Local, authentic, humble.
No, we aren’t updating our online dating profile (although it totally applies). These words epitomize the trends that are hot in the Fox Cities dining scene. Maybe they aren’t trends as much as they are a way of life for these restaurants and chefs who have been voted the best in class by Fox Valley diners in the 22nd Annual Golden Fork Awards.
So check your ego at the door, embrace your Midwestern roots and read on to learn more about our 2016 Golden Fork champions. See full list of winners here.
Best New Restaurant
From New Orleans to his hometown of Neenah, Jonathan Horan spent years working in other people’s restaurants. In March 2016, the Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef was ready to step out on his own and opened Town Council Kitchen and Bar, bringing “French technique with a Wisconsin spin” to diners in the Fox Valley.
The “Wisconsin” part is brought via seasonal produce and locally-sourced ingredients. Town Council’s menu is printed weekly and guests can expect to find something different with each printing, reflecting what’s available at the local farmers markets.
It’s deceptively simple food that Horan describes as New American—think French charcuterie, pâté made in-house and chicken liver mousse served with Ritz crackers. The restaurant’s strong craft cocktail program, led by General Manager Sean Hathaway-Casey, is marked by recipe-driven drinks that lean on local ingredients and feature house-made infusions and syrups.
The restaurant is intimate (a.k.a. kind of small), with seating for about 50 guests. Horan says that was a strategic choice, made so he could concentrate on food rather than overseeing a large staff, although that may be changing soon.
“In the start, we were trying to open on a shoestring so now we are working on staffing up,” Horan says. “I would like to have more staff members that will free my time for more exciting and more frequent menu changes.”
For now, Horan doesn’t see any major changes in store for Town Council, adding the caveat that when growth occurs, he’d be more likely to open a secondary business rather than expand Town Council.
“Town Council’s focus is high-end casual,” he says. “Maybe down the road we’d open a different business and do something more divey, but with good food. But that’s very far in the future plan.”
Like your favorite pair of jeans, Carmella’s Italian Bistro in Appleton just seems to get better with age. Diners in the Fox Valley voted the well-worn restaurant Best Overall for the seventh consecutive year.
“It’s every restaurateurs dream to have a farm-to-table restaurant, but that’s not always super attainable in the beginning,” she says. “Over time we have continued to develop better relationships with our local suppliers. Our vision has always been to support local business, to bring in local meats and produce whenever we can. We continue to do that as we evolve.”
As much as diners flock for the food (do yourself a favor and order the chicken saltimbocca), it’s in part the hospitality that keeps them coming back. The Carmella’s crew has a knack for making guests feel like VIPs without fawning or being saccharine about it.
“We work with a group of people who have an incredible amount of dignity, pride and self-worth, who have this eagerness to do a good job,” Sickler says. “We are lucky to have people who work so hard and care so much about creating an incredible experience for our guests.”
“Muncheez Pizzeria is open super late, they don’t charge for delivery, have lots of good specials and the pizza is as good or better than their competition.”
— Matthew Kempf, Appleton
Houdini’s Escape Gastropub General Manager Cole Plamann calls one of their most popular salads “a little different.” The name of this unusual dish? Grilled Caesar Salad. Were you to order this salad at Houdini’s Escape Gastropub, though, any confusion you felt would be quickly cleared up the moment you saw it. This is because the “grilled” of this salad’s title refers not to chicken (which you can also have, if you’d like), but to the greens. Half a head of romaine lettuce is grilled, which adds a caramelized flavor and a twist on the traditional flavors.
Another salad to check out is the beet salad, which has been a consistent customer favorite. All of the salads, however, are presented as an experience, not just food. As a gastropub dedicated to the study of high-quality food, Houdini’s promises a dining experience that engages all of your senses. “It’s a trip through flavors, temperatures and aromas,” Plamann elaborates, “giving the guest a chance to experience flavors in a way you might not experience them regularly.”
A favorite in this category, George’s Steakhouse has won best steak in the Golden Fork Awards no less than 10 times. Brad Quimby, son of owners Chuck and Edie Quimby, attributes the success of their steaks to the quality meat that George’s uses consistently. “[We] start with a good product, and [we] take care with handling it and serving it,” Quimby says. Using the same formula has proven fruitful – or meatful, rather.
The steaks at George’s stick out by staying traditional. They’re different because they “stick to the basics. We’re a traditional steakhouse… nothing fancy,” says Quimby. George’s also serves prime rib nightly, not only on the weekends like most other competitors. You can find cuts of steak that run the gamut, but the steak tenderloin, large or petit cut, is a customer favorite.
“I voted Greene’s Pour House Best Waitstaff because all of them are knowledgeable about the menu and beer selections. They are also people-oriented and make you feel at home whether it’s your first time in there or your hundredth time. They also remain calm when the place gets busy during certain hours or Packer and Badger games. It’s always great to have a local friendly restaurant and bar like that in your own backyard!”
— Nick Lyons, Neenah