Gateway to Good Food: The Best Restaurants in St. Louis

Find great pizza, brunch, barbecue and more in this underrated, overly delicious city.

Photo By: Greg Rannells

Savor St. Louis

Once the fourth-largest city in the U.S. and a major port on the Mississippi River, St. Louis has long been a melting pot of cultures and cuisines, and that stands true today. Thanks to the city’s incredibly diverse population, you can find a New Mexican brunch spot, an Israeli restaurant in an old gas station, an award-winning fine-dining establishment and much more. Whatever you’re looking for, chances are that it’s somewhere to be found in St. Louis (and this is especially true if you’re into beer and meat). Check out this city guide for the best of what to eat and drink in this seriously underrated food city.

Brunch: Southwest Diner

Imagine that a diner from New Mexico circa 1955 was magically transported to current-day St. Louis and you have Southwest Diner. It feels like a time warp in the best way possible. The interior has a teal, red and blue motif, decorated with all sorts of cacti and New Mexican flair. It’s the food that keeps people lining up day after day. In fact, the lines can be so long that the restaurant purchased a school bus that eager diners wait in (on some days there’s a cocktail bar in it!). It’s hard to go wrong ordering anything on the menu, but classics include Jonathan’s Famous Fiery Scramble, the red chile-braised Carne Adovada, and the St. Louis-meets-New Mexico Southwest Slinger: two burger patties, home fries and cheese, topped with two eggs and red or green enchilada sauce. Don’t expect to be doing anything productive after breakfast here.

BBQ: Salt + Smoke

Picking your favorite barbecue in St. Louis is like trying to pick a favorite child: It’s (nearly) impossible. Salt + Smoke is a relative newcomer to the scene, but it’s managed to distinguish itself from the rest by crafting a menu that has something for everyone. The team behind the restaurant come from the fine-dining side of the restaurant world, and they’ve used that to their advantage. Classic barbecue platters are available, but so are more innovative dishes like the brisket sandwich with burnt-end mayo and tobacco onions, or the fried housemade pickles with flax seed mayo. Salt + Smoke’s brisket may very well be the best in town, and the pro move is to ask for the fatty cut — or, even better, burnt ends if they have them.

Burger: Mac's Local Eats

Chris McKenzie has long been known in the St. Louis food community for his dedication to pushing people to eat locally, thanks to his meat shares and CSAs. When he announced he would be opening a burger joint inside a local bar, Tamm Avenue Grill, diners didn’t know what to expect — but the industry pros did. The result is quite likely the best burger in all of St. Louis. McKenzie’s burger has not only all the marks of the best diner burgers, like the thin patty being cooked until ultra-crispy, but also a certain je ne sais quoi that comes from dry-aging. That’s right, this is a dry-aged diner burger, made from the best cuts of the animal. Simply put, it’s the best diner burger ever made.

Icon: Mai Lee

For decades, the most-iconic restaurants in St. Louis were Italian-American ones. Not anymore. As Mai Lee, St. Louis’ first and best Vietnamese restaurant, celebrates its 30th year of business, what started in a tiny, dark space in an old office building has grown into a 100-seat restaurant in the heart of the town. You won’t find a single day where Mai Lee isn’t packed full of happy diners, including the best chefs in town. With over 300 items on the menu — every one made to order — you almost literally cannot go wrong. The crispy salt-and-pepper calamari will change your life for the better.

Carb Heaven: Union Loafers

Union Loafers is a St. Louis staple in the making. Open for just over two years, this place has made a name for itself as not only the best bread bakery in town, by far, but also one of the finest sandwich shops west of the Mississippi and the home of the kings of pizza. If gluten is involved, Loafers is where you want to be. The bread — sought after by diners and by St. Louis’ best restaurants alike — is pure perfection. Go for a loaf of their famous Light & Mild, their enormous Bavarian pretzel or, if you’re looking for something more casual, their cheesy bread. The 18-inch New York-style pizzas are what will change your life, though. The surprise favorite is the spinach (that’s healthy, right?), a hearty pie topped with bacon lardons, garlic and lemon. Don’t forget to order extra buttermilk sauce to dip the crust in.

