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Friday, May 2, 2003 02:20 pm

Food and Fun


For most of the past two decades Illinois Times has asked readers what they like most about Springfield. And each year hundreds of you are more than eager to tell us.

This year is no different. About 500 of you filled out our ballots and told us about your favorite places, people, and things to do. You reminded us there's a lot about Springfield to like, no matter who you are and what part of town you're from.

For many reasons, some of them having to do with exciting changes taking place at Illinois Times, we're presenting our Best of Springfield in a different way this year.

First, we're printing our Best of Springfield in two parts. In this issue, you'll see our winners for Food & Drink and Nights Out categories. These include all the restaurant and entertainment picks, with a few others thrown in.

Second, we're reserving the rest of our Best of Springfield winners--all the people, shops and services, recreational activities, and others--for our September 19 issue. It will be an issue that will mark a new era for Illinois Times. What better way to mark it than to praise some of the people who make Springfield worthwhile for the rest of us? In that issue we will also print a list of the winners in Part I as well as list our all-time Best of Springfield Hall of Fame winners.

Best of Springfield writers include Traci Moyer, Janeen Burkholder, Pete Sherman, Tom Teague, Daymon Kiliman, Job Conger, Dusty Rhodes and Mikel Weisser. Unless otherwise noted, all photographs are by Nick Steinkamp.

Best place to shoot pool
Starship Billiards Parlor
2301 Adalai Stevenson Drive, 585-8888

Beam down the Trekkies, this place is a lot more than just a pool hall. Behind those big bright billiard balls that beckon drivers on Stevenson, Starship stands for tavern-time fun of all sorts, including an oldies-heavy jukebox, multiple TVs, some serious dart action, pinball, foosball, and ping-pong. That's in addition to the fifteen pool tables that dominate the L-shaped space.

There's league play, but the place is certainly big enough to accommodate the casual player as well. With the layout split between the two arms of the "L," all the tables have a personal feel, so you never get that "lost in a warehouse" feeling you get in some larger poolhalls. The sense of spacious public privacy is even more pleasant when it comes to dining. Because seating is scattered throughout the building, every table is private. The full-service menu includes chicken-wing and pizza variations, and tends toward cute meal monikers such as Vulcan Buffalo Salad and Chekov's Mushrooms. The cozy corner bar is crammed with life-size cardboard cutouts of characters from Kirk to Klingons. Pitchers $5.75, tables $2 per hour per person. (MW)

Best place to bowl
Strike 'N Spare West
2660 W. Lawrence Avenue, 787-6111

Is there a more satisfying sound than the calamitous crash of a perfectly rolled strike? Find out by trying your skills at this year's best place to bowl. Strike 'N Spare West offers plenty of fun for the recreational and competitive player alike.

During your game, grab a snack from the grill, serving hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza, and appetizers. For the kids, ask an attendant to install bumpers in your lane so gutter balls won't discourage the little ones from going pro someday. Adults may order drinks from the in-house bar, Sluggo's. Visit Sluggo's after the game to recount your victories, coyly excuse your lack of luck, or to enjoy a big screen television and other entertainment.

For the competitive bowler, sign up for one of the many affordable leagues, and visit the shop for all your bowling needs.

Bowl unlimited games every Sunday this summer for only $7 per person, and get a discount on snacks and shoe rentals. Evening weekday games are $3 each plus $2.50 for shoe rental ($1.80 for kids). Before 3:00 p.m., games are $2 each. Come between 3 and 5 p.m. and bowl for just 99 cents a game.

All this makes Strike 'N Spare West the perfect place to hear that crash. (DK)

Best downtown event
Old Capitol Art Fair

This was a deliberately broad category. Voters could have gone for a parade, the Veterans Day ceremonies at the capitol, or even the departure of Denver. Their winner was middle-of-the-road, but worthy. At forty-one, the Old Capitol Art Fair is one of downtown's oldest ongoing cultural events. It's also probably the best attended. But since there's no admission fee, it's hard to tell. Each year up to 200 artists from seventeen states--winners of a juried competition--show their work in booths around the Old State Capitol. Local artist Bill Crook, who has shown at the fair for twenty-five years, attributes its success to the volunteers who run it.

"They make the artists feel comfortable," Crook said. "They work really hard. They throw a good party."

Unlike many other events, the Old Capitol Art Fair also has year-around impact. Part of its profits have gone to build a civic art collection. This is on display at the county building, Municipal Building West, and Lincoln Library. (TT)

Best festival
Ethnic Festival
State Fairgrounds

Even though the Cajuns, Celts, and Germans dropped out last year, the Ethnic Festival remains an area favorite. It started in Sherman in 1974 at St. John Vianney's Parish, another brainchild of Father Peter Mascari. Popularity drove it in 1980 to the Ethnic Village on the Illinois State Fairgrounds. There it remains. For people who attend the State Fair as well, it's a welcome change of pace. The crowds are smaller. The temperature is at least ten degrees cooler. You always see many people you know. It's more like a neighborhood gathering than a fair. Festival organizers attribute its decline last year to the aging out of volunteers who ran the booths. They hope new blood will start flowing soon. It's a tasty tradition worth continuing. (TT)

Best beer selection

617 E. Washington Street, 525-6399

Brewhaus is apparently unbeatable when it comes to beer selection.

Winning acclamations from BOS voters for years, Brewhaus continues to impress local lovers of this ancient nectar with more than 250 different brews. Three Belgian beers are very popular--Chimay Ale, Delirium Tremons, and Duvel--along with USA's Flying Dog. Don't stop there, though. Ask for a beer list so you don't miss out on beers from Canada, England, the Czech Republic, the Philipines, and more.

