Some cities reveal their charm effortlessly. Walk out of a hotel room in London or New York, and you can easily stroll into a compelling neighborhood, its curated boutiques and trendy cafes smacking of local verve.
Other cities are less self-evident. They make you work for it. If you favor a bit of a challenge — say, discovering a metropolis by way of foodie scavenger hunt — then a few days in St. Louis are in order.
Leave Chicago early to make it to your first destination: Pappy’s Smokehouse, 3106 Olive St.; www.pappyssmokehouse.com. With a 7:30 a.m. departure time, you’ll miss rush hour traffic and hit St. Louis when lunchtime hunger pangs are peaking. But be prepared to wait. Mike “Pappy” Emerson’s Memphis-style barbecue joint is a magnet for carnivores hankering for meats smoked over apple and wild cherry woods (some for up to 22 hours).
The menu isn’t exotic. But the basics — ribs, beef brisket, burnt ends and even turkey breast — are electrified with a tangy one-two punch of Mediterranean dry rub and brown sugar glaze. Other fan favorites include baked beans, sweet potato fries and Frito pie, a platter of the snack food heaped with meat, cheddar cheese, baked beans and onions. Should you wish to behold the glory that is an entire pig being smoked, scour the room for Mike (easily identifiable for his resemblance to ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons), who’s happy to hold court in front of his Ole Hickory pit.
Pappy owns a few other spots in town: Bogart’s Smokehouse (www.bogartssmokehouse.com), another standout BBQ restaurant in the Soulard district, and Southern (www.stlsouthern.com), a home-style fried chicken eatery next door to Pappy’s in midtown.
Southern chef Rick Lewis achieves battered-bird nirvana with a beer- and cayenne-infused marinade and habanero-scented dredge. (He avoids lard and buttermilk.) Diners can amp up the heat index with an additional dip in house-made chili oils, whose choices range from mild to Cluckin’ Hot. Aside from chicken, there are snacks like fried green tomatoes, deviled eggs and buttermilk biscuits. My husband opted to push his cholesterol envelope by sampling the country-fried bologna sandwich topped with pimento cheese and a sunny side up egg.
Come dinner time, we were hooked on Olio, 1634 Tower Grove Ave., before we’d even downed our first Funky Cold Madeira cocktail. Maybe it was “Love Child” blaring from the turntable. Or the oddball decor, namely spark plugs as coat hooks, an arachnid-looking chandelier swaying over the open kitchen and vintage meat grinders adding kitschy kick to the bar.
This 1930s Standard Oil service station has been reimagined as a small plates Mediterranean eatery in Botanical Heights. The intimate space delivers mighty flavors that chef-owner Ben Poremba describes as “Middle-terranean,” a riff on his Israeli-Moroccan heritage.
Smoked trout on burnt toast achieves high zest courtesy of a muhammara spread made of toasted walnuts, roasted peppers, Urfa pepper flakes and pomegranate molasses. Fluffy ricotta and a chermoula dressing of preserved lemons, ginger, parsley and cumin add texture and richness to a roasted beet salad. Next door is Olio’s sophisticated sister, Elaia (www.elaiastl.com), a 30-seat, tasting-menu-only restaurant also focused on Middle Eastern dishes.
In the morning, you’ll want to burn off that barbecue before tackling the day’s culinary to-do list. Head to Forest Park, the city’s glorious, 1,300-acre green space that doubled as the grounds of the 1904 World’s Fair. You can rent a paddle boat year-round at the boathouse, sign on for a guided bike tour or exercise by way of sightseeing. The World’s Fair Pavilion, art museum, zoo and science center are scattered throughout the park.
The perfect perch for lunch is The Hill, a historic neighborhood famous for Italian-American bakeries, grocery shops and old-school restaurants.
The nearly century-old Gioia’s, 1934 Macklind Ave., is a no-frills deli celebrated for hot salami sandwiches. We sampled the Porknado, a melt-in-your-mouth trio of hot salami, ham and bacon piled on garlic cheese bread; www.gioiasdeli.com.
At Adriana’s On The Hill, 5101 Shaw Ave., savory caponata, meatball sub sandwiches and salami-laden salads are served up under the watchful eye of Adriana Fazio and her daughters; www.adrianasonthehill.com.
You could also try Milo’s Bocce Garden, 5201 Wilson Ave., where toasted ravioli and wings can be had before or after a game of bocce ball; www.milosboccegarden.com.
Next up? Sweets. Much has been made of gooey butter cake, an intensely sweet, neon-yellow concoction born of a coffee cake gone awry. Despite its goofy name, it’s achieved Kardashian-like fame throughout St. Louis. A variation is sold everywhere, from bakeries to supermarkets. The tastiest of the bunch can be found at Gooey Louie, a carryout-only joint at 6483 Chippewa St.; www.gooeylouiecake.com.
Another culinary rite of passage is a visit to Ted Drewes (www.teddrewes.com), the 80-year-old frozen custard shop that resembles a cartoonish snow-covered cabin straight off the set of “Frozen.”
Farm-to-table may be an eye-roll-inducing term, but it best describes how chef Kevin Willmann defines his gastro intentions at Farmhaus, 3257 Ivanhoe Ave., a fine-dining restaurant with a rustic-cool vibe; www.farmhausrestaurant.com. Elegant dishes like Compressed Cucumber & Crab (lump crab, English cucumber gel, tempura crisps and chili creme fraiche) and Roasted Ozark Forest Mushroom Salad (spicy greens, Baetje Farms’ goat milk cheese, toasted Missouri pecans) showcase Willmann’s dexterity and commitment to local purveyors.
After dinner, pop over to The Monocle, 4510 Manchester Ave., a Belle Epoque-styled speak-easy featuring craft cocktails and cabaret, open Wednesday to Saturday;www.themonoclestl.com.
The lively Soulard Farmers Market, about a half-mile north of the Anheuser-Busch Brewery, has been around for more than 200 years. It’s open year-round, Wednesday to Saturday. The best time to visit is Saturday morning, when stalls brim with vendors hawking everything from fresh produce to live turkeys. The grand hall sells prepared foods, including breakfast items; www.soulardmarket.com.
For lunch, try SqWires, 1415 S. 18th St., a Western Wire factory-turned-groovy-eatery tucked into Lafayette Square, a Victorian-era neighborhood close to the market. You’ll feast on Americana fare with Southern flair: chicken pot pie, shrimp and grits, seafood chowder, meatloaf. On weekends, the bloody mary bar lures millennials like moths to a hipster flame, with a smorgasbord of spices, meats, cheeses, hot sauces and pickled delicacies beckoning from Mason jars; www.sqwires.com.
Amy Tara Koch is a freelance writer.