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Thursday, Oct. 27, 2011 03:11 pm

The best dining experience

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RIP, CAITIE GIRL
Best downtown dining. Most original menu. Best chef. Best-kept secret.

And all gone.

If there was a landslide winner in this year’s Best Of competition, it was Caitie Girl’s, the restaurant on East Jefferson Avenue that closed forever in September with the death of Aubrey Caitlin Barker in a traffic accident.

Caitie Girl’s won four categories, and by wide margins, but we’re creating a special category – call it most missed – and declaring the runner-ups as winners.

Surely, there was sentiment involved here – how could anyone not vote for Caitie Girl’s, given the tragedy that struck in the midst of voting? But the shuttered restaurant, which won last year for best original menu, was the real deal. Lobster pot pie? A horseshoe made with jalapeno corn bread? Barker, who opened Caitie Girl’s in 2007 when she was just 22, knew what she was doing in a kitchen, and she was not afraid to nudge staid Midwestern palates to places unfamiliar.

She should’ve called the place Pluck. With virtually no money and plates from WalMart, Barker bet her future on herself and downtown, working long days to convert a once-proud restaurant that had been turned into a gym back into a restaurant again. Friends and family helped, tearing down wallpaper and painting and replacing carpet and doing a jillion other things. And Barker had lots of friends.

Springfield is a poorer place now that there is nowhere to go for brie-stuffed buttermilk biscuits and gravy served with grilled asparagus. But Caitie Girl’s is not forgotten. Put one more shake of pepper on your potato tonight. Add barbecued pulled pork the next time you make macaroni-and-cheese. Enjoy bacon. Most of all – as Barker reminded us in the things she said and the way she lived – have fun, and eat well.




BEST DOWNTOWN DINING
BEST ITALIAN FOOD

Saputo’s
801 E. Monroe, 544-2523

You want atmosphere? Most downtown Springfield restaurants have you covered in the charm department, but it’s Saputo’s that has mastered the art of making its customers feel both at home and uptown. Started by Frank and Florine Saputo in 1948, Saputo’s is a Springfield tradition for both locals and visiting politicians and performers. Saputo’s steady stream of customers, we’re sure, arrive under temptation of a menu full of family recipes passed down from generation to generation. Still in its original location, Saputo’s is also still run by “Springfield’s First Family of Italian Cooking.” Coming in close behind in the best Italian category was Bella Milano, with hefty vote tallies going to Augie’s Front Burner and Caitie Girl’s for best downtown dining.
Runner-up, Best Italian: Bella Milano
Runner-up, Best Downtown Dining: Caitie Girl’s, Augie’s Front Burner


BEST OUTDOOR DINING
MOST ORIGINAL MENU
BEST HORSESHOE
BEST PLACE FOR A WORKING LUNCH
BEST COMFORT FOOD

D’Arcy’s Pint
661 W. Stanford Ave., 217-492-8800

Once again, Best of Springfield voters are giving D’Arcy’s Pint five gold stars. They’d probably give ’em two thumbs up, but it’s hard to break those hands away from a plate piled gloriously high with all the fixings of the perfect horseshoe. Toast, fries, meat (or veggies, if that’s your style) and cheese – apparently a comfort food combination of which Springfield can’t get enough, especially if it comes from D’Arcy’s. This year voted best restaurant for outdoor dining and for a working lunch, as well as most original menu, best comfort food and best horseshoe, it’s no wonder D’Arcy’s owners, Hallie Pierceall and Glenn Merriman, are now offering franchise opportunities. Opened in 1998, D’Arcy’s has become a Springfield treasure, tucked away on Springfield’s south side on West Stanford Ave.

BEST PLACE TO EAT AFTER 10 P.M.
Steak ’n Shake
2465 N. Dirksen Parkway, 492-5925
1580 Wabash Ave., 787-0392
3186 S. Dirksen Parkway, 529-5823
4211 Conestoga Drive, 698-9439

Generally speaking, the standards for a midnight meal aren’t quite as high as those for a noon lunch. Many midnight customers are either too hungry to care about anything other than quick service, or their senses are a little sideways from a sip or two too many at the neighborhood pub or club. So it’s lucky Springfield late-nighters have an old standby in Steak ’n Shake, where quality food is key, no matter what time of day. Born in Normal, Ill., in 1934, Steak ’n Shake’s “In sight it must be right” tradition means fresh steakburgers and hand-dipped milkshakes fit for the most discriminating tastes.

BEST RESTAURANT DISCOVERY THIS YEAR
American Harvest Eatery
3241 W. Iles, 546-8300

Born this April of the same owners as Augie’s Front Burner, Augie Mrozowski and Sharon Ehrat, American Harvest Eatery surprises few in being named the best restaurant discovery this year. Previously a chef at Augie’s, the Eatery’s executive chef, Jordan Coffey, and his wife, Aurora, are behind the ever-changing menus focused on local, seasonal foods. “I think the name of our restaurant goes along with what we’re all about,” Coffey says. “You won’t ever see strawberries or asparagus on our menu in December.” Instead, this time of year, the menu screams “fall” with options like pork (from acorn-fed pigs), caramelized sweet potatoes, beer-braised sauerkraut and hard apple cider.
Runner-up: Osaka

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

Table or booth? Booth, of course. Cross your fingers as the hostess leads you toward the dining area. Left, that’s good; now, if you’re lucky...bingo! The hostess has taken another quick left, leading you to the most secluded booth in what readers overwhelmingly say is the best restaurant for a romantic dinner in the city. “Is this all right?” she asks. Is it ever. This is the corner booth, with a wall behind one bench and the tall back of an adjoining booth behind the facing bench, creating a culinary cubicle of sorts – your own little world in which to make goo-goo eyes at each other and slip off shoes. No one will ever know. The lighting is just right, it’s quiet, the service is prompt without being overwhelming. Oh, yes: And they serve Italian food.
Runner-up: Ross Isaac

BEST RESTAURANT OFF THE BEATEN PATH
BEST BREAKFAST
BEST HANGOVER FOOD

Charlie Parker’s
700 North Street, 241-2104

It’s hard to find, but once you get there be prepared to settle in. Though the motto at this year’s best breakfast joint, Charlie Parker’s, is “Eat it & beat it,” it’s gonna take you awhile to make it into the clean plate club. A 16-inch pancake is, in fact, bigger than your head, but fortunately as delicious as it is large. Add some bacon, sausage and hash browns and consider that mild to moderate hangover cured as you drag your bloated belly home for a mid-morning nap or a YouTube viewing of Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” which has featured Charlie Parker’s horseshoe sandwich.

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