I actually plucked this from an email I sent a few weeks ago to a chef I know online, but thought it was appropriate having seen the thread about dropping a kid off at Wash-U...
Food in St. Louis is a very odd thing in that the people love endless free bread, free salads and portions so large that any normal person could eat for days. This does not lend itself to adventurous dining, and therefore, can leave things seeming a bit bland for someone with even half a palette. This was one reason I scurried out of the kitchen. I was tired of reading menus that sounded amazing, and over time coming to know, that you could practically bet your life that no chef in the city would actually fulfill the promise of his words.
As the early 00s have become the middle 00s, however, things are on the rise. We have several chefs in the city, that are now showing St. Louis what truly good food can be. What's exciting to me, is that people are seeing that good does not always equate to expensive or bizarre.
That said, these are "my" favorite restaurants in St. Louis.
Atlas Restaurant (atlasrestaurantstl.com)(the favorite)
French Bistro with a dash of the Mediterranean. Incredibly laid back, the owners of the restaurant are second to none in the city. They're a husband/wife duo that met in San Francisco. She was from St. Louis, and convinced him to return home with her. They worked in some other establishments while getting a feel for St. Louis dining and saving up some money for their own place, and I consider the city blessed to have them.
It's not that Atlas is reinventing the wheel, and any experienced diner will have had these flavors many times before. What they offer, however, is perfection in the little things that are so overlooked in today's restaurant. Food is properly seasoned and served at the right temperature. Hot food is on hot plates, cold on cold. Bread is warm, butter is room temperature. Coffee is hot. Don't miss dessert.
Another transplant to St. Louis. The chef was cooking in Las Vegas. He actually researched online where he might open a restaurant and be successful in a city on the culinary rise. He uses newer, more interesting flavors then St. Louis is typically used to, all the while keeping them simple enough that he's not losing people, and keeping prices down. With his 3 course prix fixe for $30, he has been a definite hit.
Dessert should also not be missed here as well. The pastry chef moved with him from Las Vegas, and has been given free reign to pursue his muse. Especially if you are a gen-xer, you'll love the way he pulls flavors in from all your childhood favorites, while bring them up to a level that makes you feel like maybe enjoying that twinkie was sophisticated all along.
I am biased as I worked here. I consider it to be the most consistent St. Louis style fine dining. The chef/owner worked for Puck and Ogden before returning home to St. Louis to open Harvest with his father and other backers. They serve free bread, they serve large salads (not free) and they have entree portions that might not just serve you for days, but even four days. It's upscale Midwestern American more than anything, and it's good, real good.
The owner is no longer the executive chef, and the new chef was the former chef at my previous favorite restaurant, the now long gone Cafe Campagnard. He makes the best pate in town, and I don't think it's left the menu since he came on board.
Between the two, it's sort of a Lennon/McCartney love as they spin the flavor wheel all the while keeping each other in check straying away from being to bland, or to bizarre. They have elevated each others game, and I dare anyone with a pulse to tell me they didn't enjoy something they ate.
One aside, and personal claim to fame for them (for me). They have had Foie Gras on the menu from day one. People were horrified when they first opened, but it has been a consistent seller for 10 years.
At one time this was my favorite restaurant. They're doing things nobody else in the city even dares to do starting with the fact that the menu changes daily. Soups are not be missed, as they have always been excellent. I was at one time a defender of the high cost of Arthur Clay's noting that it costs a lot to change your menu daily, and to serve the kinds of things they bring in and serve is a huge financial burden if it goes uneaten. (it's the only place I've seen toro in St. Louis)
That said, I had about 10 strong meals here in the first year they were open, but the two I have had this year, while excellent, have finally left me feeling that those who always maintained Arthur Clay's was overpriced may have actually had a point. I must have been blindsided by flavor.
You can get a gift certificate on restaurant.com, which leaves you feeling better about the whole thing. Generally, however, it costs us a minimum of $150-$200 to eat here. I should note, however, that in the 15 times I've eaten here, my wife and I have only probably eaten an entree three times. Their appetizers are always incredibly adventurous for St. Louis, and it's for this reason that we always give Arthur Clay's chef the nod as being the one guy in St. Louis giving complete disregard to what St. Louis diners love, choosing instead to make an attempt at elevating their pleasure to heights found in our larger neighbor to the North, Chicago.
This is St. Louis dining. The menu rarely changes. When it does, it's that only a few dishes change, and their observance of the seasons can be a bit lackluster. The thing is, it's good. It's well seasoned and full of flavor. It's some sort of bastardized nuevo Latino I guess.
An American Place (anamericanplacestl.com)
Larry Forgionne's St. Louis outpost in the renovated Renaissance grand. The restaurant is beautiful. The food is consistently good and incredibly fresh as you would expect. Best cheese course in the city. Another of my memorable dining experiences was at a tasting here where we were served a 24 cheese, cheese course.
Burger joint like steak and shake only local and better because it's less greasy and their shakes/malts are much better.
Italian bakery on The Hill. The Amighetti's special sandwich is a St. Louis tradition
They make all pasta in house, and this keeps us coming back. I wouldn't suggest anything expensive and fancy sounding as it might be a flop, but their pastas are well crafted, and when you can get a heaping portion of homemade lasagna for $8 you're willing to let a few things slide.
Places that are supposed to dazzle, but that I've been underwhelmed by:
Monarch, Boogaloo, Mosaic, Portobello
Places that I've not been but are raved about:
Black Thorn - house made pan style pizza
Red Moon - Asian Fusion
Sorry to be so long winded. I could go on about restaurants in St. Louis for days. ...and obviously, I threw a couple cheaper St. Louis staples on there because sometimes, you really do, just want a sandwich. If there's ever anything they're looking for, feel free to give them my email address. Also, they might want to have a look at saucemagazine.com which is St. Louis' food magazine.