I know it’s not cool, but I do—in fact—love Piña Coladas. Coconut is a divisive flavor, but it’s one of my favorites. Throw it in with some pineapple, and you better believe I’m ordering that.
Likewise, I’m also ordering Mai Tais, Saturns and Singapore Slings whenever I see them.
Luckily, with the opening of Yellowbelly in St. Louis, I actually have a place to order them—or at the very least, their spiritual successors. St. Louis isn’t exactly a tropical oasis, but it’s a little closer to one with Yellowbelly in it.
The restaurant, which is sort of like Tiki Bar: The Next Generation, comes from Travis Howard and Tim Wiggins of Retreat Gastropub, with a little help from Top Chef alum Richard Blais. It opened last September in a prime spot in the Central West End.
Blais helped develop the menu, which is definitely seafood forward with roots in California. To me, the restaurant is really a love letter to rum. I would expect nothing less of the proprietors of Retreat Gastropub, which has one of the most well-crafted and fun bar programs in the city.
I mean, where else are you going to order a cocktail named Oaxaca Flocka Flame or a cocktail like the Timber centered around cedar and spruce flavors?
This playfulness and willingness to experiment explains why Yellowbelly’s bar program succeeds with rum and tiki-inspired cocktails—once the sole province of Don Draper-esque ’60s dads. They feel new and fresh, literally and figuratively.
A number of other spirits have had their moments over the years. From the bourbon and whiskey boom of several years ago to the more recent interest in mezcal and tequila. On the other hand, rum has often been relegated to a mixer for college kids who put together enough dough selling plasma to afford a bottle of Captain Morgan.
But no more.
Restaurants like Yellowbelly are starting to pay attention to rum and give it its due. There has started to be an interest in going beyond plastic-bottled, pineapple-flavored rums. Just as studied drinkers look for quality aged Scotch and bourbon, they’re starting to look at rums such as El Dorado, Plantation and Diplomatico.
The care that is taken in the lineup of classic cocktails is what every restaurant should aspire to. I wasn’t kidding earlier, I truly do love piña coladas, and Yellowbelly’s is a shining example of what it can be. It makes you wonder why it was maligned in the first place.
The new school cocktails rotate seasonally, but they’re equally as good—and I should know, I’ve nearly had them all. The Lazy Tiger is, for this place at least, pretty straightforward. A mezcal cocktail that brings orange shrub, jalapeño, Tajín, honey and lime to the party.
However, if you’re more adventurous, the Half Sleeve succeeds in being unique but also tasty. I’m not sure you can say that about any other cocktail that includes oatmeal. Its base is cachaca–a can sugar spirit—and white rum, but leans heavily on oatmeal and almond.
It’s rounded out with pineapple, lime, ginger beer and peach bitters. Its flavors remind me of a breakfast cocktail...Not that you should enjoy one in the morning, but the flavor profile—especially with the oatmeal—is reminiscent of a breakfast smoothie.
The bar program could easily fill an entire write up, but it’s not just the cocktails that keep me coming back to Yellowbelly. A selection of Californian seafood, wood-fired entrees and tasty snacks creates the perfect vibe for hanging out and having a few cocktails with friends.
Along with rum, Spam is also having a bit of a revival. You can find fancified versions of it on a number of menus, but here it’s kept relatively simple—as it should be. It’s supposed to be stoner food, surfer food—you know, in a good way.
At varying times, Yellowbelly has offered Spam and Crab Fried Rice and Spam and Vegetable Fried Rice. In the former, the crab offers a nice sweet counterpart to the deeply savory canned mystery meat. In the latter, mushrooms add umami and depth to the Spam, which can become a little overwhelming if left to its own devices.
This playfulness and instinct toward new visions of familiar comforts is carried throughout the starters menu, as well. The Sea Biscuits, which are infused with cheddar and come with uni butter, are basically Red Lobster’s Cheddar Bay Biscuits turned up to 11. I mean, do I really need to describe how good these are? Briny, rich butter on cheesy carbs is obviously a winner.
The Beef Fat French Fries are an ode to McDonald’s heyday. They’re the golden arches, Happy Meals and Mac and Me incarnate. And if you think McDonald’s fries tasted better when you were a kid, you’re right. It’s not nostalgia pervading your memories. Until the ’90s, they were cooked in beef tallow. Supposedly, that’s what made them so addictive. These fries are equally addicting, conjuring memories of road-trip lunches and post-little-league treats.
The menu also offers a riff on a pop-culture favorite that so many other restaurants and bars manage to absolutely ruin: The Big Kahuna Burger. The fictional burger (and burger chain) was immortalized in one of Pulp Fiction’s most memorable scenes.
Where so many other restaurants go wrong with the Big Kahuna Burger is taking the Hawai’ian theme far too literally. I’ve had several of these in the past, and they almost always include raw pineapple or grilled pineapple.
You know what’s terrible on a burger? Goddamn pineapple.
It’s arguably worse on a burger than it is on pizza. The sweetness is often overpowering and the juicy, fibrous flesh of the pineapple makes it a structural nightmare, ensuring your bun starts falling apart and you get uneven bites for the entire meal.
Instead, Yellowbelly smartly opts to make their version of an In-N-Out Double Double. The grilled burger has a nice smokiness to it and comes with a take on the Californian chain’s Burger Spread and miso onions. It’ll make you say, “Hmmm, this is a tasty burger!”
I also need to mention the seafood. Yellowbelly takes care to bring in a variety of quality seafood from mahi mahi to barramundi to the more standard tuna. That’s important in the Midwest where seafood can sometimes be suspect. No one wants to spend three days on the thunder bucket because of a bad oyster.
That unpleasant reality aside, I had the Mahi Mahi with Mango Ginger Beurre Blanc at one of my most recent dinners. The fish was blackened with a nice crust but still plenty tender. The beurre blanc was bright with a subtle heat, and honestly, it would be great on pretty much any firm white fish.
At first glance, it would be easy view this place as another entrant in the tiki bar revival. Yes, it’s true, the bar does specialize in rum, and you can get one hell of a daiquiri, but closer inspection reveals that it is so much more.
So, I guess what I’m saying is, if you like piña coladas (without the kitsch)...head to Yellowbelly.