For 40 years, Fox Cities Magazine has been bringing dining stories to our readers: about fanciful dishes, mouthwatering flavors, restaurant updates and everything in-between. Perhaps the most popular food installment, the Golden Fork Awards, reaches its 29th year in this issue.
We’re always proud to celebrate our local restaurants, but there’s something particularly special about honoring what our area foodies have to say to allow their voices to be heard. This year, voters are keeping things hot and spicy—literally in some cases, like Best Food Truck and Best Sandwich (Hot Biddy’s)—while steady winners like SAP (Best Breakfast/Brunch) and Basil Café (Best Asian Food) are playing it cool as repeats in the limelight.
Fox Cities foodies recognize both veteran and new-on-the-scene restaurants this year. Read on for the best of the best voted by you.
BEST OVERALL: Little Diner Xpress
“Good things come in small packages” certainly fits the bill in our Best Overall winner’s case this year.
Little Diner Xpress in Appleton is small when it comes to square feet, but is huge in its ability to fill every bit of the tiny space with both an extensive menu bursting with flavors and also warmth and personality.
“We put our heart into our diner, and I think that really shows to our customers,” owners Becky and Remy Anderson say. “Knowing them by name, their orders, their stories—those are things that keep bringing them back.”
The couple, Chef Remy and Becky, took over the business just a year ago in 2022, but the restaurant has been known in the community for over 50 years (formerly as George Webbs). They’re currently working on giving the diner a “facelift” and adding their own touch, but don’t plan to change any of the community feel they’re known for.
“(We are) hoping to keep the legacy of a family run business,” they explain. “Mr. Forrest bought the business from his father 42 years ago, so it’s been a family run business for a long time and that’s what we plan to keep doing with our four girls.”
The Andersons clinched the Best Waitstaff/Service award this year as well, and explains that has a lot to do with the restaurant’s mentality about their work environment.
“We stand out because our whole staff is like family. We spend time together outside of work and truly care for one another. You’ll find us joking around and having fun, even with the customers. The employees feel valued and respected as we all work side by side. Because of that, the customers are an extension of our family as well. It really is just a fun, cozy environment!”
The Best Diner/Cafe sources non-GMO, organic, locally sourced items when possible, and is known for their staples: Grilled Steak and Eggs, Grilled Sockeye Salmon and Stuffed French Toast but is continually working on expanding with new creations.
“We have started some new specials throughout the week and are now open every day 6:30 a.m.-9 p.m.. We are currently working on adding some new items to our menu and hope to come out with that soon!
“We offer ‘Kids Eat Free on Sunday and Wednesday nights from 4-8 p.m… and Senior Citizen’s Discount Monday and Tuesday nights from 4-8 p.m.
No matter when you visit the diner, the Andersons say “you’ll always get a friendly, smiling face.”
BEST NEW RESTAURANT: Tipsy Taco & Tequila Bar
Inspired by its sister restaurant, Sangria’s Mexican Grill (Best Mexican Food winner this year), Tipsy Taco & Tequila Bar in Appleton opened its doors in December of 2022 with a bang, clinching Best New Restaurant.
“Between the higher demand for to-go orders since COVID, as well as more guests dining out and catering sales consistently climbing, we needed more space. To put it frankly, we were busting at the seams!” Owner/Operator Sarah Gregory says. “It was important to be in close proximity to Sangria’s, which is why we chose to expand right next door… it was becoming more of a challenge to accommodate large groups with limited capacity, so we were fortunate enough to find a big enough space that we can now serve more parties and special events.”
Described by Gregory as “an entire vibe,” Tipsy Taco is “colorful, artsy, creative and expressive.”
“It was always a dream of mine to start from the ground up and to be hands-on in the design, structure and architecture of a new spot,” she says. “With the help of an amazing team of professionals, under the leadership of Joe at Delsman Construction, the dream became a reality. The space is truly way larger than you’d expect walking in.”
While the atmosphere is important, Fox Cities foodies know it’s all about the eats.
