Our annual reader poll recognizes the all-stars of Fox Cities dining
By Amelia Compton Wolff, Emily Speers & Charlie Hildebrand
Photos by Alexa Jones and Jordan Ashwood, unless otherwise stated
To say this year has been rough on restaurants is an understatement. Our local dining scene may be a little battered and bruised (thanks Corona), but it’s certainly not beaten. For our 26th annual reader survey of area food and drink, Fox Valley foodies selected their favorite establishments in 37 categories of dining, from Best Steak to Most Vegetarian Friendly. We added three new categories – Best Outdoor Dining, Best Delivery and Most Innovative Response to COVID-19 Restrictions – to honor some of the changes brought on by the pandemic.
Learn more about the 2020 Golden Fork winners right here, then make it your mission to find out exactly why they came out on top by visiting each, or at least ordering some stellar takeout.
See the full list of winners in the October issue.
Best Overall: Fress Restaurant and Bar
After winning Best New Restaurant in 2019, Fress Restaurant and Bar has graduated to claim the Best Overall Golden Fork in 2020. The College Avenue restaurant also picked up first place forks for Best Ambiance, Best Appetizer, Best Craft Cocktail and Best Seasonal Menu.
Bar Manager Tyler MacLellan says the awards are validation that diners appreciate the restaurant’s meticulous approach to food and drink. For instance, MacLellan wondered if people cared that the ice in their cocktail was hand-cut from a block of clarified ice to enhance the beverage’s presentation and reduce dilution.
“It’s stuff like that that we wondered if people appreciated and now we know that they do,” he says. “It opens a lot of doors for us to be able to do more and share what we are really excited about.”
Despite the damper that COVID-19 has put on dining, there’s still plenty to be excited about. Chef and co-owner James Dudley says while reduced order volume has its challenges, it has perks as well.
“You can really baby a dish a little bit more, you know what I mean,” he says. “You can give it your fullest attention. Things can slip through the cracks a little easier when you’re doing triple the volume.”
The menu has been adapted slightly to accommodate takeout orders by offering more items that travel well, like the ground prime ribeye burger. The in-restaurant dining style has also changed as a result of the pandemic.
“We used to suggest that people share plates. We don’t have that cadence tableside anymore,” Dudley says. “We let people make up their own minds, but we don’t suggest it. It hasn’t affected what people are ordering, it’s just more people are ordering their own dishes.”
One thing that hasn’t changed is the ever-changing nature of Fress’s menu. Ask them what’s on deck for next month’s menu, or next week for that matter, and they probably can’t tell you. It all depends on ingredient availability and quality.
“The menu changes by when ingredients are at their peak, not seasonally,” Dudley says. “It’s purely upon when things are delicious and we make that the star. We keep things fresh and rotating quickly because you want to showcase Wisconsin’s short growing season in a rapid fire format.”
When gifted a bounty of locally-grown zucchini, Sous-Chef Colton Roberts developed a shrimp entree featuring zucchini “noodles,” Fresno chilies, bacon and scampi sauce. “My style when coming up with new food is I find a small inspiration from somewhere and then run with it,” Roberts says.
Behind the bar, the cocktail lineup changes as frequently as the food menu. The current cocktail list has about six different drinks, but guests shouldn’t feel limited by that.
“If there’s something you want, don’t be shy to ask for it. Even if you just saw it on Pinterest, I’m more than happy to make it,” MacLellan says. “We can just do about anything. The possibilities are endless for sure.”
Fress’s Best Appetizer win is an amusing one for a chef team that doesn’t consider anything on the menu an appetizer. Anything can be ordered as a pre-meal snack, Dudley says.
“I don’t like to be restricted by the term ‘appetizer,’” he says. “I just call it the beginning of eating. People order the pork shank as an appetizer. You can really do whatever you want.”
“We aren’t going to tell you how to eat,” MacLellan adds. “That’s why we never take the menus unless the customer hands it to us, so you can continue to think and order more.”
