather than a "fail." That all these spots have excelled at a time when the restaurant oddsmakers indicated no restaurant growth—and in fact massive closures—just makes the next 20-odd pages that much more impressive.
Come on. When's the last time you raved about an iceberg salad? The version at BC's Kitchen, with pungent bleu cheese–buttermilk dressing, crumbles of apple wood–smoked bacon, and herb croutons, merits it. The salad's typical of a stellar menu that matches honest food with terrific creative flair and delivers it all with style and professionalism. Just walk into BC's Kitchen, and you know this place is different. The ambience is suave and understated. It's spacious, with lots of stone and natural wood and comfortable seating. Service is deft and polished. Atmosphere aside, what comes from the big, open galley here puts BC's Kitchen at the top of the area's choicest new eateries.
The menu's nicely balanced with a variety of proteins. Smoked Duroc pork spareribs arrive meaty and tender, with a melty, golden side of cheese macaroni. A fatty-rich fillet of king salmon comes with a delicate rice pilaf and sautéed spinach. A sweet slab of corn bread accompanies an andouille- and shrimp-laden gumbo. Daily specials here have their ardent fans. For some, fried chicken with cream gravy and mashed potatoes is a Sunday staple. It wouldn't be Friday for others without the clams, mussels, and scallops in a garlic-infused tomato-broth cioppino. Peanut-butter cheesecake and deep-dish apple pie are the sort of closers you can expect. A fairly priced, competent wine list seals the deal.
So yes: While it shall cause indignation and outrage among the pharaohs of fashionable foodstuffs, the best new restaurant in St. Louis is in Lake Saint Louis. In a brand-new suburban shopping mall. Life has its ironies. Sometimes, as at BC's Kitchen, they are delicious.
11 Meadows Circle, Lake Saint Louis, 636-542-9090, billcardwell.com/bcs.html
"I'm not sure any restaurant ever really 'makes it.' Each day brings new challenges and new opportunities. Success to me is when someone mentions one of my restaurants and people are excited to dine with me."
Owner/chef Bill Cardwell
Coffeehouse meets café in this light, airy eatery that's a favorite of SLU students and the urban hipoisie. Overstuffed sofas and a fireplace lend a relaxing atmosphere. On the menu: salads and soups and several fine sandwiches. The slather of piquant olive salad on a cheese- and meat-stacked muffuletta is first-rate. Best bets are self-styled sandwiches, allowing your honey wheat, capicola, Gruyére, and Dijon-stained creativity full rein. Fluffy, hot, sugardusted beignets are mandatory. There are flavored coffees and teas, beers, wines, and yummy absinthe. And if a chandelier in the women's bathroom doesn't say "classy dining," what does?
3919 W. Pine, 314-531-7801, cafeventana.com
"I get married that day."
Chef Chris Lee, when asked to comment on his "unexpected" best night of the year
Transforming an empty storefront into a gracious, upscale restaurant with excellent service and specializing in cuisine du terroir, Fond is more than worth a drive to Edwardsville. The menu changes daily and seasonally. In autumn, it's lusty duck rillette spooned on toast or butternut squash risotto with fried sage. Winter brings roasted pork loin with a rutabaga gratin. Spring has fiddlehead ferns and meaty skate dusted in cornmeal and panfried. Next summer, it'll be local tomatoes and an Italian ceviche of blue marlin. Any time's delicious here. Afterward, have your driver take the scenic route home, through Sauget.
106 N. Main, Edwardsville, Ill., 618-656-9001, fondfinedining.com
"Stick to your guns and don't sacrifice quality. Oh, and not taking a salary helps."
Owner/chef Amy Zupanci, on how to beat the recession
JFires' Market Bistro
While seated on a cozy patio, under an arbor heavy with grapes, smiling blissfully as a September sun slips under the horizon, you count your blessings for a wonderful night in the Napa Vall ... wait, you're in Waterloo, at JFires' bistro. And the menu? Equally confounding. From the quality of the étouffée, the quantity and heft of the barbecue shrimp, the hospitality of the staff, you'd swear you're in the French Quar ... no again, you're in Illinois. We'll make it official: That next "vacation" should be to Waterloo. Be prepared to pinch a few shrimp ... and yourself. (Intrigued? See our full review on page 180.)
725 N. Market, Waterloo, Ill., 618-939-7233, jfires.com
"We have a motto, miseen- scéne, referring to everything on the scene. We have the cuisine, the ambience, and the goal to inspire everyone that dines here."