The list also includes convenient check boxes so you can mark your progress through famous brews from all over the world. It will take months of sipping devotion to finish the list, but perseverance never tasted so good. (DK)

Best bar decor
11 West
11 W. 4th Street, 527-9911

11 West's modest exterior belies its classy and comfortable dŽcor. A glass entryway leads to two adjoining rooms with distinct decorating schemes, separated by large windows.

At the left, the large bar glows with soft, blue light. Similarly blue-tinted track lights cast a soothing radiance on plush couches and candle-lit coffee tables. The walls are painted in dark colors to maintain the sedate mood.

At the right, the color scheme is primarily deep reds and white. Two sloped half-walls, one draped in red and the other white fabric, flow around vinyl booths that easily sit large parties. Plenty of sturdy wood and metal tables populate the center of the room without feeling crowded.

You'll notice that 11 West is refreshingly devoid of mirrored and neon beer signs, opting instead for colorful art prints. The high, warehouse-style ceilings further lend to the relaxed, open atmosphere. Lastly, the floor to ceiling windows at the front of the bar provide a scenic view of the majestic Old State Capitol.

Dress up, casually sip one of its specialized martinis, listen to soft jazz over the crisp sound system, and entertain friends in a bar intent on eye-catching details. (DK)

Best beer garden
Boone's Saloon
301 W. Edwards Street, 544-2748

Tucked behind this popular lunch spot you may not even have noticed the beer garden at Boone's, and inside it you will forget you're in the city. Surrounded by a wooden privacy fence, there is an open area shaded by several trees, transforming it into a backyard-like haven. There's also an area that's covered by an awning with overhead fans. Several large tables easily accommodate groups of six or more, making it a frequent choice for office workers seeking a lunch respite or an after-work attitude adjustment. There also are a few smaller tables for more intimate get-togethers. Our visit--around 7 p.m.--on a Saturday found the garden devoid of other patrons. Fine with us--a quiet moment was what we were seeking. But we were told the action picks up around 10 p.m. for those seeking interaction. In the evenings, Boone's does not serve food, but it was dishing up karaoke inside, with music from a local radio station in the beer garden. (JB)

Best place to take an out-of-town guest
Jazz Central Station
Top of the Hilton, 789-1530

If you are looking for someplace to take visiting friends or relatives, Jazz Central Station is the place to be. Located on the thirtieth floor of the Hilton, it offers a spectacular view, refreshments, and live entertainment on Friday and Saturday nights.

Local jazz musicians around Springfield gather at the lounge to create jazz at its best with instrumental diversity and raw musical talent. (DK)

Best place for adult birthday party and Best bar stool

Top of the Hilton

The best place to celebrate an adult birthday and the best barstools in town, IT readers say, is the Hilton. With a nearly thirty-year history in Springfield (it opened in 1973, was renovated in 1997, and is undergoing another renovation) the Hilton is locally owned, and delivers the same quality its name is synonymous for worldwide. Undoubtedly, our Hilton is popular because the thirty-floor rise offers a panoramic view of the city. The hotel's two restaurants, Gumbo Ya Ya's and The Manhattan Grill Room, and two bars, Jazz Central Station (featuring thirty variations on the classic martini) and Merkle's sports bar with twenty televisions and video games, provide plenty of choices for guests.

Jazz Central Station, particularly on Friday and Saturday when Springfield's best jazz and blues artists perform, boasts some of the most unique barstools we've seen. There's only ten of them, each shaped like Conga drums, upholstored in a leopard, or is it ocelot skin-patterned fabric. We think IT readers voted for them more for the view that can be seen perched upon one, rather than for their comfort.

For birthdays and special celebrations, we found a couple of packages online. The Gumbo Ya Ya's Getaway ($199) includes dinner for two at Gumbo Ya Ya's on the thirtieth floor and a basket full of goodies (jazz CD, bottle of German Riesling, assorted relaxation teas, German chocolate mints, truffles, and salsa with chips and red beans and rice). The Hearts of Fire Package ($149-$175) also includes a gift basket (a Mozart chocolate heart box, two delightful truffles, a rose chocolate sucker, Italian cookies, passion drops, Freiferet Brut champagne, pleasure bath bubbles, and gold leaf bath salts).

Both packages include a room with a view and breakfast the next morning in the Manhattan Grill Room. There's also the Magical History tour ($94), which includes two trolly tickets for a historical sites tour and a two-for-one dinner at Gumbo Ya Ya's.

The renovation the Hilton is undergoing right now has been behind the scenes--elevator upgrades, etc. However, IT has it on "top" authority that the Hilton, including its bars and restaurants, will be undergoing a much more visual renovation soon. If you like Ya Ya's or Merkle's or the Grill Room, go now before it undergoes a change. (JB)

Best 3 a.m. bar
2690 S. Dirksen Parkway, 528-1977

Not ready for your evening to end at 1 a.m.? Gilligan's has plenty to keep you going until the early morning hours on Friday and Saturday.

The dance floor stays hopping as a DJ spins all your favorites on the thunderous sound system. For brave souls, jump into Gilligan's dancing cage and fulfill a fantasy--or call a bet.

When you're ready to take a break from grooving, swagger over to the bar for drink specials or a favorite cocktail. Then, enjoy a rousing game of pool or try some digitized entertainment at one of the video games.

