This year, FOX CITIES Magazine aimed to serve up something new with our 21st Annual Golden Fork Awards. We kept some of your favorite categories, added in new ones and brought the total count on the ballot to a more palatable number. We thank our readers for taking the time to recognize the efforts and accomplishments of chefs, restaurants and staff. And, to the winners of this year’s Golden Forks, we hope you revel in your golden moment while striving to continue to push the taste buds of the Fox Cities dining community.
As the winner of this year’s Best Overall Restaurant notes, “People attach a lot of things, different things, to memories of food.”
We hope you remember the restaurants who have been recognized this year the next time you’re looking for a place to dine whether it be for business or pleasure, with family or friends, and have a meal you won’t soon for forget.
Best Overall Restaurant
Carmella’s an Italian Bistro, Appleton
“I love it!” says Nicole DeFranza of Carmella’s an Italian Bistro’s repeat win as Best Overall Restaurant. “It’s awesome. It’s incredibly gratifying to know our customers are still as dedicated as when we first opened the doors.”
This is the sixth win in this category for Carmella’s after opening in November 2009. DeFranza, who owns the restaurant with her sister Kristen Sickler, continues to look for local farms to partner with and the best ingredients, along with “never settling for anything less than the best we can be.” The restaurant took six wins this year.
“I think we have a really strong core staff,” she adds. “There are people at our core — including my sister and I — who have been with us since the beginning.”
Having the support of both Carmella’s front and back of house teams also has been important to the restaurant.
“We can’t have the amazing food we have and not have the great service to back it up,” DeFranza adds.
Best New Restaurant
Rye Restaurant & Lounge, Appleton
Rye Restaurant & Lounge proved to be a cut above the rest when it came to newly opened restaurants this year.
“It’s great to know our hard work is paying off,” shares Nick Morse, head chef, of the Best New Restaurant win. “We’re always trying to excel.”
Rye is focused on providing an upscale, casual, fine dining experience with high-quality standards or as Morse explains, “taking classic things and changing it into our own modern way.”
The restaurant sources local products as much as possible and makes their own charcuterie meats.
“It’s been successful for me before,” says Morse of the philosophy. He previously worked at Bleu Restaurant & Lounge in De Pere since the restaurant opened until joining the Rye team shortly after the restaurant entered the Appleton dining scene in November 2014. “People like knowing where their food is coming from — there’s so many people involved with the food we put on the plate.”
SAP Brunch, Brown Bag & Bakery, Appleton
After being recognized as Best New Restaurant last year, SAP Brunch, Brown Bag & Bakery returns as the go-to in the Best Brunch category, along with wins for Best Breakfast and Best Sandwich and three second-place nods.
“There are not a lot of options for brunch. When we opened SAP, the intention was brunch,” explains Nicole DeFranza of why she opened the restaurant with her sister Kristen Sickler in May 2014.
SAP’s menu is the same each day with additional daily specials, like Sunday’s Chicken and Waffles.
And, like Carmella’s, SAP sources local products and serves organic eggs. Benedicts and huevos rancheros are popular picks, DeFranza shares, along with Nola’s Red Flannel Hash.
“It’s something people might overlook at first glance, but after trying it, you can’t overlook the amazing flavors,” she notes.
DeFranza continues to stress “bringing an amazing experience to everyone who walks in door” and hopes long-time employees will “continue to teach new SAPsters that come along.”
Best Dine-In Deli
New York Deli, Appleton
Taking a bite out of their competition, New York Deli was awarded the Best Dine-In Deli category this year.
“It was a very organic win for us,” says owner Carl Sanderfoot. “We’re really grateful for our customers for voting for us and sticking with us all this time. … Getting an award really means a lot to us.”
His business has been in the Fox Valley for 11 years and focuses on providing high-quality products at a fair price, he says. Along with
his regular menu, he also offers daily and seasonal menus, including soups, salads and sandwiches. Sanderfoot has contemplated changing his regular menu, but has been successful with his offerings.
Heading into fall, customers can anticipate the return of the Turkey Apple Sandwich made with oven roasted turkey from Boar’s Head, bacon, provolone, apple butter, and rosemary and sage mayo served on a garlic and herb wrap with a side of honey mustard dip.
“It’s this sweet and savory thing,” Sanderfoot shares. “There’s no chance of it leaving the menu anytime soon.”
Little Diner Xpress, Appleton
No matter if you’re hungry day or night, Little Diner Xpress has a menu for all searching for the Best Diner/Cafe in the area. Taking first in this category, the eatery is open 24 hours and has been in same location after starting as a George Webb in 1964. Mike Forest purchased the business from his parents, Ben and Delores, in 1980 and it became Little Diner Xpress four years ago.
