Levels Nigerian Cuisine will open in downtown St. Louis in May

Levels Nigerian Cuisine will open at 1403/1405 Washington Ave. in downtown St. Louis this spring. Owner Ono Ikanone is aiming for a May launch for the restaurant, which will serve traditional Nigerian dishes like jollof rice and egusi soup in a contemporary, casual space. 

The restaurant covers 2,000 square feet, with around 1,500 square feet on the ground floor and a further 500 square feet occupied by a mezzanine level. Ikanone estimates that there will be about 15 tables on the main floor, with about five tables on the mezzanine. 

Ikanone was born in Lagos, Nigeria, and moved to St. Louis to attend college in 2004. An engineer by training, Ikanone has also gained hospitality experience through working behind the bar at events regularly over the past decade, as well as organizing events through his marketing and consulting company, Ono Celebrations

“There aren’t a lot of Nigerian restaurants in the downtown area, and in St. Louis in general. There are a few in North County, but nothing that caters to the working professional who lives downtown,” Ikanone said. “We wanted to create something like that here.” 

The name gives a clue to the kind of atmosphere Ikanone wants to create with the restaurant. “It’s popular Nigerian slang, saying ‘levels,’ which means something that's upscale or on another plane,” he said. “But we’re also playing on the fact that we have two floors here, so we're just saying it’s got different levels.”

The restaurant’s interior will feature lots of “Instagrammable moments,” Ikanone said. “We’re going for contemporary casual dining where we want it to be a nice restaurant, but not necessarily a Ruth's Chris fine dining kind of a deal,” he said.  

The menu will broadly be divided into three courses, with recipes that are true to traditional Nigerian methods. “Nigerian food is what it is,” Ikanone said. “You can't really make it differently and say it's Nigerian.” The starters will include a Nigerian pepper soup, as well as meat pies and vegetarian pies. The main courses will include jollof rice (steamed rice sauteed in a tomato sauce), pounded yam, egusi soup (a thick soup made from ground melon seeds, spinach, and different meats) and efo riro (a rich vegetable broth), all staples of Nigerian cuisine. Another entrée will be tilapia, seasoned and baked, then served on a bed of vegetables with a side of rice.   

jollof rice served with peppered whole fish // photo courtesy of levels

A dessert course will include puff puff, which Ikanone compared to “beignets without the powdered sugar.” He said puff puff is a personal favorite from his childhood, and something he’s eager to share with customers – with a side of vanilla ice cream. Ikanone plans to offer cocktails and beverages that Nigerian expats in St. Louis will recognize, including Nigerian beers and palm wine. “Palm wine goes very well with a lot of dishes, especially with egusi soup or with pepper soup,” Ikanone said. “It kind of calms your palate and it also has a little bit of alcohol to it too.”

Ikanone said he hopes Levels can be a place where people in St. Louis can not only enjoy a good meal, but also experience Nigerian culture – and there’s never been a better time. “I think that through our music, we're becoming a lot more popular with Afrobeat, and more recently, the food too, because it's becoming a social media sensation to eat fufu,” Ikanone said. “We're catching on to that, and then jollof rice more recently has just hit that social media circuit where everybody's talking about it.” 

It would be a bonus if Levels can get people excited about visiting downtown again, after a number of pandemic-era closures thinned out the volume of restaurants in the area. “It’s going to help bring a good following back to Washington,” Ikanone said. “Downtown St. Louis, specifically Washington Avenue, hasn't lived up to what it could be or what it used to be for the last couple of years, so I feel like we’re really taking a step in the right direction and revitalizing the downtown area.”

Levels will be open six days a week, from Tuesday to Sunday. Ikanone said the restaurant will open at around 1 p.m. from Tuesday to Saturday, offering a late lunch option and a space for customers to visit in the afternoon, before shifting gears for dinner service. Ikanone also plans to offer a Sunday brunch with a Nigerian-inspired twist. “There are some things that we eat for breakfast, but brunch is not really a big thing in Nigeria, so that would be where we would have a play on having American-style dishes just with some Nigerian seasonings, and we're going to do that for brunch,” Ikanone said.

“It is just our mission to be a premier West African cuisine, Nigerian cuisine space in downtown St. Louis, being able to expose the culture to everyone,” Ikanone said. “A very inviting space where anyone can walk in, have a nice dinner, have a nice lunch and be able to talk about it – essentially brag that, ‘Hey, I went to that Nigerian space and it was really good.’ I really want to put that kind of narrative out there, so I'm looking forward to being able to execute that.”