Owner Jennifer Pensoneau, on the philosophy at JFires'
To us, the only thing more annoying than that "Buttons and Bows"–playing ice-cream truck trolling down the street at 2 mph is an overpriced restaurant, the kind that gets you to seriously consider a value-driven chain that promises you and your SO the world for $20. Enter Sugo's, where brick-sized lasagna sets you back $10 and spaghetti with homemade sugo and two billiard ball–size meatballs is a laughable $9. Now that's how you spend $20 on dinner—and, most likely, on lunch the next day.
10419 Clayton, 314-569-0400, sugosspaghetteria.com
"When my son asked me, 'Dad, can we eat at Sugo's tonight? It's my favorite restaurant.'"
Owner/chef Mike Del Pietro, when asked about his "unexpected" best night of the year
A motorcycle museum. A top-flight restaurant. Hey, kids, it's both! Dishes like fettuccine splashed with truffle oil and tossed with spinach, grilled chicken, and mushrooms in a roasted cream sauce, crabmeat-studded risotto, and bone-in rib steak with French bistro-quality frites make for extraordinary dining. The World's Best Mashed Potatoes are a buttery, garlicky treasure here. A glossy, aromatic wild mushroom–and–leek bisque is a must as well. The dessert rack is clever and delicious fun. Cycle parts make for intriguing artwork; the setting's relaxing but pleasantly formal. The attached museum has a world-class collection of motorcycles, enjoyable for a postprandial stroll.
3419 Olive, 314-446-1801, triumphgrill.com
"Deliver value in food, drink, and service. This has allowed us to stay out of that dreaded 'special occasion' category."
Owner Steve Smith, on how Triumph beat the recession
A dining jewel amidst the often contrived rhinestone funkiness of the Loop, this upscale eatery presents noteworthy food in a '50s retro-spiffy setting distinguished by wacky Space Age décor. The menu's compact, but tantalizing. A rich lobster "pot pie" entices. Succulent roast chicken atop a mascarpone-and-lemon risotto seduces. A pork chop, phone-book thick and bathed in Calvados cream sauce, tempts. One of the most affordable wine lists in town and some classic drinks, like a Pimm's cup, are just the thing for a digestif on the moonviewing terrace topping the new, luxurious hotel that Eclipse anchors.
6177 Delmar, 314-726-2222, eclipsestlouis.com
"I've always thought that three-dimensional items give a very different feel to a place."
Owner Joe Edwards, revealing one of his secrets to success
Bobo Noodle House
Let those of weaker constitution cower from the storm clouds of Recession 2.0 behind blue-plate specials or inside fast-food facades. We of the culinary vanguard shall still dine as such, still insisting upon fresh and innovative ingredients, astute flair from the kitchen, and pleasingly rococo environs in which to enjoy our meal. Bobo Noodle House will be our bunker for hunker-down eats as we sate ourselves with bounteous bowls of pho, pad Thai decadent in veggies and rich in spice, sharp cucumber salad, and that perfect piece of seared salmon propped up atop a tassel of seaweed and mint. The service is princely, but the bill fits a pauper—nothing over $12!
278 N. Skinker, 314-863-7373. bobonoodle.com
"There's no predicting anything in this business ... Sometimes we're busy at 5 on a Saturday night and not 9."
Owner Zoe Robinson, in a humbling admission
Taste by Niche
With a sleek, cosmopolitan edge that's more NYC than STL, the new extension to hometown favorite Niche has a window that reads simply "taste." And the name is apt for inside—if you're lucky enough to grab one of the 18 seats in the tiny, dimly lit space. Owner/chef Gerard Craft will again show how he has altered St. Louis dining forever with his ever-changing selection of modern small plates. Only rarely will any dish nudge over the $8 mark, so you can—make that should— taste them all.
1831 Sidney, 314-773-7755, nichestlouis.com
"Instead of cutting back on quality, we have gone crazy with quality. When people are being choosy with their dollars, you must give them the best you can."
Owner/chef Gerard Craft, on his secret to beating the recession
The Good Pie
The variety of pizzas available in St. Louis has exploded exponentially in the last few years, but it wasn't until owner Mike Randolph and crew started cranking out authentic Neapolitan pizzas with a wood-burning oven, handcrafted in Italy just for the restaurant, that we finally had the original. With charred, chewy crusts finished in a mere 90 seconds, the secret is in the oven, and these pies are so great, we think it's probably time they consider a name change.
3137 Olive, 314-289-9391, thegoodpie.com
"Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication."