The restaurant is following CDC guidelines, abiding by social distancing standards and utilizing a food-safe fogging machine to disinfect the restaurant.
“We do everything in our power to make this place as safe as possible during the current pandemic while putting out the high quality food we have been since we opened,” Dudley says.
Fress is open for dinner Wednesday through Saturday from 5 to 9 p.m. and now offers brunch on Sundays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. -ACW
Best New Restaurant: River Tyme Bistro
River Tyme Bistro opened in June and has already made its mark, being voted Best New Restaurant by FCM readers.
Christine Williams co-owns the restaurant with Candice Mortara. The duo are also partners in Fox River Tours which operates two tour boats on the Fox River in De Pere and Appleton.
Williams says the bistro, which is an extension of the river boats, has already started to amass regulars who come in multiple times a week. Maybe it’s the eclectic menu featuring global fare or maybe it’s the riverfront view, either way, guests are finding plenty to love about the bistro located in Appleton’s historic Atlas Mill.
“We have a unique, moderately higher-end menu,” Williams says. “Our Ports of Call menu features dishes from different parts of the world. We have a lot of people who order several items and share.”
Popular items are the Italian porchetta sandwich, mezze platter with hummus, roasted olives and marinated feta, and chorizo queso dip. Daily specials are offered each day of the week and the menu will change seasonally. Williams says diners can expect to see more cool weather fare, like homemade soups, on the fall and winter menu.
While the weather still permits, the riverfront deck has 11 umbrella-covered tables which can be reserved online. This has been especially popular during COVID times, with customers preferring to sit outside and observe the ample wildlife along the river including eagles, pelicans and turtles.
The bistro’s combo coffee/liquor bar is perfect for whatever kind of pick-me-up you’re looking for – whether that’s a coffee from Colectivo or a fruity rum punch. Housemade bakery items and a daily breakfast item are a great way to kick off the day.
River Tyme’s new hours are 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Wednesday through Monday. The bistro’s special event space can be reserved for up to 100 people, otherwise it’s used as overflow restaurant seating to ensure plenty of social distancing. -ACW
Best Breakfast/Brunch: SAP Brunch, Brown Bag & Bakery
“I brought my fiancé to SAP for our second date about six years ago and it has been our go-to spot for brunch since! Their coffee and lattes are amazing. Our favorite meal is their huevos rancheros. It is a wonderful savory brunch. We always purchase a cupcake to go for a little sweetness later. Their staff members are always friendly as well. Be sure to get there early-the restaurant fills up fast!” Karen Meyer, Grand Chute
Q&A: Mandy Ferg
Owner of Home Burger Bar, Best Burger & Best Waitstaff
FCM: What’s your most popular burger?
MF: Crab Goon is a fan favorite along with our Burger of the Month.
FCM: What makes your burgers different from others?
MF: Our creativity. There aren’t too many things we won’t try on a burger. Research days are always fun at HBB.
FCM: Why do you think you won Best Waitstaff?
MF: The obvious answer is they truly are the best. Two of the nine are our children, the rest feel like family. They give us and our customers 110 percent every day. They are what makes HBB what we have grown to be, this isn’t possible without them. I think customers like coming in and seeing the same faces, year after year.
FCM: How does your staff go above and beyond?
MF: They treat customers as friends, not just another number walking through the door. Each customer matters to us, and that is something we strongly believe in. We are not perfect, and will always try to make things right if we make a mistake.
FCM: Any other thoughts on your wins?
MF: We are very honored to be chosen for the Best Burger award four out of the five years we have been open. None of this would be possible without our loyal customers, our dedicated team and the love that goes into running a family-owned and operated business. I just want to thank our community for sticking by us during these difficult times. We are looking forward to better days, when we can all be together again….eating burgers, drinking Spotted Cow, and singing karaoke. -ES
Best Asian Cuisine: Basil Café
With a made-to-order menu and Lao traditions finding their way into dishes, it’s no surprise that Basil Café in Appleton grabbed up the title of Best Asian Cuisine, along with Most Vegetarian Friendly.
