Part of what's great about publishing this magazine and running The Commonspace venue in Grand Center is that every day we get to find out about the coolest stuff going on in St. Louis. If you're like us, on those occasions when you're out in mixed company and you overhear someone complain about being bored in this town, or pine away for some other, better place well, your mouth probably just drops open. Who could be bored in a place with the people, places and things below?:
Hats off to Amrit and Amy Gill, the powerhouse couple behind such redevelopment projects as the Coronado Hotel (3701 Lindell, $36M) and the Moolah Temple (3821 Lindell, $17M), which will encompass apartments, a movie theater and a bowling alley. They're in the development business for the right reasons, and keep bucking conventional development wisdom by doing the projects that no one else has been able to tackle, completing them in record time. Now in their mid-30s, they got their start in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood, where they live. Keep your eyes on that huge eyesore or blighted building in your 'hood because it could very well be the next Gill project.
He's like the Beatle Bob for a new generation: if you see Galen Gondolfi walk into the room, you know you're in the right place. Wherever he shows up, something fun and unpredictable is gonna happen, even at a place as mundane as Schnucks at 2 a.m., where the color-blind Gondolfi might ask you for help determining which frosting is pink, because the funsters at his Fort Gondo Compound for the Arts are working on a gigantic cake for their next happening (true story). He's frenetic, but in a good way, and the best thing Boston's exported lately.
Best Fancy Restaurant
So, your parents are coming to town and offer to take you to dinner, restaurant of your choice. Our choice? The old-world, hushed-tones swank of Dominic's on the Hill, one of those perennial award winners (DiRoNa, Mobil, AAA, one of Conde Nast's two best Italian restaurants in the country) that really is that good. Dominic and Jackie Galati preside, and they know the place like the backs of their hands; when they got started in 1971, they lived upstairs from the dining room, at 5101 Wilson Avenue. What's to love? Actual fine art on the walls, friendly service (even for non-regulars)...and the food. Oh, the food! We can't get enough of the involtini of eggplant, the risotto primavera or the raviolini de ricotta. The specialty of the house is handmade lobster ravioli in a cognac sauce. Word to the wise: this is fine dining, so dress the part (men, wear a jacket or you'll end up in the house loaner).
Worldwide Ambassador for the Lou
Let's be honest: no matter how you feel about him, there's not really much competition for this title. Nelly is, quite clearly, the single most visible symbol of St. Louis bringing love to the younger generation. Yeah, sometimes he raps about smoking pot and stuff, but with nine million copies of Country Grammar and five million copies of Nellyville in circulation, even hep cats in the Netherlands (one of seven foreign countries that has its own version of his Web site made up special, not including the English and Spanish flavors for the U.S.) know about the S-T-L...and that it's a place to be proud of.
Best St. Louis Poet
Until you've heard the mellifluous voice of Chris Hayden, and his cadence that falls somewhere between singsong and percussion, you may not've realized that St. Louis has an actual voice. Hayden is that voice the pent-up, shout-out-loud, makes-you-wanna-holler sound of brick and river mud. "Mound City Luv," one of his verses of, by and for St. Louis, sends tingles down our spines, puts a smile on our faces, makes us want to nod our heads and say, "Mmmmm, mmmmm, mmmmm!" You can also catch his vibe in St. Louis Muse, a book of poetry by St. Louis poets about St. Louis that Hayden edited for the Vaughn Cultural Center.
Best Place to See a Concert When You Care About the Music
So, your favorite artist is coming to town and you would like to hear her sing, not just hear some jackass at the bar bray about how well he did in his office NCAA tournament pool? Get thee to Off Broadway, tucked discreetly away on Lemp Ave., for the total concert experience in a perfectly sized venue, including great sightlines, a big stage, and wonder of wonders a quiet, respectful audience. It's shocking, really, how many concert venues in town are actually lousy places to see a show; here, if you're acting the fool, plenty of head-half-turned stares will put you in your place, and fast. Amen to that, we say.
Best Vietnamese Food
We know what you're thinking: Pho Grand, right? I mean, they win the RFT poll walking away every year. And yet, we beg to differ. Not that we don't love the Pho as much as the next diner, but for our money and it ain't growing on trees we choose Lemon Grass, 3216 S. Grand, just about every time. It's cheap (cheap like Pho used to be cheap, before they moved a few doors and upped the prices a dollar here and there), the service is so fast it could technically qualify as fast food, the portions are large and the result is mmmm, mmmm good. Despite the ravings of folks who discover it, it remains largely overlooked by the masses. Never mind; more #105 with special brown sauce for the rest of us.
Most Persuasive Evidence that Chicago Ain't All That
Because Chicago ain't got Margie Newman and Allen Brunettin...or, it did, but then it lost them. The scenemaking Margie and Alan have, between them: led the fight to save the Century building, instituted the ciné16 film series at Mad Art, been cheerleaders for downtown and for Washington Avenue when even the most stalwart got tired and gave out, brought White Christmas to the American Theater, and now, added their contribution to the burgeoning street-level life of Washington Avenue with the opening of Gallery Urbis Orbis. They seem to be involved in everything good happening downtown and around the city; Chicago's loss is St. Louis' gain.