Owner Mike Randolph's philosophy, echoing Leonardo da Vinci
The coolest restaurant in town is also a place where you can purchase potting soil. "Urban farming" is the foodie mantra of '09, see, and the "North End" of the Central West End is the latest fringe nabe; up there awaits a garden shop/nursery/café serving vegetables grown in a lot across the street, seasoned with herbs harvested from the roof of this former auto-repair shop. Café Osage offers a lovely and relaxed atmosphere for experiencing clever reimaginings of breakfast and lunch staples, like Greens, Eggs, and Ham; Brie LTs; and bison burgers, fresh from their own bison ranch, of course.
4605 Olive, 314-454-6868, bowoodfarms.com
"Our ambition is to continually increase the menu offerings originating from Bowood's Clarksville farm, vegetable garden, and rooftop herb garden."
Chef David Guempel
Stone Soup Cottage
"Dream it, and they will come." With apologies to Kevin Costner, this field of dreams is a circa-1850 farmhouse in Cottleville, renovated into a 25-seat paean to charm and casual elegance. Chef Carl McConnell prepares a single, multicourse menu for one seating, but only three nights a week. Oddly, this is good news. The chef will accommodate a special-occasion party on off nights as well, even if that party numbers two and the occasion is Tuesday. This is a place you will talk about. Recall your favorite breakfast at that splurgy, classy B&B ... Now imagine eating dinner there.
5525 Oak, Cottleville, Mo., 636-244-2233, stonesoupcottage.com
"With one small seating, guests almost feel they've been invited into the chef's home. It is an event, not just a meal."
Co-owner Nancy McConnell, describing her new endeavor
Herbie's Vintage 72
Herb Balaban's place was an anomaly in 1972—a restaurant and a café, two successes under one roof. It took more than 30 years for Balaban's to lose its luster, but now, reinvented as Herbie's, it's shining again, maybe brighter this time, a halogen beacon leading diners back to the CWE. Its classic dishes, like the beef Wellington and Ligurian pasta, are amazingly made better; its reinventions, like the complex shrimp and grits, are flat-out outstanding. Herb B. is no longer with us, but our guess is that Herbie's will be here for some time.
405 N. Euclid, 314-769-9595, herbies.com
"Everything that you touch, see, smell, hear, and taste should be pleasing."
Co-owner/chef Aaron Teitelbaum, on the sensual philosophy behind Herbie's
Crepes in the City
What makes chicken better than chicken? When are mushrooms not merely mushrooms? When they're cozied into a crepe—that deceptively simple veil of flour, eggs, milk, and butter—and clustered with other delicious ingredients like artichoke hearts, baby spinach, caramelized onions, smoked salmon, Gruyére, brie. It tastes like something otherworldly is going on at Crepes in the City. An indescribable alchemy occurs on those circular hot plates. The crepe batter is smoothed, the fillings are piled but properly distributed, and suddenly everything tastes tastier here than it does anywhere else. And that includes the cappuccino. (To read our "Frugal Foodie" write-up on Crepes in the City, turn to page 182.)
500 N. 14th, 314-436-1900
"I feel it's important we change the art on the walls every 30 days."
Co-owner Jose Castro's secret to keeping his restaurant "fresh"
McCormick & Schmick's
In a town with seemingly more overnight delivery trucks than taxicabs, there is no reason St. Louis isn't inundated with fresh seafood. Thank Bill McCormick and Doug Schmick for finally making that happen. Multiple FedEx deliveries every day translate to 30 changeable varieties ... McCormick & Schmick's website even tells you when your favorite species is in season. Chefs are allowed regional creativity and are encouraged to tap local farmers for seasonal produce—it's a chain that's breaking the mold. Thank you, gentlemen, we needed that.
17 West County Center, 314-835-1300, mccormickandschmicks.com
"If you think you've made it, you're in trouble. You have to always try to improve."
General manager Mark Hinkle, answering the question "When did you know you'd made it?"
Too Soon to Tell
But red-hot out of the gate ...
The Terrace View
Whether it's art or grilled Moroccan lamb, you don't know what's good, but you know what you like. No trip to the new Citygarden sculpture complex, which opened this summer, is complete without a repast at the attractive, modern new eatery within. The sounds heard simultaneously on the spacious patio—children laughing in the distance, cicadas chattering up above, and the crowd and fireworks erupting from nearby Busch Stadium—are found nowhere else in the city. When you pair those sounds with chef Jim Fiala's wellhoned small-plates menu, like his signature roasted beet–and–goat cheese salad or beef shin osso bucco, you'll quickly become enamored of the place he calls an "urban canyon."
810 Chestnut, 314-436-8855, citygardenstl.org/index.php/food