The Top 8 Foods You Have to Try in St. Louis

From gooey butter cake to Red Hot Riplets, the Gateway to the West has perfected comfort food.

Aerial view of downtown St. Louis with arch at right

St. Louis is known for its pioneer past, but perhaps it should also be known for its culinary history.

Photo by Sean Pavone/Shutterstock

Located just south of where the Missouri and Mississippi rivers converge, St. Louis is the very embodiment of the term “Midwest.” The Lou is the home of Anheuser-Busch and the Cardinals baseball team; it is also where the ice cream cone made its debut at the 1904 World’s Fair. People flock to the city to enjoy its dozens of parks and lakes and to watch replica paddle-wheel river cruise ships sail along shorelines dotted with turn-of-the-century architecture.

Established in 1764 by French fur traders, the city is best known for its deep pioneer roots—Lewis and Clark kicked off their legendary expedition here. But perhaps St. Louis should also be known for its unique culinary scene, which blends Midwestern comfort food with the flavors of different immigrant groups who’ve made their homes in the city.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, waves of German, Polish, Irish, and Italian people began immigrating to St. Louis and established neighborhoods of their own. There’s also a large population of Bosnians—many arrived in the 1990s to escape civil war in the former Yugoslavia. The unique blending of international cultures has culminated in several dishes that you can only find in the Lou. Here are eight foods to try the next time you’re in St. Louis.

A plate of toasted ravioli, with red sauce in small bowl

Toasted ravioli are not actually toasted—they’re fried.

Photo by Brent Hofacker

1. Toasted ravioli

  • What’s to love: Crisp, meaty bites topped with Parmesan
  • Best place to get it: Farotto’s

If one food could encapsulate the spirit of St. Louis, it might be toasted ravioli—an ode to the city’s vibrant Italian heritage and also its affinity for fried, American comfort food. Toasted ravioli are commonly filled with ground beef, but it’s not unusual to find other fillings like pimento cheese or buffalo chicken. Crispy and crunchy, the ravioli are covered in breadcrumbs and quickly fried (they’re not actually “toasted”). Then they’re topped with a sprinkle of Parmesan and served with a warm bowl of marinara sauce.

Toasted ravioli hails from the Hill, St. Louis’s Italian neighborhood located about six miles southwest of downtown. Many restaurants in the city offer them as an appetizer, and the best place to try them—in my opinion—is at Farotto’s, which has been serving toasted ravioli since 1956. Consider pairing them with one of the restaurant’s signature St. Louis–style pizzas for a truly STL dining experience.

Overhead view of pork steak in a cast iron pot

Pork steak and barbecue sauce are a match made in heaven.

Photo by Tatiana Volgutova/Shutterstock

2. Pork steak

  • What’s to love: Juicy, tender pork covered in barbecue sauce
  • Best place to get it: Hwy 61 Roadhouse

The idea of pork steaks may give some diners pause—after all, steaks are generally not made of pork. This particular thick cut is part of the pork shoulder or Boston butt and didn’t originate in St. Louis. The pork steak was first advertised in the Boston Globe in 1901, but wasn’t a hit in the Lou until the 1950s. Today, it’s a veritable symbol of St. Louis’s summer and backyard barbecues.

Traditionally, pork steaks are grilled and then finished off in the oven with a healthy slathering of barbecue sauce (perhaps with Maull’s, a local favorite)—all that marbled meat and thick fat cap make for a super tender eating experience. Because pork steaks are an unusual cut, they can be a difficult item for restaurants to source, so restaurants usually offer it as a special if they have it. A few places in town sell them every day, like Hwy 61 Roadhouse. For almost 20 years, it’s been serving a mix of Creole, Cajun, and barbecue, which is where its 12-ounce pork steak comes in. After being slowly smoked, the steak is covered in house-made barbecue sauce—it isn’t exactly the traditional Maull’s, but it works well here.

A small square of gooey butter cake on a white plate

The origins of the gooey butter cake are nebulous, but one thing is for certain: It’s delicious.

Courtesy of the Cup

3. St. Louis gooey butter cake

  • What’s to love: Buttery, super-sweet goodness
  • Best place to get it: The Cup

Gooey butter cakes aren’t going to win any prizes for looks, but they might be the sweetest and most comforting cake you’ll ever taste. A flat, dense tray bake, gooey butter cakes’ thick “filling” (it’s more like a baked icing) sits atop a cakey bottom—don’t ignore those toasted edges where the filling has caramelized. Gooey butter cake is often served as a coffee cake: The intense sweetness of the dessert nicely offsets a strong cup of coffee.

The origin of the gooey butter cake is a bit of a mystery (Koppe Bakery, Danzer’s, and St. Louis Pastries all claim to have invented it), but it’s generally believed to have been the result of a happy accident. Legend has it that a 1930s baker (whose name has been lost to time) messed up the measurements while baking a traditional cake, but soon realized the deliciousness of the new creation.

There are two ways to make gooey butter cake: the original recipe that’s generally used by bakeries involves a yeasted dough and the other, a favorite among home cooks, uses boxed cake mix. There are plenty of places around St. Louis to get a slice of the O.G. version, but some restaurants are serving new variations. If you can’t pick, Park Avenue Coffee has 73 different gooey butter cake options, including flavors like butter pecan or Irish cream. For a slice of the real deal, try the Cup, a local bakery that began serving classic gooey butter cake in 2007.

A cheesy pizza topped with slices of bacon

St. Louis’s Hill neighborhood is the best place in the city to find delicious Italian food.

