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Thursday, Oct. 25, 2012 04:12 pm

Best of 2012 (Part 1)

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Welcome to BOS

Often the news business takes us to the worst of Springfield, so we look forward every year to this edition, which brings you the best. In these pages, 72 of them this week, we celebrate our readers’ choices in more than 100 categories for the best in food and drink, music and theater, businesses, personalities and a whole lot more. Online reader participation keeps getting stronger. This year there were just short of 12,000 voters, including the 35 or so diehards who sent their answers in on paper. That’s nearly double the 6,400 ballots we got last year, which was in itself a record.

It has always been a challenge to conduct a creditable “Best of” contest in a town the size of Springfield, which often has only one of a kind. For years it was our joke to ask you to pick the best Thai restaurant, when the Magic Kitchen stood all alone. But by honoring a pioneer, perhaps our readers helped spawn the five other Thai establishments that today offer Springfield a choice. Springfield now has its first microbrewery restaurant – see the multiple winner on this page – so we honor the pioneer, and look for others to follow.

Some of the same old establishments keep being named “Best” year after year, but don’t be bored by that. It takes courage and pluck to keep a small business going in this economy, and always fresh energy to keep the quality up. So, way to go, old favorites like Saputo’s, the Feed Store, Clay’s Popeye’s, Holy Land Diner, Brewhaus, Incredibly Delicious, Old Lux. Keep on keeping on.

It’s always fun to meet the people our readers pick as the best in their field. You’ll be inspired to read about the Williamsville math teacher appreciated by students because he’s tough, the photographer who says trust by her subjects brings magic to photos, the firefighter who is living his childhood dream. Reading about all these good people will renew your appreciation for the character of the community.

The reader poll results comprise about half of this special issue. The other half is made up of the marketing messages of our advertisers, who make our enterprise possible. We urge readers to honor their support for IT by supporting them. And tell them you saw them among the Best of Springfield.

–Fletcher Farrar, editor and publisher



PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE
OUTDOOR DINING, RESTAURANT DISCOVERED THIS YEAR, NEW BUSINESS
Obed and Isaac’s
500 S. Sixth St., 670-0627

Springfield’s first brewpub had a low-key opening last February. It was about the only decent restaurant in town that wasn’t packed for Valentine’s Day as owners Court and Karen Conn opened the doors with a limited menu owing to the kitchen not yet having passed all required city inspections. The food was memorable, and the place has only gotten better. The menu is simple but superb, and the beers brewed next door in a converted carriage house are top notch. The outdoor dining area is alongside a quiet street, so you don’t have to put up with cars whooshing by every few seconds. The setting inside a former mansion near Lincoln’s home reeks of history. The chutzpah in opening such a place on the edge of downtown instead of in a strip mall is admirable. Quite simply, Obed and Isaac’s, where you can’t buy a Budweiser, is the best thing to happen to Springfield beer drinkers since the Brewhaus opened nearly two decades ago.
Runner-up: Casa Real


BEST DOWNTOWN DINING
Saputo’s Italian Restaurant
801 East Monroe St., 544-2523

What do you say about a restaurant that is voted Best of Springfield year after year? Well, we say that if you have not dined at Saputo’s Italian Restaurant than you are missing out on a Springfield staple. Saputo’s, which has operated for nearly 65 years, is a family-owned and operated establishment that offers tasty Italian dishes passed down for several generations. Saputo’s is best known for its baked pasta dishes as well as its friendly and knowledgeable staff. We recommend the lasagna, which is loaded with gooey mozzarella, also the pizza and the special house dressing for your salad.
Runner-up: Maldaner’s


BEST PLACE FOR A GROWN-UP PARTY
Floyd’s Thirst Parlor
212 South Fifth St., 622-9992

They say you’re never told old for a party. And Floyd’s Thirst Parlor proves just that. Its second floor is routinely packed with crowds enjoying a game of pool, air hockey, darts, skee-ball, foosball and video games, or partaking in a wide variety of spirits, including 25 imported and mix beers, about a dozen draft beers and a number of wines and champagne. Though the large selection of spirits and wealth of games are guaranteed to keep your business, these who tend to consume large amounts of alcohol are advised to eat before they go, as frozen pizza is the only food available on site to soak up that liquor. Nevertheless, we agree with our voters: Floyd’s Thirst Parlor is indeed the perfect place to let your hair down and have crazy fun.
Runner-up: The Curve Inn


BEST RESTAURANT OFF THE BEATEN PATH
Old Luxemburg Inn
1900 South 15th St., 528-0503

Tucked away on Springfield’s east side is a gem. Old Luxemburg is a quaint and cozy establishment with a retro feel. Since we were unfamiliar with the 50-year-old establishment, we decided to find out what voters already know. The atmosphere is comfortably nostalgic, yet the menu is a bit upscale. As we thumbed through the menu we couldn’t quite decide. “Customers love our fried lobster,” stated our waitress. Though fried lobster sounds quite strange we opted to try it, along with the fried cauliflower and the teriyaki salmon. As the waitress brought our food, we were amazed at the generous portions. In the end, both entrées were absolutely wonderful. We also loved the baked potato, which was covered with a delicious cheese sauce and chives. The best part was price. Dinner for two was $40.
Runner-up: Lake Pointe Grill


BEST CHINESE FOOD
China Star
1889 East Sangamon Avenue, 789-0800

Last year, they shared the crown but this year, voters have spoken loud and clear and have declared China Star, with its extensive menu of Hunan, Szechuan, Cantonese and Thai-style dishes, the best. From Lo Mein and Chow Mein, to fried rice and egg foo young, China Star has more than 150 dishes to choose from. The restaurant also offers 18 combination platters, served with fried rice and an egg roll, 28 lunch specials that are available between 10:30 a. m. and 3 p.m. and seven China Star specials that serve as perfect appetizers. A huge plus, especially if you’re grabbing a bite during your lunch hour, is that meals, which are made to order, are prepared quickly. And the prices are great, with combination platters ranging in price from $5.75-$7.75. Lunch specials are under $5.
Runner-up: Golden Dragon


