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2012 Regional Restaurant Contest

Our Voters Choose Their Favorite Eastern Iowa Restaurants

by Sarah Kingsbury, Nina Benjamin, and Claudia Petrick

If you’re a fan of restaurant reality shows like Top Chef or Kitchen Nightmares, you’re probably familiar with the  pressures behind that pretty plate of food that arrives so pristinely at your table. To honor the culinary masters who work so diligently to transform raw ingredients into magnificent meals, we asked our readers to vote for the eateries they love and tell us why they return again and again for their favorite dishes. Read on to find out who got the votes this year.

MOST ROMANTIC

Cafe Dodici
Washington (319) 653-4012

cafe dodici
A carved phoenix reigns over the Cafe Dodici's dining room.

When it comes to picking an ideal locale for a romantic repast, our readers flock to Café Dodici in Washington for its “wonderful atmosphere,” “stunning décor,” and “great Italian menu.” Dubbed “the perfect place for lovebirds” by one voter, the artfully designed Dodici provides diners with just the right ambiance for budding romances and lifelong lovers alike—and its “outstanding” food doesn’t hurt, either. “Ask for the table by the phoenix,” suggests one reader, and get cozy between courses with the help of mood-setting candles and wall sconces. As one diner reminds us, Dodici is “a destination restaurant—expect it to be a memorable event!”

Other Comments

• “Best romantic atmosphere.”
• “Love the pillows!”
• “Big city dining in small-town Iowa.”
• “We constantly marvel at the fact that we have Cafe Dodici in Washington.”

Finalists

Augusta Restaurant in Oxford earned this year’s runner-up spot, thanks to its “New Orleans old-world romantic feel” and “delicious food.” One faithful Augusta fan shared, “We were engaged here and they catered our wedding. Best atmosphere EVER!” Couples feel like they’re on “a romantic getaway” while surrounded by Augusta’s “candlelight and great music,” and the “unique, restored 1800s building on a quaint Main Street” adds to the cozy charm.

The award-winning wine menu at Rubaiyat in Decorah is reason enough for sweethearts to sup there, but “the cozy booths,” “great atmosphere,” and “delicious food” take it up a notch on the romance meter. One voter shared, “we love having our own little table in the corner by the window.”

Honorable mentions go to Vivo in Fairfield, noted as “the best place for gourmet food in a quiet, loving space,” and Kalona’s Tuscan Moon, “a classic charmer” where voters enjoy the “romantic, but not pretentious” atmosphere.

BEST MEXICAN

Arandas
Fairfield (641) 472-4328

The original Arandas, located in the BP Station on 2nd Street, is a popular lunchtime pit stop for many Fairfield diners, offering tasty Mexican food, buffet style. These days our voters are also enjoying the authentic food that Arandas serves in generous portions at the restaurant’s new second location across the street from the Fairfield Post Office. Voters say the service is “good, fast, and friendly,” and “their Nachos Originales are to die for.”
 
Finalists

Readers love the runner-up in this category, Little Mexico in Mount Pleasant, because of the homemade chips and cheese dips, chimichangas, and delicious margaritas served in a colorful, friendly atmosphere. One voter said, “For those of us who can’t tolerate the hot seasonings, they offer plenty of delicious, passionate items that won’t require Tums!”

In Iowa City diners can’t get enough of the “locally sourced, delicious food” served by El Banditos. “They do a good job taking traditional dishes, putting a new enthused one El Banditos fan. “One of my major complaints since moving to Iowa is the lack of flavor; [their] Shrimp Diablo burrito put those complaints to bed,” commented another. Voters also liked the “great atmosphere and mouth-watering food” served at Pueblo Real in Mount Pleasant and Tlaloc’s “great food, great prices, and convenient downtown location,” in Fairfield.

I'D EAT MY LAST MEAL AT ...

