Feast on St. Louis: North County
Written by Bethany Christo
Photography by Jacklyn Meyer
“Just north of ordinary,” the slogan for Ferguson Citywalk, a historical shopping, restaurant and arts district, adequately sums up the food-and-drink scene in North County. The bustling hub and surrounding area is home to restaurants that range from a train-depot-turned-custard-and-sandwich-shop to craft breweries to stick-to-your-ribs barbecue and authentic Italian.
On Saturday mornings, the lively and award-winning, 15-year-old Ferguson Farmers Market along the aforementioned Citywalk is full of visitors who’ve been browsing the stalls, watching chef demos and enjoying live music. Citywalk – which runs 10 blocks along Florissant Road, Airport Road and Church Street – also hosts concerts, festivals and fairs throughout the year. North County’s historical treasures include Fort Belle Fontaine Park, the St. Louis Riverfront Trail and Chain of Rocks Bridge, as well as arts and culture venues such as the Touhill Performing Arts Center, Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre and Challenger Learning Center.
Once a popular railroad depot in the 19th century, Whistle Stop is a much-loved landmark down the block from the farmers’ market that sat shuttered from 1960 until 1991, when it was renovated to a small museum. It’s technically older than the city of Ferguson itself, and relics from its past include a fully functioning steam-engine whistle that can be heard for blocks and order and pickup windows made from a passenger-train ticket counter.
“There’s more to Whistle Stop than first meets the eye, and same thing for the city,” says Matt Kohler, who runs Whistle Stop with his wife, Samantha. “The city of Ferguson has been around for a really long time. To people who don’t know, I describe Ferguson as having a small-town vibe surrounded by other cities in a major metropolitan area.”
Open seasonally from mid-March to December, Whistle Stop’s signature is its thick frozen custard sundaes; two best-sellers are The Smoke Stack – aninverted banana split with strawberries, pineapple, peanuts and a banana sliced lengthwise and set vertical to resemble train smokestacks – or the Hot Shot turtle-style sundae. Stop in for lunch or dinner for salads, soups and signature sandwiches like The Pullman with smoked brisket and provolone or the Classic Italian.
A ½-mile down the road is North County’s first brewpub, Ferguson Brewing Co., known for its flagship St. Louis Pale Ale and Pecan Brown Ale. The beer-friendly food pairs well with its dozen or so beers on tap, including seasonal offerings like a Baltic porter or an imperial IPA. Co-owner Mike Lonero recommends trying the brat-and-pretzel board with seasonal brats from Paul’s Market down the street made fresh for the brewery, as well as the Strawberry Fields salad and salmon BLT with house-smoked salmon.
Along with his business partner, Robb Wiesen, and his father, Lonero has helped build up the Ferguson dining scene by opening establishments that emphasize local sourcing and community engagement, including Vincenzo’s Italian Ristorante, Cork Wine Bar and his latest venture, Baked Woodfire Pizza.
St. Louis is known for its barbecue, and in North County, the place to go is Roper’s Ribs. Open since 1976, the intimate, carry-out joint hand-rubs meat with its own house blend (which you can purchase online and in-store) and smokes it for 12 hours over hickory wood. The resulting flavor of the tender, smoked meats has drawn both locals and national figures (including visits and awards from comedians like Steve Harvey, professional athletes, musicians, fashion designers and more) to the North County joint.
“We’ve become a destination here in North County; people land in Lambert airport about 10 to 15 minutes away and come straight here, even before they check in to their hotel,” says marketing manager Toni Roper.
Three types of ribs – beef, St. Louis style and baby back – pulled pork, beef brisket, smoked chicken wings and jumbo fried shrimp and more are made with love by caterers-turned-restaurant founders Carl and Denise Roper, as well as their daughters. The family jokes that Toni has been working for her parents since she was in kindergarten, and her passion for the restaurant and cuisine is apparent all these years later.
“We call it St. Louis-style barbecue,” Toni says. “I think St. Louis style is a combination of many people’s different styles and cultures of cooking that they grew up with… there’s a lot of soul in St. Louis style.”
Many think of The Hill as the go-to spot for Italian cuisine in St. Louis, but North County’s independently owned Italian restaurants shouldn’t be overlooked. Lombardo’s Restaurant’s North County outpost is the grandfather of a whole family of authentic Italian eateries, including Lombardo’s Trattoria near Downtown’s Union Station (which served President George H.W. Bush), Carmine’s Steak House a few blocks from Busch Stadium and Angelo’s Taverna in the shadow of The Gateway Arch. Now, brothers Angelo Jr. and Carmen Lombardo, along with Carmen’s children, maintain the tradition of exceptional hospitality at its restaurants.
“There’s always a Lombardo working at one of the restaurants,” says Karen Lombardo, daughter of Carmen, who currently runs Lombardo’s North County location.
Lombardo’s legacy in St. Louis goes back 84 years, when it began as a small restaurant in 1934 (first opening as a fruit stand in 1929) at the corner of Riverview Boulevard and West Florissant Avenue in North County. It moved to its present location near the airport in 1993, bringing its third-generation recipes with it to serve in the romantic, upscale space.
Must-try dishes include hand-cut steaks, fresh pastas, crab cakes over angel hair and white cream sauce, veal saltimbocca stuffed with prosciutto and provolone, and thick lasagna in a subtly sweet marinara. And, of course, the signature toasted ravioli – unlike most of the cookie-cutter squares you see around town, Lombardo’s are varied half-moon crescent shapes and fully stuffed from end to end.
“The housemade toasted raviolis were first made by my great-aunts 80 years ago,” Lombardo says. “We still hand-make them, still have the same machines back there. We roll them out, cut them, fill them and press them every day.”
Local institution The Pasta House Co. was founded in 1974 and now has 20 locations in the St. Louis area, including two in North County – one in St. Louis International Lambert Airport and one along West Florissant Avenue. For 44 years, The Pasta House has been serving favorites such as pasta primavera and spaghetti with Nonna Tucci’s massive, juicy meatballs (among nearly two dozen additional pasta dishes), St. Louis-style pizzas and golden toasted ravioli. The Pasta House Co. Famous Salad, as the name would suggest, has been nationally recognized and features artichoke hearts, pimentos, red onions and plenty of Parmesan tossed with its equally ubiquitous house dressing that is also sold on local grocery store shelves.
From pasta and frozen custard to beer and brats, you’re going to find something to satisfy anyone in the family in North County.
Ferguson Brewing Co., 418 S. Florissant Road, Ferguson, Missouri, 314.254.7359, fergusonbrewing.com
Lombardo’s Restaurant, 10488 Natural Bridge Road, St. Louis, Missouri, 314.429.5151, lombardosrestaurants.com/rest-about-us.html
The Pasta House Co., 11202 W. Florissant Road, Florissant, Missouri, 314.838.7300, pastahouse.com
Roper’s Ribs, 6929 W. Florissant Ave., St. Louis, Missouri, 314.381.6200, ropersribs.com
Whistle Stop, 1 Carson Road, Ferguson, Missouri, 314.521.1600, facebook.com/pg/whistlestopdepot