With a very spacious, exceedingly clean, and fun atmosphere, Gilligan's gives you every reason to stay up way past your bedtime. (DK)

Best acoustics
Sangamon Auditorium
University of Illinois at Springfield

Auditorium director John Dale Kennedy credits the architects who designed a sound enhancement package into Sangamon Auditorium for its popularity with Springfield-area audiences. He also notes that expectations are a factor. "People bring their biases to the auditorium. What they consider important may or may not mesh with what they hear here."

"Sometimes we have to go outside our own equipment to provide additional capability required by visiting performers. This allows us to stay on top of the latest technology without buying it and installing it," Kennedy said. The fan-shaped auditorium was designed for multi-purpose use rather than specifically as a symphony hall--an oblong box--for acoustic music. "The audience is a lot closer here than at other halls," according to Kennedy.

Acoustic banners draped in front of a wall at Sangamon Auditorium stop reverberations, which can muddle performances. "With acoustic sounds you want the reverb. For spoken word, you want the banners to hold the sound, to avoid reverb," Kennedy said.

The balcony and mezzanine floors are not attached to the walls other than by the cantilever beams that support them. This allows sound to come into those areas from behind and the sides. Cell phones are not allowed in the auditorium. Vibrating pagers are loaned to those who require them so that beeps don't interrupt the show. That policy in itself may be why so many respondents rated Sangamon Auditorium a class act. (JC)

Best bar for conversations
George Rank's Cocktails
1800 S. 6th Street, 753-1821

Hear that? It's not loud music or a big-screen television pumping sound all over. It's people talking in a hometown bar like they used to.

George Rank's Cocktails invites you to claim a stool at the bar and converse with regulars, or catch-up with friends at one of the many cozy tables.

Good drinks, smiling servers, friendly atmosphere, and pleasantly devoid of distractions, George Rank's remembers the simple recipe for a good time. (DK)

Best band that plays its own music

Josh Catalano, lead vocals and rhythm guitar
Pat Miller, drums
Jeff O'Hara, bass
Mike Taft, lead guitar

Since they are working most every night each weekend, you could probably catch Mugshot at almost any of Springfield's nighttime venues. If all else fails you can always find them at Bread Stretchers. Either location. With Josh and Pat manning the Monroe shop and Jeff and Mike at the Stevenson store, it was perhaps inevitable that the sandwich shop once famous for live music eventually would spawn its own band. And what a band! Expect flawless musicianship, solid songwriting, a knack for invention, and an ear for detail. Expect Southern-fried roots rock with occasional ballads punctuated by violin solos, dobro, slide guitar, and a "hook-y" drawl. Think alternative country, think Uncle Tupelo with better voices and .38 Special with brains. Think WOW. All second-generation local musicians, in just two years Mugshot has generated a strong following and reputation for making great music. Their new album, out this fall, produced by Springfield sound legend Rick Major, promises to take its savvy sound to a wider public. Meanwhile just look in IT for the band's next show. Or, if you feel like grabbing a bite... (MW)

Best cover band
The Last Chance Blues Band

The story of the Last Chance Blues Band really begins when Peter Glatz installed a walnut bar in the barn of his newly-purchased farmhouse property. Peter hired a blues band to celebrate the opening of his personal bar with friends and family. The evening went well, and the space was so perfect for a band that Peter thought it might be fun to, "start a little, grown-up garage band."

He culled the first musicians from friends, and then they gained new ones from word-of-mouth. Now, they're nine members strong: Peter Glatz on harmonica, Bob Kane on lead guitar, Sherman Elliott plays keyboards, Eddy Eden on bass, Ed Selinger behind the drums, Ed Dunn plays saxophone, Gary Halford on rhythm guitar, and Kevin Hockings sings.

After playing at some outdoor parties, word got around that audiences responded very enthusiastically to their blues-rock covers, especially renditions of Rolling Stones songs. Now, fans all over recognize the band's ability to work the audience and get people dancing.

If this is their last chance at boyhood fantasies of a successful garage band, they've certainly made the best of it. (DK)

Best blues artist

Reggie Britton of Black Magic Johnson

Springfield native Reggie Britton has been part of the local blues scene since 1990. He first played with the legendary Eddie Snow and then Oysters Rockefeller. But until two years ago when he started his own duo, Black Magic Johnson, few people knew how well he could sing. They just thought he was a talented drummer.

"Ed Snow kept trying to get me to sing when I played with him," Britton said. "But singing was never my forte. He said you will grow if you keep doing it. After I'd been with Oysters awhile, I met Ed on the street one day. He said, 'I'm getting too old. I don't know how much longer I'll be able to do this. You gotta take the torch and keep running.'"

Britton took the counsel to heart. In Black Magic Johnson, he growls out the Delta blues with newfound power and aggression. The spare arrangements, with him on percussion and Raoul Everyman on guitar or dobro, only add to this power. You can hear them every Wednesday at Floyd's Thirst Parlor, 212 S. 5th.

And yes, although Britton won't say so directly, there could be a sexual innuendo in the band's name. (TT)

Best DJ
Audio Effects by Mike Greer

With seventeen years of experience as a full-time DJ, Mike Greer knows how to get people on the dance floor and keep them there. He'll gladly honor requests, but he works hard to "read the crowd" so everyone's too busy dancing up a storm to stroll over to the DJ booth. He tailors his mix with the latest tunes and traditional party favorites.

Mike combines his love for leading parties with a professional attitude. This makes him not only a great DJ to party with, but also a reliable entertainer for hire. In 1984, he started a DJ service called Audio Effects. He has the music, equipment, and eight other professional DJs to cover any event: wedding receptions, high school proms, large conventions, etc. These parties are memorable events for his clients, so he performs well and works closely with the event's organizers.

