Diners of the Fox Cities have spoken and the results are in for our 17th Annual Golden Fork Awards showdown. This year we saw new winners emerge, old stand-bys prevail and a few upsets occur. It wouldn’t be a seventeenth year without a little drama, right?
Read on to find out which restaurants reign supreme with curbside eats, Italian appeal and the best burgers.
The Good Life
The Fox Cities has a long-celebrated ethnic heritage with Dutch, Polish, German and Irish roots, but when it comes to our taste buds, we crave the flavors of Old World Italy. This year’s top-winning restaurants reflect our penchant for pasta, prosciutto and beyond.
The coveted Best New Restaurant award (along with five other first place Forks) goes to Bella Vita Ristorante in Appleton. The Italian eatery also picked up Best Ambience, Best Chef Team and Best Wine List, as well as first-place ties for Best Waitstaff and Best Cutting-edge Cuisine.
The restaurant, located in the former Black & Tan Grille within Copperleaf Hotel, opened to the public on April 22 of this year with only eight business days separating the switchover. The time was spent strictly on construction, says general manager Kevin LeClaire, who attributes their Best Ambience win to the interior updates. To brighten the space, walls were texturized, new light fixtures added and partition walls knocked out.
LeClaire also designed a ceiling-high wine cabinet complete with library ladder in the restaurant’s bar and lounge area to display their winning selection of wines.
“We offer a vast selection of exceptional wines and this is a great conversation piece as well as fully functional storage,” he says. “Now this space seems more like a lounge than a bar in a hotel lobby.”
Bella Vita’s executive chef Dylan Maass celebrates his third consecutive year of a Best Chef Team win. (The previous two years were awarded for his position at The Seasons.) He helped develop Bella Vita’s concept of serving elevated Italian cuisine with an edge by requiring locally-sourced, fresh ingredients and making many items in-house, right down to the mozzarella.
“Everything here is very artisanal,” Maass says. “We take classic dishes and bring them to a new level of freshness and quality. We are always looking for new and better ways to prepare food you can’t make for yourself at home.”
To stay ahead of the curve and encourage diners to repeat visits, the menu will change with new dishes being added and others eliminated on an ongoing basis. LeClaire believes a dynamic menu will keep diners craving more, with the current menu already on its second revision.
“The menu will rotate. We are going to continue to evolve by looking what’s on the market, what’s available and how we can improve that,” LeClaire says. “The key is trying new things.”
This year proved to be the battle of the Italian stallions, with Bella Vita Ristorante and Carmella’s: an Italian Bistro taking first or second place in seven categories.
For the second year in a row, Carmella’s in Appleton receives the Golden Fork Award for Best Overall Restaurant and this year it’s also the restaurant pulling in the most awards to boot.
In addition to the Best Overall Restaurant nod, Carmella’s brings home a whopping seven Golden Forks: Best Presentation of an Entrée, Best Waitstaff (tie with Bella Vita), Best Cutting-edge Cuisine (tie with Bella Vita), Best Seafood, Best Dessert, Best Salad Entrée and Best Italian. What better way for the young restaurant to celebrate their 2nd birthday this November?
Owners and sisters Nicole and Kristen DeFranza claim to be best friends, and judging by the way they finish each other’s sentences, we believe them. They attest their relationship is one of the reasons Carmella’s has been such a success.
“Nicole and I think it’s a dream come true to be together in this,” Kristen says. “We each have our strengths. Where one of us lacks the other picks up.”
According to Nicole, their awards for presentation and cutting-edge cuisine go hand-in-hand.
“If you’re putting something on a plate that looks exciting, it will be exciting. Presentation has become super important over the past couple years,” she says. “That and our commitment to the local food movement is what keeps us cutting-edge.”
When it comes to their recognition in the dessert category, all accolades go to pastry chef Kari Mueller, for whom the triumph is especially sweet.
“We’ll never stop trying to be the best we can be,” Nicole says. “We will always strive to give people the best possible experience.”