BEST ITALIAN
BEST RESTAURANT FOR A ROMANTIC DINNER
Bella Milano
4525 Wabash Ave., 547-0011

You might say that Bella Milano offers diners a “two-for-one.” First, the dark décor, which is beautifully accented with mood lighting and soft, relaxing music, creates an elegantly intimate setting sure to make any date feel special. Then, it serves the most exquisite Italian appetizers, entrées and desserts in the capital city. Voters routinely refer to Bella Milano as an “upscale” restaurant, with “awesome food, great atmosphere and excellent prices.” Now you don’t have to always be in a romantic mood to frequent Bella Milano. Recently, after leaving work a bit early following a particularly rough day, we decided to stop at the restaurant to bask in the relaxing environment After enjoying the music, a glass of wine and the chicken brochette, which features marinated chunks of chicken breast lightly breaded and charbroiled, the rough day slowly became a distant memory. In addition to its regular menu, Bella Milano also offers six fall and winter entrées and six seasonal lunch specials. Though some may feel Bella Milano is a bit pricey, the quantity and quality of food, along with the atmosphere, makes the experience worth every penny. Plus, the large portions of food leave many diners with lunch or dinner for the following day. Those who are counting their pennies should visit during lunch hours (smaller portions of the tasty entrées) or take advantage of the early dining specials – choice of nine at a reduced price.
Runner-up: Nick & Nino’s Penthouse Steakhouse


BEST PLACE FOR A DATE
Bella Milano
4525 Wabash Ave., 547-0011

Whether it’s the first date or an anniversary dinner, Bella Milano is sure to impress. The quiet, swanky atmosphere is like a muted jazz trumpet: reserved and measured, but still able to grab your attention. That’s to say nothing of the food, which is modeled after the Italian food found in The Hill neighborhood of St. Louis. Italian is always a safe bet for a romantic dinner, and Bella Milano doesn’t disappoint. From the sumptuously creamy pork and chicken tortellini to the shrimp-stuffed tenderloin, Bella Milano combines savory flavors masterfully. The portions are large, too, so save room for one of their 11 different desserts. Even the salad is worth a trip – especially their signature Milano’s Salad, which features crisp proscuitto ham and a deliciously sweet and tangy dressing. Manager Jon Lowry says the restaurant strives for a “relaxed-casual” feel that makes dates enjoyable. “We’re not too upscale,” he says. “It’s just comfortable for everyone.”
Runner-up: Osaka



BEST BREAD/PASTRIES
Panera Bread
3019 South Dirksen Parkway, 527-6200
3110 West White Oaks Drive, 726-5070

The fact that Panera Bread receives first place or runner-up in several BOS categories each year tells us that voters know where to go for the most scrumptious breads and pastries in town. Voters sum up the bread and pastries by simply saying “yummm!” One voter swears, “You will say OMGosh before you are out of there.” Panera’s tasty pastries and breads seem to be common knowledge. But what you may not know is that earlier this year, the restaurant chain threw its hat in the social gaming arena by launching its Panera Eat Smarts program – an online game (www.panerabread.com) with multiple, interactive challenges designed to help consumers make smarter choices about the food they eat at Panera and at home. Eat Smarts has three levels with five challenges each that are enjoyable for kids and adults. As gamers progress through the levels, which feature videos, quizzes and challenges, they receive more in-depth nutrition information. Following the completion of each level, players will be notified of rewards. Those who complete level one and two will also be eligible for random prizes such as cookbooks and gift cards. Once level three is complete, players are registered for a chance to win a trip for two to a luxury resort. Panera also has a rewards program that will allow those who are enrolled to receive special offers.
Runner-up: Incredibly Delicious


PHOTO BY DAVID HINE
BEST GYROS
Gyro Stop
2907 South MacArthur, 698-6463

This marks the fifth consecutive year that Gyro Stop has won best gyro. In addition to the traditional gyro sandwich – heaping strips of lamb, onion and tomato, piled high on pita bread, and topped with tzatziki cucumber sauce – Gyro Stop also serves a Western, chicken, and horseshoe gyro, as well as a gyro salad. For a change of pace, try the double gyro burger, which is served on a pretzel bun. It’s loaded with enough meat to make a couple of sandwiches. Gyro Stop’s sweet corn nuggets make the perfect companion. BOS voters describe the gyros as “simply awesome,” “perfection” and “number one all the way.” One voter went a bit further: “The Gyro Stop family needs more credit for serving great lunches.” We invite you to try one. Trust the voters, you won’t be disappointed.
Runner-up: Yanni’s


BEST CHILI
Joe Rogers’ Chili Parlor
820 South Ninth St., 522-3722

When Joe Rogers created what he deemed the “perfect” chili in 1945, he was eager to share it with fellow Springfield residents. Thus, he opened Joe Rogers’ Original Recipe. Little did he know his chili would not only be the talk of the town, but folks around the world would rave about his unusual concoction in which the meat and beans are prepared separately. With segments featured in local as well as national newspapers, magazines and television shows, there is not a chili in town that has received as many accolades as Joe Rogers. Sixty-seven years after its creation, it’s clear that the current owners believe in Joe’s recipe as they continue serving up bowls and bowls of chili. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” definitely holds true for Joe Rogers Chili Parlor. One voter summed it up: “Love it!”
Runner-up: Steak ’n’ Shake


BEST CHICKEN WINGS
Buffalo Wild Wings
2808 North Dirksen Parkway, 670-0048
4420 West Wabash Ave., 546-9453

