The hottest restaurant in St. Louis right now is a gas station.
Wait, no. That’s not quite right. The hottest restaurant in St. Louis right now also pumps gas and charges electric vehicles.
The hottest restaurant in St. Louis right now also pumps gas, charges electric vehicles and has a camper parked in its retail shop.
Now, I can’t prove this “hottest” metric empirically, but it feels right. I’m speaking, of course, about Wally’s, the self-styled “Home of the Great American Road Trip,” which opened in March along Interstate 44 in Fenton. Whether you are road-tripping, day-tripping or just stopping for gas or a charge, it’s a genuine spectacle.
Like, the hottest restaurant in St. Louis right now could fit another full-size restaurant inside its retail shop — and still leave plenty of room for that camper.
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This is the second location for Wally’s, after the original in Pontiac, Illinois. Wally’s president and CEO Michael Rubenstein and chairman Chad Wallis are cousins who grew up in Missouri and knew the site as part of the former Chrysler plant.
“Seeing it empty for so long, it just seemed like a really prime location for a Wally’s,” Andy Strom, the company’s chief experience officer, told me in a phone interview.
Unlike the Pontiac original, which opened in 2020 along Interstate 55, about 100 miles south of Chicago and 200 miles north of St. Louis, the new Wally’s is part of a large metro area.
The Fenton location, Strom says, “really just ticked all the boxes in terms of ease of access — that’s sort of No. 1 — visibility, a local economy to kind of support the store and then a lot of folks on their way to interesting destinations that might want to stop in.”
With its peaked roof, white-on-orange signage and long windows, the retro-sleek building could pass as some big-box store if not for the several dozen gas pumps arrayed out front.
The front entrances lead you past the cashiers into Wally’s spacious heart, the food court. Here you will find separate counters for popcorn, pizza and baked goods, coffee drinks, jerky and, at the center of the room, barbecue sandwiches.
You won’t find a place to sit down and eat, however. This is intentional, Strom says. Wally’s is designed to move a great number of customers through the restrooms, food court and gift shop and then back out on the road again.
You will find those restrooms — as clean as I’ve ever seen in a travel plaza, though I can only speak to the men’s facilities — to one side of the food court, past an area of fountain drinks, packaged snacks and retail alcoholic beverages that by itself would be an impressively oversized convenience store. Here is where I found my favorite Wally’s detail: Each fountain drink, even a relatively newer brand like Coke Zero, features a retro logo created by Wally’s in-house designers.
“The whole Wally’s concept is based on sort of an ‘80’s family road trip,” Strom says. “So it’s, you know, just a little nod back to the way it used to be done and a little design nod to just kind of keep things a little bit cooler.”
On the opposite side of the food court is the gift shop. Here you can buy some Wally’s-branded souvenirs as well as, say, a cast-iron pan.
The hottest restaurant in St. Louis right now also pumps gas, charges electric vehicles, has a camper parked in its gift shop and will help you fry the trout you catch on your camping trip. Across several visits, I haven’t seen Wally’s be anything less than bustling.
Grub on the go
A friend — let’s call him the QT Whisperer — messaged me some advice. I’d just mentioned I’d liked the jalapeño-cheddar hot dog at QuikTrip. It would prove to be by far the best thing I ate at the 800-pound gorilla of St. Louis gas stations.
The QT Whisperer also enjoys the jalapeño-cheddar dog. Next time, though, I should grab one from the back of the roller grill: “They’re better when they get a little wrinkly.”
Gas-station dining follows its own path of tips and hacks, whispered among those in the know and — if you’re lucky enough to meet a QT Whisperer of your own — accessible even to professional snobs such as yours truly.
Then again, the QT Whisperer also mentioned QuikTrip’s Buffalo chicken roller, which looks like a malevolent mozzarella stick and tastes like the morning after Buffalo Wild Wings.
Beyond the advice about wrinkly jalapeño-cheddar hot dogs, the QT Whisperer provided some non-QuikTrip tips that helped me put the food at Wally’s into context.