Courtesy of Guido’s Pizza

4. St. Louis–style pizza

For a pizza to truly be considered St. Louis–style, the crust should be thin—an almost cracker-like crisp—and the pie should be topped with provel, not mozzarella. Provel, a St. Louis staple, is a processed cheese mix of cheddar, Swiss, and provolone—you’d be hard-pressed to find it anywhere else in the country. Thanks to its low moisture content, it melts beautifully across a pizza. However, because of the crisp crust, St. Louis–style pizza can’t be folded as you would eat a New York slice—instead, these pizzas are cut in 3- to 4-inch squares for eating. Pizza at the family-owned, award-winning Guido’s Pizzeria and Tapas on the Hill has been a local mainstay since 1988.

5. Slinger

  • What’s to love: All of your breakfast favorites on one plate
  • Best place to get it: Chili Mac’s Diner

Sometimes you need a sensible breakfast. And sometimes you need a breakfast consisting of eggs, meat, and potatoes—all swimming in ladles of chili, naturally. All hail the mighty slinger, a staple in St. Louis diners. Much like the gooey butter cake, the origins of slingers are murky and several restaurants (including Eat-Rite Diner and Chili Mac’s Diner) claim to have created it. Supposedly, a truck driver in the 1970s stopped by a diner and asked the cook to “sling me up some eggs and chili.”

There are many variations of slinger, but at its core, the dish should have meat (usually hamburger patties) and crispy hash browns, topped with a couple of eggs and cheese. All of that gets covered in chili and garnished with raw onions for good measure. Slingers may not fall under the category of fine dining, but they are the epitome of a Midwest home-cooked meal. For a delicious, no-frills version of the original, go to Chili Mac’s Diner in downtown St. Louis—it uses its famous chili as a topper.

A rectangular slab of cooked St. Louis ribs on white plate

The rectangular shape of St. Louis ribs involves a unique butchering technique.

Photo by Spencer Pernikoff

6. St. Louis–style ribs

  • What’s to love: Racks of saucy, grilled meat
  • Best place to get it: Salt + Smoke

If there’s one thing on this list you’ve heard of before, it’s likely St. Louis–style ribs. Without a doubt, the Lou loves its barbecue. The defining feature of St. Louis–style ribs are their unique rectangular shape, which is created by removing the sternum, cartilage, and rib tips from a set of ordinary spare ribs. St. Louis–style ribs are slathered in sweet, tomato-based barbecue sauce and then grilled rather than smoked over low and slow heat. Fun fact: The city consumes more barbecue sauce per capita than anywhere else in the United States, so it’s safe to say there’s more than a few places to get your fix of its namesake ribs. Head to one of Salt + Smoke’s locations for its Cherry Smoked St. Louis Cut Ribs.

Exterior of Ted Drewes, resembling white wood house with ordering windows across front

Ted Drewes is the most well-known place in St. Louis to get frozen custard and “concrete.”

Photo by Nagel Photography/Shutterstock

7. Frozen custard and “concrete”

  • What’s to love: A silky step above ice cream
  • Best place to get it: Ted Drewes

Frozen custard—ice cream’s denser, richer cousin made with egg yolks—was invented on Coney Island in 1919 before being introduced to the Midwestern masses at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933. Local company Ted Drewes Frozen Custard has been a mainstay in STL for the past 90 years. According to the family, Ted Drewes Sr. started making custard in 1929 while wintering in Florida. In the mid-1900s, he began opening up multiple locations in the St. Louis area—two remain in business today.

Every summer, thousands of St. Louisans line up for their first “concrete” (a custard milkshake so thick it can be served upside-down) of the season. In addition to a build-your-own option, there are over 20 specialty combinations to choose from, like the Hawaiian, which comes with pineapple, banana, and macadamia nuts.

Three white, red, and yellow bags of Red Hot Riplets

Red Hot Riplets are the definitive chip of St. Louis.

Courtesy of Old Vienna of St. Louis

8. Red Hot Riplets

Nothing goes better with an outdoor barbecue than potato chips. Enter the Red Hot Riplet, a salty, sweet chip that combines smoky barbecue flavor with spicy hot sauce. Old Vienna of St. Louis has been making snacks since 1936, when founder Louis Kaufman decided to open a potato chip business. The Red Hot Riplet was invented sometime in the ’70s and now accounts for 80 percent of Old Vienna’s sales. The iconic chip features ridges to help hold onto the unusually high concentration of seasoning. In 2017, the company started bottling the spice blend for devotees to use on, well, everything else. Pick up a bag in town at any local grocery store or gas station to get the true flavor of St. Louis in one bite.

Where to stay in St. Louis

You’re going to need somewhere to lay your head between meals. The city has 79 neighborhoods—but don’t let that overwhelm you. Most of the buzz is happening in the downtown area, and it’s a great spot for first-time visitors. This is especially true if you aren’t renting a car, as many spots are within walking distance of each other. The Gateway Arch, the Mississippi River, the National Blues Museum, the Anheuser Brewery, and Busch Stadium are big itinerary hot spots. In this area, the 142-room Hotel Saint Louis, Autograph Collection features a wealth of historic architectural details (check out the two-story lobby and its opulent upper cornice). The Last is another downtown option with a different architectural vibe. Housed in what used to be the International Shoe Company building (built in 1909), this space leans more art deco and neoclassical with its terrazzo flooring and midcentury furnishings.

The Grand Center Arts District is another contender for your home base. Just north of the Midtown neighborhood, this is where you’ll find the city’s best theaters, art galleries, and museums. If that caught your attention, check out the Angad Arts Hotel. Each floor is washed in a different color and the rooms are full of local art and a monochromatic palette.

This article originally appeared online in 2022; it was most recently updated on February 22, 2024, to include current information.

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