Wing lovers have spoken and we’re not surprised to see that they have once again declared Buffalo Wild Wings the winner of our best wings category. Every Tuesday and/or Thursday hundred of customers (us included) make their way to one of the city’s two restaurants to overindulge in the 60-cent wing specials – bone-in Tuesdays and boneless Thursdays. Buffalo Wild Wings goes beyond the barbecue and mild, medium or hot sauces offered at many other establishments. In fact, they dazzle customers with meaty wings hand-tossed in their choice of 16 New York-style wing sauces, such as parmesan garlic, jamming jalapeno, Asian zing, Caribbean jerk, Thai curry and mango habanero, and six dry rubs, including salt and vinegar, lemon pepper, chipotle BBQ, buffalo and desert heat. Traditional wings can be purchased in orders of 6, 12, 18, 24 and 50, while boneless wings can be purchased in quantities of 8, 12, 18, 24 and 50. Combo orders of both wings, as well as various samplers featuring wings and other menu items, are also available. Though wings are on both the dine-in and carryout menus, we must admit we often have fun watching others with sauce-covered faces and shirts. “Without a doubt, Buffalo Wild Wings is the best. Great variety of sauces and fast, friendly service,” states one BOS voter.
Runner-up: Westwoods Lodge


BEST BAR FOR SPORTS
Buffalo Wild Wings
4420 Wabash Ave., 546-9453
2808 N. Dirksen Parkway, 670-0048

If it’s sports you want, Buffalo Wild Wings seems to be the place. Sitting at any given table, you can probably see at least five TV screens, each showing a different sporting event. Want to watch the Cubs, Cardinals or Bears games? If they’re playing, they’re on. Want to watch a game that isn’t already tuned in? The staff is pretty cool about switching channels if you ask nicely. But despite the abundance of screens at BWW, it’s usually not too loud to hear the one you’re watching. It’s also a good place to catch the occasional Pay-Per-View fight. They’ll pull up professional wrestling, mixed-martial arts events and more while you sip on a tall beverage and eat your spicy hot wings.
Runner-up: Brickhouse


PHOTO BY TREVOR MILLER
BEST PLACE FOR A WORKING LUNCH
BEST CUPCAKES
Café Moxo
411 East Adams, 788-8084

We were a bit surprised to see Café Moxo take top honors in both the best cupcake and best place for a working lunch. Not that the cupcakes and other food items are not fabulous. But as cupcake lovers, we couldn’t fathom working while surrounded by the scrumptious treats. But what the heck we’ll give it a try. As we approach the counter, our eyes go straight to the cupcakes. Since it’s only 10 a.m. we decide to order a turtle mocha coffee and reward ourselves with a cupcake when our work is completed. As we pay for our drink and turn to find a seat, we hear the cupcakes calling our name. (Of the café’s many cupcake flavors, only about a half dozen are made each day.) Naturally we stop and check out the flavors of the day. What do you know? A Wake ’n Bacon cupcake. After all, bacon is a breakfast food and we had not yet eaten. Though bacon in a cupcake sounds a bit strange, it was incredible. In the end, we were able to find a nice quiet corner to work. And yes, we treated ourselves to a cupcake (or two) for a job well done. In addition to cupcakes and a variety of hot and cold coffee drinks and smoothies, Café Moxo also offers a variety of breakfast items, as well as soup, salads and sandwiches for lunch.
Working lunch runner-up: The Feed Store
Cupcakes runner-up: Incredibly Delicious


BEST SOUP
The Feed Store
516 East Adams, 528-3355

It sounds like a place where you might pick up food for farm animals. But one taste of The Feed Store’s delicious soups and you’ll definitely conclude that it’s feed fit for a king, or at least a governor. The Feed Store has an arsenal of four broths, seven cream, one seafood and four chilled soups, though the 35-year-old restaurant only whips together six different soups each day. Voters write: “By far the best broccoli and potato soups.” And, “Hooray for Ross and Ann! Nobody does it better.” The Feed Store from 11:30-1:30 is jampacked and noisy, a great place to see your friends. If you’re looking for a quiet lunch, try a late one. The Feed Store is open Monday through Friday from 11a.m. to 3 p.m.
Runner-up: Panera Bread


BEST BURGERS
Smashburger
2161 Chatham Road, 787-3700

One bite into a burger and you will easily taste how newly-opened Smashburger was able to blow into town and snatch the crown of best burger. Smashburger offers grilled sandwiches with “fresh, never-frozen, ground beef,” but so do others. What makes Smashburger unique is that burger lovers can choose to have their sandwich on the classic butter-tossed artisan bun or opt for the multi-grain, spicy chipotle, or pretzel bun. The burger joint also offers a variety of unusual toppings, such as fried egg, guacamole, garlic mushrooms, fried pickles, cucumbers, bleu cheese and goat cheese. We recommend the Spicy Baja burger, which comes with pepper jack cheese, guacamole, lettuce, tomato, spicy chipotle mayo and fresh jalapeno served on the spicy chipotle bun, or the Windy City burger with melted cheddar cheese, haystack onions, lettuce, tomato and spicy mustard served on a pretzel bun. But don’t leave without trying the sweet potato fries, which are tossed with rosemary, olive oil and garlic. These were so delicious that we returned for another visit just for the fries.
Runner-up: Krekel’s Custards and Hamburgers