He reminded me I hadn’t yet visited 3 Bays BBQ & Bakery (14195 Clayton Road), the barbecue restaurant in the back of the West County Phillips 66 in Town and Country. Enter the gas station’s mini-mart, walk past the cashier to the right and then hang a left. Here you will find a counter with 3 Bays’ barbecue menu and, beyond it, a dining room.
3 Bays touts its pulled pork — and with justification. Mounded between halves of a sandwich bun, the meat is tender, juicy, smoky and even peppery. It needs no sauce to be a complete sandwich. A dab of that spicy, tangy sauce does benefit the pork ribs here, contrasting their smokiness.
The brisket sandwich bucks the trend toward the Texas-style approach to the meat. Instead of thick, barking slices of brisket, the meat is sliced very thinly or even shaved and piled onto its bun. If you think of it more like a roast beef sandwich a la Lion’s Choice, you’ll enjoy it.
The QT Whisperer also passed along a tip from one of his go-to informants: Roadkill Drive-Up & King’s Kitchen (8319 Jennings Station Road), a takeout counter inside the Mobil at the corner of Jennings Station Road and West Florissant Avenue in Jennings.
A menu board hangs above the counter, but the main attraction is the cafeteria-style buffet of soul-food dishes to one side of the register. On my first visit, I walked out with an order the clamshell container couldn’t contain: a mammoth turkey leg tender and juicy nearly to the bone; very creamy mac and cheese made with exceptionally long, thick noodles; and candied yams.
I returned eager to try more from this buffet, but that day the dishes weren’t ready yet or were just unavailable, period. Instead, I ordered the Humpty Dumpty Burger, which puts most smash burgers in town to shame: two swaggering patties with cheese, bacon and two fried eggs, garnished with lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle and mayo. Bonus points if you can wrangle this monster between your hands while sitting in your car.
Winners at Wally’s
What, beyond the sheer spectacle, will compel me to return to Wally’s?
Here a restaurant critic risks falling into what you might call the condescension trap, parsing the difference between good and good enough without coming off like a jerk — or, if you prefer, more of a jerk than usual.
For local diners, the selection of barbecue sandwiches pose no threat to your favorite smokehouse, but for a grab-and-go meal on the road, you can do far worse than Wally’s tender, smoky-ish pulled pork. The menu differentiates between chopped and sliced brisket sandwiches. The former was a little chewy but packed a brawny flavor; the latter was more tough than tender, much too salty and tasted closer to roast beef than smoked brisket.
An unexpected highlight was something called a pastrami link, a sausage spiced and garnished in its bun to taste uncannily like a pastrami sandwich. It’s good if you can get past the initial head trip. Whatever you pick up from the sandwich station, be sure to grab the freshly fried potato chips as your side. And whatever you order in general, you might as well grab a bag of the cheese popcorn or the Chicago-style cheese-and-caramel mix.
The Fenton Wally’s is the first to offer pizza: big, New York-style pies available by the slice or whole. Lute Cain, the director of food services and executive chef for both Wally’s, told me pizza making is one of the most involved processes here.
“The pizza station takes quite a bit of time because we hand-roll every dough ball,” he says. “We make it in-house and then we gotta let it proof, you know, stretch it out and roll it in front of the guest and then top it and then bake it.”
A slice is a meal: tight, chewy crust with a pleasantly bready flavor and a thick cap of melted cheese. The cheese could have browned a bit more on the slices I tried, but crunchy little pepperoni cups help make up the difference.
Wally’s might be most impressive as an operation that is both high-volume and appealing. There are 45 to 50 employees working on food, Cain says, and he estimates the kitchen is 85% to 90% from scratch.
When I return to Wally’s on my own time, though, it will be first and foremost to stock up on beef jerky. This is available both prepackaged and in bulk at the counter, where I ordered the hot-and-spicy flavor on one visit and the house cheddar-jalapeño sausage on another. Wally’s serves its bulk jerky as slabs with a yielding chew that lets the flavor build. It’s something pleasant to chew on while the price at the pump spirals ever upward.
Where Wally’s, 950 Assembly Parkway, Fenton • More info wallys.com • Hours Open 24 hours