Known for Birria, Jamaican Jerk Chicken, Puerco Verde and revolving Taco of the Month features, Tipsy Taco is also known for their cocktails like the Smoke Show (a mezcal cocktail), Paloma (a classic grapefruit margarita) The Unicorn (a color changing margarita) and the Margarita Flight Board.
“It is important for me that people recognize that this isn’t just an award for “Tipsy Taco,” Gregory says. “The staff (has) worked tirelessly to promote, maintain and constantly motivate each other into being an establishment that offers an experience; known for great service and even better food! It is most definitely a team effort that everyone in the building should be very proud of.”
BEST BAKERY: Whisk & Arrow
Described by owner Nea Hahn as “the place you head to when you need to treat yourself,” Whisk & Arrow wins Best Bakery for the second time, also adding Best Dessert to the accolades this year.
“Maybe you had a rough day, or you are celebrating, everyone can find something to brighten their day.” she says. “Our treats are made entirely from scratch with simple ingredients to provide our guests with that ‘tastes like home’ feeling. That combined with superb customer service puts us up at the top according to our loyal customers.”
Bestsellers at the boutique bakery in Appleton include macarons, cakes and locally famous Chocolate Chip cookies known for using three different kinds of chocolate extra-large size.
“Macarons are very popular for gifting, and we always have at least 28 flavors available for guests to pick from,” Hahn explains. “Cake slices are available daily at the shop. Guests can always find a few different flavors in addition to our very popular carrot cake.
Whisk & Arrow has also begun introducing savory options like soups and salads, with one guiding principle: making items from scratch as they would make it for their families at home.
“We are inspired by the seasons, by our family traditions and by requests from our guests. My family inspires me the most. I bake with Sophia every weekend. It feels great to bake for our guests’ families as if we were baking for our own!”
BEST CRAFT COCKTAIL: Commodore Club
A “relaxed and inclusive” Appleton cocktail bar that “focuses on creating unique drinks with fresh ingredients and using different culinary techniques,” Commodore Club was a shoe-in for Best Craft Cocktail this year.
Owner Patrick Frawley (along with Alyssa and Zack Jones) explains his love of getting to be innovative and making unexpected and fun creations—both in taste and name.
“Our most popular cocktail is ‘Just Say No To Celebrity Tequila.’ It’s a clarified milk punch and contains tequila, grapefruit liqueur, coconut tea, lime, cane sugar, and milk. It goes through a process that removes the milk solids, leaving you with a clear cocktail with some whey protein body and tastes like a day at the beach.
“Other unique cocktails have had red wine pearls as the garnish, or rum sous vide with botanicals to create intense Thai spiced flavors. We also create a lot of foams for cocktails and currently serve a cocktail called ‘Influencer Killed The Video Star’ that has a spiced honey foam over the top.
“My hope is that guests get excited here because they get to try new things or at least in a way they haven’t experienced before.”
BEST PIZZA: Stuc’s Pizza
When classic flavors and innovation meet, it’s a match made in Heaven. And Best Pizza Winner Stuc’s Pizza in Appleton Owner/Operator Erik Anderson knows it.
The Italian staple is currently working on a an expanded menu with additions like ground beef as a topping (a long time guest request) and specials like Jone’s Special—sausage, pepperoni, onions, garlic, cheddar cheese, sausa blanca (garlic and oil sauce), and classic red sauce.
“This pizza is a tribute to one of our best customers, the Jones,” Anderson says. “They regularly come in on Saturday afternoon and order this collection of toppings, and every time it comes out of the oven we marvel at the smell: so delicious.”
Kohler’s Concoction includes spinach and a 3-cheese blend, pepperoni, chicken, parmesan peppercorn drizzle, chunky red sauce, and also a special connection to the owner’s beginning.
“Sixteen years ago when I first took over Stuc’s Pizza I had hired a friend of mine,” Anderson says. “He brought me the combination of our spinach and cheese blend with chicken and pepperoni. I personally liked to dip mine in our parmesan peppercorn dressing so adding that as a drizzle felt right. Kohler has long since moved on but his pizza still remains.
