Toasted ravioli is quintessentially St. Louis.

Toasted ravioli is quintessentially St. Louis. Photo © Eugene Kim, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Over the past decade, St. Louis has shaken off its reputation as a culinarily timid town. For years, visitors associated St. Louis with good-but-unadventurous fare, including plates heaped with meat and potatoes and bowls of pasta sauced with sweet marinara. Fast forward to today, when fine-dining options can be found in practically every neighborhood and the city boasts James Beard nominees, Bon Appétit award winners, and two of Food & Wine magazine’s “Best New Chefs” (that would be Niche’s Gerard Craft in 2008, followed by Farmhaus’s Kevin Willmann in 2011). Cozy bistros such as Brasserie by Niche and Franco serve food inspired by the French countryside, and hip spots like Five and Home Wine Kitchen try adventurous pairings that always seem to work out just right.

Visitors should not leave town without trying foods that are quintessentially St. Louis: We’re talking toasted ravioli, thin-crust pizza topped with Provel cheese, barbecued pork steaks, and gooey butter cake.Of course, it’s not always about haute cuisine and molecular gastronomy in this Midwestern city. True to its strong immigrant roots, the food scene in St. Louis is a delightful assemblage of Italian sandwich shops, Vietnamese noodle cafés, and Bosnian smokehouses. International options are particularly abundant in South City, where immigrant groups from Sarajevo to Addis Ababa have settled. St. Louis’s Thai and Vietnamese restaurants are great bets for hungry vegetarians, as these spots turn out consistently delicious dishes loaded with tofu and fresh veggies.

There are plenty of gastronomic adventures to be had in the Gateway City. But make no mistake about it: St. Louisans also know their comfort food. After all, how better to withstand a harsh Missouri winter than with a heaping bowl of spaghetti or a blue-plate special? Visitors should not leave town without trying foods that are quintessentially St. Louis: We’re talking toasted ravioli, thin-crust pizza topped with Provel cheese, barbecued pork steaks, and gooey butter cake.

Most Beautiful Restaurant

Bridge Tap House & Wine Bar is one seriously gorgeous restaurant, with creative touches—glassware suspended from violin strings, chandeliers fashioned from antlers—that elicit as many “wows” as the amazing beer list.

Best Brewpub

The world may know St. Louis as the hometown of Anheuser-Busch, but folks in the know favor The Schlafly Tap Room. Pair Schlafly’s excellent microbrews with homemade soft pretzels, a bratwurst sandwich, or the best fish-and-chips in town. If you’re visiting St. Louis during the winter, don’t miss the Coffee Stout.

Best Barbecue

In a town known as much for its barbecue as for its giant Arch, picking a favorite is tough. But when the (smoked-wood) chips are down, top honors go to Pappy’s Smokehouse. Owner Mike Emerson serves up the finest ’cue in the city. The line often snakes through the restaurant and out the door, but the wait is worth it—and made totally tolerable by the abundant samples that travel through the queue, often handed out by Emerson himself.

Best Small Plates

The term “small plates” is so common as to be almost meaningless, but Taste reclaims the phrase in a major way, thanks to its absolutely perfect culinary creations. The kitchen’s playful take on street tacos will leave you smiling from ear to ear, as will the cocktails prepared by expert mixologist Ted Kilgore.

Best Soul Food

A former backup singer for Ike Turner, Robbie Montgomery opened Sweetie Pie’s in Forest Park Southeast in 2003. Offerings change daily and include pork steaks, okra, mac and cheese, and an oxtail stew that would give any high-end joint a run for its money.

Best Coffee Shop

Tired of cookie-cutter coffee chains? Let The Mud House restore your faith in what a neighborhood coffee shop can truly be. Grab a seat, and spend the morning (or afternoon) sipping, snacking, and surfing at one of the hippest, friendliest places in town.

Best Place for a First Date

With its sultry lighting, abundant red roses, and decadent desserts, Baileys’ Chocolate Bar is the perfect first-date spot. Indulge in dark-chocolate martinis or nibble on a variety of truffles. Romance comes easy at this Lafayette Square gem.

Best Gourmet Experience

Mention Niche to any St. Louis foodie, and brace yourself for rapturous descriptions of what very well might be the best restaurant in town. Gerard Craft isn’t afraid to make dishes like pork cheeks with bacon ice cream—and Food & Wine didn’t hesitate to name him one of the Best New Chefs of 2008. In 2011, Farmhaus head chef Kevin Willmann garnered that same auspicious Food & Wine award, thanks to his playful, divine takes on Gulf Coast cooking—including a prawn-and-escolar preparation that is the best seafood dish in town.

Best Pizza

Fistfights have probably started over St. Louis pizza—that’s how loyal St. Louisans are to their favorite pie. For perfectly crisp thin-crust pizza, try Pizza-A-Go-Go, a homey BYOB spot near the city’s south side, or sample the authentic Neapolitan pizza at The Good Pie. If you crave a thicker crust, stop by the legendary Black Thorn Pizza & Pub.

Best Burgers

Get your burger with a side of nostalgia at Blueberry Hill, where owner Joe Edwards’s collection of Americana covers both levels of this Delmar Loop landmark. The burgers are perfectly seasoned (don’t miss the onion rings). The burgers at super-friendly Irish pub Seamus McDaniel’s rival those at Blueberry Hill, and in the summer you can enjoy your meal on Seamus’s huge patio.

Excerpted from the Second Edition of Moon St. Louis.