Larry Chomsisengphet, general manager of Basil Café, explained that the combination of Asian food with a made-to-order menu makes it easy to swap meat for a vegetarian or vegan option.
The vegan phó – a traditional Vietnamese rice noodle soup – is a proud dish representing Basil’s vegetarian options as they are one of the only places in the Valley to offer it vegan. Their curries, fried rice and stir-fry noodles are also big vegetarian hits.
Nam Khao – Lao style crispy fried rice – represents the blend of both vegetarian options and the best Asian cuisine. With a Lao ethnicity and a past in Lao cuisine, Chomisesengpeht and his sister knew they wanted to add this experience to their menu.
“For us, authenticity has been something we always tried to accomplish since we opened…as we continued to grow, we always wanted to push the community further in hopes that people would accept the Lao food movement,” he says.
Chomsisengphet revealed that the Valley’s adventurous and cosmopolitan developments have “helped us to grow, maintain our authenticity, and stay true to who we are and the foods that we grew up eating.” -ES
Best Dessert: The Knotted Cone Gelato Co.
Unique flavors are at the top of the Fox Cities’ dining demands, and first-time winner The Knotted Cone has delivered (literally), making this gelato and sorbet truck the winner of Best Dessert in 2020.
“This will be our fourth summer in business and I think this year we really tried to showcase a lot of unique flavors in our gelato. Everything I make is from complete scratch and they’re all my own recipes,” says Kathy Turek, owner of Knotted Cone.
Whether it’s cones from Italy or strawberries from a local farm, Turek says, “Everything that’s in [the gelato] is real, raw ingredients.”
A popular example and favorite of Turek’s is her Gelato World Tour winning recipe, razzle ricotta which is raspberry ricotta-based gelato with a raspberry marbling and pistachio crumbles. The Knotted Cone also offers fresh-fruit sorbets like strawberry mango.
While The Knotted Cone delivers in the flavor category, they also turned their business upside down and switched to a delivery model due to COVID-19, landing them the fork for Most Innovative Response to COVID-19 Restrictions.
“Delivery of gelato straight to people’s doors is probably something that has never been done, and, for us, doing it was something that people went crazy over,” Turek says. “We then started doing a weekly pick up for gelato. We stayed away from trying to have so much contact with people, but also still created something that they could enjoy at home.”
Stay tuned to The Knotted Cone’s Facebook page for the latest updates on pickup locations, deliveries and the truck’s location.-ES
Best Pizza: Muncheez Pizzeria
“Muncheez has such unique flavors for their pizzas. It’s never greasy. Each pizza is baked to a great texture where the dough has some chew to it and yet some crispiness to round out each bite. Our favorite is the chicken bacon ranch. We’ve tried it at several other places but nothing comes close. It has the perfect amount of bacon and chicken to create a well balanced pizza where there’s no bite without deliciousness.” Sandy Schaubroeck, Kaukauna
Q&A: Emily Heiges
FCM: What can diners find on your menu?
EH: We specialize in woodfired pizzas and craft burgers, along with great pub snacks that pair well with beer.
FCM: Why do you think Copper State Brewery won the fork for Best Worth the Drive?
EH: Aside from the handcrafted beer and food, our historic downtown Green Bay building has a great vibe inside and a beautiful biergarten outside for our patrons to enjoy. We offer unique brewery tours and we have something for everyone, from coffee to food to beer and wine.
FCM: What are the most popular items on your menu?
EH: We are known for our nitro beers and our rotating line of fruited sour beers. For food, our Rugged North Burger (complete with an egg and candied maple bacon), our Hazy Curds (cheese curds battered with our Stilt Stepper Hazy IPA), and our Thai Brussels Sprouts appetizer are some of our most popular items on the menu.
FCM: What sets Copper State Brewery apart from other restaurants?
