Food and dining
Best of Springfield 2010
BEST OUTDOOR DINING
3019 S. Dirksen Pkwy., 529-6200
3101 W. White Oaks Dr., 726-5070
With more than a handful of restaurants offering outdoor dining experiences, we were initially a bit surprised to see Panera Bread come out on top. Then we took a drive to the Dirksen store and immediately agreed with our voters. In the middle of the patio sits a beautiful stone waterfall that creates an amazingly calming atmosphere. To ward off the sun, the patio has about half a dozen large tables with maroon and gold umbrellas, which match the restaurant’s décor. There are also a number of smaller tables for two that work great for small intimate discussions. And even though the Dirksen restaurant is located on one of the busiest streets in Springfield, the patio is far enough from the road that the traffic is little disturbance. Unfortunately, the White Oaks Panera doesn’t have a waterfall or any other calming structure; however, the store’s tables are camouflaged by a wooden fence, creating a nice, intimate and very private setting.
BEST ITALIAN &
BEST DOWNTOWN DINING
801 E. Monroe Ave., 718-3889
Not much has changed at Saputo’s since Rose and Vito Saputo opened its doors in downtown Springfield in 1948. And to that we say HALLELUJAH!!! As the establishment passed down from one generation to the next, all the Saputos were smart enough to know that you don’t mess with perfection. “We pretty much have the same menu that we had when my grandparents first opened the restaurant before I was even born,” says Mike Saputo, adding that in recent years the family has added a few items, such as the breaded steak, fish and chicken entrees.
Springfield residents decided many years ago that Saputo’s savory Italian dishes are worth telling their family, friends, and neighbors. As a result, Saputo’s quickly established an atmosphere likened to the popular 1980s television show “Cheers.” While you won’t see Sam, Diane, Woody and the gang, Saputo says that the restaurant has a steady crowd of regulars who quickly get to know fellow Saputo’s lovers. This was established long before new owner Mike Saputo took over the establishment, and that friendly, comfortable, family-like atmosphere still exists today. Many a politician has come to Saputo’s to enjoy the authentic, southern Italian meals. And for a city that’s heavy on politics, Saputo’s quickly became a place to come to enjoy a fantastic meal and garner a few more votes. With dozens of restaurants located in the capital city, we’re convinced that the relaxed, home-like feel, and good food, prompted voters to also name Saputo’s as the best dining in all of downtown.
Downtown runner-up: Feed Store (only a few votes behind Saputo’s)
BEST PLACE TO HAVE A BIRTHDAY PARTY FOR GRANDMA
MCL Restaurant and Bakery
2151 W. Wabash Ave., 787-8706
101 W. Jefferson St., 788-6513
To most of us, Grandma holds a special place in our hearts. And although she has had Lord knows how many birthdays, we recognize that she is still deserving of a very special day. Of course no one makes a meal as good as Grandma. But surely we can’t ask her to prepare her own birthday meal. Voters’ advice? MCL Restaurant and Bakery, which offers an array of dishes freshly made from scratch each day. If Grandma counts roast beef, fried, baked, and grilled chicken, meat loaf, and homemade casseroles among her favorite foods, MCL guarantees to serve them every day. Other dishes, such as chicken and noodles, ham and beans, catfish, and chopped steak, are rotated throughout the week. If you haven’t already celebrated a new year with Grandma, MCL’s homey atmosphere is sure to make her feel right at home. And the delectable down-home dishes are sure to bring back fond memories.
Runner-up: Olive Garden, with Chesapeake Seafood a close third.
MOST ORIGINAL MENU
400 E. Jefferson St., 528-1294
Caitie Girl’s. An original name for a restaurant. And the dishes on the restaurant’s menu are just as original, putting their own twist on traditional American staples. A heaping plate of purple fries is drizzled with truffle oil, kosher salt, fresh cracked pepper, rosemary, bacon and parmesan shavings. Corn tortillas are stuffed with chipotle spice canita pork, Mexican spiced corn and black bean orzo, avocado, cilantro sour cream, cojita cheese, red cabbage, and roasted peppers. And bowtie pasta, mixed with pepper jack cheese sauce and pulled pork, is topped with a buttery crumb topping and baked to perfection to create a popular mac ’n cheese. Caitie Girl’s take on the horseshoe features jalapeno cornbread, pulled BBQ pork, and pepper jack cheese sauce and tri-colored fries. By now, we’re sure you get it. Go ahead. Stop in. See for yourself. Caitie Girl’s is definitely in a class all by itself.
