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Wednesday, March 14, 2007 02:32 pm

Three St. Louis favorites

Despite many dining opportunities, some places keep us coming back

King Louie’s, at 3800 Chouteau Ave. in St. Louis, offers a wonderful melding of great ambiance and outstanding food.
Untitled Document My husband, Peter, and I frequently bop down to St. Louis for the day to shop; listen to music; see a film, play, or exhibit; go to the Missouri Botanical Garden; or just generally mess around. No matter what else is on our St. Louis agenda, however, we always take advantage of its wealth of dining options, ranging from an outdoor rib stand and storefront ethnic eateries to the haute-est of haute cuisine. Though we’re always on the lookout for new finds, there are places to which we keep returning. Here are three perennial favorites: Shaw’s Coffee Ltd. (5147 Shaw Ave., 314-771-6920, www.shawscoffee.com), on the Hill, St. Louis’ Italian neighborhood, is always our first stop unless we’re going to a farmers’ market, and then it’s our second stop. Walking in the door, the first things that hit us are the aroma of freshly roasted coffee beans and the sight of the huge coffee roaster. Shaw’s owners, Washington University vascular researchers Walter Boyle and Gail Maher, aren’t typical coffeehouse owners. They got into the coffee business because of their passion for fine coffee and their frustration at not being able to find coffee or coffeehouses in St. Louis that met their standards. Undoubtedly their scientific background helped in the search for the best green coffee beans and coffee roaster (purchased in Seattle) and the formulation roasting times and techniques. Shaw’s isn’t just about great coffee, however. Boyles and Maher have created a warm, inviting atmosphere with the help of local artists and designers. There’s even a whimsical touch: The former bank space includes a vault with table and chairs for those desiring privacy. We buy enough whole-bean coffee to stock our freezer until our next visit (our favorite, Sumatra, is so aromatic that even when stored in the trunk it perfumes the inside of our car), our coffee drinks, and perhaps a breakfast bread or pastry from the small but well-executed selection. Then we grab a couple of copies of the Riverfront Times (the St. Louis alternative weekly), settle into comfortable chairs or a sofa, and see what’s happening. It’s not a big breakfast, but we want to save room for an early lunch, especially if we’re going to Adriana’s (5101 Shaw Ave., 314-773-3833), a couple of blocks down the street.
Peter usually lingers over his coffee and RFT while I head next door to Viviano’s (5139 Shaw Ave., 314-771-5476, www.shopviviano.com), a 50-plus-year-old Italian family grocery. Then we may both walk over to Bertarelli Cutlery (1927 Marconi Ave., 314-664-4005, www.bertarellicutlerly.com) and peruse the excellent selection of knives and kitchen supplies (though if we’ve brought knives to sharpen, we drop them off before going to Shaw’s), then head over to Adriana’s. There are two reasons to plan an early arrival at Adriana’s. The first is that it’s a St. Louis institution, one of the city’s best-loved lunch spots. Go early, and you may not have to wait in the line that often stretches out the door. The second reason is that lunch at Adriana’s is substantial.
Adriana’s tables and booths are strictly utilitarian. The tablecloths are plastic, as are the glassware and the paper-lined baskets that hold the sandwiches. The only other menu items besides sandwiches are soups, salads, and a few red-sauce pastas. The reason the restaurant so popular is just that everything’s so good. Over the years I’ve tried many things at Adriana’s, but I keep coming back to the Sicilian salsiccia sandwich, the split sausage nestled between Italian vinaigrette-dressed garlic bread and melted cheese. We usually split an order of the housemade caponata, a vegetable mélange somewhere between salad and relish. If we’re going to have a light (perhaps Asian) dinner or just some appetizers before a concert, we may each get a whole sandwich; otherwise, we share.
Either way, a pleasant stroll is in order to work off lunch, and there’s no better place to do it than at the Missouri Botanical Garden (4344 Shaw Blvd., 800-642-8842, www.mobot.org). It might not seem that late Midwestern winter is an ideal time/place to visit a horticultural showplace. The Garden’s Seiwa-en, the largest traditional Japanese garden in North America, is beautiful year-round, however, as is the Climatron’s tropical-lowland rainforest. But it’s the Linnean House, built in 1882, the oldest continuously operating greenhouse west of the Mississippi, that draws us back to the Garden this time every year. It’s filled with camellia trees, their waxy, almost impossibly perfect flowers in full bloom. Camellias have a gustatory connection, too: One variety, Camellia sinensis, is the source of all green and black teas. Any differences come not from different plant varieties but in the way teas are aged, dried, and processed.
Though there are countless dining options in St. Louis, if forced to choose just one I could return to, I wouldn’t hesitate a second: It’d be King Louie’s (3800 Chouteau Ave., 314-865-3662, www.saucemagazine.com/kinglouies/), a wonderful melding of great ambiance and outstanding food. Located in the hospitality room of the old Otto F. Stifel Union Brewery, King Louie’s is a beautiful oasis in an industrial area. The exterior of the quaint 86-year-old building hints at the special treat that lies ahead. A glimpse of the interior confirms that first impression: The warmth of old brick and exposed beams provides a backdrop for the eclectic art chosen by owner Matt McGuire, a graduate of Chicago’s Art Institute. There are more visual pleasures in store: the gorgeous old tiger’s-eye oak bar, one of only 35 in the United States, and the outdoor kitchen/grill/oven and dining area, easily the most beautifully landscaped al fresco eating place I’ve visited in the Midwest. King Louie’s food doesn’t play second fiddle to the surroundings, offering a similar mix of excitement and comfort. There are touches of fusion (often Asian and Southwestern), but they’re complementary, never jarring. Chef Stephen Ciapciak and McGuire are committed to incorporating local products into their ever-changing menu; there’s even a printout about the local purveyors featured on each month’s menu available. Side dishes and accompaniments to main courses are given as much attention as the main dish itself; we often order something on the basis of those accompaniments as much or more than on the main item itself. Servers — including Springfield native Joe Oder, winner of past IT “Best Waiter” awards — are knowledgeable and helpful without being servile. (I hate that old-school bowing-and-scraping stuff.) King Louie’s keeps garnering “Best Of” awards itself, including Best Outdoor Dining, Best Wine List, Best Fireside Dining, and Best Restaurant Overall. Clearly, however, the staffers are not content to rest on their laurels, which is why I’m more than content to keep going back.

Send questions and comments to Julianne Glatz at realcuisine@insightbb.com.
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