BEST BREAKFAST
Charlie Parker’s Diner
700 North Street, 241-2104

With Charlie Parker’s receiving both local and national accolades, area residents and visitors alike often pack the quonset-style structure to consume the best breakfast in town. Even Mitt Romney made a visit. Not only are diners treated to delicious meals to start their day, the prices keep them coming back for more. One voter says Charlie Parker’s is “the greatest post-10-mile-run place ever.” Another writes, “it’s one of the only places in town that you can walk into at 5 a.m., covered in paint, and order a waffle as big as your head with bacon in it.” During our recent visit, we decided to deviate from our normal bacon and eggs and ordered French toast stuffed with strawberries and the St. Louis Supreme omelet – choice of meat with onion, mushrooms, green peppers, tomatoes, cheese and (get this) barbecue sauce. The French toast was delicious. We were a bit apprehensive about the omelet. After all, barbecue sauce is not usually a morning condiment. Surprisingly, the sauce ended up adding a bit of pizzazz to what would have been an otherwise traditional dish. Each visit we hope to be able to witness a brave soul willing to take on the diner’s pancake challenge, which entails consuming four 16-inch pancakes. (For those who are struggling to envision the challenge, imagine a pancake about the size of a steering wheel.) The victorious ones have their meal paid for.
Runner-up: D & J Cafe


MOST ORIGINAL MENU
American Harvest Eatery
2161 Chatham Road, 787-3700

When American Harvest Eatery owner August Mrozowski sat down with executive chef Jordan Coffey and sous chef Aurora Coffey, the three had one concept in mind: Create dishes that have a modern play on classic American dishes, while using local farmers to provide the ingredients. With food from farmers from 18 surrounding communities, such as Athens, Petersburg, Dawson, Williamsville, Virden, Stewardson and Rochester, American Harvest Eatery serves up unique seasonal dishes while giving the local economy a boost. When we first looked at the menu we were a little apprehensive. But once we looked around at the dishes of customers who were already eating, we decided to put away our inhibitions and dig in. The seared sea scallops (a bestseller) served with roasted sweet potatoes, pears, short rib ragu and pea shoots is superb, as is the popular breakfast salad, made with arugula, potato croutons, house bacon and hot sauce vinaigrette. The artisan grilled cheese sandwich – smoked Swiss cheese, peppercorn gouda, pea shoots and rosemary aioli – is also worth a try. Other unique dishes include portabella crepes with goat cheese, cherry tomatoes and arugula; and “risotto of the moment,” which changes daily. End your meal with the delicious bread pudding.
Runner-up: Westwoods Lodge


BEST ASIAN FOOD
BEST SUSHI
Osaka Japanese Restaurant
1665 Wabash, 726-8037

It’s been three years since Osaka opened its doors in the capital city. Since then, they have dominated our best Asian and sushi categories. Upon entering the restaurant you immediately get the feel of the Far East. The dark décor is accented with candles and mood lighting. A beautiful waterfall is locating in the lobby area, which makes for a calm, relaxing environment while you wait for a table. The food is best described as Japanese cuisine infused with a bit of Thai. There are several seating sections to choose from, but we recommend the hibachi grill where the food is sensational. The chef is so fun and entertaining that a meal at the grill is turned into a dining experience. Sushi lovers are in for a treat as the rolls are made to order with fresh ingredients. Osaka fans write, “Always great.” “Food and drinks are fabulous.” And “simply amazing.” We do have one warning: Even with reservations, be prepared to wait.
Runner-up: Magic Kitchen


PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE
BEST MARTINI AND COCKTAIL
Osaka Japanese Restaurant
1665 Wabash Ave., 726-8037

Since it opened in 2009, Osaka has been firing on all cylinders. They’ve won numerous Best of Springfield categories in the past two years, including Best Martini and Best Cocktail. Their XXX Martini won both categories this year, and their Osaka-tini took runner-up in both categories. What’s in the XXX Martini? It’s vodka-based, but the rest is a shop secret. We do know it has a deliciously light grapefruit flavor, though – not too sweet or too sour – and it lights up with a small glow-stick stirrer. The best nights to get a martini at Osaka are Mondays and Thursdays, when martinis are only $4. If you’re feeling adventurous, try the Lake Springfield Martini, which is a lighthearted jab at the brackish green color of Springfield’s water source. It may look like lake water, but it’s actually pretty delicious. Or try one of the dozens of custom-infused vodkas made in-house. After a few of these, you may need help getting to your table.


BEST BBQ
Smokey Bones Bar and Fire Grill
2660 South Dirksen Parkway, 528-6410

If you have followed our BOS editions, then you know that Smokey Bones and Hickory River Smokehouse have been in a battle for best barbecue for quite some time. Last year, Smokey Bones beat Hickory River by only 44 votes. Though Smokey Bones once again reigns victorious, a mere four ballets separate the two barbecue joints. Was it Smokey’s Bones Club that tilted voters in their favor? Sign up for the club and receive a free gift, and a variety of special offers and discounts, such as $10 off a $20 purchase. Smokey Bones barbecue is indeed delicious. Whether you love ribs, beef brisket, pulled pork or smoked turkey, the restaurant’s extensive menu will have you coming back for more. “Hands down, they are the best,” writes a voter. Our favorites include the fire-grilled marinated rib-eye, fire and spice pork tenderloin and of course the award-winning baby back ribs. Despite the tasty dishes, we don’t advise Smokey Bones to rest on its laurels, for it’s clear that Hickory River is a force to be reckoned with.
Runner-up: Hickory River Smokehouse


BEST BUFFET
Golden Corral
1038 Lejune Drive, 585-6830

It easy to see why Golden Corral keeps dominating this category. An “All-American Carving Station,” featuring hand-cut ham, beef, pork loin and roasted turkey, and grilled-to-order sirloin; soup and potato bar; Brass Bell Bakery with dozens of freshly made breads, muffins and desserts (both regular and sugar-free), as well as ice cream with tons of toppings; an extensive salad bar featuring more than 50 fresh items and a plethora of hot food items, such as fried and rotisserie chicken, pizza, pot roast, mashed potatoes, mac ’n cheese, salmon, steamed veggies, potato casserole, spaghetti and a spread of Mexican and Asian cuisine. With so much to choose from, one can easily visit every day for several months and not repeat the same meal. “Hands down, it’s the best! Can you say chocolate waterfall?” writes one voter, referring to the chocolate fountain that has marshmallows, fruit and other dipping items. Equally pleasing is Golden Corral’s weekend Sunrise Breakfast Buffet, with made-to-order omelets and waffles and just about every other breakfast food you can fathom. Given all it has to offer, we say Golden Corral is deserving of this honor.
Runner-up: Hibachi Supreme Grill