Hot Spot: Sardella

When Chef Gerard Craft decided to close his flagship restaurant, Niche, immediately after winning a coveted James Beard Award, St. Louis was in shock. Sadness swept through the city as the doors closed and the windows were covered. Then, just months later, Craft surprised everyone with the opening of Sardella. Besides being arguably the most-beautiful restaurant in the city, it also has one of the most-interesting menus, with most dishes taking inspiration from Italy and adding a twist. Forget your run-of-the-mill surf n’ turf — Sardella fills agnolotti with tender braised brisket, then pours a broth with lobster, fennel and Old Bay on top. The crispy Spanish octopus may be the best dish at the restaurant, though. Heck, it might even be the best dish in all of St. Louis.

American Sweets: Pint Size Bakery

St. Louis has a handful of pastry shops filled with American-style goodies, but none can match the whimsy, creativity and flavor of Pint Size Bakery. While their seasonal options are always incredible, their staples are classic for a reason. Nothing can top their oaties: two thin oatmeal cookies filled with a marshmallow-creme buttercream. Other favorites include their Brookies, the love children of a chocolate chip cookie and a brownie; their rainbow of cupcake options; and their Lil Bundts, guilt-free-sized cakes. Not only is the food Instagram-ready, but the shop’s mid-century modern tables and colorful food-themed wallpaper will make your pics shine.

Contemporary Asian: Vista Ramen

St. Louis has had a relatively large number of Asian restaurants over the last 25 or so years, but, somehow, some way, never a good modern take on Asian cuisine. Chef Chris Bork has remedied that with Vista Ramen. While, yes, they do sell ramen, their small plates are where it’s at. Bork uses his skills and palate to invent and combine the expected and unexpected. His KFC (Korean fried chicken) sandwiches on housemade Hawaiian rolls with fish sauce pickles have gained a cult following for good reason. Other highlights include pork ribs with a crab caramel, togarashi-spiced pork rinds, and rice pudding with a curry granola. Don’t sleep on the cocktails, either.

Thai: Fork & Stix

Before 2012, the idea of good Thai food in St. Louis was limited to pad thai with some chicken satay on the side. Then came Fork & Stix, a small restaurant specializing in the cuisine of northern Thailand, and everything changed. Diners were introduced to the likes of sai oua, a pork sausage packed with Thai herbs, served with sticky rice and spicy naam prik nuum. Hung lay curry, filled with sweet and gingery braised pork belly and shoulder, became a wintertime favorite. But no dish has taken St. Louis quite like Chiang Mai’s signature dish, khao soi. This egg noodle curry soup is almost indescribable — think about the best curry you’ve had, but better. That’s what it is. On any given day, you’ll find the restaurant packed with everyone from college students to award-winning chefs, for good reason.

Cocktail Bar: Planter's House

Ted Kilgore is St. Louis’ best-kept secret. He is unarguably the person who brought the craft cocktail movement to St. Louis over a decade ago, and he’s shown no signs of slowing down. From the day that Planter’s House opened, it has been the city’s top cocktail bar, with a mix of classics and inventive creations. It even has a menu of its own “new classics,” drinks that have been so popular that there’s no reason for them to go away. It does have a full food menu, as well, to help soak up some of what you’re throwing down. Insider’s tip: The main bar area is great, but to truly experience Planter’s House, slip upstairs to the intimate, 1950s-style Bullock Room.

Seafood: Peacemaker Lobster & Crab Co.

Eating seafood in a landlocked Midwestern state isn’t always the smartest idea, but at Peacemaker Lobster & Crab Co., you’re in good hands. This is the sister restaurant to the James Beard Award-winning Sidney Street Cafe, after all. With fresh catches flown in daily, Peacemaker serves up a menu of coastal classics including lobster rolls, crab boils and New Orleans-style po’ boys. There’s no better place in town for oysters, both in quality and variety, and the fish crudo of the day will never let you down. Combine all that with housemade soft serve and boozy slushies and you’ve got the perfect spot to enjoy a casual night out — or lunch, if you’re feeling wild.

French: Brasserie

French fare has the reputation for being stuffy and heavy, but that’s not the case at Brasserie. The food pays homage to, well, the French brasserie — a relaxed neighborhood restaurant where one can have a simple meal with friends and family. Whether you decide to take a seat at the bar and enjoy a cocktail with some gougeres and a Brasserie Burger or head into the main dining room for a romantic dinner, you’ll feel right at home. Larger plates include French classics like coq au vin, steak frites and possibly the best roasted chicken you’ll ever have, served over bread and mushrooms, which are perfect for soaking up the buttery jus. Make sure to save room for the decadent desserts, like the profiteroles du jour or the classic floating island.

