Bold Island Flavors, Tiki-Inspired Cocktails, Seafood-Focused Fare – it’s not too hard to feel like you’ve been transported to a tropical island when you walk into Yellowbelly.
The restaurant recently opened its doors in the Central West End, and St. Louisans are now able to get a little taste of the islands, without ever leaving the Midwest. We caught up with Co-Owners, Travis Howard and Tim Wiggins (who also own Retreat Gastropub), to learn more about the restaurant and why it’s such a unique concept here in St. Louis.
*Images courtesy of Andrew Trinh
Congratulations on opening Yellowbelly in the Central West End. Where did the inspiration come from for this restaurant?
Travis Howard: Yellowbelly is inspired by a variety of things, but we are saying it is very broadly island-inspired, without being specific to any individual island. Initially, we were inspired by Polynesian and Hawaiian islands and their lifestyle- very relaxed and stress-free. It is a very different lifestyle than the hustle and bustle here. One specific aspect of that lifestyle and culture is “family-style eating.” Our menu is very much meant for sharing, and we have a number of large-format entrees that are served family-style.
Much of our inspiration also comes from rum. As a spirit, the different varieties of rum are far less known that other spirits like Bourbon, Gin, and Tequila/Mezcal. Many people’s only knowledge or experience with rum was a bad night of Bacardi and/or Captain Morgan. But those two specifically are very different from the flavor profiles that we are focusing on. On both the East and West Coasts, rum has seen a big revival in the last couple of years. The Midwest has yet to really latch on to rum. To us, rum is an incredibly versatile spirit and we want to showcase that versatility.
You were able to bring Celebrity Chef Richard Blais on board to develop the menu. How did you build that relationship?
Travis Howard: We are so excited to be working with Chef Blais. That relationship started with no expectations whatsoever. We basically reached out to him online and quickly realized we had a lot of things in common conceptually. Part of that common ground is specific to food, but even more so in terms of passion and dedication to doing things the right way. We don’t want to open a restaurant just for fun, or to just be average. Our expectation is to be the best we can possibly be, and to create something that is really special and unique for St. Louis. Chef Blais quickly realized we had that sort of drive in common.
Also, as business owners and managers, we really respect and appreciate the work everyone has to put in to make the restaurant successful. Dishwashers and hosts are just as valuable and important as bartenders and cooks. I think that mentality quickly built the trust between us and Chef Blais.
Can you tell us about your menu and what people can expect when they come to Yellowbelly?
Travis Howard: The menus are a lot of fun and a constant evolution. Food-wise, it is broken up into 3 categories: snacks, plates, platters. We are island-inspired and try to connect each dish to the ocean. That doesn’t mean we just put a piece of fish on everything. We incorporate ingredients like seaweed into the salads. We blend uni into our macaroni salad. We grill carrots and glaze them in eel sauce. The carrots are a great example of how we want to still cook Midwestern food and local produce, but find ways to connect it to the ocean.
Snacks-wise, we have a handful of shareable things that are going over really well: Crab Fritters with Passionfruit Mustard is a stand out, and Fried Sea Creatures – a combination of calamari, shrimp, clams, oysters and oysters with pearls – is one of Chef Blais’s trademark dishes.
Our plates range from things like Ahi Tuna and Avocado Tostada, to Clams with Portuguese Sausage cooked in Chinese wine. The platters have been a lot of fun for us. Those are our larger-format, shareable entrees essentially. One person can order them, but they are great for sharing between 2-4 people. The Tuna Prime Rib has been a showstopper for sure. We have about 2 pounds of tuna on a tomahawk bone. It is grilled and basted in bone marrow butter. Even though it’s tuna, it really eats like a steak. Another dish (platter) we are really happy with, is the Whole Fish. That’s one thing we’ve really been pushing for, from the beginning. You don’t see Whole Fish many places in St. Louis. So far, people have been really happy with that dish.
Also, don’t miss out on the French Fries. We are cutting and making our fries in house. We cook them in beef fat, which just puts them over the top. So watch out St. Louis, we are coming for the ‘Best French Fries’ awards!
What is your favorite dish on the menu?
Travis Howard: It’s really hard to pick a favorite. But if I had to- I’d go with the Whole Fish. Right now, that has been Branzino. We stuff it with herbs, sear it on a plancha (which is a flat top griddle, but cooks at much higher heat than a traditional griddle), and top it off with a salsa verde. It is really juicy, bright and flavorful. You can’t get this really anywhere else in town.
Beverage-wise, I can’t really pick one thing. A classic Daiquiri is always my go-to. Many people think a Daiquiri is supposed to be like something they got in a hotel in Florida or Mexico, a big frozen drink that is probably really sweet. A traditional Daiquiri like ours is just rum, shaken with lime juice and sugar. It really shouldn’t be sweet, it should be more tart. We have a Passionfruit Daiquiri on the menu where we add a little passionfruit puree into the classic Daiquiri. That is an all-time favorite for us.
For our house cocktails- the Yellowbelly is probably my favorite. It is our version of a Pina Colada. But we add some spice and savory elements to cut through all the sweetness, which makes it really well balanced. We use a cold-pressed juicer, so we add fresh ginger juice and turmeric to the Yellowbelly. Super tasty and refreshing, and something everyone could like.
Yellowbelly is already becoming known for its bright, tropical drinks. Can you tell us more about your cocktails and what makes them unique?
Travis Howard: Our cocktails definitely are unique. We are very rum-heavy in the cocktails. There is a connotation that tropical drinks and rum drinks can be super sweet. Ours are not. Tim, the co-owner and beverage director, is really good at incorporating elements that makes the drinks far less sweet than many other places. We incorporate savory elements like ginger, turmeric, even soy sauce in one cocktail. The other key is citrus. Just an extra touch of lime, lemon, or grapefruit juices can balance out any sweetness that comes from the tropical ingredients like coconut and pineapple.
Tiki bars have kind of blown up across the country over the last handful of years. Many of the ‘best cocktail bar’ awards across the country are going to the top-notch Tiki bars. We are tapping into a lot of the elements and flavors that Tiki is known for, without trying to just be a ‘Tiki-bar.’ We are also somewhat flipping that concept and doing our own modern interpretation of Tiki. We aren’t using the chunky ceramic mugs. Our drinks aren’t super sweet. We are presenting these cocktails in a very bright, modern, colorful space. This is not a ‘dark bamboo/straw hut’ that Tiki is known for.
What do you like most about being located in the Central West End?
Travis Howard: There are so many things we love about the Central West End. This area is so densely populated with both commercial and residential- that is the biggest draw. It is also an amazing variety of people. There are so many young people in the area affiliated with the Cortex district, grad students and the medical field. But there are also a lot of people in their 40’s and 50’s. We really want to cater to people of all kinds. We want the younger crowd who are drinking Tiki cocktails to feel just as comfortable and at home as the slightly older crowd who may want to have a nice glass of white wine with a seared fish. That is our ultimate goal- to be inviting and inclusive to anyone and everyone. There are already a lot of great things going on around us: great restaurants, The Chase Park Plaza, historic houses, but alongside that, is this influx of new modern apartments, Whole Foods, etc. We love all of those things. But we think this area is also ready for something new and unique.