“Aside from those new pizzas our new menu will have a nice new layout. I focused on making the menu much easier to read (not an easy task with the amount of information) and I think my designer nailed it. I also have plans to add a bike rack near our front parking lot, the changes to downtown and many area streets have welcomed a lot more bike traffic. We will be part of the City Tins Coaster promotion this year.”
BEST WORTH THE DRIVE: Fox and Crow Bistro, Ripon
Best Worth the Drive winner two years in a row, Fox and Crow Bistro in Ripon is cozy and intimate, but offers more in terms of diners’ experience.
“We’re a small restaurant in a small market with big city ideas. A ‘bistro’ in a sense that we’re small and intimate but we’re more akin to approachable fine dining/international cuisine,” owners Katie and Patrick Isajiw explain.
“Our menu changes hyper seasonally so many items come and go but a few that have become constants are: housemade focaccia, charred pork belly, Wisco pork schnitzel and blueberry goat cheese mousse, plus all of our pasta dishes. Our guests seem to gravitate toward them because they’re familiar but with nontraditional elements sprinkled in.
“It’s important that we always keep it fresh and interesting for the sake of our guests and our own sanity. We’re serious about our food and service and that’s what matters most to us! With that said, we like to keep it fun with a chill vibe in our dining room, being pretentious is not our jam.”
BEST BROASTED CHICKEN: Van Abel’s of Hollandtown
Chris Coenen, General Manager
How do you describe the chicken at Van Abel’s? I would describe our broasted chicken as a hand dusted crispy and slightly salty product made from high quality ingredients. We have not made any changes since we introduced it in 1965.
What sets you apart from others in the Fox Cities? I think our attention to detail is what makes us different. We marinate our chicken in small batches for a specific amount of time and care for it diligently after the process.
Anything else readers should know? Besides broasted chicken we offer hand cut steaks, hand breaded seafood and fish. Our catering menu expands this menu even more with hors d’ oeuvres and unique plated and buffet options. We also do weddings and parties of all sizes in our 3 private rooms we have available. We take our show on the road with our off site catering service that does weddings at beautiful barns and venues as well as numerous corporate events every year. Our key to success has always been ingredient based creations that start with the raw product.
BEST AMBIANCE, BEST SEAFOOD, BEST HAPPY HOUR: SALT
Salt Dining in Kaukauna welcomes a new leadership staff in General Manager Brittany Sack and Executive Chef Kyla Simpson, along with a “lovely staff,” but plan to keep guest favorites that have helped them again within the Best Seafood and Best Happy Hour categories.
The restaurant’s most popular seafood options:
Shrimp and Chorizo Nachos with queso blanco, shrimp, sweet corn, pico de gallo, poblano cream sauce and tortilla chips.
Seared Scallops and Bacon, pan seared scallops, carrot purée, herbed apricot reduction, Nueske’s bacon and asparagus.
Quinoa Crusted Salmon, seared salmon, crispy quinoa, lemon dill risotto, with a beet vinaigrette and sautéed asparagus.
The area’s Best Happy Hour takes place Tuesday through Friday from 4-6 p.m., with $2 off everything but martinis, which are already at a discounted price.
BEST ASIAN FOOD: Basil Café
Quality, fresh made Southeast Asian cuisine meets friendly service and a welcoming ambience at Basil Café in Appleton and earns yet another Best Asian Food award.
“Here at Basil Café we are community oriented and focused on taking care of each other (a big reason why we close down over the summer; to allow our small crew to be able to rest and recuperate from the season and allow everyone that mental, physical, and emotional break),” Larry Chomsisengphet, General Manager, says. “We believe in community over competition because we know how hard this industry is and we believe that there’s room for all of the magnificent restaurants here in Appleton and the Fox Cities.”
No doubt the beloved restaurant has fan favorites like Phó, Sai Oua (Lao Sausage) and Laab Nahm Thok, one of the national dishes of Lao.
The restaurant also has notable changes coming up, namely in its craft cocktail menu.
“We wanted to add our mark on the craft cocktail scene and offer specially crafted cocktails to pair with our food,” Chomsisengphet explains. “We make our own infusions and utilize the flavors in our cuisine for our cocktails to help complement our guests’ experience with us.”