Best Way to Get the Party Started
Gather up your best pals and find your way to Zack's Lounge, 1904 Whittier (at Garfield), where you'll find Tony Butler, a.k.a. Disco-T, the hardest workin' street jock in town. Tony's play list glides effortlessly from The Marvellettes to 50 Cent, and the dance floor (okay, perhaps a square foot between the tables and the dart board) generally stays active. He's there every Friday and Saturday night, just a party waiting for you to arrive. Be forewarned: the drinks are stiff, and the peeps so friendly that you should expect at least a few up-close-and-personal dances.
Best Chronicler of Bohemian Life
Not that it's news to you, but we love the work (and work ethic) of Bob Reuter, who tirelessly roams the watering holes and back alleys of St. Louis looking for a glimpse of the Truth of this place. His grainy, black-and-white photos capture the essence of South City life, a nighttime world full of rockers, beautiful women, dreamers and ne'er-do-wells, sometimes all in one.
Best Information Age Visionary
He's been featured in Spanish design magazines, worked with people at the MIT Media Lab and recently presented at an international conference in England, yet Paul Guzzardo isn't on most St. Louisans radar screens. Paul has big, compelling ideas about what information technology means for the future of cities and how media saturated environments will reshape our public gathering places. People involved in development and urban planning in St. Louis would do well to listen to him.
Best Grilled Cheese Sandwich: Cheap
As vegetarians we eat a lot of cheese sandwiches. And as vegetarians who are in Grand Center a lot, we eat a lot of cheese sandwiches at the Best Steak House, a little slice of history at 516 N. Grand. For a buck and a half, you get an old-school grilled cheese, on Texas toast, slathered with melted butter ('cause too much dairy is never enough) and plenty of funky grease. In other words, this is probably not for vegetarians who can't stand the thought of their meal being sullied by association with the devil meat. If you're willing to look the other way, this is a little bit of heaven on a plate...and doubly so with an order of fried okra.
Best Grilled Cheese Sandwich: Fancy
Now, there's nothing inherently fancy about a grilled cheese: bread, cheese, heat. That's pretty much the formula. At McGurk's, 1200 Russell, though, the ante has been upped, with something like four kinds of gourmet cheese (some pub-goers don't even know there are four kinds of cheese), a delightful slice of tomato, and a heapin' helpin' of McGurk's addictive homemade chips alongside. It's what the magazines call "upscale comfort food." We just call it dinner.
Most Dogged Crusader
Yeah, it's a pun, but also fitting: Randy Grim of Stray Rescue is driven, on a mission to rescue dogs that he seems powerless to resist. Even at risks to his own health and safety, he keeps at it, driving places no one in his right mind would go to bring home the most bedraggled, downtrodden and unwanted street dogs in two states. His tenacity has paid off, though, in recognition (which he largely shuns, but which came his way with the publication of Melinda Roth's book The Man Who Talks to Dogs) and in improved lives for his canine companions Stray Rescue now has two buildings to house strays until foster homes can be found. Donations and permanent homes are, of course, always welcome.
Nothing could be finer than to be at Maryland and Euclid when the weather gets warm and we finally shake off winter's doldrums (an increasingly likely, but still iffy, proposition even in April). Anchored by Culpepper's, Liluma's patio and the institution of Coffee Cartel, this intersection exerts a gravitational pull that gathers crowds, slows traffic and makes everything interesting. Let the people-watching begin!
The first time we hit it, it was complete serendipity, but since then, we seek it out: the ramp from 10th St. going west onto 64/40. It's a quick rise from street level to a soaring view of downtown, and you ride right up alongside the neat-o trompe l'oeil mural on the side of the Sheraton City Center. Peek into office cubicles, but keep at least one eye on the road.
Best Impresario of the Lowbrow
Steven Fitzpatrick Smith is the master of hyping the things that make St. Louis fun. From Hoosierweight boxing to fuzzball, Bosnian businesses to bingo night at the SBAC, parish fish fries to musings on Pretty Willie's salsa-and-cheese-flavored Rap Snacks, SS is known by all...even those who've never met him. We love him, and sometimes love to hate him but only because he's so darn good that he sometimes beats us to the good stuff.
Best Treasure Taken for Granted
Brian Henneman is like Uncle Tupelo's crazy Festus uncle; the Bottle Rockets' frontman can be found gracing the stages of St. Louis with his steady band, or with Kip Loui in the "Diesel Island" project, or on his own, a man, a guitar and a microphone. One of the vagaries of Fate is that Henneman somehow never quite blew up big, but the man plays guitar and sings with the best of 'em, quirky slices of life-in-song. Don't blow off the chance to see him once in a while and be reminded of what a major talent he is.
Best Reason to Go to Church
Uh, okay, we're not exactly regulars at any of the excellent houses of worship around town. We do believe in everyday miracles, though, and they're happening all the time at Friedens United Church of Christ, at the corner of 19th and Newhouse in the Hyde Park neighborhood of north St. Louis. Led by Rev. Martha Brunell, this congregation is an amalgam of long-time members (some of whom now drive in from far reaches of the metro area) and neighborhood residents, richer and poorer, old and young in short, a pretty accurate representation of the whole of God's creatures. The Sunday morning regulars are a small but mighty group, doing a lot with a little in a neighborhood that's hurting from decades of disinvestment. For a midweek spirit lift, stop by the Community Lunch at noon on Wednesdays; you'll be welcomed with open arms and a plate full of something yummy.