BEST RESTAURANT FOR A ROMANTIC DINNER
4525 Wabash Ave., 547-0011
In many ways, romancing your sweetheart can be quite the feat, especially for those who are romantically challenged. If this is you, then Bella Milano should become one of your best friends. Once you step into this establishment you’re immediately greeted with the smooth sounds of jazz. Its low, dark ceilings, high-back chairs, and see-through fireplace adds to the warm, romantic ambiance. With the mood set, patrons soon find that the food is as tantalizing as the decor. From expensive steak, seafood and wine to dishes that are a bit more affordable – such as lasagna, and other pasta entrees – Bella Milano is truly a spot you’ll want to frequent more than once. Since opening five years ago, the restaurant has been the site for a number of marriage proposals. And if you let them know of your pending proposal ahead of time, Bella Milano will help ensure that your day is memorable. Bella Milano is not the only restaurant that lends itself to romance. We encourage you to give our runner up a try.
Runner-up: Ross Isaac
BEST RESTAURANT OFF THE BEATEN PATH
4112 Peoria Rd., 525-2230
115 N. Lewis., 525-6975
Drive too fast on Peoria Road and you may miss one of Springfield’s hidden treasures – Magic Kitchen. Located in a small building at the edge of town, some have even referred to it as one of Springfield’s “best kept secrets.” With authentic Thai dishes that will have your taste buds jumping for days, this establishment didn’t stay a secret for long, as natives lined up outside each day awaiting its opening. Today, thank God, we now enjoy Magic Kitchen 2, which serves the same delightful dishes as the Peoria Road store. Some will tell you that one of the restaurant’s greatest wonders is the BYOB – bring your own beer – liquor policy.
Osaka Japanese Restaurant
1665 Wabash Ave., 726-8037
BEST RESTAURANT YOU DISCOVERED THIS YEAR
Since opening in late November of 2009, Osaka Japanese Restaurant has created quite a stir in the local food scene, leading IT voters to name it “best restaurant discovered this year.” The one-of-a-kind restaurant is divided into two sections: a Thai-style area with a clean design and a quiet atmosphere, and the popular Hibachi grill section in which the chefs entertainingly prepare your food on a large grill right at the table. Manager Jennifer Chapman says the restaurant’s local part-owners also own other Thai and Hibachi restaurants in other cities, but never before have they combined the two concepts like this. “It’s been quite successful so far,” Chapman says. “And you get large portions for your money. Just about everybody goes home with a to-go box.”
BEST ASIAN FOOD
As with any type of meal, Asian food comes in several grades, ranging from awful to awesome. Judging from the number of votes Osaka received in this category, someone might have to invent another word that means “better than awesome.” Maybe it’s the unique flavors that appeal to so many people; the sweet but mystifying salad dressing or the cucumber-laced water. Or perhaps it’s the generous portions they heap on your plate. Manager Jennifer Chapman seems to think a big part of Osaka’s draw is the freshness of the food, which often comes from local sources and can be prepared in front of you on the hibachi grill. “Everything in the restaurant is made from scratch with fresh ingredients,” Chapman says proudly. “We don’t have anything pre-made here.”
Using fresh ingredients is the key to good sushi, Chapman says, and Osaka has it down. Osaka earned the title of “best sushi” from voters this year, with at least 28 different sushi rolls on the menu, by our count. The sushi here are so artfully prepared that it’s almost a shame to eat them. “We use the best seafood because you have to be able to serve it raw,” Chapman says, adding that they are working on an expanded menu that will likely debut in the new year, featuring 30 new specialty sushi rolls. Our mouths are already watering.