Included is a traditional pre-prohibition style Old Fashioned with a Basil Café twist.
“Using a process called ‘fat washing,’ we infuse the flavors of our very special Phó broth into your choice of a bourbon or a rye whiskey, and then we add a Thai Basil infused Coconut Palm Sugar syrup, and some orange bitters to make our Old Fashioned. It’s absolutely delicious, and tastes like how a pre-prohibition style Old Fashioned should, but there are some savory notes, some hints of the anise, and cinnamon, and the aromatics of Thai Basil.”
BEST FOOD TRUCK and BEST SANDWICH: Hot Biddy’s
If you’ve paid attention to the food scene for the last couple of years, you know Nashville style fried chicken is having a moment. The Fox Cities is up for it, voting for food truck newcomer Hot Biddy’s as its Best Food Truck and Best Sandwich.
Owners Aaron and Essa Cole opened the chicken food truck on April 1, 2023 but their dedication and quality food is no joke.
“We wanted to bring this style of food to the Valley,” they say. “Not only do we do Nashville style chicken but we wanted to stay true to the southern roots offering homemade Sweet Tea, Banana Pudding, Chicken andWaffles, and Fried Pickles!”
Popular items include their Nashville Style Crispy Chicken Sandwich: toasted Brioche bun, signature Biddy sauce, pickles, homemade coleslaw and topped with crispy boneless chicken thigh. Guests choose their level of heat.
“Our Biddy followers love this because it is always made hot and fresh to order. Our second most popular item would be our Biddy Bowl: layer of crispy crinkle cut French fries, homemade coleslaw, pickles, chopped crispy chicken tenders in your choice of heat, topped with our homemade ranch and signature Biddy sauce.
“We pride ourselves on providing quality food, making everything fresh to order,” the Coles say. “We both love connecting with people in this awesome community and can’t wait for what the future will bring. We do both public and private events in Appleton, and the extended Valley.”
Hot Biddy’s posts their changing schedule with locations on Facebook and Instagram every Sunday.
BEST OUTDOOR DINING: Pullmans at Trolley Square
Described by General Manager Tim Lemons as a “wonderful place to enjoy a great meal and your favorite beverage in a calming and beautiful atmosphere,” Pullmans at Trolley Square in Appleton has won the Best Outdoor Dining award countless times.
“The setting of our tastefully maintained flora, along with the view of downtown Appleton and Lawrence University along the gently flowing Fox River creates a unique space to enjoy alone or with a small group,” Lemons says.
“We appreciate Fox Cities Magazine’s Golden Fork Award for Best Outdoor Dining category, and we humbly and proudly thank those that voted for Pullmans again in 2023.
The restaurant’s outdoor dining area is typically open from May 1 to October 15.
BEST BREAKFAST/BRUNCH: SAP
While favorites at SAP in Appleton include classic Eggs Benedict, breakfast sandwiches and Steak and Eggs, there are also the twists on the menu that make it a continual winner in the Best Breakfast/Brunch category.
“SAP offers a diverse menu with options ranging from Nola’s Red Flannel Hash, which is rich in roasted root vegetables to Chilliquilles with a salsa verde to die for and a spice factor that depends on the jalapenos that come through the door to Lemon Ricotta Pancakes that are like fluffy pillows with crème anglaise to boot and that zesty lemon essence all which keep the guests coming back from more,” Co-owner Kristen DeFranza says.
New on the docket for fall will include a Falafel salad, Housemade Crab Rangoon and Creole style Biscuits and Gravy.
“We love to be a place of gathering for our guests and thank each and every one of you for continuing to support and enjoy!” she says.
BEST SEASONAL MENU: Ellinor
Adam Marty, Chef/Owner
How do you describe Ellinor? Ellinor is a cozy, comfortable and intriguing neighborhood spot. We pride ourselves on being seasonality driven, community focused by using local ingredients and offering a creative menu and wine list.
How does your menu change seasonally? We design our menu around what is available seasonally, locally and elsewhere. We rely on local purveyors to provide ingredients that dictate the seasonality of the menu. Our menu tends to have drastic changes with the seasons. We’ll keep you posted, or, you’ll have to visit us to find out!
