From George Mahe of St. Louis Magazine
20. The Emergence of the In-House Pastry Chef
In years past, Cyrano’s Café had cornered the local dessert market, so it’s fitting that Carolyn Downs, its most recent owner and pastry chef, was the one to put the restaurant—and the dessert course—back on the local radar. With interest piqued by the classic World’s Fair Éclair and Cleopatra, Downs added retro, scratch-made items like tarts, tortes, tatins, and red-velvet cakes; at Revival, she mainstreamed items like clafouti and chocolate-covered bacon. About the same time, Mathew Rice was making major after-dinner noise at Niche (and continues to do so at Pi). Then came Christie Saali at Sidney Street Café and Claire Robberson at Eclipse. Restaurateurs have begun to realize that our last meal memory should be a sweet one.
19. Happy-Hour Deals Go High-End
Restaurants strive to generate a profit—even a small one—during slow dayparts, but even I was surprised to discover that seafoodery McCormick & Schmick's was selling a half-pound cheeseburger and fries for $1.95 (since raised to $2.95), along with an appealing list of heavily discounted appetizers. The program achieved its intended effect: M&S’s bar is hopping at happy hour. Similar deals can be found at Morton’s Power Hour ($5 Bar Bites) and Fleming’s happy hour (5 for $6 till 7); many other "nice" restaurants have followed suit with half-priced appetizers and discounted drinks to match.
18. Quick-Service Dining
Any idea that reduces table time (something valuable to both customer and operator) is a good idea. Properly executed, as it is at Nordstrom's café and Il Vicino, it’s a marvel to behold. Servers can actually serve their customers, instead of wasting time taking and entering orders—or worse, dealing with customers’ indecision.
17. Chefs Ratcheting Down
It’s a trend many locals apparently like: notable St. Louis chefs opening smaller-footprint concepts, like David Guempel’s cozy Café Osage; Jamey Tochtrop’s teeny Stellina Pasta Café; Gerard Craft’s 16-seat Taste by Niche; and Lee Redeland John Rice’s pickup-only Red L Pizza.
16. Categorizing Wine by Taste Profile
Although it’s not a new idea, it was Robust Wine Bar & Café that gave it local notoriety. Wines are listed by “Robust Factor”—descriptors like “crisp” and “hearty”—rather than by country of origin or grape varietal. The net effect has been to broaden our wine knowledge and lead us to try wines we might otherwise not have risked trying.
15. The Emergence of Mixed-Use Dining
Whole Foods may have been the first locally to allocate square footage specifically for consuming items from its hot buffet and salad bar. Now Culinaria and the new Schnucks–Des Peres have upped the ante by designing mezzanines and counter seating, respectively, for in-store dining. If you purchase a bottle of wine, they’ll open it for you and even provide stemware. What’s next…servers?
14. The Reemergence of Dine-In Pizza
For years, the pizza industry had been moving from dine-in to pick-up and delivery. Then Dewey’s Pizza hit town and showed locals how much fun—and how well-executed—a pizza place can be (should we even call them “parlors” anymore?). Then came Pi, Onesto, Katie’s, The Good Pie—they all have their own style and they’re all superior. I can’t wait to see what emerges in 2010.
13. Beer Rises to the Top
In the ’90s, wine-paired dinners took center stage; this past decade, beer and local microbreweries showed growth. Local brewer Schlafly can scarcely keep up with demand. Now we see monthly beer-themed dinners at Newstead Tower Public House; amped-up beer menus all over town; a passionate and determined focus from innovators like The Stable; and more retail space in general allocated to craft beers, a trend capped off by the International Tap House, which keeps nearly 500 bottled beers on hand. And since Gerard Craft opened his megahot Brasserie by Niche, with 28 revolving beers hand-picked by STL Hops’ Mike Sweeney, the buzz will surely continue.
12. The Rise of "Green" Restaurants
The public is now sensitive to the massive waste produced by the average restaurant, so "going green" is no longer an option; recycling, composting, and energy-efficient equipment will now be SOP. Give credit to local spots like Pi (and to a lesser degree, the Missouri Botanical Garden's Sassafras, which convinced us not just that sustainability is important, but that it can be easy to implement as well.
11. The Influence of the No-Smoking Restaurant
Many dining decisions in the last 10 years were based on the presence of secondhand smoke. Give kudos to 100 percent nonsmoking pioneers like The Crossing, but even more praise should go to restaurants like The Royale and Cardwell’s at the Plaza, whose owners committed to a 100 percent nonsmoking policy after years of allowing it. It’s unfortunate how the new nonsmoking law is taking shape here, but that’s fodder for another forum.