Late-Night Spot: Taste Bar

How lucky is St. Louis to have one of its best restaurants and cocktail bars also be the place to go for a late-night rendezvous? Taste feels like an old-school speakeasy, complete with Edison bulbs, marble counters and dark wood, but the food and drinks it’s serving up are anything but old-school. The cocktail menu, which changes seasonally, is eight pages long, housing everything from the classics to punch bowls to a section simply called “resurrection.” The food menu changes daily, offering somewhere around 15 small plates and snacks, two larger entrees and three desserts. The buttermilk biscuits with whipped lard, crispy sage and hot honey are not to be missed, nor is the seasonal bruschetta option. It’s a 1 a.m. home run.

Tasting Menu: Vicia

When Blue Hill at Stone Barns chef Michael Gallina announced he was leaving New York to return to St. Louis, his hometown went wild. A chef of that caliber opening a new restaurant in town sent the hype train into overdrive, and he did not disappoint — Vicia opened and went straight into the upper echelon of St. Louis dining. Lunch there is always a great decision, but it’s the dinner service tasting menu that takes things to the next level. Expect over 15 dishes, ranging from incredible local pork to vegetable-forward fare like you’ve never had before, all paired with wine or beverages from Vicia’s botanical bar program. Try getting there a little early so you can enjoy a drink on their enclosed patio while you watch the chefs cook in the restaurant’s enormous, custom-made hearth.

Taiwanese: Tai Ke

The University City neighborhood in St. Louis has long been the city’s unofficial Chinatown, but most restaurants in the area have avoided pushing any boundaries — that is, until Tai Ke arrived. Rather than focus on American-Chinese food like so many other restaurants, they stay true to their roots: classic dishes from Taiwan, including street snacks. There’s nowhere else in town serving clay pots full of the fragrant Three Cup Chicken, a dish that’s both familiar and completely foreign. The gua bao pork buns will make even the worst day better. The best snack of all, though? Taiwanese hot sausages set inside sticky-rice buns, drizzled with a house sauce and showered with scallions.

Straight Outta the Balkans: Balkan Treat Box

Did you know the largest Bosnian population outside of Europe is in St. Louis? Surprise! You could head to “Little Bosnia,” better known as Bevo Mill, or you could track down the Balkan Treat Box food truck. Owners Loryn and Edo Nalic combine their Balkan background with their experience working at some of St. Louis’ best restaurants to create unforgettable dishes. The flavor is unreal—almost all the dishes are cooked using the truck’s built-in wood-fired grill and oven. Pillowy somun bread is baked fresh; minced beef sausages called cevapi are grilled to order and served with a spicy red pepper relish. The real star, though, is the Turkish-inspired pide, a grilled flatbread stuffed with meat or cheese; it’s like the missing link between a pizza and a calzone.

Cheap Eats: Carl's Drive In

Since 1959, Carl’s Drive-In has been the spot for a quick burger, fries and a tall, cold glass of root beer, and the best part is that prices haven’t changed much since then! Seriously, where else can you get a triple cheeseburger for under $6? Granted, Carl’s is home to the thinnest, crispiest patties in the world, but it’s still quite the deal. Add to that a basket of onion rings for $1.75 and a 24-ounce mug of root beer for another $1.75 and you’ve got yourself a meal that will keep you full for a day. If your time in St. Louis is limited, just swing by for a single patty and small root beer (made in-house), then head on to your real lunch. You’ll have room.

Israeli: Olio

It’s hard not to feel cool inside Olio. Built inside a renovated 1930s gas station, this modern Israeli restaurant has both old-school charm and a contemporary edge, thanks to the design and decor. The food, too, alternates between modern and rustic — you can get a bowl of hummus with pita bread made in-house, or you can be a little fancier and go for something like the smoked trout tartine. What makes the restaurant perfect is that it’s great for any time of day, whether it’s a quick lunch, happy hour and snacks, or a romantic dinner out. Seriously, Olio’s bar program (especially the daily “spritz hour”) is not to be missed.

Parisian Pastries: La Patisserie Chouquette

It only makes sense that city with French roots should have French pastry shops. The folks at La Patisserie Chouquette serve up a mix of French classics, like the pain au chocolat and canele, plus mountains of their own French-inspired creations. Their Darkness croissant, made with chocolate butter and chocolate dough, and filled with chocolate, is famous nationwide. Their macaron offerings range from the delicate Cream Earl Grey to wild flavors like Horchata Rum, Bey (Lemonade) and Funnel Cake. If you’re looking for something more substantial, their custom cakes are literally edible art. You will almost certainly leave with more than you intended to buy, but hey, you only live once.

