Each year, we honor the seasoned pros who continue to push the envelope in the local food-and-drink scene, from restaurateurs to artisans to hospitality pros.
Zoë Robinson, Billie-Jean, Bar Les Freres and I Fratellini
Not one to rest on her laurels, Zoë Robinson, owner of Billie-Jean, Bar Les Freres and I Fratellini on Wydown Boulevard in Clayton, Missouri, is constantly thinking of ways to expand her dining empire. “I always have something in my back pocket,” she says, adding that she’s inspired by what’s inside her and what she feels compelled to create. Billie-Jean, Robinson’s latest project, has been open for less than two years and brings a different energy to the block. The restaurant offers a collection of contemporary American dishes with Asian accents, reflecting her and chef Ny Vongsaly’s decades of collaboration – Vongsaly has developed opening menus for all of Robinson’s restaurants and was a James Beard Award semifinalist for Best Chef: Midwest this year. In their infancy, Robinson says she approaches each restaurant like a painting, where the décor, lighting, food menu, wine list, cocktail selection and staff are individual layers that synergize with each other to create a complex scene. The end result is then framed in her signature brand: hospitality. She is a major proponent of service and making people feel good – “that’s the mother in me,” she says. Operating the three distinct concepts in tandem has been challenging, yet fulfilling for her. “The restaurant business is so rewarding – when it goes well,” she says. “Still, it’s not something you do for money; it has to be something that you just adore, and I do.”
Michael Del Pietro, MDP Restaurants
For more than 50 years, the Del Pietro family has been stuffing St. Louis diners full of toothsome American-style Italian comfort dishes such as four-cheese ravioli, chicken piccata and veal Parmigiana. With Il Palato – the seventh restaurant under restaurateur Michael Del Pietro’s group, MDP Restaurants, which opened in March of this year – he wanted to do something different. Del Pietro says he designed the restaurant’s concept to fit in the chic Clayton market, choosing aesthetics and food that wouldn’t compete with his other eateries. Il Palato still boasts housemade pastas such as linguine with bay scallops, littleneck clams and rock shrimp in a white wine-shrimp broth that Del Pietro says is “to die for,” but there is a strong focus on southern Italian cuisine. The menu features Sicilian dishes with Mediterranean, Greek and African influences from executive chef Jordan Knight. Listening to his mom and dad talk shop, Del Pietro was introduced to the food and drink industry at a young age. “[I] didn’t know anything else to be quite honest,” he says. “The restaurant business has been awesome to us.” To this day, he loves going to work and serving his customers. One of the most important things he learned from his parents is that the customers pay everyone’s salary and deserve to be treated as such. Heeding their advice, he has fine-tuned every aspect of the Il Palato dining experience. “We’re not just in the service industry; we’re in the entertainment industry,” he says. And he certainly knows how to put on a show.
Chris Kelling, Elmwood
Chris Kelling got into the hospitality industry for a simple reason: He likes to make people happy. And he’s spent the past decade figuring out just how to do that, from opening restaurants across the country as the director of training for P.F. Chang’s to running the dining room at three-Michelin-starred The Restaurant at Meadowood in Napa Valley – an experience he likens to playing center field for the New York Yankees. Local diners were first introduced to Kelling as the general manager of Gerard Craft’s acclaimed (and now-shuttered) Niche, where he worked alongside executive chef Adam Altnether to bolster the restaurant’s service. This year, the pair teamed up again to open Elmwood, an elevated neighborhood restaurant in Maplewood, Missouri. While Altnether oversees the restaurant’s menu, Kelling runs the front of house, ensuring that all diners – whether they’re stopping in for a burger and beer at the bar or splitting a rib eye in the dining room – feel at home. Kelling often tells servers that it’s not enough to bring a diner a plate of food; they have to connect and build a relationship with them. “Our job is to make guests comfortable and let them know we care, and to make a guest feel like you care, you have to actually care,” he says. “From there, we’ve created a platform on which you can enjoy what you came for – the food.”
Michael and Tara Gallina, Vicia and Winslow’s Table
In St. Louis, if you’ve heard the buzzwords “vegetable-forward” come up in conversation over the past few years, you’re likely familiar with the work of Michael and Tara Gallina. For the uninitiated, the couple own the acclaimed Vicia in the city’s Central West End, which is driven first and foremost by local, seasonal produce. Here, vegetable-forward doesn’t mean vegetarian – rather, the Gallinas treat vegetables with the same respect and attention to detail as proteins. Vegetables show up in new and unexpected ways on both the formal evening tasting menu and the more affordable fast-casual lunch menu – think kohlrabi shell tacos and chicken-fried carrots. The couple met while working at Dan Barber’s world-renowned Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Tarrytown, New York. Since opening Vicia in 2017, they have also helped bring national attention to Michael’s hometown: The restaurant has earned a slew of accolades from the likes of Bon Appétit, Food & Wine, Eater and the James Beard Foundation. Nevertheless, the Gallinas are hardly resting on their laurels. This fall, they reinvented the beloved Winslow’s Home in University City, Missouri, as Winslow’s Table. The restaurant brings Vicia’s farm-fresh ethos to a more casual setting, offering an expanded menu of grab-and-go fare, including grain salads, soups, charcuterie, pesto and Clementine’s ice cream pints. With both Vicia and Winslow’s Table, the Gallinas are bringing their culinary chops to two concepts firmly rooted in the Midwest.
Sean Baltzell and Casey Colgan, Parlor, Taco Circus and Takashima Records
If you’ve sipped a Stag during a game of pinball at Parlor or downed a Purple Margarita on the patio at Taco Circus, you can thank Sean Baltzell and Casey Colgan. Baltzell has a knack for creating concepts that each have a distinct brand and identity (he also owns Tower Classic Tattooing, Union Barbershop and Knife & Flag), while Colgan brings serious chops to the bar program at each of their establishments – he’s previously worked behind the bar at hot spots such as Atomic Cowboy and HandleBar. The pair first brought us Parlor: A “grown-up arcade bar” that opened in The Grove in late 2017, it quickly became a neighborhood staple thanks to its approachable menu featuring everything from $2 cans of Stag to a standout Pimm’s Cup made with local Vess soda. This summer, Baltzell and Colgan teamed up with Taco Circus owner Christian Ethridge to transform his humble Bevo taco joint into a full-service restaurant in Southwest Garden, offering an expanded menu of Tex-Mex comfort food alongside a full bar program. Next up? Takashima Records, a Japanese-inspired vinyl bar and record label, set to open soon in The Grove.