With a year of uncertainty surrounding the dining scene lingering, 2021 came in with a hint of caution and a lot of hope. Our area restaurants are rallying, but many are in need of support and patience to continue to provide us with the food and service we’ve come to appreciate in the Fox Cities.
More than ever, our annual Golden Fork Awards is a means of thanking the hardworking and beloved teams who help feed our community in a variety of categories—from Best Seafood and Steak to Most Vegetarian Friendly and Best Dessert. Read on to learn more about our winners, and consider visiting each to celebrate their delicious craft. They are grateful!
With a second consecutive Best Overall Restaurant win under their belt, plus securing first place in Best Ambiance, Best Seafood, Best Appetizers, Best Craft Cocktail and Best Seasonal Menu this year, it’s safe to say Fress Restaurant & Bar has hit its stride in exceeding diners’ expectations.
“It’s very humbling, it means we’re not just a flash in the pan. We’re doing something right,” Head Chef and Owner, James Dudley, says. “It definitely means a lot after the rough year and a half that we’ve had, that everyone has had, for people to still come through and consider us for (the awards) means a lot.”
“It’s really validating,” Lauren Maggard, front-of-house manager, adds. “Knowing how capable and wonderful everyone is here—and how dedicated to their craft—it’s just awesome.”
During the spring and summer the menu sometimes changes upwards of a few times a week depending on what produce is in its peak, like locally foraged mushrooms, and will focus on root vegetables like squash and late season beets and carrots in the upcoming winter season.
Bar Manager Brandon Camacho also uses the time of year as a compass to create innovative and elevated beverages.
“Right now I’m doing a traditional sour with an Omija infused vodka,” he explains. “It’s one of the most unique tasting drinks. It’s really fun and has a fall feeling to it.
“Taking classic cocktails and making them updated and slightly different, a little more fun, is my main passion. Adding new flavors that you wouldn’t expect… like a traditional champagne cocktail but adding pear and spiced apple bitters really makes it cool.”
Fress makes cocktail syrups and juices in-house, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to going above and beyond in what the team considers an obvious way to approach cooking.
“We try not to rush anything because you get the best result when you don’t,” Sous-Chef Colton Roberts says. “If you don’t have time to do it right, why do it?”
It’s a mantra diners can thank for the homemade crackers Dudley laughs are so popular they have to ration for service, and homemade pasta of varying shapes that always “flies off the menu.”
“We try to use things that other people would throw in the bin and we repurpose… we make every use out of it. Corn on the cob: most people throw the cob away, but no, we make stock out of that. People throw the Parmesan rinds away. No, we make stock out of that… people buy their own (demis) or meat sauces. We make them from scratch.
They deliberately and delicately prepare the “insanely popular” dishes of always fresh, never frozen seafood for which they’ve come to be known—like tender and juicy Scallops and poached Ocean Trout.
“Another thing I’m proud of is we’ve got a wine pairing suggestion on everything on the menu,” Dudley says. “For example, the Shrimp Risotto with Chardonnay. Scallops go with a Furmint, a nice white wine we have. It allows people to experiment a little bit more.”
Their philosophy—and the literal definition of Fress—to “eat or snack often or in large quantities” and “to eat a lot and without restraint” is promoted at every turn from creative high-quality menu offerings to a buzzing, fun atmosphere.
“Come in, order a lot, be a glutton and leave happy and uplifted,” Dudley says.
“You can get full anywhere,” Roberts adds. “You’re going to have an experience here.”
*As of September 2021, Fress Restaurant & Bar has permanently closed.
2021’s Best New Restaurant goes to Urban Modern Kitchen in Appleton. They use “contemporary and creative” to describe the cuisine, but the description also goes well beyond what appears on the menu.
“It’s a great vibe that we’ve created here,” District Manager Regina Hueckman says. “Even the crew of workers we have. They’re young, modern… we have a good time, it’s a fun work environment.”
Shirley and Luis Vazquez, who also own Draft Gastropub in Appleton, opened the casual, upscale eatery in January 2021, wanting to provide something elevated for the lunchtime crowd. Opening during a pandemic proved a lot of work, but according to Hueckman, has worked out for the best.
“It was kind of a slow start with restrictions but we were strict and really adamant about health and safety protocols,” she says. “We got our feet wet and then once everything started opening up, it was just able to blossom into this great place.
“We have very high standards for service and our servers are fantastic and so accommodating. In terms of plating, the kitchen just does it beautifully, using a lot of color and plating techniques.”
Overall, the restaurant considers their cuisine American, but often adds twists incorporating different influences and fusions. The well-loved BLT is updated into the Mexican BLTA with avocado, queso fresco, jalapeno, hard boiled egg, onion and chipotle aioli. Other favorites include the Ahi Tuna Salad, Bam Bam Shrimp Tacos and several “Signature Bowls” like the Texas Brisket Bowl and Lobster and Shrimp Bowl.