Foodie Haven: Sidney Street Cafe

Looking to impress a visiting foodie? Sidney Street Cafe, winner of 2017's Best Chef: Midwest James Beard Award, is the place you need to lock down a table at. Chef-Owner Kevin Nashan and his team have been pushing the boundaries of contemporary American cuisine for over a decade. The less adventurous can opt for a classic like the filet bearnaise stuffed with lobster or the steak encrusted in wasabi, but where’s the fun in that? Start with the lightly grilled Gulf Coast shrimp served with tomato salad, sliced grapes, pickled onion and white gazpacho, follow it with the rabbit porchetta with mustard jus and then finish with the deconstructed carrot cake. If you’ve never had cheesecake puree with carrot-passionfruit sorbet, you haven’t really lived.

Rock-Star Chef: Matthew Daughaday

Watching Matthew Daughaday run dinner service at his hit restaurant, Reeds American Table, is not unlike seeing the way Thomas Keller runs The French Laundry: There's no yelling or berating, just a calm, Zen-like focus on getting the food out perfectly. Like Daughaday himself, there's no pretense in the food at Reeds. He built the restaurant to be a place for everyone; the menu ranges from burgers and beer to high-end entrees and wines. Weekend brunches give way to his more gluttonous side, with dishes like his chicken and biscuit with habanero honey and maple black walnut grits., The restaurant becomes better with every new dish Daughaday adds to the menu. He's destined to become one of the greats of the St. Louis restaurant scene.

Modern Latin American: Público

Before you even open the door to Público, you’ll know what the restaurant is about: wood-fired cooking. Almost the only cooking apparatus in the entire restaurant is the nearly 8-by-8-foot hearth in the kitchen, which houses a plancha, grill, smoker and more. With the hearth and a deep understanding of Latin American flavors, Chef Mike Randolph and his team have built one of St. Louis’ most exciting and delicious restaurants. There are a few menu staples — like the smoked whitefish tacos with jalapeno cream cheese and crispy onions, which haven’t left the menu since day one — but seasonal fare shows up as it becomes available. The best part is that this place has just started hitting its stride.

Sandwiches: Gioia's

For 99 years, the staff at Gioia’s has been slinging sandwiches in St. Louis’ historic Italian neighborhood, The Hill. They’re known for their signature hot salami, a terrine-like mix of pork shoulder and head, but their sandwich menu goes much deeper. Most options stick to the Italian genre, with things like coppa, meatballs and various salumi, but chicken, turkey and roast beef make appearances too. Order like a pro and go off the not-so-secret menu. You’ll be thanking us when you’re scarfing down your Hill Topper or Porknado 2.0. Most importantly, you can get any sandwich on garlic cheese bread — which you obviously should do.

Meat and Three: Grace

St. Louis isn’t part of the South, but it’s close enough. Grace pairs the simplicity of a “meat and three” joint with the talents of James Beard Award-nominated chef Rick Lewis. That means you’re not getting boring fried chicken and mac ‘n’ cheese that’s been sitting in a pan all day; you’re getting the best fried chicken in St. Louis, made to order. Cornmeal fried catfish, St. Louis-style ribs, and a sweet-tea-brined turkey leg are some mains that are not to be missed, but good luck picking a side. Cracklin’ cornbread or sweet-and-sour greens? Chicken livers or fried green tomatoes? Picking might feel impossible, but you really can’t go wrong. Don’t forget to save room for the banana pudding.

Rock-Star Pastry Chef: Sarah Osborn

No day is the same for Sarah Osborn, executive pastry chef of the Niche Food Group. Some mornings you’ll find her creating breakfast pastries for brunch at Pastaria, while others she may be knee-deep in Willy Wonka-esque gelato creations for Porano. Then, of course, she’s working up award-worthy desserts at Sardella, making dishes like warm peaches over almond cake with zabaglione and cinnamon crumble. If it’s a dessert, Osborn can do it — and she can do it better than almost anyone else (though she would never, ever say that). If you have a sweet tooth, you can’t come to St. Louis and not eat her food, unless you enjoy being miserable.

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