Cafe Dodici
Washington (319) 653-4012

Our readers were happy to indulge us in their last-meal-on-earth fantasies, and the majority of them chose Washington’s Café Dodici as the setting for this feast of all feasts. “I would die happy!” one reader mused, while another remarked, “Kahlua cake and coffee, then . . . finis!” What makes this small-town restaurant stand out in our voters’ minds as the perfect finale for their palates? As one Dodici diner said simply, “fun, yum, and ambiance.” Another explained, “I would desire a nutritious (and delicious) meal, heading into that next-life journey.” Whatever their reasons, our readers eagerly supplied us with praise for individual dishes:

• “Butternut squash ravioli in sage and brown butter—divine!”
• “The eggplant parmesan is my standard by which I judge all others.”
• “Have to eat the Chicken Roulades one last time.”
• “Tiramisu is to DIE for!”
 

Finalists

The authentic Cajun Augusta, in Oxford, ranked right up there as one of the best spots to bid farewell to culinary pleasures (and, well, all of life’s pleasures), garnering comments like this: “From the moment of arrival, I know I will be catered to like a queen . . . whatever delicious choice is made, [it will be] with the knowledge that everything is 100 percent made from scratch.” One reader was adamant that, “if I have to decide on my last meal, hands down, I will go to Oxford to get their beignets.” Others called Augusta a “comfort food haven” and applauded its “amazing food,” enjoying the “Iowa beers and big smiles served up in a non-fussy, eclectic atmosphere.”

Other runners-up include Rubaiyat, in Decorah for its “varied and delicious” selection and “most amazing food, from the salads to the wine menu and desserts”; Tuscan Moon, whose “chicken marsala is beyond belief”; and Iowa City’s Orchard Green, which one reader said “gives meaning to ‘to die for’.”

BEST SUNDAY BRUNCH

Cafe Dodici
Washington (319) 653-4012

What is Sunday brunch but an excuse to turn a utilitarian meal into a midday gab-fest? It’s an august American tradition that embraces comfort food, cozy digs, and caffeine-fueled conversation. Our voters once again embraced Café Dodici as the location of choice for its welcoming ambiance and luscious menu. The only moment of tension comes from the tempting offerings—how do you choose? Will it be gourmet French toast slathered with homemade blueberry compote? Or one of the many dishes made with local, cage-free eggs, like house specialty Eggs alla Pizzaiola? One voter has the perfect solution: “The Eggs a la Lorraine are a must have, preferably accompanied by a Bloody Mary, a cup of intelligentsia coffee, and shared with someone eating the blueberry French toast.”


Other Comments

• “Consistently excellent.”
• “Always difficult to decide on the entree I’m having. They’re all delicious!”

Finalists

Fans of Cafe Paradiso’s Sunday brunch rave about the “best roasted potatoes ever,” not to mention “the best coffee north of the Amazon.” One Paradiso regular declared, “I love to kick back with a Sunday New York Times, a latte, and good friends.” Now isn’t this what Sunday is all about?

Made from scratch, Cajun-inspired, and  flavor-infused are the hallmarks of Sunday brunch at Augusta Restaurant, where our voters loved the “wonderful, real food” and the “eggs Benedict made with real Hollandaise and homemade English muffins.” Other voters chose Rubaiyat in Decorah as their go-to spot for regular family brunches. Voters especially loved Rubaiyat’s signature Breakfast Bowls, like the Southwest Bowl, a tasty combination of scrambled eggs, Iowa-made Italian sausage, tomatoes, cheese, and salsa.

BEST PIZZA

Revelations
Fairfield (641) 472-6733

Americans love their pizza. Estimates put the amount of pizza consumed in the U.S somewhere between 90 and 100 acres per day! That’s a lot of pizza. And if we’re going to eat that much pizza, shouldn’t we eat only the best? Shouldn’t we seek out the pies with crusts that are the perfect combination of chewy and crisp, loaded with gooey cheese and fresh, flavorful toppings? Our voters think so, and according to them the best pizza can be found coming straight out of the wood-fired oven in Revelations Café and Bookstore in Fairfield. Readers love the texture that the speical clay oven gives to the crust along with the creative, customizable toppings and gluten free and vegan options that are served alongside the more traditional pies.

bruschetta, heirloom tomatoes
The wood-fired oven at Revelations turns out crisp pizza crusts that inspired our readers feel make the best pizza in the region.