They also offer a dedicated vegan menu that boasts tacos, flatbread, pasta and salads.
Stay tuned. The team at Urban Modern Kitchen is always inspired and considering fresh menu items, and is currently working on new fall offerings including innovative beer and wine cocktails.
“We so appreciate the community and their vote of confidence in us,” Hueckman says. “And it only makes us want to strive to be better. We’re going to continue to be the best we can be.”
Urban Modern Kitchen is open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday, and uses an online ordering system for takeout on their full menu.
Being unique and not afraid to try new things is admirable advice in general, but when it’s the mission statement of a bar and grill, you know their menu is a must-see.
“Having your community vote you the best in anything really humbles your heart,” The Ferg Family says. “We have been so lucky to have an amazing team. They work hard, they are dependable and loyal. They treat every customer the same way they treat their friends or family.”
One-of-a-kind burgers like the Crab Goon (“HOME”made crab rangoon dip, scallions, wonton strips, sweet-n-sour sauce) reign supreme in guests’ eyes, along with specialty Burgers of the Month that can be inspired by anything from a football party dip to old family traditions. Favorites include the French Onion Burger and Butter Love Garlic Burger.
Sophie Swingle, owner and operator of Snaps, with locations in Appleton and Neenah, knows how difficult it is to find fresh, on-the-go meals—especially when health is a priority. To bring options to the Fox Cities is a win in itself, so earning Golden Fork Awards in Most Vegetarian Friendly, Best Salad Entree and Best Sandwich is icing on the cake.
“Overall, being voted best in three categories is so huge for us!” she says. “The love and support we feel from our customers is so overwhelming… I can’t express enough how thankful I am to everyone who took time to vote and thought of us!”
Favorite options amongst guests include the Quinoa Kale Salad, Falafel Wrap and Spinach Salad.
Want to add a little kick? They’ve got you covered.
“We make our own spicy sauce that is absolutely delicious,” Sophie says. “You can add a little or a lot to your wraps or salads. If you like spice this is a must have! Nothing is pre-made at Snaps so you can customize anything. We have gluten-free options, vegan options and we even do catering!”
She credits Snaps’ popularity to their dedication to purchasing and cutting fresh vegetables daily, and never doing so in bulk. That and their philosophy to treat guests like friends and family puts Snaps into a category of its own.
Best Steak: George’s Steakhouse
“George’s Steakhouse was always a favorite of my in-laws and continues to be for my wife and me. The atmosphere cannot be matched in the Valley, particularly while waiting at the piano bar for seating. Listening to and singing along with the music with others newly met brings a strong sense of community to the restaurant. I’ve lived in Appleton since 1994 after arriving here first as an ABC student in 1968. I traveled the world during my military career and still recommend George’s Steakhouse as a first choice to bring friends to for a good time and good food!” —Rick Marion, Appleton
The Best Pizza award goes to Muncheez Pizzeria in downtown Appleton, with owner Paul VanderLinden saying it’s simple: “Really it just comes down to taste.”
Plus a healthy dose of dedicated employees and an appreciation for customers, that is. The local pizzeria was also voted Best Delivery and Best Late Night Dining (Muncheez is open until midnight daily).
“It means the world to us… it (is) a huge win for us, and I can’t thank our dedicated employees and customers enough who made it happen again!” VanderLinden says.
As likely predicted, pepperoni is the most popular pizza; however, the Classic (pepperoni, sausage, onion, green pepper, mushroom), Meatfest (pepperoni, Italian sausage, Canadian bacon, hamburger, bacon) and Chicken Bacon Ranch (garlic and herb-seasoned chicken, red onion, bacon, ranch dressing) give it a run for its money as fan favorite.
Outside-of-the-box “addictive” Cinni-Muncheez (cinnamon sugar dessert breadsticks with frosting for dipping) top the list for loyal guests as well, along with “succulent oven-baked bone-in chicken wings” and Grilled Chicken Caesar Salads.
Best Dessert: The Knotted Cone Gelato Co.
“At the Knotted Cone, we create and craft not only an amazing dessert, but also an experience,” Owner Kathy Turek says.
It’s a positive one. Voted Best Dessert for the second year in a row, area sweet tooths gravitate toward the company’s mobile model that lends itself to private events.
“Our company’s focus is mainly on private events where our gelato becomes more than just a dessert. It becomes a special part of people’s celebrations and something their guests continue to rave about!” Kathy says. “For our local fans, we have a Sunday stop in Appleton with our truck and it has become their weekly treat and family outing.”
