By Laura Zornosa and Amelia Compton Wolff
Welcome to the 23rd Annual Golden Fork Awards (otherwise known as The Oscars of Food in the Fox Cities).
Upsets abound in this year’s reader poll that tips a hat to the best local restaurants, chefs and dishes – long-time winners were ousted and underdogs emerged victorious. Because our readers have big appetites, we added several new categories this year including Best Cheese Curds, Best Craft Cocktail, Best Curry and Best Seasonal Menu. It’s a lot to digest. Click here for a complete list of the 2017 Golden Fork Winners.
How do you feel about this year’s results? Leave a comment below!
Best Overall: Houdini’s Escape Gastropub
If there was a big winner in this year’s Golden Fork Awards, it was Houdini’s Escape Gastropub in Appleton. The 4-year-old restaurant was voted Best Overall, dethroning Carmella’s Italian Bistro which had received the accolade every year since 2010.
Houdini’s also picked up Forks for Best Ambiance, Best Salad, Best Waitstaff, Best Happy Hour and Best Appetizer.
“All around the area, restaurants are stepping up their game, it’s not just us,” says Interim General Manager Justin Stilp. “Our style of food is up and coming. We were one of the first gastropubs in the area, so we set the pace.”
Regarding its Best Overall win, Stilp says the entire Houdini’s team contributes to its success.
“From managers to dishwashers to hostesses, everyone plays such an important role in making a restaurant great, no one can be overlooked in that,” he says.
Overlooked they weren’t. Diners voted Houdini’s Best Waitstaff, a coveted award each year. Head Server Preston Ferrell says when it comes to service, customization is key.
“We as servers are people readers,” he says. “We make sure that we tailor the experience to each table and that the guests get the most out of their visit. I always see new faces, but every night of the week I have a regular I know by name. It’s about creating connections.”
In addition to service, Houdini’s scored points for its atmosphere, winning the Golden Fork for Best Ambiance. Stilp says the restaurant’s open kitchen, which was renovated and expanded in 2015, allows guests to experience something new with dinner.
“You can see the flames raising up as the chefs make pasta and see the chefs communicating,” he says. “A lot of people don’t see that side of a kitchen. It’s a show.”
If you’re looking to sample Houdini’s award-winning dishes, Stilp recommends the roasted beet salad or grilled Caesar, two of the best-selling salads on the menu. For appetizers, you can’t go wrong with the popular tuna crunch – seared Ahi tuna dredged in a sweet crunch cereal topped with sesame soy glaze.
Make sure to consider the ever-changing menu of daily specials and features, recommends Stilp, as this is often the testing phase for items that may be added to the menu in the future. Chefs are given plenty of creative license, so here you’ll find some of the most interesting dishes prepared with seasonal ingredients.
“A lot of times with features, we won’t modify them because our chefs take the time to put in that love and each ingredient is a factor to that. Don’t be afraid to try goat cheese and potato chips on a burger,” Stilp says.
Owner Eric Jacobson says the restaurant is committed to sourcing as much as they can locally, including produce from the Downtown Appleton Farmers Market as well as their own garden, Wisconsin-brewed beer and recently they even began raising their own beef cattle.
“We’re grazing them right now, trying to fatten them up,” Jacobson says. “We are constantly trying to raise the bar – the quality of service, quality of the product, the atmosphere, all of it.” —ACW