Courtesy of the American Restaurant
By Susan Katzman
About 10,596 restaurants operate in Missouri, according to the National Restaurant Association.
Approximately 320 of them have been approved by The American Automobile Association (AAA) and ranked with Diamonds.
Ratings range from One Diamond, awarded to restaurants meeting basic requirements of overall quality, to Five Diamonds, given only to establishments providing a world-class experience on each and every level. Considering that of twenty-nine thousand AAA rated restaurants less than one percent hold Five Diamond ratings and less than three percent hold Four Diamond ratings, the award has held prestige since the AAA started rating restaurants in 1985.
While no Missouri restaurant glowed with a Five Diamond rating at the end of 2013, seven restaurants sparkle with Four Diamonds.
According to AAA, Four Diamonds restaurants offer a distinctive fine-dining experience showcasing an extensive array of amenities, including menus that reflect creativity and complexity, service staffs who aim to meet or exceed guests’ expectations, and a highly refined, comfortable, and well-coordinated ambience. As expected, the dining experience at AAA Four Diamond restaurants tends to be expensive.
These four fine dining experiences in the Show-Me State have been shining the longest.
Tony’s is the undisputed grandfather of the St. Louis restaurant scene. If St. Louis had a hall of fame, Tony’s would undoubtedly earn a top spot for not only setting the city’s standard of restaurant excellence but also serving as a classroom for staff members wanting to be restaurateurs.
In the beginning, there was Tony’s. Today, owners of many of St. Louis’s better Italian restaurants worked at Tony’s and bear its DNA.
Anthony Bommarito, the restaurant’s namesake, opened Tony’s at 826 North Broadway in 1946. The original was a humble spaghetti house, which served breakfast and lunch, primarily to neighboring Produce Row workers. Tony died in 1949 leaving operations to his son, Vince Bommarito, who was then seventeen years old. A year later, Vince’s younger brother, Anthony, joined the team. Together, the brothers elevated all aspects of the restaurant.
By the late 1950s, the city’s movers and shakers touted Tony’s for its memorable Italian food, romantic décor, and over-the-top service; waiters wore tuxedos, whisked away ashtrays at the first flick of an ash, and backed away from tables as if serving royalty.
Considered St. Louis’s best restaurant, Tony’s racked up awards, earning the prestigious AAA Five Diamond award in 1989. Tony’s remains the first and subsequently only restaurant in Missouri to have been honored with Five Diamonds, an award that they received each year until 2000 when the rating downgraded to Four Diamonds. People speculate the downgrade occurred because Tony’s changed locations.
To make way for the expansion of St. Louis’s America’s Center, Tony’s relocated to 410 Market Street in 1992. The move brought contemporary touches to the full dining experience.
The new main dining room, framed with dark brown carpeting and walls, holds twenty-four graciously spaced, white linen-clad tables, some of which are separated by glass partitions. Recessed and hanging lighting fixtures shed a pleasant glow, and contemporary prints on walls add touches of color.
The menu, too, has evolved. Today, Tony’s serves a mix of contemporary and creative food with Italian overtones.
“We change menus weekly,” says Vincent P. Bommarito, executive chef since the middle 1980s, “and we are lighter than we used to be. We don’t use as much cream, and we serve much more seafood. Although we might put sea urchin with homemade fettuccine on a menu, we’ll also always have long-time favorites such as Lobster Albanello.”
According to Vincent, “Dress code is more casual than it used to be, with jackets required only on Saturday night. And service, too, has relaxed. It’s less hovering, offering the diner more privacy.”
Although much has changed, Tony’s core remains the same. The restaurant is still family-run with Vince Bommarito Sr. still at the helm and his son doing his fair share of work. The Bommarito family team still ensures that Tony’s maintains its long-standing reputation as one of the all-time great St. Louis restaurants.
Giovanni Gabriele, owner of Giovanni’s On the Hill, knows a thing or two about celebrities.
Through the years Giovanni has served notable personalities such as Frank Sinatra, Paul McCartney, Yogi Berra, Bill Clinton, and a multitude of other presidents and superstars. Meanwhile, he flirted with the limelight himself while showcasing his specialties to the world when cooking for President Regan’s inaugural dinner and on The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Born in Sicily, Giovanni moved to St. Louis in 1964. He landed a job at Tony’s as a busboy, worked his way up to waiter captain, and attended culinary school before opening Giovanni’s on the Hill in 1973.