New Kids on the Block
Sometimes when something significant occurs, breaking the rules is necessary. While in the past FOX CITIES Magazine has featured only the notable first place winners, this year we decided newbie restauranteurs Jay and Kelly Barnes, owners of Kangaroostaurant, deserve some love.
In the two short weeks that Kangaroostaurant was mobilizing munchies and the Golden Fork polls were open, the Fox Valley’s newest food truck managed to pull into the runner-up spot for both Best New Restaurant and Most Vegetarian Friendly. A pretty impressive feat if you ask us. (So is a food truck having more than 300 Facebook friends before they even had the truck, but that’s another story.)
“It’s very humbling to know all the people who are rooting for us,” Kelly says. “In the beginning it was our friends and family who were behind us, but now it’s the entire community.”
It’s obvious that Kangaroostaurant, with their emphasis on “Fast, Fresh, Local” fare, is more than just a contagiously-happy colored truck. Their menu options offer up eats with some serious curb appeal, especially for vegetarians. From the black bean and portabella burger to the legendary “sloppy roo,” options abound for those of the herbivore persuasion.
“If I were inviting friends over for dinner, I would naturally have a vegetarian option. This is just an extension of that,” Kelly says. “We’re trying to make everyone feel that this is the place for them.”
King of Caffeine
At Seth’s Coffee in Little Chute, java is not just a morning necessity, it is a ritual. The pour-over brew method that has made Seth’s Coffee famous may not be as speedy as your run-of-the-mill brew, but the resulting cups of liquid gold have rocked Fox Cities’ coffee culture.
“I don’t care about anything in my business more than the coffee,” says owner Seth Lenz, who feels that his Best Cup of Coffee Golden Fork award is the highest honor. The two-year-old shop is also the runner-up for Best Café.
After traveling across the United States and Europe all in the name of business research, 24-year-old Lenz built his shop around offering guests the latest and greatest coffee experience.
So what is Seth’s secret for the perfect cup? The ceremonial process starts with in-season Intelligentsia beans (coffee is a fruit, after all) which are ground fresh for each customer, then brewed at a perfect 209 degrees using the pour-over method — a brewing technique where water is poured over one serving ground-filled filters in a continuous stream that maximizes flavor extraction.
But at the risk of sounding corny, Lenz admits it’s the love that goes into preparing each cup that sets him apart. (Did we mention even the mugs at Seth’s Coffee were handmade by Lenz’s wife, Kate?)
“Your coffee is made by somebody who cares, every time,” Lenz says. “Because my staff cares as much as I do, we never have bad cups of coffee.”
Located in a centuries-old building in downtown Appleton, Harmony Café brings home the Golden Forks for Best Café and Most Vegetarian Friendly for the second year in a row.
Fox Valley Team Leader at Harmony Café, Craig Reinke believes a successful café needs a welcoming, all-inclusive environment staffed with friendly baristas who offer individual attention to each customer. It just so happens Harmony has all these things in spades.
Serving up free-trade organic Peace brand coffee and an endless array of fresh bakery items, Harmony Café is all about the good vibrations. Compassion and diversity is the name of the game, even when it comes to the eats.
“Initially we had a smaller vegetarian menu, but we got lots of feedback from Lawrence students and YMCA members looking for healthier options,” Reinke says.
After cooking, tasting and sampling for more than a month (can we help next time?), the Harmony team added eight new vegetarian and vegan options to the menu. Named in homage to the side street adjacent to the cafe, the Durkee Street Wrap — a spinach tortilla stuffed with hummus, black bean salsa and sprouts — has been one of the best sellers.
The epic menu is sure to satisfy any appetite, a true testament to the eclectic clientele that Harmony serves.
“We are here for everyone — teenagers, college students, business professionals, even the nuns from the church down the street come in frequently,” Reinke says. “To say we have a diverse clientele is an understatement.”
Seriously Stacked Sandwich
The sandwich seems like a simple concept, right? Pile some protein and produce between two slices of bread and suddenly sustenance becomes a neat, little portal that doesn’t require a single utensil.
But to Carl Sanderfoot, chef at New York Deli in Appleton, the sandwich is so much more than a convenient plate-to-mouth delivery system, it may just be an art form.