Experience, expertise, professionalism, and fun make Mike Greer this year's best DJ. You can catch him performing at Gilligan's on Friday and Saturday nights. (DK)

Best male singer

Tom Irwin

IT readers love Tom Irwin, both for his weekly column in Illinois Times giving us the skinny on the local music scene and for his contribution to it. He's been performing all over Central Illinois and touring the United States, including gigs with his hero Willie Nelson. Tom's and melodious voice and fine fingerwork blend with folk, blues, rock 'n' roll, and you name it.

When Tom adds other guitarists, drummers, and whomever, he calls them the Hired Hands and make a band out of 'em. IT readers have been finding him and the "Hands" every Sunday at the Brewhaus for coming up on eight years now, making him the longest-running act in Springfield. Buy him a drink, buy his dad a drink, and while you're at it, buy his numerous CDs. (JB)

Best female vocalist
Trina Madonia (of elevator shoe)

At first sight, you might not expect a strong, soulful blues sound to come out of such an unassuming young woman. But as Trina Madonia stands with her hands humbly shoved in her back jeans pockets, keeping the beat with her heels and shoulders, you'll swear you've discovered the best blues vocalist in the Midwest.

Trina grew up listening to her mother sing Connie Francis and traditional Italian songs around the house. As a kid, she sang for relatives and realized singing was a passion she wished to pursue.

Her break came when she made a tape for Frank Trompeter, keyboardist and saxophonist for elevator shoe. Frank especially liked the song "Another World" by Poe, and wanted to work on a rendition. Trina strongly suggested that a female should sing the vocals, and she offered her voice. Soon after, Trina became an integral member of the band, composing lyrics for originals and working on melody ideas.

Indeed, elevator shoe's groove-based, improvisational jazz and funk, infused with the beats of trip-hop and the drive of modern rock, beautifully complement Trina's soulful vocals.

Catch Trina Madonia with elevator shoe regularly at local bars and clubs, and see the band in Decatur in August. (DK)

Best female bartender
Jeanie Boren
Bob's Butternut Hut
215 N. Second Street, 241-0402

We found Jeanie Boren tending bar at Bob's Butternut Hut on a recent Saturday night--but we just got lucky. Ordinarily she's to be found at George Ranks, and in her career as a bartender, she has worked at about a dozen of Springfield's finer watering holes, some of which already have faded into history. It's easy to see why some IT readers selected her as best bartender. With long blond hair pulled up and a, er, voluptuous figure, she's every middle-age guy's dream gal. But with a quick wit, she's a woman's woman who befriends her lady friends instead of making them jealous.

For her regulars she's always got a smile, a greeting using their name, and their favorite adult beverage at the ready. However, make no mistake, Jeannie, a single mom, draws a clear line between her work and her home life: There is no drinking at home. (JB)

Best male bartender

Mike Parkes, Brewhaus
617 E. Washington Street, 525-6399

Mike Parkes got into bartending because, as an aspiring novelist, he was looking for stories. That was ten to fifteen years ago, bartender time. Then he discovered he was good at his new job. For the past eight years, the Pleasant Plains native has been chief bartender and co-owner of the Brewhaus.

"I remember people's drinks well," Parkes said. "I'm good at problem solving. Nothing shocks me. Even if it's wrong, I make a decision." And although he's heard enough stories to fill several novels, he's discreet. But what's most remarkable, he worked more than 2,000 nights in a row at the Brewhaus before taking any time off. TT

Best karaoke
Cynthia Cubbage

IT voters once again selected Cynthia for best karaoke, no doubt because of her great Dolly Parton imitation. She gets around, too. Recently, her itinerary took her to Gary's Lake Springfield Tavern, George Ranks, and Gilligan's, along with several private weddings and family reunions, making her one of the busiest of Springfield's karaoke jockeys. In the business more than three years now, she says she loves to hear people sing. She recalls her first time was the "scariest experience in my life," but she saw how people would relax and have fun, so she did too. She tries to help virgins get over their first-time public exposure by singing along, and, with some technical adjustments, she claims, "I can make these people really sound good." (JB)

Best place to rent DVDs

Family Video
210 N. Main Chatham Road, 483-6580
924 W. North Grand Avenue, 744-2090
1614 S. Macarthur Boulevard, 789-4815
1802 E. North Grand Avenue, 744-2050
2701 W. Lawrence Avenue, 793-7716
2919 S. 6th Street in Southern View, 528-0955

Whether you've leapt into DVD technology for the superior sound, crisp video quality, or expansive special features, Family Video is the place to rent DVDs that turn any living room into a personal theater, according to BOS voters.

Family Video now carries many DVD copies of new releases, competitively priced at $3 for one night. For only $1, it offers DVDs of older favorites re-released in the new format, or movies that simply must be experienced with the superior technology.

Family Video won a place in last year's BOS for "best video store." Now the stores have expanded on their success by embracing new technology to bring you the best in home entertainment. (DK)

Best soul food and best BBQ
Clay's Popeye's Bar-B-Q
1121 E South Grand Avenue, 522-0386

The recipe is more than 100 years old, but Springfieldians still call it the best. In 2001 Clay's Popeye's won "Best Entree" at Taste of Springfield and the 1999 Best of Springfield BBQ. Vincent "Popeye" Jones' BBQ is such a landmark in Springfield cuisine the walls are adorned with celebs such as Dick Durbin and Roland Burris. Wednesday is Soul Food Day: fried chicken, dressing, ham hocks, chitterlings, turnip greens, black-eyed peas, cornbread, and even chicken neckbone. The rest of the week Popeye's runs fast and furious, especially during the lunch rush, on a menu that features chicken, ribs, pork, and beef (plates or sandwiches), along with all the sides. The BBQ sauce comes in three different temperatures: medium, hot, and "oh my golly!"