BEST COFFEE: Seth’s Coffee
“Seth’s Coffee is an approachable cafe with a staff and management team that cares deeply about the quality of our products, taking great care of our guests, and each other,” Owner Seth Lenz explains. “The staff have seemed to be able to adopt and execute my own personal love of great coffee, and puts a lot of their energy into treating our guests with dignity and respect, allowing for people of all tastes with a warm and welcoming atmosphere.”
That special touch has allowed the Best Coffee shop to open a third location on the west side of Appleton in the last year, allowing better accessibility of some favorites.
“Our most popular items are definitely our lattes, but we sell a lot of our traditional cappuccinos as well,” Lenz says. “Seasonal featured drinks are always hot sellers, too, with spin-offs of matcha lattes, espresso tonics, and traditional lattes all get their share of attention with flavor syrups concocted by our barista and master-of-flavors, Natalie.
“A notable current feature drink is called “Jacob’s Trip to Cali,” inspired by our manager at the downtown drive-thru location’s trip to California early last year: sweet decadent coconut milk and sweetened condensed milk; shaken with ice, espresso and warm spices.
“We love what we do! It’s a blast to be a part of so many peoples’ daily routines, providing them with something worth coming back for over and over again.”
BEST FISH FRY/BEST SUPPER CLUB: Mark’s East Side
If there’s one thing Wisconsin is known for in terms of restaurants, it’s supper clubs and fish frys. Mark’s East Side in Appleton is the winner of both categories, marking several times for each.
Their Best Fish Fry starts with quality ingredients and not cutting corners.
“We use fresh yellow lake perch from Canada and Icelandic haddock here at Mark’s,” Owner Alex Shea says. “The perch is hand breaded and lightly fried. The haddock is cut in house and battered to order… we also make our own tartar sauce. (We) make everything from scratch instead of pre breaded products or pre-made coleslaw or tartar sauce.
A staple since 1967, the Best Supper Club’s atmosphere is one that is familiar, welcoming and feels like home.
“We pride ourselves on the atmosphere and vibe we have here at Mark’s,” Shea says. “The welcoming atmosphere is the main characteristic of our supper club. It is a place where people choose to come, because they feel welcomed time and time again. We love to be a part of Appleton and support the community that supports us.”
BEST MEXICAN FOOD: Sangria’s Mexican Grill
Molcajetes, lava rock bowls with loads of meat and cheese, Carne Asada, a classic authentic steak dish, the Fresca Bowl, a unique take on a burrito bowl with poblano rice as the base, chipotle seasoned meat and toppings, and of course the employee favorite, Pollo Loco, grilled chicken, chorizo, grilled pineapple, queso dip and pico de gallo are a few of the menu items that make Sangria’s Mexican Grill a fan favorite in the Best Mexican Food category.
“There are so many flavor profiles that we combine into each dish, all of which we make from scratch in house,” Owner/Operator Sarah Gregory says. “From drying chiles to making fresh salsas, or slow roasting pork carnitas for hours on end, every detail is something we take pride in.”
“We are incredibly humbled to have won this award again as we know there are many great options for Mexican food in the Valley. What sets Sangria’s apart is the quality of the ingredients that we use, the presentation that we achieve, and next level service that makes you feel welcomed, appreciated and entertained.”
Gregory says that’s in large part due to their dedicated team and the employee culture at Sangria’s.
“Our employees are genuinely happy to be there serving up fantastic food and drinks for the Fox Cities. The love that our staff has for the restaurant reflects in the way we serve our guests, and the attention to detail that we consistently put out there to make sure that we aren’t just serving one meal, but creating repeat customers that will come again and again!”
BEST BURGER: Home Burger Bar
The Ferg Family
How do you describe Home Burger Bar? A quaint spot owned and operated by a local family with creative burger options.
Most popular burgers: Our unique burgers of the month are always a big hit. A popular staple would be the Crab Goon Burger… envision a deconstructed crab rangoon on a burger (also delicious on a crispy chicken sandwich)!
