ST. LOUIS -- I wasn't supposed to like it.
Not enough variety. Mediocre quality, at best. Certainly not sophisticated enough. And that from friends who grew up here. Say again, they wanted to know, why I was traveling from Chicago, a city with a rich culinary resume, to check out the St. Louis dining scene?
After all, they had left St. Louis behind a decade or so ago in search of post-college, twentysomething adventures. And they were not alone.
The US Census Bureau estimates the city's population in 2003 was 332,223, down 4.6 percent from 2000. From 1990 to 2000, the population shrank by 12.2 percent, falling to well under half of its high point of 856,796 in 1950. ( The city's image had shrunk, too. Hollywood director John Carpenter, searching for a believable post apocalyptic setting for his 1981 science fiction thriller , "Escape from New York," chose St. Louis.)
But rather than retreat into a self-pitying funk, something remarkable has happened in St. Louis: A city and its people mobilized and took action. Noting a surplus of commercial and industrial buildings and the infrastructure for contemporary loft-living developments, the Missouri Legislature in 1998 enacted legislation that provided a 25 percent tax credit for the rehabilitation of historic buildings in downtown St. Louis.
That, coupled with the city's 1999 commitment of $1.2 billion in mixed public and private money for downtown improvements, "galvanized the city," according to Rollin Stanley, the city's director of planning and urban design, encouraging local entrepreneurial and financial investment, an important first step toward civic revival. "The results were nearly immediate," he said.
Consequently, the St. Louis that frightened moviegoers in the '80s and that prompted my friends' departure s in the early '90s scarcely resembles the St. Louis of today. The $1.2 billion originally earmarked for improvements by the city has ballooned to $4 billion, resulting in widespread and dramatic change. Since 2000, more than 6,600 apartments and condominiums have been built or are in the planning stages, and thousands more people are projected to live downtown by 2008.
Those figures have attracted the attention of restaurateurs nationwide, many wishing to find new outlets to showcase their culinary talents before an ever-more sophisticated and expanding client base. "I'm seeing far more of my clientele coming from New York and Chicago," said Steve Komorek, owner of the city's highly acclaimed Trattoria Marcella. "This, plus the influx of young professionals living in the city -- diners are open to trying new items, they're requesting tasting menus, and exploring new things."
In the past two years, more than five dozen restaurants have opened in the city, 32 of them downtown. Collectively, it has created an energetic climate that offers a variety of appealing dining options. This reflects the changing downtown demographic. "Today, 37 percent of St. Louis's population is in their 50s and 26 percent is in their 20s," said Stanley. "This translates into restaurants that are busy both between 6 and 9 p.m., and then again from 11 until midnight or 1 a.m. It provides unprecedented growth opportunities."
Yes, there are growing variety and many quality offerings, but the restaurant scene doesn't come close to matching the quantity and diversity of Chicago's. "There's no real comparison," said chef and restaurant owner Eddie Neill, a 15-year veteran of the St. Louis restaurant scene, who also spent considerable time living and working in Chicago. "Population density is so high in Chicago, it's a completely different animal."
Even so, St. Louis has made remarkable progress, and a recent visit proved that even the most demanding foodies will find things to celebrate. "The quality of the food here is very, very good, prepared by chefs who are well trained and creative," noted Neill. "And it's only getting better."
Here is a sampling of some of the city's best venues:
1500 St. Charles St.
Monday-Thursday 5-10 p.m., Friday-Saturday till midnight. Entrees $13-$29.
4580 Laclede Ave.
Tuesday-Thursday 5:30-10 p.m., Friday-Saturday till 11, Sunday 5-9 . Entrees a la carte $22-$36, three-course prix fixe dinner $35.
1111 Mississippi Ave.
Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Friday till midnight, Saturday 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Entrees $14.95-$23.95.
1831 Sidney St. 314-773-7755 nichestlouis.com
Tuesday-Thursday 5:30-9 p.m., Friday-Saturday till 10; Veruca at Niche dessert and wine bar, Friday-Saturday 11-1:30 a.m. Entrees $18-$23, three-course prix fixe dinner $35.
2000 Sidney St. 314-771-5777 sidneystreetcafe.com
Tuesday-Thursday 5-9:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday till 10:30.Expensive.
3600 Watson Road 314-352-7706
Tuesday-Thursday 5-10 p.m., Friday-Saturday till 11. Entrees $12.99-$17.50.
Jerry Soverinsky, a writer in Chicago, can be reached at email@example.com.