BEST NEW MARTINI/COCKTAIL
Though we asked voters to name their favorite new martini AND their favorite new cocktail, one mixed drink took both categories. The Osakatini at Osaka is both attractive and tasty, and while Chapman won’t say exactly what’s in the drink, she will say it has a flavor of pineapple and peach. (The bubbly drink is served in a Champagne flute, if that gives you any clues.) It also has a neat layered effect, with a red bottom and an orange top. But the Osakatini is just one of many unique concoctions at Osaka. The restaurant and bar features more than 40 different infused liquors – made on site – with savory flavors like pineapple chipotle tequila, honey bourbon, and raspberry vodka. “We like our drinks to be colorful and fresh,” Chapman says.
BEST PLACE FOR A FIRST DATE
The first date is all about making a good impression – every thought and emotion in a budding relationship will likely stem from your first experiences together. And what an impression Osaka has made, winning the title of “best place for a first date” in this year’s survey. The Hibachi grill will keep the conversation going as the chefs crack jokes, conjure flames and toss morsels of food into the eager mouths of diners sitting in large groups around an elegant black marble table. For a more quiet evening, try the Thai side of the restaurant, where the exotic fare and soft lighting create an almost otherworldly atmosphere. Whether it’s your first date or just a chance to reconnect with your significant other, Osaka will make the evening special.
BEST BAKERY ITEMS
925 S. Seventh St., 528-8548
Several area bakeries and restaurants have delicious desserts. But only one spot has desserts deemed “Incredibly Delicious.” Not big on baked goods or desserts, we ventured into Incredibly Delicious to “take a look” at what they have to offer. We were pleasantly greeted at the door by a scrumptious aroma that led us to more pastries than we could have dreamed possible. There was cake, cookies, bread, tarts, croissants and more! There were things that we’d never tasted before, in flavors we never knew existed. Just when we thought we decided on a treat, a small voice from deep inside said, “Wait, there’s more!” Oh my gosh! No one said it would be this difficult. The pressure is beginning to be too much. We must decide which of the yummy treats to calm the sudden craving. And then it happened. Our eyes settled on what turned out to be a piece of heaven. Blueberry-orange coffee cake, an unusual and delicious combination. Needless to say, we wolfed down the coffee cake, and have returned countless times, indulging in way more goodies than the waistline can afford.
2660 Dirksen Pkwy., 528-6410
We like a good fight. And if IT were conducting a barbecue match between BOS’s first and second place winners, then last year’s winner, Smokey Bones, just won another round. Perhaps it is due to several new dishes appearing on the menu since our last poll. They’ve added a fire-grilled sirloin steak, marinated in Cajun seasoning and topped with blue cheese crumbles and hickory bacon; a filet of grouper (blackened or fried) topped with lemon butter glaze; a turkey cobb salad; an avocado turkey burger; and smoked turkey club and grouper sandwiches. Several appetizers have also been introduced, including sweet potato stix – lightly-seasoned sweet potato fries, served with choice of brown sugar barbecue, garlic mayo, or spicy ketchup dipping sauce; crispy shrimp dunkers – fried jumbo shrimps, drizzled with teriyaki glaze and served with teriyaki ginger dipping sauce; and smoked southwest spring rolls – filled with shredded chicken, corn, black beans and spices. Our runner-up is Hickory River Smokehouse, who held the title for at least three consecutive years prior to Smokey Bones’ reign.
Runner-up: Hickory River Smokehouse
700 North St., 241-2104
Blueberry stuffed French toast casserole. A 16-inch pancake. And a breakfast horseshoe, featuring eggs, toast, your choice of meat, and hash browns or fries, topped with cheese or gravy. They all seemed tempting. But one look at the waitress carrying a plate of the French toast to a neighboring table and we were sold. After all, how could we pass up the load of fresh blueberries oozing from this early morning treat? (We stress early morning because it generally sells out fast.) If none of the restaurant’s three specialties tickle your fancy, and you’re more of a traditional breakfast eater, rest assured you will find something that suits you.
1038 LeJune Dr., 585-6830
With back-to-back wins, it’s clear that IT voters endorse Golden Corral as the best buffet in town. The restaurant’s huge spread of food guarantees that each member of your party will find something that suits their taste buds. But you’ll be pleased to know that Golden Corral is not only focused on serving tasty dishes. The restaurant is just as committed to giving back to the community. For the past decade, Golden Corrals across the country have paid homage to the men and women who have risked their lives to protect the nation. The Annual Military Appreciation Dinner provides free dinners to active duty, retirees, National Guards, reserves, and vets. So, military folks, mark your calendars. This year’s event takes place on Nov. 15.
