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Inside the Revamp Shaking Up the St. Louis Dining Scene

Fine-dining temple Niche transforms into neighborhood spot Sardella

Ten years after his flagship St. Louis restaurant Niche opened its doors — and after six previous nominations — chef Gerard Craft finally landed the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Midwest in 2015. Just 13 months later, he’d announce it was time for Niche to close, at a time when the fine-dining stalwart was arguably still at the top of its game. "As cooks, it's what we wanted to cook and what we wanted to put people through," Craft says now of Niche’s tasting menus, which featured dishes like Little Gem lettuce with tomme (a type of cheese), lovage, and pecan miso. "But when we all wanted to go out to eat," he says, referring to the restaurant’s staid dining room, "that's not where we wanted to go out to eat."

This week, the Niche space will be reborn as the more casual Sardella, named for the Italian sardine. Gone are the $100 suggested chef’s tastings; in their place, an a la carte menu with sections for veggies, seafood, pasta, meat, and things (like sardine confit and snap peas with ricotta) "on toast." Eventually, the space will offer three meals a day, grabbing its own piece of the ongoing restaurant breakfast boom — here, the offerings will be inspired by European café culture. "After getting out of fine dining, you just want life. You want noise," Craft says. "In Italy in the morning, you go to all the cafés, and it's like going to the bar at night: It's a place to catch up, gather, and be part of the community. I've always loved having that environment around."

That all-day approach and more casual menu effectively throws out Niche’s strict local-only policy, which had excluded any ingredients not made in or around Missouri: Chocolate, celery, and most varieties of fish rarely (if ever) appeared on the Niche menu. The kitchen staff’s re-introduction to a wider world of products "was weird, at first," Craft says, noting an uni carbonara dish that highlights sea urchin, Parmesan, and Meyer lemon. "We haven't worked with so many of these ingredients in a while. It's those little things that you forget about, like really awesome vinegar makers, great salt producers. It opens up our toolbox, which is fantastic." (Niche’s executive chef Nick Blue and pastry chef Sarah Osborn retain the same roles at Sardella.)

Craft’s Niche Food Group, which operates a fast-casual pasta concept (Porano), family-friendly restaurant (Pastaria, whose previously announced Nashville expansion plans are currently "far away"), a brasserie (Brasserie by Niche), and cocktail bar (Taste), is now left without a traditional fine-dining spot in its portfolio. But "I’m not one of the people who thinks fine dining is dead," Craft says. "I just think fine dining’s different." In its revamped space, which swaps light woods and tablecloths for vibrant blues and brass, Sardella will be the anti-Niche.

"We want it to be a place where people come to have a good time," Craft says. "It's okay to laugh. It's okay to eat a little. It's okay to eat a lot. More importantly, we want to be a place that relieves stress — not adds to it." Below, a look inside Sardella, opening this week:

· The 23 Most Anticipated Restaurant Openings of Fall 2016 [E]
· All Gerard Craft Coverage [E]