EH: We are more than a brewery; we are a family. We focus on creating memorable experiences for people over excellent beer and food, and we invested heavily in building a fun community culture among our staff and customers. We are a gathering place for those in Green Bay and beyond. -CH
Best Mexican Cuisine: Sangria’s Mexican Grill
Sangria’s lively, yet family-friendly atmosphere makes for a welcoming environment. According to Sarah Gregory, owner of the Appleton restaurant, the energy inside the building is a reason why readers voted Sangria’s Best Mexican Cuisine.
“At the end of the day, we want to serve you a little slice of Mexico right here in the Fox Cities. We feel that our Sangria’s family extends to every single person that walks through our doors,” she says.
One of the most popular dishes at Sangria’s is the loaded enchiladas. This customer favorite consists of corn tortillas stuffed with beef, chicken or cheese, topped with all the fixings like lettuce, queso fresco and sour cream, and then covered in queso blanco and salsa roja.
The side dishes, known as “accessories,” give customers a unique dining experience. “When you order an entree, you get to choose between any of our sides like cactus salad, poblano rice, tequila-spiked sauteed veggies, or rajas poblanos, to name a few,” Gregory says. Customers have the ability to customize every plate, which gives each dish a personal flair.
Guests can now eat on the new two-story patio which opened earlier this summer. A new menu is in the works which will feature more handcrafted cocktails, new appetizers and meatless options. -CH
Best Fish Fry: Mark’s East Side
Mark’s East Side in Appleton picked up the gold for Best Supper Club and Best Fish Fry. No surprises here – Mark’s is widely known as a local fish fry favorite on Fridays. Mark’s East Side serves a variety of fish dishes, the most popular being the Icelandic haddock, but other popular dishes include perch, walleye and salmon, to name a few.
Owner Mark Dougherty believes that the restaurant’s success is the result of his attention to detail. “We are cognizant of every quality going into each fish fry. The quality of the fish, how it is breaded, the fries, and the coleslaw are all taken into account,” he says. Mark’s makes their own coleslaw, never uses pre-shredded cabbage, and breads the fish the day it’s fried.
“Everything down to the oil used to fry is important,” Dougherty says. “We could buy cheaper products to save cost, but we choose to not go that way.”
Dougherty’s attentive nature was instilled into him by his parents, Bill and Jan, when they opened the restaurant in 1967. “They instilled in me that it is down to the quality of ingredients as well as the consistency and fair value to products.” -CH
Best Diner/Cafe: Little Diner Xpress
Little Diner Xpress in Appleton offers a classic American diner experience for its loyal customers.
Owner Rod Bergman believes the diner’s atmosphere is the reason for his restaurant’s win. “We offer a true diner experience that’s memorable. We have a great staff providing great service, reasonable prices, and a great cup of coffee.”
Little Diner Xpress offers a variety of dining staples, including steak sandwiches, scratch soups, pancakes and egg dishes. Among the most popular are customizable burgers and build-your-own breakfast scramblers.
Combined with its welcoming atmosphere, Bergman also believes that Little Diner Xpress’ menu selections make it a unique dining option in the valley. “We offer organic coffee, organic soup, and salad selections, and non-GMO options. We also serve breakfasts all day long,” Bergman says. -CH
Best Brewpub: Stone Arch Brewpub
“Stone Arch Brewpub always has new selections of beers to try, great customer service, and a menu with awesome pizzas, burgers, appetizers and more. I love sitting outside in the beer garden, listening to music down in the tap room, or sitting down at the bar. I usually get the Impossible burger, and leave with a growler full of beer.” Thom Willecke, Fox Crossing
Best Steak: George’s Steak House
As the Fox Cities expand with new and exciting cuisines and restaurants, our palate may become overwhelmed and long for a comfortable, yet never disappointing classic: steak. No secret for meat fans, George’s Steak House in Appleton satisfies this longing and remains undefeated in its winning title of Best Steak for over a decade.
“There are a lot more diverse choices in our community, but as far as a traditional supper club – steaks and seafood – our steaks keep grabbing people’s attention for their quality,” says Brad Quimby, second-generation co-owner of the steakhouse.