“Ultimately, I believe it always goes back to service,” says Forest who says it’s because of his staff that the restaurant was honored this year. “That consistency pays off. … I am fortunate to maintain my staff.” Forest also credits his life and business partner, Rod Bergman, with bringing the business into the 21st century.
In addition to sourcing as many state offerings as possible and making homemade soups, diners will find organic coffee, reduced GMOs and leaner selections, like salmon, to pick from. The next step is removing the nitrates from deli meat that is served. Forest also aims to provide options that won’t break the bank.
“I wanted to make it affordable for people. I’m the owner and I want to be able to eat my own food,” Forest notes.
Best Ethnic Food (Non-Asian, Non-Mexican)
Sai Ram Indian Cuisine, Appleton
Even though its doors were closed on Aug. 15, Sai Ram Indian Cuisine still won the hearts of the Fox Cities dining community in the Best Ethnic Food category.
“It absolutely feels really great, despite the restaurant closing,” says Neehar Chalasane, general manager. “We were surprised at the amount of response and love that we got. … The big thing was seeing customers (who were with us from the beginning) and we started crying, too.”
Chalasane says his family didn’t realize the impact they had on the community and appreciates all the support they have received.
“The food was obviously good, but more than that, it was family,” he says.
Chalasane and his family members—father, Krishna; mother, Kumari and brother, Shavan—were at the restaurant practically everyday for 16 years.
He refers to closing the restaurant as “an emotional decision,” but notes his family wanted to walk away on a high note and take some much-needed time off. His parents intend to travel the world and retire in the area, while he and his brother will attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison before settling in the Fox Cities.
“It was really important to us and that’s why we made the decision right now instead of dragging it out,” Chalasane shares.
As to whether or not Sai Ram or a new variation may appear in the future, Chalasane is unsure.
“Right now, I would say it’s closed, but you never know and we know if we do decide to do something down the road that we have a loyal customer base here,” he says.
Best Happy Hour
Greene’s Pour House, Neenah
While people walking through the door at Greene’s Pour House may start as customers, they quickly become treated like good friends and family, says owner Bobby Greene of his recognition for Best Happy Hour. The restaurant also received other nods this year, including first place for Best Appetizer, Best Bar & Grill and Best Fish Fry.
“The people who we have working during that time are fun,” Greene adds of the happy hour that is offered Monday through Friday from 4-6 p.m.
Matt, Jay, Ashton and Devon are the popular line-up who have made a point of knowing customers who come in and their drink of choice.
“They find out things, they get to know people very well,” Greene shares. “They’re just very kind to each person.” Of course, each bartender also has their own schtick behind the bar, too.
In addition to service, Greene says having half-off items has been a draw for his establishment with the business community.
“We’ve got a really good happy hour menu with appetizers. That, mixed with the drinks and tap beer, bring people in,” he says. “It’s been great serving people. It’s been great having people come in and getting to know their faces.”
Best Homestyle/Comfort Food
Cozzy Corner, Appleton
From barbecue to down-home delights, there’s room at the table for everyone at Cozzy Corner in Appleton. The restaurant cooked up a win in this year’s Best Homestyle/Comfort Food category.
“I think our food, coupled with the environment, reminds people of being home. It’s a relaxed environment,” says owner and operator Natasha Banks.
Seven Dolla Holla specials also are drawing customers in to see what this southern-style restaurant has cooking on a daily basis.
“We’ve always got something new and different going on,” Banks shares.
Specials have included Smoked Chicken Lasagna and Shrimp Po’Boys to name a few.
“Customers love our fried chicken and we have a sandwich called, the Big Jess,” Banks adds.
Cozzy Corner took second place in this year’s Best Fried/Broasted Chicken category and will be expanding its chicken and waffle menu with more dessert options. Customers also can anticipate a “spruce-up” of the dining room as well.
“Thank you to the voters and to Appleton for embracing us and really keeping us going,” Banks says.
Antojitos Mexicanos, Appleton
Golden Fork voters recognized Fernando Almanza and Veronica Banda this year for spreading their wings and moving Antojitos Mexicanos to its new home on College Avenue. After almost seven years on Richmond Street in Appleton, Antojitos took up residence downtown at the end of April.
“Winning a Golden Fork Award is very meaningful. We appreciate everyone voting for us,” says Almanza, co-owner of the restaurant. “It’s like a celebrity winning a Grammy or any type of award. … Big thank yous to all the people who voted for us. We’re going to try to do our best.”
Antojitos’ move has not only bolstered business by gaining new customers, but caused voters to recognize the restaurant in the Best New Restaurant category. Since the response was strong, but the restaurant isn’t technically “new,” FOX CITIES Magazine didn’t want the fresh facelift to go unnoticed.
Almanza shares that the restaurant has relied on word of mouth, which has increased as customers have taken notice of the changes. Finding the right location to move to had been a challenge and while initially skeptical of moving downtown due to parking concerns, the new beginning has been nothing, but positive, Almanza says.
