the staff at yellowbelly in st. louis photo by greg rannells

Yellowbelly brings modern, tropical tiki flavors to St. Louis

Tiki is fundamentally extra, and that’s why we love her. But she’s growing up, and we’re not mad about that, either. The popularity of tropical spirits and flavors has given rise to a class of clean, stirred cocktails that belong in a rocks glass but have the heart of an appropriated Polynesian idol. Bars like Navy Strength in Seattle and Pacific Cocktail Haven in San Francisco are now joined by our own Yellowbelly, opening this month in the Central West End.

At Yellowbelly, owners Travis Howard and Tim Wiggins aim to reimagine St. Louis food and drink with Polynesian flavors. The team that created Retreat partnered with“Top Chef” winner and restaurateur Richard Blais to concept Yellowbelly’s seafood-focused menu, and he’ll stay on as consulting chef after the restaurant opens. 

The food will highlight ocean flavors beyond fish, like seaweed and brine, with casual, lighthearted presentations like a deconstructed Chicken of the Sea-sar Salad featuring confit tuna, wakame and romaine.

Wiggins will helm the bar program with a focus on playful drinks that seem simple, but require meticulous technique. “They’ll be really punchy, fun cocktails that don’t take themselves too seriously,” he said.

But don’t expect a lineup of tiki sugar bombs. “The whole menu trends toward savory, vegetal, briny flavors because that’s what goes well with the food,” Wiggins said. “The cocktails and food will be very cohesive and use a lot of similar ingredients and techniques.” 

Read More // Top Chef Richard Blais talks Yellowbelly, St. Louis and Midwest food culture

The Helping Hands cocktail offers a great example. Made with blanco tequila, seaweed-infused blanc vermouth, snap pea juice and lime, Wiggins describes it as a, “vegetal, savory, umami take on a margarita.” 

The Millennial Pink makes use of tropical darling rhum agricole along with Contratto bitter, blanc vermouth and peach to show the bitter side of tiki. “It reads a lot more like a Negroni than you’d think,” Wiggins said. 

And the earthy, spiced Yellowbelly cocktail does its namesake proud with aged rum, ginger falernum, coconut, pineapple, turmeric and lime. “The earthy spice of the turmeric cuts through the sweetness,” Wiggins said. “To my mind, it’s like a really fancy piña colada,” Wiggins said.

With sophisticated tropical flavors and a lighthearted approach, we can’t wait to follow Wiggins in the modern, streamlined direction that tiki is headed.

Heather Hughes is managing editor at Sauce Magazine.