The Abby Eats St. Louis podcast team spoke with George Mahe, Cheryl Baehr and Holly Fann about why we’ve become a foodie city and where we go from here.
ST. LOUIS — Our secret is out. And it tastes so good.
St. Louisans have known for years that we are so much more than a “steak and potato” town. We’ve been a hidden gem for quite some time, but in the past few years, it’s truly getting the attention it deserves. Our food scene is sizzling with flavors from all over the world, dreamt up by chefs who’ve trained all around the globe – who want to bring their expertise to the hungry masses in the Gateway to the West.
So, hear us loud and clear when we say St. Louis is a world-class food city.
After all, it’s tough to argue with headlines like…
St. Louis is one of 13 places on Eater’s list of ‘Where to eat in 2022’
St. Louis named one of the best foodie cities in America
St. Louis-area restaurant lands on New York Times’ ‘America’s Favorite Restaurants’ list
Not to mention we just had six St. Louis-area chefs and one restaurant named semifinalists for the 2022 James Beard Foundation Awards, the culinary world’s top prize.
With so much momentum behind us, the Abby Eats St. Louis podcast team wanted to talk with the people who are working hard to cover and promote the St. Louis food scene on the world stage moving forward.
Cheryl Baehr is the dining editor and critic for the Riverfront Times. Holly Fann is a food writer who is based in St. Louis – her work for Eater has put the city on the international map. And George Mahe is the St. Louis Magazine dining editor.
All three chatted with podcast host Abby Llorico about eating in St. Louis, and how they’re feeding us and keeping us hungry for more. Here is some of what they talked about. You can hear more from their conversations and insight on the St. Louis food scene in the Abby Eats St. Louis podcast episode titled “Plate seized.”
Why has St. Louis become a foodie city?
George: It’s been a slow progression for really the last 15, at least 15 years. I kind of peg it to when Gerard Craft and Kevin Nashan got to town. They got to town 2004-2005. Kevin bought a successful restaurant, Sydney Street Cafe. And Craft started Niche. Those two guys started getting James Beard nominations all immediately. And as you know, Gerard won the James Beard Award for Best Chef Midwest in 2015 and Kevin in 2017. When you start getting accolades like that, everybody starts taking notice. The foodies around the country start taking notice. And that’s just that’s just how it works. And so, the thing starts to steamroll and snowball. And all of a sudden, there’s all kinds of folks writing great things about St. Louis.
I see a lot of chefs, a lot of St. Louis chefs moving away, you know, going to Europe to study and going to the coast to work with named chefs. But a lot of them end up coming back here because they know they’ve seen what it’s like out there and it’s a big sea of chefs.
Gerard, he knew he would be a big fish in a small pond here. That’s one reason he came here. He said, you know, I was looking at Chicago in New York, and he goes, I would have probably just been another good chef there. In St. Louis, he had a chance to shine and he knew it. A lot of chefs have moved here. Their dollar goes a lot further here.
What are people getting wrong about the St. Louis food scene?
Cheryl: To me, it always comes back to the pizza thing and how people are in such a hurry not even just to dismiss St Louis-style pizza but just talking about pizzas in general. There’s always such a, ‘Oh, New York is trash and Chicago’s the way to go.’ Why? Why does one have to be better than the other? Why can’t we appreciate things for what they are? St. Louis isn’t trying to say that toasted ravioli is a better way of doing ravioli than every other way you’ve ever had it. We’re saying this is how we do it or this is one of the ways we do it, and there’s a joy in that and there’s a uniqueness in each place having its own sort of voice.
Reducing us to one thing that we think is “lowbrow” is it’s really doing a disservice.
George: St. Louis is becoming a highbrow food community, but some of the items we’re known for are very lowbrow – toasted ravioli, Imo’s provel pizza, Famous-Barr’s French onion soup, gooey butter cake. All those are fine. But I think folks come to town and want to experience it, but I don’t think they dig deeply enough. They might get a gooey butter cake that’s just so-so from somewhere. If you look to seek out a gooey butter cake, there’s some really good ones there. Toasted ravioli the same way.
I think the naysayers are quick to judge. The whole bagel slice, the vertical slicing thing, too. If you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. How many times have you gone into the office and had just seen the bottoms of the bagels? Guys like me, take this top of the Cinnamon Crunch bagel and go squirrel it away into my office and then leave the naked bottoms for somebody else. If you slice it vertically, that doesn’t happen. It’s easy to poo poo, but if you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. And I wrote an article that said that we took flak from all over the country because we “didn’t know how to slice our bagels.” But people stopped to think about it. It wasn’t such a crazy idea.
Where does the St. Louis food scene go from here?
Holly: There’s sort of a two-prong answer that I have. St. Louisans, and I think just people nationally, but St. Louisans are so ready to get back out there. We’re so ready for new restaurants to open. Even though it’s the pandemic. We’ve had an enormous boom in the amount of places opening. St. Louis loves to support a new spot. We are diners. They’re knowledgeable. They know what’s going on and they will search out new places at the same time.
I think something that happened because of the pandemic is that restaurants really had to buckle down and stand up for who they were and what they were doing. Whereas before they might have compromised a little, they might have thought, you know, it would be great if we did this, but I think this would sell better and offend less people, attract more people. I think now we’re going to do what we want to do, and people are realizing that they have more room to take risks because they had to take such huge risks and pivot in these ways.
George: I have been kind of chronicling the openings and closings of restaurants in the coming months almost since 2008, since the recession. And ever since I started blogging that, there has been more openings than closings by a long shot every month of every year. And that’s through the pandemic. For every closing there’s three to four to five openings every month. It’s staggering. We were nearly breaking records the last three months of last year. There were more restaurants opening here than have ever opened in that three-month period since I’ve been looking at it, which if you think about it and all the crazy stuff that’s gone on in the labor shortages, it’s like, I can’t explain it. People said, What do you think about that? Why is that? I have no idea, but I’m glad it’s happening. It’s a good thing.
How to get the most out of your next dining experience
Holly: If you really want to enjoy food, if you want to make yourself a happier person in general, the best advice I can give is to stop believing that there is one defining best of for every dish.
I think diners, especially people who consider themselves food enthusiasts, often do a lot of research. They will dig in and they will try to find the best versions of this or the hottest place for this. But there is a lot of pleasure in going to places and just figuring out for yourself whether or not their food is good. I think the search for the best of everything or being preoccupied with just finding only the most popular, or only the hottest, the newest most esteemed chef is not is not going to lead to happiness. There can be pleasure in dining absolutely everywhere.
Cheryl: I would agree with that. I would also say that I think trusting both the restaurant but also trusting yourself. I think trusting the restaurant comes in that when you let them do what they do best, you’re going to have the best experience. You will probably have the best meal of your life if you tell your server to pick it for you because they know what’s the best thing on the menu and or what’s the chef’s favorite. I guarantee you will walk out of there having the absolute best experience ever. And then the other thing is I would encourage people to trust themselves. And along the lines of what Holly was just saying there, is you may like something that isn’t the trendiest place ever, and the trendiest place ever may not be your preference. And that’s OK. I feel like we tend to put so much weight on the opinions of what we should be enjoying, that we don’t just actually enjoy it. I would just encourage people to just really kind of find their own voice and what they like to eat and just embrace that. Trusting yourself and trusting others, the chef or the server or the host or whoever at the restaurant, those are guaranteed ways to know that you’re going to love what you eat.