About three years ago the restaurant moved from its original location on Martin Luther King Drive to the South Town eatery that used to house the legendary Chili Den Chili Parlor. The business is now run by Dee Clay, daughter of the woman who'd worked at Popeye's side for many long years, Mary Clay. But don't worry, Mary's still there. "I'm the one who knows all the secrets," she laughs. (MW)

Best Take out
751 Durkin Drive, 726-7750

Since arriving on Springfield's west side almost two years ago, St. Louis-based Imo's has captured the hearts of take-out customers. Brad Hammond is owner; Kelly Zucksworth manages. We wanted to know: does Imo's do something with take out that's different from other restaurants? "I don't think so," Zucksworth replied. "Being close to Veterans Parkway helps."

Hands down, pizza is its most popular take out item. The most popular pizza is its extra large, sixteen-inch Deluxe, with sausage, mushrooms, onions, green peppers, and bacon. "We serve the original St. Louis-style pizza--a thin crust with provolone cheese on top. We also have a thick-crust pizza," she said. Mixed cheese pizzas are gaining in popularity. Imo's rush hour starts about 6 p.m. and there is seldom more than fifteen-minute wait. Customers also can call well in advance and order a pizza to be ready at a specific time. (JC)

Best breakfast menu
Sunrise Cafe
1201 S. 2nd, 753-1311

Just off of South Grand, at the tourist end of 2nd Street, nestled between two huge state buildings, Hamburger Dan piles his trade--and year after year people rave. Just who is Hamburger Dan? Longtime local short-order tech extraordinaire, Danny Johnston, that's who. After years of apprenticing around town, Johnston established Sunrise in 1989. "I wanted to work on my own. I know what people want," Johnston explains. "I like to pile the potatoes on. You know, I want people to come back. A lot of restaurants just want your business the one time and don't care if you came back or not." And people keep coming back to the Sunrise in droves--Sunrise breaks its way through more than 350 eggs each morning and state-worker lunches fuel a feeding frenzy each noonday. "But people think we're busier than we are," Johnston laughs. "We can always serve a few more people." Breakfast favorites include Dan's two-egg breakfast shoe and the smoked breakfast pork chop.

Johnston's favorite dish is "Dan's Choice." "Two eggs any style, choice of potatoes, ham, bacon, or sausage and toast. That's the way I like to eat it," Johnston said, "with gravy on the potatoes." (MW)

Best salsa and chips

Cafe Brio
524 E. Monroe Street, 544-0547

Some may argue that you can judge a restaurant by the quality of its chips and salsa. If that's true, Springfield has some of the best south-of-the-border food right in downtown.

BOS voters say Cafe Brio is the best place to enjoy fresh baskets of chips and brimming bowls of salsa--and fresh they are. Cafe Brio cooks its chips daily in pure vegetable oil. Every warm basket comes with hearty corn and delicate flour chips. Both pack an amazing, flavorful crunch deserving of a gourmet restaurant.

The salsa, also made daily, is the perfect companion to these crunchy delights. Large chunks of tomato and onion, blended beautifully with herbs, spices, and seasonings create a salsa filled with distinct textures and tastes.

Try not to fill up on this free appetizer, though. Cafe Brio offers a large menu of unique dishes and daily specials. And as the chips and salsa act as an indicator, you have a wonderful meal forthcoming. (DK)

Best Mexican restaurant
2941 W. Iles Avenue, 546-3116

If what you crave is full of salsa and spices Xochimilco is the place to be in Springfield. For the second year in a row, Illinois Times readers voted this Mexican restaurant the best. With plates piled high with authentic fair it's a hot spot.

Xochi's excellent service, great margaritas, and Mexican beer, in addition to a colorful dŽcor, have proven so successful the owners plan to open another Xochimilco (pronounced zo-she-mil-co) in August at Northfield Shopping Center on Dirksen Parkway.

New dishes are also being added to the menu, said co-owner Raul Pastrana. Catering to the younger customers, Pastrana said more American food, including hamburgers, hot dogs, and chicken strips will be available.

The restaurant, now operating in its fourth year, offers a variety of dishes, including best sellers such as fajitas, chimichangas, and taco salads. Bring the kids and grab a seat at one of Springfield's finest Mexican restaurants. (TM)

Best Italian
801 E. Monroe Street, 544-2523

Saputo's began in 1948 at 801 E. Monroe when Sangamo Dairy was located across the street. Fifty-four years later, the dairy is gone but Saputo's remains. Mike Coffey Jr's grandparents founded it. "My grandfather originally owned it, but the recipes were from his parents. I'm fourth generation here." The cuisine from the start has been Southern Italian. "We're known for our red sauce and our salad dressing, which we make ourselves," he said. The Sicilian breaded steak uses an original recipe for the breading. Also popular are the Italian fries with garlic juice, which they put on their steaks as well. "There's nothing real sophisticated about it," Coffey said, "but in this day of unpredictability, it's good to know the sauce you enjoy today is the same you or your parents enjoyed when we started." Being downtown between the Lincoln Home and the convention hotels works for Saputo's. "I don't think Springfield has any idea of the business that Lincoln tourism and the conventions bring in."