Other Comments

• “Not your everyday pizza place—Rev’s wide, wide array of styles and toppings cater to any customer.”
• “Very trendy ambiance that fulfills both the hunger in my stomach and may mind.”

Finalists

Can’t make it down to Fairfield for the perfect pizza? No worries, Pagliai’s in Iowa City has been baking pizza from authentic, Italian family recipes in stone hearth ovens for generations. And customers have been loving them for just as long, saying, “There is nothing better!” and “We have loved this pizza for 40 years!” In Washington, pizza lovers can head to Dino’s Pizza and Steak House for pizza so good that some couples have found that it’s positively inspiring: “My husband proposed to me in the parking lot of this great pizza place!” And pizza lovers in Decorah can enjoy the sweet life (and the intriguing sounding “junkyard pizza”) at McCaffrey’s Dolce Vita, where “the owners put love into the pizza and their restaurant, and it shows.” Their wood-fired pizza ovens probably don’t hurt either!

BEST COFFEEHOUSE

Café Paradiso
Fairfield  (641) 472-0856

A good coffeehouse acts as a community hub where friends, neighbors, and colleagues enjoy flavorful brew and pastries while catching up on the latest gossip in cozy surroundings. For most of the Iowa Source’s coffee-loving readers, the combination of organic coffee beans roasted daily onsite by co-owner Steve Giacomini, lattés made with organic milk from the local dairy, and nonstop conviviality means that Café Paradiso in Fairfield is that hub. For these voters, Paradiso is “hands down, the best. The best coffee, the best people, the best atmosphere. Period.”

Other Comments

• “Best coffee in the world and all my friends live there.
• “They care about coffee.”

Finalists

Café Paradiso is not the only place in Southeast Iowa that has achieved that trifecta of great coffee, great people, and great atmosphere required for coffeehouse perfection. In Washington, voters head to Dodici Shop for the “great coffee and interesting people to talk to.” In Iowa City, the Java House is the place to go to enjoy that “relaxed and homey feeling” with your cuppa joe. Nursing a steaming mug of caffeinated goodness at Revelations Café and Bookstore in Fairfield led one voter to ask, “Tasty coffee, books, Internet—is this heaven?” Other coffee-loving readers enjoy the Coffee Corner in Washington saying, “Great Atmosphere, great service, it is for everyone.”

NEW & NOTABLE

Shokai Sushi
Fairfield (641) 469-3277

How many small Iowa towns can boast their own sushi bar? When Shokai opened their doors in Fairfield earlier this year, sushi lovers flocked to the inviting spring-green interior with its sleek black bar. Our voters praised the rich miso soup, Shokai wings—available hot or mild—and of course the great selection of top-notch sushi rolls (including seven different vegetarian choices). Among the favorites is Shokai Firehouse, a roll filled with crab  and cream cheese, then topped with a spicy tuna mixture and sweet eel sauce. Its vegetarian counterpart is called the Veggie Firecracker. Now, who wouldn’t want to celebrate with that?

shokai sushi
Nikhom Sisomphane and Nikom Sisomphane of the family-run restaurant Shokai Sushi.

Other Comments

• “A rising succesful small-town sushi bar that could easily compete with big-city talent.
• “Great selection!”
• “Their rolls rule.”
 
Finalists

Baroncini, an elegant new Italian eatery on Linn Street in Iowa City, had many voters salivating for their “fantastic, authentic Italian food, worth the drive, and appetizers and desserts that are a must at every meal.” Trained in Verona, Italy, chef Gianluca Baroncini diligently seeks out seasonal local ingredients for his contemporary Italian cusine. And our voters noticed: “For a place that’ s not even been open a year, they’re really something.”


Many of our readers voted for New Orleans-inspired Augusta in the “New & Notable” category, even though the revered eatery was actually “new” in 2008. As one voter put it, “They have been here a while, but the menu is always new and the food always fresh.” Amen to that.

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