What puts your burgers above the rest in the Fox Valley? I think people like our creativity. Also the friendly faces serving and cooking up the burgers adds to the experience. We aren’t perfect, but we care, and I think people feel that.
Anything else readers should know? Just know we do the best we can with the limited space we have. Sometimes we have to limit to-go orders so that our kitchen can keep up. We also will not participate in food delivery services, because we want our cooks and servers to be able to focus on the orders of the customers in the bar.
BEST BAR & GRILL: The Mad Apple Burger & Billiard Co.
Opened in July of 2017, The Mad Apple Burger & Billiard Co. and Best Bar & Grill winner is 14,000-square foot scratch made restaurant, billiard room and proshop with a large relaxing outdoor space and bar area.
Favorites include The Mad Apple Burger, The Nut Job Burger along with Bacon Poppers and Cheese Curds.
They’re also known for an informal, relaxing atmosphere with a fun twist.
“We also offer a full service game room store,” Owner Kendal Koch adds. “Selling and delivering home game room equipment from pool tables to shuffle boards and any type of equipment you would use in your home game room.”
BEST STEAK: George’s Steak House
General Manager Brad Quimby was in eighth grade when his parents bought George’s Steak House, and expected it to be a short lived “career” at the family-owned restaurant.
“I graduated from St. Norbert in 1985 not expecting to come back, but the restaurant business kind of gets in your blood and here I am today! My dad will turn 88 in October and still owns the business, and continues to actively help me day in and day out. Many members of our staff have been with us for over 20 years. Several have been here since the 80s!”
The Appleton staple specializes in steaks and seafood, but it’s the overall experience that helps them be a cut above the rest, resulting in the Best Steak win.
“Meals are all-inclusive for the most part—meaning all the courses are included,” Quimby explains. “We offer liver pate, cheddar spread and crackers at the table. Soup and salad courses are both included with most entrées, and the entrée comes with a choice of potato, vegetable or rice.
“Our top sellers are the 6 oz. Petite Filet (this one is topped with our famous shredded onion rings) and the 9-10 oz. Filet Mignon. Prime Rib is always popular as our Saturday feature. All of our steaks are USDA Choice or higher Black Angus Beef. We keep things pretty straightforward—not a lot of fancy sauces to hide the food! Our three full-time cooks have a combined over 70 years here at George’s. We believe that consistency is also a key to our success.”
BEST ETHNIC FOOD, MOST VEGETARIAN FRIENDLY: Sai Ram Indian Cuisine
Priya Sivakumar, Owner
How do you describe Sai Ram? Sai Ram is our family owned business with a vision toward dedication and customer satisfaction. We haven’t had many changes with respect to the food, but the good news is we are working on a remodel plan to give the best environment.
Most popular vegetarian menu items: Navratan Koorma, Shahi Paneer, Paneer Makhani. Customers love our food for its consistent taste along with its great flavor and aroma.
What puts your Indian food above the rest in the Fox Valley? Our food is always made fresh every order, which makes it delightful for a fine dining experience. We never compromise on the quality of food every single time. We use only organic premium quality meat. We don’t use frozen meat.
BEST SALAD ENTREE: Draft Gastropub
“We are able to offer a rustic, casual atmosphere, while serving cutting edge, high quality food and craft cocktails with exceptional service,” District Manager Regina Hueckman says of Best Salad Entree winner Draft Gastropub. “We strive to create an atmosphere where you are able to eat delicious food, without having to worry about a dress code or needing reservations months in advance.”
Most popular salads include their Champagne Salad, a chicken salad with house candied oranges and walnuts and house poached pears accompanied by goat cheese crumbles, grapes and a house champagne vinaigrette.
“A guest favorite is the Black & Bleu Salad, which is added to the menu for the fall/winter seasons. This is a tenderloin salad that has bleu cheese crumbles, bleu cheese sauce, avocado, tomatoes, onions, celery, bacon, and is served with ranch dressing,” Hueckman adds.
“Draft makes our changes to the menu in the fall and in the spring in order to keep up with seasonal food trends. We keep most of our mainstays and guest favorites the same throughout the year, but we like to be able to provide dishes that keep things fresh and interesting.”