BEST VEGAN/VEGETARIAN
Holy Land Diner
106 West Cook Street, 544-5786

If you’re a vegan/vegetarian looking for a place to make your tastebuds feel special, voters suggest you plan a pilgrimage to the Holy Land Diner, which serves six vegetarian/vegan salads, three appetizers and three sandwiches. While some rave about the lentils, shish kabobs, creamy hummus and potato soups, others can’t get enough of the falafels, baba ghannouge, couscous and tabbouli, which has large chunks of onion and tomatoes. Holy Land Diner, with its buffet spread of delicious Middle Eastern dishes, is truly a vegan’s/vegetarian’s dream. One voter is so in love with Holy Land that she “never misses a Saturday buffet.” Though Holy Land serves a variety of vegan and vegetarian dishes, carnivores should not feel left out, as there are plenty of items for you to enjoy as well. Vegans/vegetarians can also purchase bulk food from the Holy Land.
Runner-up: American Harvest Eatery


PHOTO BY DAVID HINE
BEST HORSESHOES
D’Arcy’s Pint
661 West Stanford, 492-8800

Earlier this year, our investigative food columnist Julianne Glatz settled the argument on who invented the horseshoe [See “The original horseshoe: The history of Springfield’s iconic food,” Feb. 2], but that delicacy was nothing like the horseshoe of today, served up so well and so often at D’Arcy’s Pint. D’Arcy’s (garnering more votes than the second- through fifth-place winners combined) clearly stands head and shoulders above the rest. Of course D’Arcy’s serve the traditional horseshoes like hamburger and ham. But they’ve taken this sandwich a step further by offering items such as Italian sausage, walleye, tenderloin, corn beef and pastrami, as well as specialties like supreme, deluxe and chili cheeseburger. In describing D’Arcy’s horseshoes, voters use words like “wonderful” and “superb.” “No one else should ever win this category,” wrote a voter. If you’re planning to give D’Arcy’s “shoes” a try, be prepared to wait, as folks are often lined up outside the door.
Runner-up: Dublin Pub


BEST PIZZA
Gabatoni’s
300 East Laurel, 528-9629

You’d be hard-pressed to find a Springfield native or longtime resident who hasn’t sunk their teeth into a gooey Gabatoni’s pizza. Gab’s has served customers for more than 50 years; some who move away from Springfield still have cravings. There are several things that give Gabatoni’s the edge over other pizzerias. For us, it is the edges, that are slightly charred. Some rave about the sweet pizza sauce, while others relish in the thin, cracker-like crust that is dusted on the bottom with corn meal to keep it from sticking. Though the restaurant is absent any glitz or glamor, it offers a comfortable, relaxing environment fit for the entire family. Indeed, Gabatoni’s is considered a city staple.
Runner-up: Bernie & Betty’s


BEST MEXICAN MEAL
Xochimilco
2941 West Iles Avenue, 546-3116
3210 Northfield Drive, 544-9206
6901 Preston Drive, 483-1006

Craving a good ole Mexican meal? Voters say your best bet is Xochimilco, known for its delicious authentic dishes rivaling any you could find across the border. Few local Mexican restaurants offer a menu as extensive as Xochimilco. With 12 “speedy combination” entrées such as burritos, tacos, enchiladas and chalupas for $8.49 each; 18 “authentic combination meals,” including quesadilla, gigantic burrito and chimichanga under $10; house specials ranging in price from $9.99 to $13.49; and eight salads, Xochimilco has something for everyone. Voters rave about the enchiladas, fajitas and affordable daily specials. We have fallen in love with several appetizers, including the buffalo wings, and queso charro, a grilled chorizo topped with melted cheese. No Mexican meal is complete without a margarita. Then finish it off with the deep-fried ice cream.
Runner-up: Casa Real


BEST MARGARITA
Xochimilco

The origins of the margarita are shrouded in mystery, but the drink most likely came about during Prohibition when bartenders replaced brandy with tequila in a drink called the Daisy, renaming the cocktail using the Spanish translation. Regardless of the wheres and whens, the ever-popular libation appears in nearly every Mexican restaurant, with countless variations on the theme. Springfield’s hands-down favorite margarita comes from the Xochimilco restaurants, where the drink is made from an original Mexican recipe and is available in several different flavors, including lime, raspberry, strawberry, pina colada, mango, peach and gold. Of course you can have it on the rocks or blended in frozen slushy style, but any way you get it, it’s tasty, tart and salty on the rim. Other spots receiving high marks for favorite margaritas include La Fiesta, Casa Real, Café Brio and Los Agaves.