Many of Saputo's customers are regulars. "I can name the names of about thirty customers who will be here this Sunday," he said. "We're the kind of restaurant where being a regular customer pays dividends. If we know who you are, there are different things we do." A banquet room for private parties is available. (JC)

Best pizza
300 E. Laurel Street, 528-9629

Gabatoni's has stayed in the same family since it was founded in 1952. Rosalie Beck is the daughter of founders Rosemary and Johnny Lynn, originally from Tovey.

After returning from WWII and service as a Marine cook for "brass" in the Phillipines, John and Danny Managlia went to work at Danny's uncle's restaurant at Third and Washington streets serving stew, chili, and poor boys. "My dad introduced pizza to the menu and eventually bought out the Managlias, and a few years later changed the name from Danny's to Gabatoni's. People back in Tovey used to call Dad 'Gabby.' When my parents decided to rename the restaurant, they chose the Italian-sounding name 'Tony' and combined it with dad's nickname."

Thin crust pizza and poor boys are still the specialty, but Beck has added a grill and fryer since she became owner about ten years ago. "With all the new restaurants coming in out west, I knew we had to move with the times. Hence the modernized menu." But the recipe for Gabatoni's pizza is the same as it was fifty-two years ago. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it, and ours ain't broke," she said. A chicken with barbecue sauce--if people ask for it--and a taco pizza are recent additions. (JC)

Best Indian restaurant

Gateway to India
3115 Chatham Road, 726-6890

Gateway to India is Springfield's culinary passage to authentic, gourmet Indian cuisine. The 100-item menu presents a veritable catalogue of dishes from Northern, Southern, and Western India. More than fifty herbs and spices infuse meals with an incredible range of flavors: from sweet to spicy, tart to smooth, and many more.

Non-vegetarian meals consist of meat and a combination of vegetables covered in a creamy gravy or light broth and served with flatbreads baked in a tandoor, a clay oven. For instance, Lamb Madras is selected lamb pieces cooked in a mixture of coconut, tomato, and onion sauces. If you prefer a vegetarian dish, try Dal Makhani, which is black lentils and kidney beans simmered on a slow fire until tender and tempered with ginger, garlic, and tomatoes.

For those not sure which dishes might be their favorites, Gateway to India offers vegetarian and non-vegetarian sampler platters, served during dinner hours from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Or stop in for the daily lunch buffet on weekdays from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. An extended buffet is available during weekend brunch, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and includes unlimited drinks. (DK)

Best Thai restaurant
Magic Kitchen
4112 Peoria Road, 525-2230

The once-again, long-time Thai favorite Magic Kitchen outpolls all others in a wide field. Though Springfield currently enjoys four thriving Thai restaurants, Magic Kitchen has remained the clear favorite since it first opened its doors more than twenty years ago. Is it Magic Kitchen's "Bring Your Own Booze" policy that people love? Or is it the heady excitement of the dining and waiting rooms where in the course of an hour you're virtually guaranteed to meet at least one person you know? Try its finger-sized egg rolls and heavenly peanut sauce, move on to its signature soups, have a noodle dish, such as Pad See Ewe or Pad Thai, or a rice dish, the basil, the ginger, the curries--red and green, and don't forget the coconut milk. Top it off with a slice of Magic Kitchen's justifiably famous pies, or the sticky rice with peanuts. Then, take a second to appreciate the exquisite fullness only a Thai banquet can accommodate. (MW)

Best Asian restaurant
Tai Pan
2636 Adlai Stevenson Drive, 529-8089

Capturing the senses with exotic and colorful dishes is this year's Best Asian restaurant--Tai Pan. Tai Pan features Chinese cuisine that satisfies not only the appetite, but also the eyes, nose, and imagination.

The bright colors of freshly cooked ingredients in addition to the mouthwatering aromas of ginger, garlic, and sesame oil add richness without losing the natural flavor of Tai Pan's dishes.

Tai Pan offers lunch specials Tuesday through Saturday and a lunch buffet on Sunday. A bright red roof captures the exotic spirit of the restaurant; customers are greeted by two large Foo-dogs at its entrance. The animals have their paw resting on a sphere as they guard the entrance, discouraging evil spirits from entering. The restaurant is closed on Monday.

Best wine list
221 S. 5th Street, 789-8988

Probably also the winner for the coolest basement, Sebastian's has long been a Springfield leader in fine dining and wining. Manager Scott Eilers is probably the reason. With Sebastian's resuming their lunch menu in August after a four-year hiatus, Eilers expects even more Springfieldians to come to appreciate the finest quality wines. "For me the trick is to look for wines where the energy is spent on the wine, not on the advertising," Eilers explains. "There is a whole world of different wines beyond what the general public gets exposed to."

Originally hired for his wine skills, Eilers has made wine a lifelong hobby, regularly meets with wine reps, and makes trips to California's wine-rich Napa Valley in addition to catching a seminar when he can. Currently Sebastian's is offering seventy to eighty wines, plus about fifteen different ports. Eilers is particularly proud of Sebastian's wine maintenance: updating the vintages once a week, serving half bottles, and using a pressure system to keep the wines at their best: "I hate it when you pay for a high-end wine and it's deteriorated to the point it tastes like just any other red wine." (MW)

Best Classic horseshoe
D'Arcy's Pint
2413 S. MacArthur Boulevard, 726-9800

The battle of the cholesterol titans was tied this year when D'Arcy's Pint proved the equal of the perennially popular but recently defunct Red Coach Inn. D'Arcy's also took sole honors for Best Horseshoe Variation. Hallie Pierceall is co-owner. "The horseshoe was on our menu from the get-go because I knew the popularity of it Springfield. People are always looking for it on a menu." (JC)

