St. Louis has had what many identify as a burgeoning “food scene” for some time. 2019 has done nothing to tread on that reputation, with a second in the nation ranking from Yelp.com as a food destination, and a new round of nominees for the coveted James Beard Award.
So how did we get here? How does a Chinese immigrant in south-city land one of those James Beard nominations? It is, after all, considered the “Oscars of food” by many.
And how does a suburban restaurant, opened at least partially as therapy for its owners, also earn one of those nominations and get listed by name as one of the reasons “foodies” from around the nation should be traveling here?
And, as a whole, how does our Middle-America home suddenly find itself trailing only San Francisco on Yelp’s national list of places to eat?
“There was no aha moment. It wasn’t flipping a switch,” says Catherine Neville, publisher of Feast Magazine and longtime St. Louis food writer.
She says it was a process measured out in decades, and the fact that behind many great restaurants is a great story.
“A restaurant should be personal,” Neville says. “You’re not launching a concept. A restaurant should be an extension of who you are.”
That is no doubt the case at Olive and Oak. The Webster Groves hot spot has a homey, almost therapeutic feeling…with hearts on the walls, and dozens of family pictures. Those pictures tell you more than you might realize about the place. Olive and Oak is not a street corner. Olive represents Ollie Hinkle. He was owner mark Hinkle’s son. Oak, is Oakes Ortyl, son of Hinkle’s partner in the restaurant. Both children died as infants from congenital heart disease.
“It means a lot for us to have the names just carried on and have a chance to share the story,” Hinkle said in an interview, wearing a red, felt heart pinned to his left lapel.
That story has been the seed for one of the area’s most decorated eateries, based largely on concepts, most agree, have made St. Louis’ food scene so successful in recent years.
“Hospitality I think is the one thing,” Hinkle observes when asked about the “secret sauce” for success. “And hospitality can come from the kitchen, from everywhere, from your staff. It’s just a culture.”
Jesse Mendica is the restaurant’s executive chef. She says what Olive and Oak is all about can literally be sensed by a customer when he or she walks in the door.
“It’s the feeling people get from the back to the front. Everybody here is glad they’re here, glad people are here to see us, glad that they’re enjoying what they’re having.”
That enjoyment put Olive and Oak front and center on Yelp’s recognition of St. Louis within a month of the understated Mendica being named a James Beard semifinalist. She says she prefers the recognition of the city and the restaurant over any individual accolades.
It was an easier one for me to handle kind of because it was all about St. Louis and I love everything St. Louis. I love the attention for it. I love the interest in it.”
In south city, Lona Luo of Lona’s Lil’ Eats already had one of those James Beard nominations. This year’s was her second, and a little easier because this year she knew what it was. It was a mystery to her in 2018. She hasn’t lived that one down with her staff.
“Kind of a big joke to me. I don’t even notice what’s about it. Everybody kind of laughing at me. That’s cool,” she says with a hearty laugh.
Being on a list among America’s top chefs is a very long way from her origins in rural, southwestern China.
“I grew up in like a jungle place,” she says. “Everybody think I’m making up a story. I grew up no electricity, no TV, no phone, and we walking barefoot. Even we carry water using big bamboo, like make a big hole and carry on the shoulder.”
She would leave her village after the equivalent of high school for the provincial capital. It was there she met an English teacher from St. Louis who would become her husband. When she came to the United States, she brought the style of cooking she had learned in her mother’s small kitchen.
“My biggest secret is what I put my heart on it,” she says of her success. “Also, I use all the natural ingredients.”
Ingredients that include spices she still imports from back home. That natural approach is something Feast Magazine’s Neville says has spread among St. Louis’ top restaurants independent of Luo’s influence.
“That is what Missouri has, and what St. Louis has, and that’s access to incredible farmers and cheesemakers and brewers and bakers and all of these people who really contribute to the culinary industry.”
And there’s another thing these two places, and other success stories in St. Louis share: a more relaxed attitude about eating.
Olive and Oak’s Mendica is proud of what she describes as, “taking some of the pretense out and just having fun and getting back to delicious food, delicious drinks, delightful service, pleasant atmosphere. That all counts and maybe we just have learned what to focus on now.”
Luo’s spot, Lona’s, is a more casual lunch spot, and takes it a step further.
“You want a completely vegan you have choice of vegan,” she says. “You want completely sugar free, you have choice of sugar free. You want completely meat you have choice of meat. I have no controlling. I didn’t tell you what to eat. That’s in yourself.”
This isn’t the first good press St. Louis has gotten. Gerard Craft of Niche fame, and Kevin Nashan of Sidney Street Café have both won that coveted James Beard award, each being named best chef in the Midwest. Their notoriety put more eyes on St. Louis food. But what is the engine to all this? Nearly everyone we asked said it’s the diners of metro St. Louis, who keep showing up.
“We couldn’t do what we’re doing if people aren’t coming and spending money and spending their time in our restaurant,” Hinkle says. “I think the interest in food has gone through the roof over the past 10, 15, 20 years.”
Neville echoes the sentiment.
“Because without the consumer, none of this is possible. The only way these restaurants stay open and these breweries are able to function is because the consumer wants that product, and in St. Louis people are incredibly adventurous diners and they are very supportive of the culinary scene. They want to go out and taste what’s new.”
Hinkle says while there is plenty of friendly competition, St. Louis’ restaurants are also succeeding by cooperating.
“We work hard, collaboratively I guess is the word, as a restaurant scene in St. Louis to prove that we are more than just a flyover city.”