Krekel’s Custard & Hamburgers
2121 N. Grand Avenue East., 525-4952
There’s a lot to be said about loyalty. And after Krekel’s has served up burgers in the Springfield/Decatur area for more than 60 years, our voters have consistently shown where their loyalty lies when selecting the best burger in town. Yes, with seven central Illinois locations (one in Pawnee and five in the Decatur area), Krekel’s Custard & Hamburgers has become a Springfield staple. But rest assured our voters make this choice based on taste and not longevity. These juicy, made-to-order burgers are simply fantastic. The meat is fresh. The prices are cheap. And the wait is short. Don’t leave without trying a Krekel’s shake, offered in 16 flavors.
Joe Rogers’ Original Recipe Chili/Den Parlor
820 S. Ninth St., 522-3722
If you’re new to Springfield, finding the best chili in town can be quite…uhm… confusing. Ask some voters and they’ll tell you Joe Rogers.’ Others will say the Den. Without further explanation,you’re likely to go on a hunt for two different restaurants. You’ll eventually realize that Joe Rogers’ and The Den are one in the same. And since 1945, the restaurant has been opened under one name or the other. But the confusion won’t stop with the name. It is the only chili spot in town where the meat and beans are prepared separately. In addition to selecting the level of spiciness, customers can order a bowl or cup of chili that specifically suits their taste. Whether you order beans or no beans, meat or no meat, and, no grease, lots of grease or very little, you haven’t had chili until you’ve had Joe Rogers’.
2941 W. Iles Avenue., 546-3116
3210 Northfield Dr., 544-9206
6901 Preston Dr., 483-1006
BEST CHIPS AND SALSA & BEST MEXICAN
What else is there to say about the restaurant that year after year dominates the categories of best Mexican Restaurant and Best Salsa and Chips? Well, we say head to Xochilmilco, where the freshly made salsa and chips will have you licking the bowls and looking around for more. In fact, the chips are so good that if you don’t pace yourself, you’ll fill up on them long before your meal arrives. And the entrees, along with the colorful Mexican décor will, for a moment at least, make you feel as though you’ve arrived at the other side of the border. The beauty of it all is you won’t have to spend a day’s wages to enjoy the savory dishes. Though you may be tempted to head to Xochimilco for the very affordable lunch specials (most cost $5.49), the hefty portions just may leave you in need of a siesta, which may not bode well with your boss.
Now with three locations to serve you, the once seemingly impossible name to remember and pronounce of Xochimilco (So-She-Milco) rolls off the tongues of central Illinoisans like the freshly learned English of the many friendly and helpful waiters at the popular Mexican restaurantismos. Readers didn’t specify which site specifically hosted the Best Waitstaff so we can only assume that all are equally el mejor. Customers claim prompt service, polite servers and a chance to practice a Spanish word or two with the staff make for the best bunch of food deliverers and order takers in town. It sure doesn’t hurt to have delicious fare, luscious drinks, an extensive menu and plenty of seating when basing a decision on the finest servers, but all that can be for naught if the point players at the table aren’t the best. Viva los meseros!
With no particular way to discover which location sports the finest margarita in Springfield, we’re inclined to believe all the Xochimilcos serve the best concoction of tequila with just the right amount of sweet and sour, rimmed in special salt. Not content with your usual stock margarita, our amigos at Xochimilco offer several flavored varieties including peach, mango, strawberry and raspberry. All varieties come either as a standard on the rocks or frozen like a delectable, alcoholic slushy. Sizes vary too, from a pitcher to two glass sizes. Combine that with good service and tasty salsa to boot and no wonder IT readers picked the Xochimilco margarita as the best in town.