“Once we came and looked at the place, we fell in love with it. It was exactly what we were looking for,” he says.
In addition to more space, Antojitos now offers a bar, trendier atmosphere, more employees and also is working toward offering daily or weekly specials.
Best Mexican Food
Solea Mexican Grill, Appleton/Neenah/Menasha
“This award is one of the most important awards in the area,” says owner Eduardo Sanchez of Solea Mexican Grill taking top prize for Best Mexican Food. “The people who vote, I believe are the ones who are dining out.”
Sanchez stesses the importance of treating people as guests and not customers, along with getting to know those who walk through the restaurants’ doors.
“Those are things that don’t cost any money,” he adds.
Every year, Sanchez changes up the menu a bit and looks at what’s going on in the market. A new menu was launched in September and features 17 new dishes, including more fish selections.
“Mexican food is not just burritos and enchiladas,” Sanchez notes.
“We always think about the Golden Fork Awards because that means a lot to us,” he adds. “We want to be the best in the area because we know we can be the best.”
Best Non-Chain Late-Night Dining
Muncheez Pizza, Appleton
Whether in search of a slice or a sip, Muncheez Pizza has taken the Golden Fork for Best Non-Chain Late-Night Dining.
“Not too many places have their doors open past midnight,” says owner Paul VanderLinden, adding Muncheez is open daily from 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. 365 days a year. “I really just have to give the credit to our dedicated employees and our loyal customers who keep coming in.”
In addition to the pizza, another category win for Muncheez this year, customers also can expect a late-night happy hour from 9 p.m. to midnight and entertainment starting at 5 p.m. on the dining room projector; an entire 5 foot long wall is used to show the news, game shows and then movies. Family movies are shown up until 10 p.m. and then customers can expect selections ranging from comedy to action. Muncheez also has more than 40 beers. Customers will find six bar stools, two couches and two booths inside the restaurant.
“I wanted to create a better vibe in the dining room,” VanderLinden says. “A pizza ultra lounge feel.”
Best Supper Club
Dick & Joan’s Supper Club, Appleton
Everybody knows your name at Dick & Joan’s Supper Club, says Dale “Lester” Lesselyoung of the family atmosphere reminiscent of the TV show, “Cheers,” at his supper club. The restaurant Lesselyoung owns with Pat Williams garnered Best Supper Club this year.
“We’ve been around for a long time,” says Lesselyoung. “We just have a following. We have parents, then their kids and their kids.”
Having a following of up to as much as three generations at a time has helped Dick & Joan’s continue its success,” Lesselyoung shares. Nightly specials also help draw in customers.“We always add a little something different,” he says. “We kind of just change it up that way.”
Specials can range from Chicken Alfredo to a Spanish Haddock.
“It’s just a good old fashioned supper club where you get a drink and good meal at a good price,” Lesselyoung says. “We appreciate anybody and everybody who got us to the win and voted for us, too.”
Katsu-Ya of Japan, Appleton
Katsu-Ya of Japan returns again as the contender to beat for Best Sushi in the Fox Cities.
“We’re excited and grateful,” says Lisa Nakashima, manager, of continuing to be top of mind among valley diners.
Katsu-Ya has more than 35 rolls and the restaurant’s Red Dragon and Nakashima rolls are quite popular with customers, Nakashima shares.
“I think our sushi chefs have been trained for a long time. They really have a passion for this cooking and are very confident in the dishes they put out,” she adds.
Katsu-Ya’s new College Avenue location is slated to open at the end of this month with an updated menu. Adding lunchtime hours also is being considered.
“We’re really hoping we can, but we just need to make sure that we have enough staff on,” Nakashima notes.
MOST Vegetarian Friendly
Basil Café, Appleton
“We’re trying to be really, really aware of vegans and vegetarians,” says General Manager Larry Chomsisengphet of Basil Café’s recognition as Most Vegetarian Friendly.
While Chomsisengphet has tried being vegetarian, his mother has been for 15 years so he understands the importance of offering menu selections that can be tailored to customers’ dietary choices. After a customer inquired about making Pho, a traditional dish made with beef-based broth, in a vegetarian-friendly way, Basil Café started offering it the next day.
“Everything is fresh, made to order anyway,” Chomsisengphet says. “It’s a pretty sizable portion of the demographic that is vegan or vegetarian.”
Many options from the Basil Fried Rice to Nam Khao to the Lotus Salad are suitable menu choices. In fact, 15 out of the 18 house specialities at Basil Café can be made vegan or vegetarian-friendly, Chomsisengphet says.
As for what might be next for Basil Café, Chomsisengphet points to his sister and owner, Sue Chomsisengphet.
“She’s always in the ‘lab’ trying to cook something up,” he says.