And grab our attention they do. With every cut possible – filet mignon, rib eye, New York strip, porterhouse, t-bone, prime rib – George’s delivers all the favorites in supreme quality.
Quimby reveals George’s secrets to its succulent steak: “Definitely have to start with a good product. Our menu is pretty simple. We don’t fancy things up with a lot of sauces.”
Their most popular classic speaks to this method: a six oz filet mignon cut from choice tenderloins.
“We’ve always been pretty consistent, our menu doesn’t change,” Quimby says. “Our focus is on being a steakhouse.” -ES
Best Outdoor Dining: Pullmans At Trolley Square
Never before has outdoor dining been so important as during summer 2020 after the onslaught of COVID-19. With a full dining patio and stunning riverfront view, Pullmans At Trolley Square was voted as this year’s winner of Best Outdoor Dining.
“Our patio is one of the largest in the Valley. Typically we have 30 tables, but with COVID, we’ve brought that down to 22 tables not including our cocktail patio by the waterfall,” says Dana Reader, marketing director for the Reader Restaurant Group which also includes Good Company and Nan Sorella’s.
Different from other patios, Pullmans features large tables that seat six to seven people, meaning it’s rare to miss out on that breezy and calming river experience.
“We’re about 15 feet off the Fox River. There’s great wildlife around here. It’s just a beautiful setting,” Reader says.
Not only does the Fox River bring appeal, but waterfalls and fire pits add to the ambiance, making Pullmans the perfect outdoor spot.
“We hope people are also coming for our food and service. We work very hard to have a menu that we’re proud of. We’ll run specials on the weekend to see the community’s reaction.”
Though this summer stunted their usual Tuesday night music, Reader thinks, “If all goes well, next year would be another line up of full music” which is just another reason Pullmans pulls through for Best Outdoor Dining. -ES
Q&A: Liz Stuck
Owner of All Seasons Coffeehouse, Best Sandwich
FCM: What types of sandwiches do you serve?
LS: We have breakfast sandwiches made on our homemade Focaccia bread, made with fresh eggs and we also serve yummy breakfast burritos which are very popular. We serve breakfast until 1 p.m. Our lunch sandwiches are also served on our homemade Focaccia bread and each sandwich and breakfast sandwich is always made fresh to order.
FCM: Why do you think you won the fork for Best Sandwich?
LS: I think we won the Best Sandwich award for the second time because of our care and quality of each sandwich. The meat breakfast burrito is our best seller in the morning, and for lunch, it would be a toss-up between our club and pesto chicken salad sandwich.
FCM: What sets your cafe apart from others in the Fox Valley?
LS: We use fresh ingredients and fresh eggs and each sandwich is made fresh to order. We take great pride in quality service and making sure each guest leaves happy and shares their experience with others. -CH
Best Homestyle/Comfort Food: The Cozzy Corner
“My go-to from Cozzy Corner is the waffle sandwich. There’s always plenty of food to take home and every ingredient is delicious. The fried chicken is the star of the show. It’s never a bad decision to get a late lunch and an early beer from here. Not to mention the funk and blues vibe they’ve got going and decor to match.” Shannon Hubley, Appleton
Best Cup of Coffee: Copper Rock Coffee Company
Copper Rock Coffee Company has long been a staple for coffee lovers in the Fox Valley. With a College Avenue location and a North Appleton location, customers have more options than just the variety of coffee.
Working with multiple importers of high-end Arabica coffee beans, Copper Rock brews drip coffee, frappes, pour overs, cold brew, and an endless list of espresso-based drinks. The beans are roasted at Copper Rock’s in-house roastery on College Avenue.
Co-owner Emily Heiges believes that Copper Rock won Best Cup of Coffee due to their constant monitoring of quality and consistency in each cup.
“Soil type, growing altitude, harvesting and processing methods, roast profile, and brewing methods are just some of the variables that factor into how the coffee is going to taste as a finished product,” she says. “We work hard to monitor all of those things so that our customers can simply enjoy great coffee.” -CH