10. The "Wine Bar" Raises the Bar
We can thank establishments like 33 Wine Shop & Tasting Bar for providing us with a nongeeky wine education every time we stop by. And we toast places like Sasha’s Wine Bar, Robust, and most recently, Balaban’s Wine Cellar & Tapas Bar, for pairing good wines with good eats.
9. The Emergence of Dining Coupons and Half-Price Deals
Although the Entertainment Book has been around for years, it was Restaurant.com; the deals on the websites of every local TV and radio station; the Rewards Network (a 100 percent passive system that men will use); and Groupon that really caught my attention. Locally, Foodie STL created a holiday buzz with its 52 $10-off deals. For daily updates, check out STL Meal Deals, a website I find myself referring to continually.
8. The Impact of Dining-Review and Dining-Reservation Websites
Sites like Yelp, Urbanspoon, and TripAdvisor have now made it easy to make an informed dining decision. Smart phones allow you to now do it on the fly and even guarantee a table, using OpenTable. Sure, you have to learn to sift through the bogus postings—the shills, the ax-grinders, competitors' posts—but regardless, these sites have been a godsend.
7. The Impact of TV Food Shows and The Food Network
Quite simply, these have raised diners' tastes and expectations, introducing us to exotic proteins, spices, ingredients, and pairings. Admit it: Had you seen hanger steak, tri-tip, or barramundi on a local menu before these shows gave them notoriety?
6. The Reemergence of the Prix-Fixe Menu
It’s by no means a new concept, but you have to give Jim Fiala (of The Crossing, Liluma, Acero, The Terrace View) the credit for revitalizing it. His insanely low "four courses for $25" deal at The Crossing proved so successful, he started the program at both Liluma and Acero. The immediate effect: potential new customers at all three restaurants. The end result: A ton of restaurants in town followed suit with deals of their own. Curiously, none of them ever matched Fiala's four for $25 deal.
5. In-House and Back-to-Basics Techniques
Having local chefs who have learned the techniques of butchering, canning, curing, pickling, charcuterie, bread baking, etc., has raised the quality level of not only the products involved, but also our collective dining experience. Allow yourself the indulgence of a tasting menu from one of these chefs (I won’t mention them all here, but I'll fill you in if you contact me) and you’ll see what I mean.
4. The Mixologist
Full credit must be given to Ted Kilgore for setting the bar so high (and to his previous employer, Monarch Restaurant, for allowing him to stock his larder with exotic liquors, liqueurs, juices, and tinctures) and teaching his craft to so many others. Mix one part cocktail historian, one part innovator, one part master technician, and three parts passion, and you’ve created Ted Kilgore. He spearheaded the local movement and is a prime reason we now have qualified mixologists—not bartenders—at places like 33, Brasserie by Niche, Eclipse, Herbie’s, Monarch, Pi, Sanctuaria, and Terrene. And for a cocktail—and a lesson—from the master, visit Kilgore at Taste by Niche.
3. Free Marketing Tools Like E-Newsletters, Facebook, and Twitter
Restaurants could never seem to come up with the resources to market themselves properly. Now they can. The advent of free Internet tools has allowed them to bore down into their customer base, keeping them apprised of daily specials, event dinners, and even on-the-fly, one-time-only deals. It’s exciting; it creates urgency; it’s not going away. The new generation of diners has locked in on these social networking concepts and the savvy restaurateur knows it.
2. The Emergence of the "Locavore" and "Farm to Fork" Phenomena
Although I much prefer that title's second term, the effect of establishments sourcing local, organic, and sustainable products has freshened the dining experience, to say the least. Menus now change daily, even hourly, as products are delivered or picked. On-site and rooftop gardens (Café Osage has done an impressive job with both) are becoming commonplace and chefs (such as Onesto’s Vito Racanelli and Stone Soup Cottage’s Carl McConnell) are now requesting specific cultivars to be grown exclusively for them. The next step will be the stretching of the Midwestern growing season via innovations in greenhouse design (solar, geodesic, hoop-house, etc.).
1. The “Small Plate” Replaces the Entrée
OK, it may not have completely replaced it—but the traditional entrée is on the decline. The emergence of tapas, small plates—call them what you will—has brought about a mini-revolution in how we locals dine. The tapas phenomenon was introduced by Greg Perez at a place called Piccolo’s 20 years ago, but it wasn’t until the wild success of BARcelona and Modesto, and then Mosaic, Boogaloo, Momos, and Acero, that small plates went multicultural and caught everyone’s attention. The side benefit: fewer doggie bags of leftovers that most of us would end up pitching anyway.
George Mahe is the St. Louis Magazine's Dining Editor.