BEST FAST, CHEAP LUNCH
BEST SUB
Head West Sub Stop
1124 West Jefferson, 793-9101
530 East Capitol, 789-9101
3311 Robbins Drive, 726-9202
1281 Toronto Road, 585-7990
2432 Denver Drive, 744-7990
7032 Kings Mill Court, 670-0111

With six locations across the capital city, whether you head north, south, east or west you’re sure to find the best sub in town. And best of all, you won’t have to break your bank or wait very long to enjoy it. Many believe it’s Head West’s sweet bread that makes the sandwiches unique. “Veggie turkey is quite possibly the most delicious sandwich I’ve had, coast to coast,” writes a BOS voter. Our favorites include the pizza and Italian subs, as well as the daily soup and sandwich specials. Choose one of Head West’s 18 subs, including two veggie sandwiches, and you’ll have enough for two meals. Though you may be in a rush and opt to carry out, we advise you to grab a table and enjoy the friendly, quirky staff. Along with the subs, soup and salads, Head West offers ice cold Jones Soda, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, and mouthwatering brownies that will make your meal complete.
Runner-up: Chaditos


BEST SEAFOOD
Red Lobster
2696 South Dirksen Parkway, 529-6900

It’s been quite awhile since we’ve frequented Red Lobster, opting instead to spend our dollars at locally-owned establishments. But BOS voters dubbed it the best seafood – with one indicating that “no one can beat Red Lobster for the variety of entrées offered” – we thought what the heck, give it a try. We were impressed with the variety of appetizers and entrées. We started with a couple of appetizers: shrimp nachos – tortilla chips topped with shrimp, creamy cheddar and Monterey jack cheese, pico de gallo, jalapenos, and sour cream – and breaded calamari and vegetables served with marinara and ranch sauce. While the calamari and veggies were great, the nachos were superb. Both were very tasty. As we tried to decide on an entrée, the waiter advised that all of the entrées from the wood-fire grill are the best because the food is seared on an open-flame grill, which brings out the natural flavors. We decided on the peach-bourbon BBQ shrimp and scallops, which was excellent. Shrimp lovers will be delighted to know that Red Lobster currently offers unlimited shrimp specials, as well as shrimp specials on Mondays and Tuesdays. We also recommend the create-your-own lunch specials (we love the spicy shrimp tacos and shrimp jambalya, as well as the sailor’s platter).
Runner-up: Chesapeake Seafood House


BEST COFFEE SHOP
Starbucks
3200 East Clear Lake, 525-7759
745 Stevenson Drive, 753-2978
2003 West Wabash, 793-2193
3412 Freedom Drive, 787-0764
700 East Adams Street, 789-7098
3445 Freedom Drive, 546-5003

When it comes to coffee shops, Starbucks is leading the pack. With a half-dozen shops across the capital city, they have proven that they make a great coffee drinks, Taza teas and smoothies. “I love the store. The employees and customers create the perfect setting for relaxation, and the coffee is spectacular,” comments one “Best of” voter. And we concur. But we’d like to invite you to indulge your taste buds a bit further by trying one of Starbucks’ six breakfast sandwiches. The turkey, sausage and ham sandwiches come with cheddar and are served on a roll. The bacon sandwich has gouda cheese, while the veggie sandwich comes with Monterey jack cheese. Both are also served on a roll. The spinach wrap, served with feta cheese, tomato and egg whites, comes on a wheat pita. The spinach wrap offers a perfect companion to your morning coffee. And don’t forgot about Starbucks baked goods, ice cream and lunch boxes for customers on the go.
Runner-up: Grab-A-Java


BEST SALADS
Olive Garden
2991 Veteran’s Parkway, 793-0381

Its motto is: “Hospitaliano!” which means, “providing 100 percent guest delight through a genuine Italian dining experience.” Well, our voters say Olive Garden salads are the most delightful salads in town. Now, when you consider that Olive Garden only has two salads – a simple garden salad with a special Italian dressing, and grilled chicken salad with romaine lettuce, Caesar dressing topped with cheese and croutons – this honor is quite the feat. Perhaps it’s the unlimited soup, salad and breadstick special. Regardless of the reason, one thing is certain, BOS voters keep coming back for more. Though Olive Garden has been crowned best salad for the past two years, only eleven votes separated them from the second place winner – Bella Milano, which has a house, Caesar (topped with anchovies), and (our personal favorite) Strawberry Grilled Chicken Salad, which features grilled chicken salad, strawberries, red onions, toasted almonds and walnuts, served with a special cheese blend and poppy seed dressing.
Runner-up: Bella Milano


BEST RAP / HIP HOP BAND / ARTIST
Gypsy Collabo

Formed when rock band the Tipsy Gypsys connected with hip-hop collective Collabo, the colorful combination continues to hold court over all things rap and hip-hop in Springfield. With the number of entries in this category down a great deal from last year, we’re left wondering if the genre, once on the rise in the capital city, has peaked and dropped. No matter to Gypsy Collabo, as the assertive group of rocking, hip-hoppers now spend time in St. Louis, expanding the GC experience to more listeners. Current members David Hale III, Jon McGrath, Derek Anderson, Matt Scherer and Colin Helton are actively searching for other musicians to join the music-making combo in taking it to the streets.
Runner-up: 808


BEST CHEF
Sean Keely at Ross Isaac
1710 S. MacArthur Blvd., 744-7677

Reigning Best of Springfield chef Sean Keely grabs the title again this year by a large margin. What makes this guy stand out among the rest year after year? A patron says Keely’s truffle wings and carbonara are “absolutely to die for.” And “Sean is a welcoming and personable guy.” Also in the mix, perseverance and skill, and Keely credits consistency and teamwork in the kitchen. A solid menu including the likes of calamari appetizer, tuna and scallops, flanked by experimental delicacies such as pork cheeks that soon become favorites. Keely considers every part of what he does a creative endeavor. After almost 30 years in the business, he is still excited about what he does. He loves being at work and is passionate about presenting great-tasting fresh food.
Runner-up: Michael Higgins at Maldaner’s


PHOTO BY DAVID HINE
BEST SOUL FOOD
Clay’s Popeye’s Barbecue
1121 East South Grand Avenue, 522-0386