All gelato recipes take form first in Kathy’s imagination and are created from scratch using high-quality, all-natural ingredients. Caramel Marble Salted Vanilla and Dark Chocolate Mocha Chip are favorites, but don’t be intimidated by the unconventional options. It’s likely they’ll become go-tos.
“Lavender, Earl Grey Tea with Lemon Cream, Blueberry Cinnamon Goat Cheese, Saffron with Orange Zest—we even have a Mango Avocado flavor that people are always surprised they like!” Kathy says.
“Of all the flavors I’ve created (hundreds), I am still a lover of Pure Pistacchio. It’s a classic flavor, but the combination of the sweet nut with a pinch of sea salt is the best!”
Best Fried/Broasted Chicken: Van Abel’s of Hollandtown
“I love the broasted chicken dinner from Van Abel’s because the chicken is always crisp and golden brown on the outside and tender and juicy on the inside. The gravy is thick and creamy. The green beans have a perfect balance of sweet and sour and the bacon sends them over the top.” —Mary Jo Seidling, Darboy
Best Cheese Curds: Milwaukee Burger Company
Andrew Jordan, General Manager of Milwaukee Burger Company in Appleton, says their fifth consecutive win in the Best Cheese Curds category—since its addition to the Golden Fork Awards in 2017—comes down to the quality of their product, and the fact that their cheese curds are always fresh, not frozen.
“We hand cut a 40# block of fresh Wisconsin cheddar cheese, mozzarella and pepper jack blocks every day,” he says. “We then deep fry them with our amazing beer batter and cook them until they are crispy, hot, soft and gooey on the inside.”
There are four variations: classic cheddar, mozzarella, pepperjack and “fair curds,” and the opportunity to try them all via the Curd Sampler.
Oh, and they’re huge.
“Our guests love them because of the taste and that WOW factor!” Jordan says. “They are the size of golf balls and you get nine of them in a full appetizer. We also put them on our amazing burgers as well!”
Best Breakfast/Brunch: WeatherVane
For Melanie DuFrane, General Manager of WeatherVane in Menasha, being voted Best Breakfast/Brunch “means that all the early mornings, sleepless nights, chaotic days and scheduling challenges are all worth it.”
WeatherVane’s “traditional, classic American cuisine” includes favorites like stuffed french toast, potato pancakes, scramblers, chicken dumpling soup and cinnamon rolls “loaded with our cream cheese frosting.”
DuFrane explains that she and her parents, Pat and Julie DuFrane, are extremely grateful to have made it through the past year and don’t take for granted their close relationships with their team of employees, who in turn provide diners with exceptional service.
“We believe that what sets us apart is that we work shoulder to shoulder with our employees and have a great time doing it,” she says. “We take care of them, and they take care of our guests.”
Best Diner/Café: Mohnen’s Family Restaurant
FCM: How does it feel to be voted Best Diner/Café?
Linda and Mark Mohnen: (We are) grateful. It’s so nice to see that the hard work (our) faithful staff does is being recognized. Without them we wouldn’t be approaching our 30th year providing food and service to our guests.
FCM: What sets you apart?
LM & MM: Providing great food and service to all (who) walk through our doors.
FCM: What are some of your most popular menu items?
LM & MM: For sure our potato pancakes. Cinnamon swirl pancakes and our omelettes and skillets. We also provide take and bake meals made fresh daily… guests pop in and choose a meal from our cooler—either for the whole family or the single size.
“Fresh herbaceousness,” “hint of sweetness,” “slight spice,” “crispy and fluffy,” and “tangy and savory” are just a few of the ways Larry Chomsisengphet, General Manager of Basil Café in Appleton, describes his family’s “authentic yet approachable Southeast Asian cuisine.”
Classics like Pad Thai, curry and phó are among the most popular offerings; however, Chomsisengphet says unique dishes not offered elsewhere have undoubtedly helped clinch their Best Asian Food wins this year and in the past.
Exclusive offerings include Nam Khao, Lao crispy fried rice; Sien Savanh, Lao Sweet Beef Jerky served with sticky rice and choice of authentic dipping sauce; Sai Oua, Lao sausage, also served with sticky rice and choice of authentic dipping sauce; and Khao Thom Moo, Lao Pork Belly Tamale wrapped in a banana leaf.
Guests’ further favorites include a Vietnamese Meatball Sandwich (Bánh Mì Xíu Mai), Nam Khao (Lao Crispy Fried Rice), Sai Oua (Lao Sausage), Laab Nahm Thok (marinated and thinly sliced brisket tossed into a “meat salad”), Bánh Xèo (Vietnamese Crepe) and Coconut Infused Water.
