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Meet the St. Louis chefs with James Beard cred

By Susan Katzman

Drum roll please! St. Louis loves to brag about its James Beard Best Chef: Midwest semifinalists. The chefs are as diverse as they are talented, and they show off their individual styles in restaurants that shine with unique personality.

Jesse Mendica | Olive + Oak

Talk about a neighborhood mainstay. Chef Jesse Mendica grew up in the genteel, tree-packed Webster Groves area and is now the neighborhood’s magnet, drawing folks from far and wide to Olive + Oak. The luscious centerpiece of this lively storefront restaurant is Mendica’s  creative take on classic comfort food.

Family and friends fill the long narrow space that holds a happening bar, banquette seating, a small cluster of dining tables and an open kitchen that fills the air with seductive scents. Dark gray chairs and natural-wood topped tables, plus walls lined with large mirrors and framed black-and-white photos of the owners’ families add to the relaxed atmosphere. In fine weather, service extends to the outdoor sidewalk.

This is a casual yet classy restaurant that is always packed with happy diners enjoying cheerful camaraderie and beautifully prepared food.

© by Johnathan Gayman

Michael Gallina | Vicia

St. Louis native Michael Gallina worked in California, New York and Europe before opening Vicia in 2017. He brings innovation and creativity to seasonal menus that focus on farm-fresh vegetables, sustainably raised meat and ingredients sourced from artisan producers.

Befitting its location in the midtown Cortex district (a 200-acre complex devoted to technology and science), the spacious Vicia sports a bar, a dining room with open kitchen and a patio dining area with wood-fired cooking. Floor-to-ceiling windows, white walls, bare tables and dark and light woods contribute to the sleek, contemporary vibe of the space.

Vicia offers moderately priced, quick and casual two- and three-course lunches that are ordered at a counter, as well as full-service dinners with options that include a set “farmers feast,” an extended tasting-menu and an array of intriguing a la carte specialties.

© by Johnathan Gayman

Gerard Craft | Niche Food Group

Gerard Craft became interested in the restaurant industry while working as a photographer in Salt Lake City. In 2005, after taking jobs at several restaurants, he bought a boarded-up old property in St. Louis’ Benton Park neighborhood, moved to the city and opened Niche. He was only 25 years old.

The upscale Niche thrived, earning Craft five James Beard Award nominations as well as the top title Best Chef: Midwest 2015. Craft closed Niche in 2016.

Today Craft owns and runs six unique restaurants under the banner of Niche Food Group. These include the French-focused Brasserie by Niche and the cocktail-centric Taste by Niche—both located in the Central West End; the Italian-style Pastaria and neighboring Sardella in Clayton; Cinder House, a Brazilian-inspired steakhouse in downtown’s Four Seasons Hotel and the burgers-and-brats Brasswell, tucked into the Rockwell Beer Co. in The Grove. Although each Craft restaurant differs, all are stylish, social places pleasing locals and visitors alike.

© by Johnathan Gayman

Kevin Nashan | Sidney Street Café

Kevin Nashan grew up in Santa Fe, where his family ran a popular New Mexican restaurant. He came to St. Louis to attend St. Louis University, then moved to Hyde Park, New York, to study at the Culinary Institute of America. After working in high-profile restaurants in New Orleans, New York, Chicago and Spain, he returned to St. Louis and, in 2003, bought the long-established Sidney Street Cafe, elevating the old restaurant’s food and reputation.

Located in a century-old brick building in Benton Park, Nashan’s restaurant combines the historic and elegant. Exposed-brick walls dotted with framed mirrors, soft lighting and cloth-draped tables provide a refined setting befitting his creatively prepared and artistically presented melting-pot cuisine.

In 2014 Nashan opened Peacemaker Lobster & Crab Co, a big, bright, bustling seafood restaurant in the same Benton Park neighborhood.

Nashan earned five James Beard Award nominations between 2011 and 2016, winning Best Chef:  Midwest in 2017.

© by Johnathan Gayman
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