Best horseshoe variation

D'Arcy's Pint
2413 S. MacArthur, 726-9800

Veggies? Loose meat, white cheese sauce?! Sacrilege or sublimity? Springfield says the latter as D'Arcy's turns the concept of yellow sludge on dry fries on its ear to finds some amazingly tasty variations on the classic Springfield shoe. Priding themselves on its signature sandwich, the Buffalo Chicken Ponyshoe ($5.50), owners Hallie Pierceall and Glenn Merriman offer ten additional taste-tempting shoe variations including the D'Arcy's Deluxe with grilled onions and the Veggie with portabellas, tomatoes, peppers, and onions. (MW)

Best new restaurant
Smokey Bones BBQ & Sports Bar
2660 S. Dirksen Parkway, 528-6410

Dardin Restaurants, the parent corporation that also owns Red Lobster and The Olive Garden, launched Smokey Bones after market research indicated there wasn't a national barbecue restaurant.

Springfield Smokey Bones, number thirteen, opened last December. As the name suggests, the focus is on ribs: St. Louis-style and baby back. Ribs are smoked on site until they're tender and reach minimum temperature. Harsha Gurujal is a manager. "Baby backs come from the back part of the pig. The meat tends to be leaner and bones smaller, similar to spare ribs you buy at the grocery store," he said. "We lightly glaze them when they come out of the smoker. St Louis-style ribs come from the front part of the pig. The meat tends to cover the whole rib. They are sauced when we put them on the grill."

Aficionados say "the sauce is the secret." It seals in the flavor of the meat and adds a sweet element. At Smokey Bones, it's a secret worth sharing. Also available are barbecued chicken, grilled chicken, grilled salmon, catfish, burgers, and a children's menu. (JC)

Best seafood

Red Lobster
2696 S. Dirksen Pkwy, 529-6900

"It's consistent." That's how Red Lobster beverage hospitality manager Sylvia Walker explains how Red Lobster took top seafood honors this year. "We're all held accountable to the same standard. We use the same suppliers and the same recipes." Change also is a factor. Compared with the Red Lobster of a few years ago, today's menu offers more pasta dishes. "Cajun became very popular at a point and we picked up Cajun items," Walker said. "Our Cajun shrimp with a white sauce is a popular pasta item."

There are more than 400 Red Lobsters nationally. Menu changes are based on national sales. Promotions such as the all-you-can-eat specials--currently crab legs--contribute to the restaurant's success. Shrimp consistently is popular. Service also is a plus at Red Lobster. This is a college town, so there is some turnover from the students, but some of our people have been with us for twenty-three years." (JC)

Best coffee
SunsUp Koffee Kafe
1001 N. 1st Street, 522-5348

Voted Best kept secret on the North End in our 2001 Best of, Julie Kluge's SunsUp Koffee Kafe returns this year for top honors in the coffee category. Before coming to Springfield, Kluge lived in St. Louis and provided catering at the St. Louis Zoo and Botanical Gardens while working in accounting for Anheuser-Busch. Though north First Street is not a major thoroughfare, the address appealed to her because it was close to Memorial Medical Center.

"I get more from the SIU School of Medicine, state workers, CWLP, and people on their way downtown," Kluge said. Five fresh-brewed coffees, lattes, espressos, and mochas are the mainstay of the menu. "I have a dark roast and Columbian that I serve every day. I rotate the other flavors. Baked goods and sandwiches round out the menu. The former pharmacy with hardwood floors imparts a homey ambiance, complete with a couch, ten tables, and outside seating in an Old Springfield setting. (JC)

Best food deal
SunsUp Koffee Kafe
1001 North First Street, 522-5348

A bright sun flag waves lazily on a warm summer breeze outside of SunsUp Koffee Kafe. Illinois Times readers voted the small sandwich shop as the Best Deal for food as well as for Best Coffee. Nestled on the corner of Calhoun and First streets the menu offers a variety of delicacies all priced for less than five dollars. Customers can grab a cappuccino, latte, or bakery item for breakfast or a tasty sandwich or salad for lunch. On the second Saturday of each month the restaurant opens from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. to host acoustic music from local artists (refreshments also are served from the menu). (TM)

Best buffet
Ryan's Family Steak House
3150 Chatham Road, 787-4300

"Buffet" is technically what we mean when we talk about restaurants at which customers feed themselves. However, the word "buffet" has come to mean, at least in America, a place where you can also get a lot of food. South Carolina-based Ryan's is no exception.

With more than 150 items available at six food bars, Ryan's customers have an impressive array of buffet options throughout the week. From Monday to Friday from 10:45 a.m. to 4 p.m., Ryan's has a lunch buffet for $5.39 plus $1.19 for a drink with unlimited refills. After 4 p.m. on Wednesday and Friday, dinner buffets cost $7.99--steak is included as a choice of meat. On Sundays from 10:45 a.m. to 9 p.m., buffets--with steak and shrimp--cost $8.12. On Mondays, an assortment of seafood shows up on the buffet. Tuesdays after 4 p.m., horseshoes become part of the buffet lineup and the cost is $6.89. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, catfish is available. On Thursdays, barbecue ribs. And every day after 4 p.m. there are carving tables where roast beef and ham are served.