Chomsisengphet reflects with gratitude on the support Basil Café has received over the last almost ten years: “There are so many incredible Asian restaurants in the area doing some really awesome things… the fact that we are able to share a part of ourselves, our culture, our heritage, with this community through our food, and have the community respond so positively is seriously such a tremendous blessing.”
Best Sushi: Katsu-Ya of Japan
FCM: What does it mean to you to have Katsu-Ya of Japan again voted “Best Sushi” in the Fox Cities?
Lisa Nakashima: It means so much to us to be voted for “Best Sushi” especially this year. Like most restaurants we’ve been faced with a lot of challenges… to know that our community voted for us makes us feel like our hard work is paying off and we greatly appreciate the support we receive from our customers and staff.
FCM: What are some of your most popular sushi offerings? Anything guests might be surprised by?
LN: Our most popular sushi dishes are the Tuna Guacamole, Red Dragon Roll, Taiko Beet Roll, Nakashima Handroll and our sashimi plates. Our vegetable rolls are sometimes a surprise to our guests. Many people think that sushi is all raw fish, but we actually have many rolls that cater to those who may be afraid to try seafood or have certain diet restrictions.
Best Mexican Food: Sangria’s Mexican Grill
“Consistently being nominated for Best Mexican Cuisine is certainly humbling,” Sarah Gregory, owner of Sangria’s Mexican Grill, says. “We have a really unique vibe at Sangria’s that is all about family, fun and an overall memorable experience. We constantly have the mentality of, what next? What can we do to give our customers a better experience?
“I would describe our cuisine as coastal Mexican with a flare. We have taken traditional recipes from Veracruz, Mexico and added our own touch of flavor and presentation. Some of our most popular dishes are the Molcajetes, the Pollo Loco and the loaded enchiladas. We are also known for having multiple different side dishes, such as tequila veggies and mashed potatoes with chorizo.”
Best Cup of Coffee: Seth’s Coffee
Owner Seth Lenz: We’ve strived for 12 years now to bring great coffee to our area, and have been delighted to see so many other great cafés join the coffee scene in our lifespan as a business, and to be voted Best Coffee is an honor among such great competition!
FCM: What is your ongoing philosophy in providing your guests with the best experience?
SL: I think we’ve always had a niche with being an approachable shop with incredibly skilled baristas, but no pretense. It suits us well, as we’re just a group of humble baristas trying our best to make excellent coffee and espresso drinks… Our guests seem to really appreciate the attention to detail.
FCM: What is one of your most popular options?
SL: Our traditional cappuccino has become a very popular drink at both of our locations—it’s a 5-ounce cappuccino made in traditional fashion with a double shot of espresso and three ounces of steamed milk, served at an immediately drinkable temperature of 135 degrees.
Best Happy Hour: Wissota Chophouse
A great happy hour may not initially be the first thing to come to mind when you hear Wissota Chophouse, but it should be. Voted Best Happy Hour for the first time this year, General Manager Calvin Klapa says they provide guests with an opportunity to enjoy great deals like half off all draught beer and glasses of wine, but also the potential to try something new.
“(It) is a great opportunity to expand your palette and try 30 different Wisconsin craft beers that rotate frequently, and 32 different wines by the glass,” he says. “With our extensive sharable offerings, it’s the perfect time to get some friends together and try some new and exotic things!”
Best Brew Pub: Stone Arch Brewpub
FCM: What does it mean to you to be consistently voted “Best Brew Pub” in the Fox Cities?
General Manager Lucas Maggard: After 17 years serving the Fox Valley, we feel so honored to be a part of such a wonderful community that appreciates quality beer, food, music and service.
LM: As a student, Steve Lonsway (brewmaster and owner) fell in love with England and craft beer simultaneously. Over the years we have strived to bring the authenticity and character of traditional English Brewpubs back to Appleton with pub favorite foods like Shepherd’s Pie, Fish & Chips and Scotch Eggs, as well as tried and true brewing techniques that deliver incredibly delicious beer.
FCM: How do you stray from the traditional?
LM: We specialize in offering plenty of vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options on our menu. Some great examples are the Vegan Buddha Bowl, Vegan Indian Curry and Vegan Portabella Melt.
FCM: What is your personal favorite offering on the Stone Arch menu?
LM: A newer addition to the menu, our Grilled Pork Chop with Bacon Jam is always a treat!
“We are very excited to again be the recipient of the Golden Fork Award for Best Outdoor Dining,” says General Manager of Pullmans at Trolley Square Tim Lemons. “Of course being set directly adjacent to the banks of the Fox River is a huge asset; but we also invest in beautiful landscaping and furniture…
“Our outdoor dining area can seat over 100 people when full, and our cocktail patio area is a wonderful space to wait for a dining patio table to open up if we are on a waitlist for seating. We also host live music on Tuesday evenings during the summer, which is well-received.”