661 W. Stanford Ave., 492-8800• 6901 Preston Dr., 483-1006
BEST COMFORT FOOD
One thing is crystal clear: voters can’t get enough of D’Arcy’s Pint. Regardless of the day or time of year, anyone driving on the Stanford overpass during lunch or dinner hours is sure to notice the herd spilling out from D’Arcy’s Pint’s lobby onto the parking lot. While we’re normally more than a bit impatient, we thought it high time we explore this gem. As we took our place among the mob, we relished the sight of once hungry diners emerging with swollen bellies and smiles. Well…some were wearing more than a smile. “If you’ve never been here before, you ought to try the buffalo chicken horseshoe,” said one gentleman, who looked as though the food was so good that he wanted his shirt to share his delight. After finally getting a table and gazing at the menu, our taste buds began to dance. We gained quite a bit of “comfort” just looking at the menu, which includes such goodies as shepherd’s pie, corned beef and cabbage, reubens, and pot roast with mashed potatoes and veggies topped with mushrooms. We instantly knew that if the food tastes as good as the menu looks, we will be happy campers. Despite what looks and sounds like a million calories, we try our first horseshoe (buffalo chicken, of course). And we were not disappointed. As we exited D’Arcy’s, we smiled at the waiting, hungry souls as we attempted to suck in our tummy while covering a buffalo-sauce stained blouse.
BEST BAR FOOD
Whatever constitutes best bar food, D’Arcy’s Pint seems to have it by the barrel, and the best of everything else by the looks of the parking lot on any given night of the week. More than a bar and a restaurant, the familiar and well-established establishment is a meeting place for hometowners, an after-the-game hangout for high school sports fans, a during-the-game den for TV sports-watchers and the all-around spot to head when looking for that space everyone agrees on going to. With several different varieties of our community gastronomic traditional standard known as the horseshoe, along with a sensible selection of beers to wash down the cheese sauce and added delights, D’Arcy’s continues to offer what Springfield wants to ingest and digest when eating at a bar.
2907 S. MacArthur., 698-6463
One might say that the Gyros Stop is definitely on a roll, winning our best gyro category for the third consecutive year. And no doubt Gyros Stop’s wide variety of gyro sandwiches and salads, as well as its daily specials, make the restaurant a favorite among voters. Barbecue gyro, chicken gyro, western gyro, horseshoe gyro, and gyro melts, burgers, and salads. Whatever you choose you can believe that you’ll love it just as much as our voters. The list of $1 off specials include gyro burgers on Monday, gyro salads on Tuesday, and gyro specials on Wednesday. Thursday features buy one sandwich and get another for half price. On Nov. 30, the Gyros Stop plans to open a second location at the old Fieldhouse on Dirksen Parkway and Sangamon Avenue – making it easier for gyro lovers to get their fill of the tasty Greek dishes. Unlike the current location, which opens Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sunday 12 to 5 p.m., the new store hopes to capture the evening crowd, opening daily 4 to 11 p.m. Not in the mood for a gyro? For a wonderful alternative, Gyros Stop makes a mean barbecued pulled pork sandwich.
300 E. Laurel., 528-9629
3219 Lake Plaza Rd., 529-5030
In a building located on Springfield’s southwest side is a tiny restaurant that just so happens to roll out the best pizza the capital city has to offer. At Gabatoni’s, the crust is cracker thin. The sauce is sweet. And the sausage is homemade. There are some who favor thicker, deep pan pizzas cut in large triangular slices. Sorry. That’s just not the Gabatoni’s way. There’s nothing better than a “squared” slice of a bubbly hot pizza pie. Don’t knock it until you try it. Many a “deep panner” has been converted. With nearly 60 years of experience serving up piping hot pizza to hungry Springfieldians and tourists, it’s safe to say that Gabatoni’s has earned this title.
2991 S. Veteran’s Pkwy., 793-0318
Since Olive Garden opened its doors in 1990, we immediately began raving about the salad, which is really very simple – lettuce and a light vinegarette dressing. Twenty years later, we are still raving, as voters have named it the best salad the city has to offer. But what many of us don’t know is that Olive Garden is giving some of us more than great salad. For the past 16 years, the corporation’s Pasta for Pennies has joined forces with several million children across the country to raise money for cancer patients. For a three-week period, the students fill collection jars with “spare change.” The class collecting the most at each participating school is rewarded with a pasta party, featuring some of Olive Garden’s most popular dishes. The program has generated more than $53 million to fight leukemia and lymphoma.
