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St. Louis’ collaborative food scene earns a place in Eater’s list of where to eat in 2022

A spread of dishes at Akar, located in Clayton, Missouri.
Michelle Volansky
Akar, owned by Bernie Lee, was one of 26 places featured in Eater's updated list of St. Louis essential restaurants.

On Tuesday, Eater released its guide of cities to eat in this year. That list includes far-off destinations all over the world like Mallorca, Spain; Guadalajara, Mexico; and Nantes, France. Also on its list: St. Louis, Missouri.

St. Louis’ food scene has been on the rise in the past few years, and with a tight-knit restaurant community focused on collaboration and support, it’s drawn attention from foodies all over the country.

Along with its guide to cities, Eater also updated its list of 26 essential St. Louis restaurants to visit, listing some longtime local favorites and some newbies, too. Those included Izumi, a firetruck serving Japanese sandos run by Kurt Bellon, and Akar, a Malaysian restaurant in Clayton owned by Bernie Lee.

Bernie Lee, left, and Kurt Bellon are two of the local restaurateurs who were named in Eater's list of 26 essential St. Louis restaurants.
Evie Hemphill
St. Louis Public Radio
Bernie Lee, left, and Kurt Bellon are two of the local restaurateurs who were named in Eater's list of 26 essential St. Louis restaurants.

Bellon and Lee joined St. Louis on the Air on Wednesday to talk about the recognition St. Louis received.

“Everyone is really excited, and I'm so overwhelmed with the response, the surprises and the joy of every restaurateur and diner in St. Louis,” Lee said. “I received calls and texts, some emails, and it's great, great feedback and is a reason to celebrate.”

Eater commended the St. Louis food scene for being collaborative, noting that restaurants that might elsewhere be competitors are instead part of the same circle here. Bellon confirmed that notion.

“We have this unwritten mentality that, you know, we just have to pull together as one and support each other,” he said. “I'm not doing this by myself. I'm basically carried by a great wind behind my back.”

Lee and Bellon also agreed St. Louisans are much more open to trying new and different cuisines than they were just a decade or so ago. Lee opened his first restaurant, 609, in 2003. He said back then, people weren’t sure what to make of it.

“A lot of people didn't even know what I was doing. You know, back then I was doing what I call fusion cuisine. And I did have people or critics say, ‘It's so confusing,’” Lee said. “People were not used to the merged culture, the fusion, the interaction between two different cuisines.”

Bernie Lee and Kurt Bellon on collaboration and mentorship in the city's food scene

Now, however, Lee’s customers are much more open-minded.

“I'm very lucky we have a really great supportive clientele, who, when they come into Akar, even though they do not know what they're getting sometimes, they are ready for the experience,” Lee said. “Good food is an international language. As long as it’s good food, nobody's gonna complain.”

Bellon agreed, and pointed out that while there are some people who are insensitive to the food of other cultures, those people are usually outliers. He referenced the woman who called in to KDSK last month to tell anchor Michelle Li that she was being “very Asian” and should “keep her Korean to herself.”

“For 99 people that love Japanese cuisine and want to get into it, there's maybe one person that is very stuck in their ways,” he said. “Just learning how to address those folks with an open heart and just trying to convince them otherwise is kind of all I've sought to do throughout my life with different interactions like that.”

Both Bellon and Lee are hopeful that the mention of St. Louis in Eater will help boost the local food scene even more, and bring people into the city to eat.

“For the past few years when we talk to customers, a lot of them are actually from the East or West coasts, some from Europe. They were really surprised at how wonderful St. Louis' food scene was,” Lee said. “And you know, I'm very proud of it. I am proud of myself. I'm proud of everybody. And we make St. Louis shine.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Kayla Drake. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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