Follow the bright lights to two of St. Louis’ artsiest neighborhoods. The glowing neon signs over Manchester Avenue indicate the entrances to The Grove, and, 2 miles north, the resplendent Fabulous Fox Theatre and dazzling lights along North Grand Boulevard welcome you to the heart of Midtown.
The Grove packs in plenty between its seven blocks. The eclectic entertainment districts spans from Kingshighway Boulevard to Vandeventer Avenue, and most of the hotspots are along Manchester Avenue: live music venues, breweries, tattoo parlors, donut shops, coffeehouses, restaurants and everything in between. The Grove is known for being LGBT-friendly and even hosts an annual naked bike ride along its rainbow-painted streets.
The nightlife is not to be missed: Kick off your night in The Grove at Urban Chestnut Brewing Co.’s massive, 450-seat open-floor bierhall or across the street at The U.R.B., its all-new research and pilot brewery. The regional brewery, which also features a German-style biergarten patio in Midtown, brews both old-world European styles in Midtown and new-world, American-craft styles in The Grove. Both breweries serve robust menus of locally sourced German fare, from its pretzel board with Bavarian cheese and mustard to the brewer’s board – a colorful assortment of meats; cheeses; and small fare like cornichons, local chestnuts and beet-pickled deviled eggs. Other hearty signatures include the goulash, the salmon-salad sandwich and the new Reuben with house-smoked pastrami on local bread – a current favorite of Bavarian-born cofounder and brewmaster Florian Kuplent.
“I think the small businesses that have popped up over the last few years in both The Grove and Midtown really define the character and vibe of the neighborhoods,” Kuplent says. “The mix of nightlife and cultural activities are really worth checking out.”
While The Grove is better known for street art, nightlife and live music, Midtown is home to a thriving arts scene, including plays and musicals at The Fabulous Fox Theatre; live concerts at St. Louis Symphony Orchestra; and exhibits at the Contemporary Art Museum, the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, The Sheldon Concert Hall and Art Galleries and more.
Saint Louis University (SLU)’s main campus is located in Midtown, and there are plenty of nearby hangouts for students to catch a break from the books and for locals and visitors to relax. The Fountain on Locust, for example, is a vibrant old-school soda fountain that’s housed in an old sports-car production facility and garage. The restaurant’s 360-degree mural was hand-painted by owner Joy Grdnic Christensen, who helped pioneer the rise of the now-flourishing neighborhood when she opened The Fountain nearly 10 years ago.
“We were the first restaurant, and then Pappy’s Smokehouse opened up two weeks after us,” Grdnic Christensen says. “This street is historic automotive row and, at the time we opened, was a one-way street, and all the buildings were boarded up. Now, we like to think that we’ve contributed to the thriving neighborhood that Midtown has become.”
Harkening to its 1930s roots when “medicinal” boozy ice-cream concoctions were served, the soda fountain serves two dozen signature ice cream Martinis, retro and seasonal cocktails, grown-up sundaes, Champagne floats, “the world’s smallest hot-fudge sundae,” housemade phosphate sodas, and classic malts and milkshakes. The from-scratch savory menu is known for its 47 rotating soups (its most famous is a Polish dill pickle and potato soup), light sandwiches and salads like the Stutz Salad with plump mandarin oranges, walnuts and goat cheese with house poppy seed dressing.
As Grdnic Christensen notes, another longtime Midtown favorite is Pappy’s Smokehouse. The weekend and lunch lines often snake out the door, but the rack of fall-off-the-bone pork ribs and perfectly crusty and tender beef brisket are more than worth it. Entertain yourself while you wait by perusing the photographs and signed menus on the wall from famous visitors or with a quick chat with one of five original founders, John Matthews – he’s there most days handing out menus, answering questions and giving insider tips with a wink.
“Get here early; be patient; it’ll be worth the wait,” Matthews says. “I think part of the philosophy of what we did when we opened this place 10 years ago was to create an environment where everyone had a remarkable experience. Every aspect of it was enjoyable, entertaining and something [he or she] wouldn't forget.”