Ryan's uses fresh steaks and beef--never frozen and always cut or ground on location. Sugar-free desserts are also available as are a dazzling choice of pies and cakes. Children ten and under are charged discount rates. On one Tuesday a month, a clown shows up to delight the kids--on any given month call to find out which Tuesday the clown will be there. (PS)

Best sub sandwiches & Best diet menu
Subway Sandwich Shops

With more than seventeen locations in the area, it comes as no surprise Subway easily took these categories. What began in 1965 as seventeen-year-old Fred De Luca's plan to earn enough money to go to college is now a lunchmeat behemoth with more than 16,000 stores in seventy-three countries. It is now the largest fast-food restaurant chain in both the United States and Canada. Ever since 1998, when a certain Jared S. Fogle dropped from 425 pounds to a lithe 190 and became a role model TV commercial star by gnoshing on De Luca's grinders, Americans, and now Springfieldians, have looked to Subway for its diet menu. The menu does indeed feature seven sandwiches with less than six grams of fat in them that can help you sweat off more weight than two supermodels. Just ask Jared. (MW)

Best Desserts
Bakers Square
3434 Freedom Drive,787-5555

When it comes to dessert, Illinois Times readers evidently take no chances and prefer proven, national success stories. Bakers Square, as most people know, sells many pies and some cakes. And that's about all the dessert you'll find when you go there. Bakers Square does carry ice cream, according to restaurant manager Diana Kurtz, but only vanilla--and they really only mean to use it a la mode.

Bakers Square offers about twenty-eight kinds of pie that sell whole or by the slice. Costs range from $6.49 for the standards such as apple to $10.99 for pies that are a little more complex, such as the restaurant's fresh Strawberry Cream Cheese pie. Their top sellers include French Silk and Caramel Pecan Silk Supreme. Bakers Square also offers a special pie of the month. In July, it's Key Lime pie. Beware, the pie of the month is only available during that month. Bakers Square also sells cheese cake and a "fantastic" carrot cake.

Kurtz recommends calling ahead of time to reserve a pie. You better take her seriously, especially when it's the day before Thanksgiving. Kurtz said it's not unusual for the restaurant to sell about 1,200 pies on that day alone. (PS)

Best shakes
Steak & Shake
3186 Dirksen Parkway
2100 S. 6th Street
1580 W. Wabash Avenue
4211 Conestoga Drive

"There are faster ways to make a shake these days. But there's no better way," reads part of a menu from Steak & Shake. Illlinois Times' readers evidently agree. The words refer to the way the restaurant makes its milk shakes: hand-dipped and hand-mixed with a dab of whipped cream and a cherry on top. Made with 2-percent milk and ice cream from Prairie Farm, vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry Steak & Shake shakes cost $2.46. For an extra 32 cents, you can choose between double-chocolate chip, cookies and cream, and "very very strawberry," plus it is served in an old-fashioned glass with lots of whipped cream and a chocolate wafer on top. (PS)

Best waiting area

Olive Garden
2991 South Veterans Parkway, 793-0318

Olive Garden's recently-renovated restaurant reflects how the chain nearly has elevated the management of waiting time to an art form. There are actually three waiting areas. Outside the front there are four benches surrounded by quaint landscaping that somewhat buffers the traffic that zooms past on Veterans Parkway. Inside, a series of benches and chairs line the walls, which are decorated by timeless black and white photos of Italian settings. The floor is faux-stone and adds to the elegant yet relaxed atmosphere. Beyond the station where you go and put your name on a list, there's another waiting area, a kind of courtyard with tables for four where you can order appetizers and drinks. It's all meant to give off the look and feel of an upscale Italian establishment, which the Olive Garden has done an admirable job marketing itself as. Once you settle into the waiting area, you almost don't want to leave, which, we suppose, means that it does what it's suppose to--it makes waiting easier. To make things more convenient, waiting customers receive a hand-held pager that buzzes when their table is ready.

Darden Restaurants, owners of Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Smokey Bones, and Bahama Breeze, is an expert of the "upscale" chain phenomenon. While some flee from the sameness of it all, many BOS voters let it be known that the food is worth waiting for. (PS)

Best pastries
Jubelt's Bakery
2343 West Monroe Street, 793-5161
201 North 5th, 522-9204

Flaky crusts, cakes, cookies, and pies baked with a family recipe can be purchased for those special occasions or just for enjoyment at this local bakery. Special orders can be available in two business days and the variety of items offered is substantial.

From any fruit pie to a special cream pie, if it can be baked, Jubelt's is prepared to fill your order. Lunch and dinner items are offered at the bakery on West Monroe in the Walgreens shopping complex. It is open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and select hours on weekends.

While the bakery has been operating in the Springfield area for more than ten years, Jubelt's will be closing its downtown location at the end of this month. (TM)

Best place to buy fresh bread
Panera Bread
3101 West White Oaks Drive, 726-5070

The smell of freshly-baked bread is irresistible at this restaurant. It also has done well with its Danish pastries, coffeecakes, bagels, soups, salads, sandwiches, and coffees. Known for its award-winning sourdough bread and steam-injected bagles, Panera is a non-smoking, casual atmosphere where people are encouraged to hang out and enjoy their coffee.

Jack Stremmel, a general manager for one of its restaurants in Peoria, said unlike other facilities in the Springfield area the bagels at Panera are not boiled, but prepared in a European-style oven that rotates and steam-injects the bread, giving it a delicious crust and chewy center.

"We are an everyday oasis and believe every one should have a loaf of bread under each arm," Stremmel said.

All bakery items are prepared fresh daily and leftovers are donated to local charities. So if you are in the mood for a casual place to enjoy your coffee, peruse paper work, and, of course, buy some bread, Panera offers every convenience. (TM)

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