Each morning, the owners and cooks of Clay’s Popeye’s Barbecue start the day with your everyday pots and pans. Then they add a little bit of this, a sprinkle of that, a pinch of this and a dash of that. Soon there is a kitchen full of mouthwatering soul food that will have your palates singing and your taste buds dancing. Being true soul food lovers, we had difficulty pinning down the best dishes. So, we’ll just say that the catfish is scrumptious. The ribs are tantalizing. The beef is tender. The cole slaw is deliciously creamy. And the hot links are the best! During our most recent visit we were curious about Clay’s “Blazin’ Heifer Sauce.” Forgetting that age has weakened our stomach, we ordered a beef sandwich with the special 100-year-old sauce. Though it was just as tasty as the medium sauce we normally order, our stomach was on fire for a couple of days. Aside from the food, what makes Clay’s even better is its daily lunch specials, which allows those with tight budgets to indulge without breaking the bank. There is one drawback. Finding a parking place during the busy lunch rush can be difficult. If you’re crunched for time, we advise you to call ahead and bring a buddy who can run in and pick up the food for you.
Runner-up: Boyd’s New Generation


BEST BARTENDER
Marla Sparks – Crowne Plaza Springfield
BEST BAR SERVER
James Porter – Crowne Plaza Springfield

At the risk of blowing its cover, the Mahogany Bar and Grill at the Crowne Plaza hotel is one of those little-known scenes that those in the know relish keeping to themselves. That’s likely thanks to two of the bar’s wait staff, Marla Sparks and James Porter, who overwhelmed the voting for Best Bartender and Best Bar Server. Sparks, who has worked at the Plaza for about seven and a half years, received praise for her margaritas and was described by voters as “fantastic,” “awesome,” and “the best damn bartender ever.” Porter has been there about eight and a half years, and was described by voters as “very personable,” “detail-oriented” and “extremely knowledgeable.” Both Sparks and Porter say their patrons make their job enjoyable. “I love it,” Sparks says. “My co-workers are like a second family, and the people are great – the regulars and the new people.” Porter adds with a sly smile, “The constant turnover helps my bad jokes stay fresh.”


BEST FOOD SERVER
Dan Sparks
T.G.I. Friday’s
2100 W. White Oaks Drive, 698-1900

Notice the similarity of names on this page? Yes, our best food server happens to be married to the best bartender, Marla Sparks, above. Folks say Dan Sparks “takes great care of his tables.” Sparks’ honesty with people and his desire not to “lie to tables,” helps make him a hit. One frequent guest over the years cites Sparks as “attentive” with a “devoted following of customers” as evidenced by familiar faces in his area. Sparks likes to have fun with his customers. They may or may not know that he has a bachelor’s degree in accounting and a master’s degree in business. He could work anywhere, but he loves working at Friday’s. He’s done so for 9 1/2 years. He’s content, debt-free and a footloose-and-fancy-free optimist who loves his customers and managers and has “fun all the time.” Sparks believes his education helps him to be a better server – as he notes that those who do have schooling, “tend to do better” and stick around.
Runner-up: Anna Bussing, Brickhouse Grill and Pub Downtown


BEST STEAK
Texas Roadhouse
2540 West Iles, 698-5700

For the past several years, Alexander’s Steakhouse has been declared best steak, though Texas Roadhouse has been in the running. With only an 11-vote margin, this year Texas Roadhouse has pulled a big upset, unseating Alexander’s to take the throne. Texas Roadhouse has a variety of hand-cut steaks, such as sirloin, New York strip, filet, T-bone, prime rib, rib-eye and chopped steak. Most impressive is its marinated sirloin kabobs, with onion, mushrooms and red and green peppers, and the filet medallion, with three three-ounce filets topped with your choice of peppercorn or mushroom sauce served over a bed of rice. Hungry souls can feast on the enormous 20-ounce rib-eye. And many of its sides are made from scratch. For just a few bucks, you can enjoy your steak smothered in grilled onions, sautéed mushrooms and brown gravy or jack cheese. We must say, they’ve definitely taken to heart that “everything’s big in Texas,” as portions are huge.
Runner-up: Alexander’s Steakhouse


BEST DESSERTS
Incredibly Delicious
925 South Seventh St., 528-8548

Once again, Incredibly Delicious, lovingly referred to as sin city by some, dominated our best desserts category. Not that we don’t believe our voters, but we thought we had better stop in and taste a dessert or two just to be sure that they are serving up the same scrumptious treats that have voters repeatedly crowning them as king. With fall upon us, we decided to focus on the seasonal desserts. After having an internal debate with ourselves, we narrowed it down to the German chocolate cake, turtle and smores macaroons, spiced pumpkin cake, white chocolate pumpkin cheesecake, and Queen of Sheba – chocolate almond cake topped with whipped cream. We selected the cheesecake and the Queen of Sheba. Though we made it out of the store with just two items, we couldn’t resist giving both a try once we made it to the car. OMG!!! They have not yet created a word that adequately describes just how amazing they both tasted. We’d like to say that we stopped there. Unfortunately, we found ourselves back in line ordering the macaroons and the pumpkin cake. Yes, voters, Incredibly Delicious still reigns.
Runner-up: Baker’s Square


BEST MUSIC VENUE
BEST BEER GARDEN
The Curve Inn
3219 South Sixth Street, Southern View, 529-5806

Listening to music outdoors is a fine idea, even if it’s only available seasonally here in central Illinois. The seasons didn’t stop our readers from designating the Curve Inn as the best beer garden and music venue. The venerable tavern has a long and interesting history, beginning in 1932 as Copps Corner and becoming the Curve Inn in 1945, capitalizing on the Route 66 location just outside the Springfield city limits. Continuing the tradition, owners Ray and Ami Merchant and Don Thompson since 2002, kept the name, but expanded the beer garden, making it a hotspot for live music in the capital city. The beer garden success during the warmer months and early evening hours on Fridays and Saturdays bring the best bands in the area to rock the roomy and comfortable enclosed deck space. With smoking allowed outside, cold beer and tasty bar food available, what else could a person ask for?
Runner up: Best Music Venue - Hoogland Center for the Arts
Runner-up: Best Beer Garden - Boone’s Saloon