Smoking up to 2,000 pounds of award-winning ‘cue on a busy day, Pappy’s serves a simple menu that runs the gamut from its famous dry-rubbed ribs to beef brisket to pork butt, spicy sausage, pulled pork and smoked turkey. Favorite sides include the sugar-topped sweet potato fries, fried corn on the cob and creamy potato salad.
“The theory of Pappy’s was from our roots in competition barbecue,” Matthews says. “You’d never take a slab of ribs out of the refrigerator, reheat it and serve it to a judge at Memphis in May or the American Royal in Kansas City. Everything here is fresh, spot on, or we’re not serving it.”
Just two blocks away is Small Batch, with the same dedication to freshness – but you won’t find any meat at this dinner-only vegetarian restaurant. You will find, however, an impeccably curated selection of whiskeys, bourbons and ryes (try one of its nine themed flights!) and farm-focused fare that rotates with the seasons. Along with bread baked fresh daily and pastas made in-house, must-try items this season include the puff-pastry tart topped with acorn squash, pepita pesto and lemon drop pepper; bourbon-butternut cream gnocchi; falafel with vegetarian tzatziki; roasted eggplant with green gazpacho and hibiscus; and seared tofu over cornbread stuffing.
If you’re headed to a SLU Billikens basketball game at Chaifitz Arena, stop by Triumph Grill, just a 10-minute walk away. Next door to the Moto Museum, Triumph Grill’s walls and ceilings are adorned with motorcycle-themed art collected from around the world. The menu is equally full of inventive artistry, like the five-spice beef tenderloin served with green-hued wasabi mashed potatoes colored from the spicy paste as well as a spinach reduction. The piled-high Thai chicken salad mixes carrots, green onions, candied cashews, mandarin oranges and sweet chile-glazed chicken on a bed of napa cabbage, or try the Thunderbird turkey burger topped with basil pesto, mozzarella, spinach, red onion and tomato bruschetta on toasted ciabatta.
On the southern edge of Midtown and eastern edge of The Grove, Diner’s Delight has been serving comforting soul food since 1962. As the name implies, the feel-good grub is reminiscent of down-home cooking at its best, with specialties like honey-glazed fried chicken, oxtails, deep-fried tripe, beef ribs, pancake-shaped cornbread hoe cakes, mac ‘n’ cheese, mustard and turnip greens, candied yams and peach cobbler. The no-frills food is ordered from behind a counter displaying that day’s offerings and plated in unpretentious white Styrofoam containers or cafeteria trays. Enjoy your meal in the dining room, or take it to go while you get out and explore all The Grove and Midtown have to offer.
Diner’s Delight, 1504 S. Compton Ave., The Gate District, St. Louis, Missouri, 314.776.9570, facebook.com/dinersdelightstl
The Fountain on Locust, 3037 Locust St., Midtown, St. Louis, Missouri, 314.535.7800, fountainonlocust.com
Pappy’s Smokehouse, 3106 Olive St., Midtown, St. Louis, Missouri, 314.535.4340, pappyssmokehouse.com
Small Batch, 3001 Locust St., Midtown, St. Louis, Missouri, 314.380.2040, smallbatchstl.com
Triumph Grill, 3419 Olive St., Covenant Blu/Grand Center, St. Louis, Missouri, 314.446.1801, triumphgrill.com
The U.R.B., 4501 Manchester Ave., Forest Park Southeast, St. Louis, Missouri, 314.474.0935, urbpizzaandbeer.com
Urban Chestnut Brewing Co.; Grove Brewery & Bierhall, 4465 Manchester Ave., Forest Park Southeast, St. Louis, Missouri; Midtown Brewery & Biergarten, 3229 Washington Ave., Covenant Blu/Grand Center, St. Louis, Missouri; 314.222.0143; urbanchestnut.com