Everything about Giovanni’s—located in the heart of St. Louis’s Italian community—reflects Sicilian-centered, Italian authenticity, including Giovanni himself, a dapper-dressed, generously shaped man with a relaxed charm and a distinct accent.
“The place was not so nice when I bought it,” says Giovanni, “and I put every dollar I made into making it better. We started with new walls, new kitchen, and new décor. Every year, I keep renovating and look to update all the time. It takes a lot to stay on top.”
Neither of Giovanni’s two main dining rooms have windows, sequestering the diner in a space that could serve as an upscale setting for the Godfather’s celebration dinner. Crystal chandeliers sparkle overhead.
Oil paintings in gold-gilt frames adorn the walls. Sculpture fills alcoves. Thick, patterned carpeting, white-linen tablecloths, and white walls with ivory molding add to the old-world elegance.
Under direction of Executive Chef Frank Gabriele, Giovanni’s son, the food matches the décor. Although the classic and classy Italian menu changes six to seven times a year, signature items remain in the menu, including the famous Farfalline Del Presidente Reagan, which Giovanni cooked for the president, and the Pappardelle Alla Bella Oprah, which he made on The Oprah Winfrey Show. And wine paring suggestions complete the menu’s magnanimity.
Décor and service tend to be formal; waiters wear tuxedos and perform a side show of completing ordered dishes tableside. The dress code is relaxed; jackets are preferred for men but not required.
Giovanni’s on the Hill won its first AAA Four Diamond award in 1989 and has been earning them ever since, officially reigning as Missouri’s first Four Diamond winner and the restaurant to hold the Four Diamond category for the longest time period, though Tony’s has held Four or Five Diamond awards for the same length.
Giovanni claims that his greatest challenge is encouraging a new generation to understand the traditional fine-dining experience, but it might also be making more space to hang photos of famous diners, articles of acclaim, and other awards, which now cover the walls of the restaurant’s entrance, hallway, and bar.
People head to Crown Center in downtown Kansas City for many reasons, but the jewel in the crown that draws gourmands to the historic eighty-five-acre complex is The American Restaurant, an iconic landmark of the city itself.
Joyce C. Hall, founder of Hallmark Cards, Inc., and his son Donald Hall Sr. built Crown Center in 1971 as a mixed-use complex adjacent to Hallmark’s headquarters. They hired the top talent of the time, including the legendary American chef James Beard, to create the centerpiece restaurant, The American Restaurant, in 1974.
Through the years, many high-profile chefs took helm of the kitchen, building on and expanding the restaurant’s reputation. Today, The American Restaurant operates under the direction of General Manager Jamie Jamison, Executive Chef Michael Corvino, and Pastry Chef Nick Wesemann.
Although no signature dishes from past chefs remain on the menu, Michael and Nick pack the current menus, which change seasonally, with their own brand of creativity. A cold-weather menu might offer an entrée of Coho salmon with smoked potato, cabbage marmalade, Brussels sprouts, mussel vinaigrette, and a dessert of caramel apple cheesecake.
The lounge menu, which is not served in courses like the dinner menu, also offers different dishes than the restaurant menu. The American Restaurant’s wine program is equally as important as the food that it serves.
“We have about one thousand labels on our list, with wines coming from the great producers from around the world,” says Jamie, an advanced sommelier. “And we sponsor wine dinners and events about three times a month.”
The lengthy list has its fair share of wines from France and California, but Missouri is also represented with some of the state’s best bottles.
Both the structure and décor of The American Restaurant add to the dramatic dining experience. Kansas City’s only elevated restaurant, The American Restaurant covers three levels, and floor-to-ceiling windows reveal one of the best views of Kansas City’s skyline, with the sparkling water fountains of Crown Center below.
“Think of the space like a tiered wedding cake,” Jamie says. “People enter on the lounge level, the top tier, and smallest area; they then descend to the balcony level, a small dining room, sitting above the large main dining room on the lower level.”