BEST SOUL FOOD
Clay’s Popeye’s Barbecue
1121 E. South Grand Ave., 522-0386
When it comes to soul food restaurants, there’s not a lot of competition in the capital city. But that doesn’t make the dishes at Clay’s Popeye’s Barbecue any less mouthwatering. Ribs, chicken, beef and pork entrees, with the choice of cole slaw, fried okra, baked beans, potato salad and fries. Clay’s has been cooking from the soul for more than 50 years. Last year Clay’s, which had undergone extensive renovations on the building’s exterior, hosted a grand reopening ceremony, launching its BBQ horseshoe – featuring traditional-type horseshoes, with your choice of meat, dipped in Clay’s 100-year-old recipe sauce. It leaves most customers lickin’ their fingers.
The Feed Store
516 E. Adams., 528-3355
At 6:45 a.m. when many of us are just starting our day, chefs at The Feed Store are busy preparing soups that, over the years, have knocked our socks off. The recipes are quite simple. Take a pot of water and some stock. Add a little bit of this, and a little bit of that. And, voila, you’ve got about 175 quarts of soups and a restaurant full of soup lovers who can’t get enough. When The Feed Store opened in 1977, the restaurant served two soups – beef barley and mushroom bisque. Today, customers enjoy a variety, including cream of spinach, vegetable beef, zucchini chowder, tomato bisque, minestrone, chicken and corn, cream of broccoli, seafood chowder, French potato, and cheese. During the warmer seasons, The Feed Store also serves several chilled soups – gazpacho, cucumber and mint, cantaloupe and strawberry. The restaurant generally offers six varieties each day.
620 Bruns Lane, 793-0440
If you’re new to Springfield, you may find it hard to believe that we pay Alexander’s Steakhouse good money to do our own grilling on its mega-grill. Trust us. It only takes one visit to see that the steakhouse offers grade A beef that you won’t find at grocery stores. The steaks – top sirloin, ribeye, New York strip, T-bone, Kansas City strip, and filet mignon – are dry-aged for 28 days for added tenderness before placed in a meat case to await your selection. Grilling your own steak with family and friends is just as much fun at Alexander’s as it is at home. Though you won’t escape without spending a bit (a steak will cost $20 to $30, depending on the type), each one is so big that you’re sure to have some left for the next day. The Early Bird Evening Special will save you a few bucks if your order’s placed before 6 p.m. For non-beef eaters, Alexander’s has chicken, fish, and other items.
530 E. Capitol St., 789-9101
1124 W. Jefferson St., 793-9101
3311 Robbins Rd., 726-9202
Toronto Rd., 585-7993
North, south, east or west. Springfield has its share of sub sandwiches. But if you’re looking for the best, voters say that you should definitely Head West, selected best sub shop seven years straight. What makes Head West stand head and shoulders above the rest? Some say it’s the sweet French bread made fresh each day. Others say it’s the load of meat piled high on the bread. With 16 subs to choose from (we recommend the Italian or pastrami) you’re sure to leave Head West with a full tummy and a smile. Matt and Grace Bluhm opened the first Head West shop nine years ago. Last August, they opened the fourth sub shop on Toronto Road. So, regardless of where you live in Springfield, there is a Head West sub shop near you.
BEST VEGETARIAN FOOD
Holy Land Diner
107 W Cook St., 544-5786
Longtime IT readers won’t be surprised at this one. Holy Land Diner has won “best vegetarian food” several times, and they’re reclaiming the throne this year, despite a growing number of vegetarian options in Springfield. Holy Land’s fresh, made-from-scratch fare is a satisfying Middle Eastern treat, from the veggie-friendly salads and savory lentil soup to the unique falafel, which owner Afaf Rashmawy makes herself. (It’s even rumored to be President Obama’s favorite falafel, though the Commander-in-Chief wasn’t available for comment.) There’s an all-vegetarian buffet on Saturdays, and even during the week there are only a handful of dishes that vegetarians must avoid. It also doesn’t hurt that Afaf is always smiling, friendly and eager to please.