His creativity with traditional lunchtime fare made the New York inspired deli the winner of this year’s Best Sandwich and runner-up for Best Gourmet Dine-In Deli.
In honor of their namesake, New York Deli offers a wide selection of traditional sandwiches, hoagies and grinders including the popular Classic Reuben — sliced corned beef, Swiss cheese and sauerkraut with 1,000 Island dressing on dark rye. Seasonal favorites, like the anticipated fall turkey cranberry sandwich, keep things even more interesting (and customers salivating).
Sandwiches at the seven-year-old sandwich shop are constructed on Quaker Bakery bread and filled with Boar’s Head brand of premium deli meats and cheeses, which Sanderfoot sells by the pound to those who want to try their hand at sandwich artistry.
As innovative as Sanderfoot gets with his own experiments, sometimes simplicity hits the spot.
“Every once in a while, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is just delightful,” he says.
There are simply too many burgers in the Fox Cities for only one winner. First place Forks for Best Burger go to Fuddruckers in Appleton and Ground Round Grill & Bar in Neenah. Tying for the runner-up position are Cinder’s Charcoal Grill in Appleton and Mihm’s Charcoal Grill in Menasha.
At both first-place establishments, when it comes to constructing these mouth-watering morsels, the customer knows best.
With over 35 years in the burger business, Ground Round offers guests the opportunity to customize The Ground Rounder with an assortment of toppings that include sun-dried tomato pesto mayonnaise, onion tangles and applewood smoked bacon. Try any burger on a grilled pretzel roll and you may never go back.
At Fuddruckers, guests are also encouraged to play with their food, or at least their hamburgers. Choose from predesigned speciality burgers or hit the produce bar and pile your 100 percent All-American prime-cut beef patty with dozens of toppings and sauces.
“It gets the guests interacting with making their own food,” says Ryan Reader, general manager at Fuddruckers. “We cook the burger to their desired temperature and they have fun putting on whatever they like.”
But don’t underestimate your creation’s carrier. The freshly baked buns protecting your beef (or buffalo, elk, veggie patty or wild boar) may be the best part of it all.
“We bake our buns on site every morning,” says Dana Reader, marketing manager at Fuddruckers. “It’s really a big part of the burger and boy, oh, boy does it smell good in the morning.”
Dinner and a Show
Fox Cities restaurants offer diners more than just delicious grub. If you’re in the mood for some tunes during dinner, you won’t find them in short supply. This year Fox Citians couldn’t quite decide which venue they preferred for Best Live Entertainment While Dining, so they chose two Appleton restaurants: George’s Steakhouse and Cena.
Cena’s bar manager Brian Leslie says the Valley’s location offers unique opportunities for musical happenings.
“We are in the pipeline from Milwaukee and Chicago to the Twin Cities, so acts coming through look for one night to book while touring,” Leslie says. “With the Lawrence Conservatory, we are rich with musicians in the Valley. The calibre of talent in an area this size is almost surreal.”
Located on College Avenue, Cena’s year-round Saturday night entertainment ranges from jazz to country to early punk. Leslie books eclectic acts from across musical genres, but acknowledges that jazz nights really draw the crowds.
“We select acts based on what will fit with our atmosphere,” Leslie says. “It’s nice to have music that’s not disruptive to the dining experience.”
According to Leslie, while live music enhances the overall dining experience, it also supports the community and local businesses. Diners will come for the music and stay for a drink or explore the rest of the “Ave” after the encore.
At George’s, patrons enjoy their meal set to classical jazz standards before moseying over to the area’s only piano bar for something a little more energetic. Every Friday and Saturday night, George’s piano bar entices listeners around the 125-year-old nine-foot Steinway Grand piano in the lounge. Local musicians perform everything from Sinatra to synth-pop, with a side of sarcasm, until the wee hours.
Whether you are singing along to the eclectic tunes at George’s beloved piano bar or toe-tapping to some of Cena’s jazz, live entertainment offerings in the Valley will keep you satisfied all weekend long.
That sounds good to us!
—By Amelia Compton Wolff