White walls, contemporary paintings, white oak, highly polished brass, mauve-colored upholstery, and thick wall-to-wall carpeting add grace to the setting. Light fixtures that fan over the tall ceilings like firecrackers filling a night sky contribute to the dramatic atmosphere.
As expected, The American Restaurant pulls in the applause. The restaurant won its first AAA Four Diamond award in 1992 and continues to earn the recognition to this day.
The Halls conceptualized their restaurant not as an American restaurant, but The American Restaurant, serving superlative food that celebrates American cuisine. After forty years, the vision remains intact and fulfilled.
Dining rooms in upscale hotels present a different set of complexities than those of independently run restaurants, and The Grill is stamped with The Ritz-Carlton name.
All management staff for The Ritz-Carlton are chosen for talent and then scrupulously trained. When it comes to culinary staff, talent and training translate into a consistently fi rst-rate dining experience in all restaurants with Ritz-Carlton ties. But that doesn’t mean the restaurants are cookie-cutter uniform. Chefs and other staff control their individual restaurants.
The Grill, the signature restaurant of The Ritz-Carlton in Clayton, an upscale suburb of St. Louis, perfectly illustrates this point.
The Grill earned its first AAA Four Diamond award in 1991 and has been winning the Diamonds happily ever after, despite several turnovers of top culinary staff.
In the past two years, The Grill has added a new director of food and beverage, Sasa Jaramaz, a new executive chef, Melissa Lee, and a new pastry chef, Nathaniel Reid. Together, the triumvirate brings unique creativity to the hotel and its food service.
As basic as The Grill’s classic steakhouse menu may sound, favorites such as steaks, seafood, Caesar, and wedge salads rise well above the ordinary under the team’s direction.
“I like to build on flavors,” says Melissa, “and focus on quality of ingredients and preparation, then add a creative twist in presentation.”
She also likes to use local products as much as possible and to design dishes appealing to local tastes.
After learning that St. Louisans like toasted ravioli, she created her own version—a house-made mushroom and short rib ravioli that is baked and served with truffl e sauce and vanilla foam. Menu items change about four times a year based on season.
As for wine, The Grill presents an extensive list with choices from around the world but with a particular focus on California Cabernet Sauvignon and other American varietals.
“But food and wine is only half of the dining experience,” Sasa says. “Ambience, location, and service contribute to the dining enjoyment.”
The Grill’s décor suits its old, established, well-heeled neighborhood. Twenty tables sit in an area that resembles the living room of a gracious home. A fi replace glows at one end. Painting and recessed mirrors decorate dark wood-paneled walls. Soft lighting falls from table lamps, candles, and art deco lamps that are strategically placed around the room. Patterned rose-colored fabric-covered chairs surround the buff-yellow linen-covered tables. All is pretty, gentle, and unobtrusive—a near-perfect environment for dining in style.
The Ritz-Carlton symbolizes top-drawer, home-away-from-home stays for blue-chip travelers, and The Grill provides staff, food, service, décor, and a continuity of excellence for hotel guests, out-of-town diners, and lucky locals alike.
Niche is Missouri’s newest Four Diamond dining option, and since it opened in 2005, it has garnered plenty of attention. Chef Gerard Craft has earned top accolades because of his fresh and local approach to cooking. Now, he owns four restaurants in St. Louis, all of which consistently win awards locally and nationally. It seems silly that it took AAA until 2012 to catch on.
Bluetstem opened in 2004 when chefs Colby and Megan Garrelts took the leap to become restaurant owners. Immediately, Colby was named one of Food & Wine magazine’s best new chefs in 2005. Since 2010, the progressive American cuisine and inventive desserts have won AAA Four Diamond awards for the restaurant, and Colby won the James Beard Best Midwest Chef award for 2013.
The view of the St. Louis skyline at Cielo is almost reason enough to dine out. Another recent addition to the AAA Four Diamond list, 2011, Cielo hired Executive Chef Fabrizio Schenardi in 2010. Fabrizio specializes in Mediterranean-spun food but isn’t restricted to the style. Cielo isn’t just a place for dinner, either; the restaurant serves breakfast, lunch, and brunch.