BEST BAR FOOD
BEST BAR FOR NETWORKING
Brickhouse Grill & Pub
3136 W. Iles Ave., 546-2745
217 S. 5th St., 679-1500

Previously a favorite among west-side residents, Brickhouse Grill & Pub expanded last year to a downtown location on Fifth Street and quickly made a name for itself in the bar scene. The two locations offer plenty of menu options and a relaxed but trendy environment. Their food is more than just burgers, fries and chicken wings. Take, for example, the Ahi Tuna Steak Salad – not exactly something you’ll find at your neighborhood dive bar. The menu seems more like something you’d find at a hip family restaurant: lots of seafood options, healthier dishes and even a kids menu. With the trendy atmosphere, it’s also a good place for a working lunch. It’s often full of young professionals, especially when the legislature is in town. And don’t forget that they offer catering services.
Bar food runner-up: The Corner Pub and Grill
Networking runner-up: Floyd’s Thirst Parlor



BEST KIDS MENU
O’Charley’s
4241 Conestoga Drive, 787-2809

At a glance it’s hard to see why voters chose O’Charley’s for best kids menu. We noticed that it has approximately the same number of entrées as many other restaurants. And there was nothing there that we hadn’t seen on other kids menus. Then we spotted it: Hot diggity dog! Monday to Thursday, kids eat free (one free kids meal per adult entrée). And there are activity books to keep kids busy while they wait for their meal.
Runner-up: Steak ’n Shake


PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE
BEST WINE SELECTION
Friar Tuck
2930 Constitution Drive, 698-1116

For the second year running, readers have decreed Friar Tuck to have the best wine selection, and it’s hard to argue. Friar Tuck, which has seven outlets in Illinois and Missouri, prides itself on having the largest adult beverage selection available, and that is certainly the case in Springfield. From Scrubby Rise to Shiraz Sultry Red to Trivento Malbec Lujan de Cuyo Golden Reserve (try saying that three times fast), Friar Tuck has about every kind of wine you can imagine, and many that you can’t,  which is what one should expect from a place that also carries single-malt Irish whiskey and several varieties of moonshine. Wine takes up more floor space than any other kind of beverage in this beverage emporium the size of a supermarket. The store boasts a huge selection of Illinois wines, well over 100 in an aisle devoted to creations from the Land of Lincoln. But we love champagne, and so our favorite is Dom Perignon, which is a proverbial steal at just $139.99 a bottle, nearly $20 cheaper than the average price as reported by www.wine-searcher.com. Drink up.
Runner-up: The Corkscrew


PORK TENDERLOIN
Sportsman’s Lounge
229 West Mason, 492-1110

Their website boasts of having the “best tenderloin in central Illinois.” Our voters can’t vouch for that, but they do proclaim that the Sportsman’s Lounge’s tenderloin is the best you can find in the capital city. If you place an order for a whole tenderloin (which costs $8.95), you would be advised to ask for a carryout container, as the crisp, golden brown sandwich is close to the size of a steering wheel. (A half sandwich is $6.95. Both come with chips.) As appetizing as the sandwich looks, it’s worth noting that the freshly cut pork loin took quite the “beating” before it reached the table. After it’s beaten into submission, the loin is coated with the lounge’s special-made breading and deep-fried or grilled to perfection. Horseshoe lovers will be happy to know that the tenderloin can be used to make Springfield’s signature sandwich. “This is the best I’ve ever had. And I try them everywhere I go,” wrote one voter. If you haven’t tried one, you are missing out.
Runner-up: Darcy’s Pint


BEST GAY BAR
Club Station House
306 East Washington St. - 525-0438

There are only a handful of places to dance in downtown Springfield, and that number drops precipitously when one rules out bars that are grimy, sticky or full of guys in MMA shirts. Of those remaining, Club Station House is probably the best. The fact that it’s a gay bar hardly matters, especially when you factor in the large drink selection. Owner Ryan Bandy bought the club two years ago and sunk a ton of money into cleaning it up and modernizing it. “I like the energy of the crowd, when everyone is dancing and having a good time,” Bandy says. His focus is making the bar inviting, from the drinks and the service to the overall atmosphere. During the week, the club feels like a neighborhood bar, he says, but on the weekends, it becomes “a big-city nightclub” complete with a very punchy sound system and laser lighting. Not gay? No problem, Bandy says. “About half of the crowd that comes here is straight,” he says. “We just have a good time. I love everyone who comes here, and I think of it as a fun, trendy place where you can dance and just let loose.”
Runner-up: Scandals


BEST WINERY
Hill Prairie Winery
23753 Lounsberry Road, Oakford,
635-9900

Wine isn’t just a beverage for the folks at Hill Prairie, it truly is a way of life. The Lounsberry family that owns and runs the place has loved and farmed this Menard County land for five generations. A few grapes are imported from New York state, but the overwhelming majority are grown by the family on nine acres of vineyards or purchased from other Illinois vineyards. Wine, of course, can be drunk most anywhere, but Hill Prairie gives the thirsty good reason to travel. There is live music on weekends and murder mystery theater during the fall and winter, served up with dinner and your favorite wine or beer. Fantastic barbecue is available during warm weather. In business since 2004, this winery just keeps getting better. Oh, and the wine, chiefly dry reds, dry whites and sweet wines, is pretty darn good, too. Traditionalists can stick with chardonel or vignoles, the adventurous can sample such offerings as Prairie Berry, which features blueberries and blackberries, and Autumn Spice, a red that includes cinnamon and cloves.
Runner-up: Walnut Street Winery
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