Restaurant Contest 2007: Our Readers’ Memorable Meals and Favorite Eateries


Tuscan Moon in Kalona, Iowa, won the award for Best-kept Secret. Chef John Olson (left) works with owners Paula and Warren Miller to make the food, service, and musical entertainment topnotch. Photographby Mark Paul Petrick

In his autobiography My Own Story, the great, generously endowed opera singer Luciano Pavarotti writes, “One of the very nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating.”

We can’t argue with that sentiment. And what outstanding venues we have to choose from in Southeast Iowa when we’re ready to stop and indulge in that sublime activity. Judging by their enthusiastic response to our 3rd Annual Restaurant Contest, our readers couldn’t agree more. From the delicious entrees and enticing desserts, to the hip décor and lively entertainment, our readers found much to satisfy their palates.

So read on and find out which dining establishments grabbed our readers’ attention. They’re all worth the drive.

Best Service—Café Dodici and Vivo

Café Dodici: Owners: Lorraine Williams, Tsalika Drown, and Alessandro Scipioni; Chef: Adin Wheat. Washington: (319) 653-4012

Vivo: Owners: Vipul Gupta, G.D. Gupta; Chef: Noah Lobdell. Fairfield: (641) 472-2766

It takes great skill to prepare great food—but getting it to scores of tables on time is another matter altogether. When it comes to tip-top service, Washington’s Café Dodici and Fairfield’s Vivo emerged as a cut above the rest with our readers.

Voters raved about Dodici’s “impeccable service,” and helpful, friendly, consistent staff. One reader enjoyed her Dodici experience so much she pronounced: “This restaurant is a pearl in the state of Iowa.” Another reader was more wistful with her praise, writing, “Sigh! Sigh! Is it time to go back yet?”

An evening at Vivo offers the same great attention to detail, according to readers. “The food is always awesome and served in good time,” wrote one reader, “Great waitstaff!” Pulling off entrées like Tofu with Fresh Tomato and Ginger Sauce or Filet Mignon with Lobster Cognac Sauce is no small feat. So kudos to Vivo for doing it with flair, “fast and friendly service, and a great manager!”

Other Comments:

Café Dodici: • “This is the place to go when you want an excellent dinner. We live in Oregon, but partake of Café Dodici whenever we are back in Iowa for a visit.”

• “The Italian dishes are always very tasty and we enjoy taking national and international guests to this restaurant.”

Vivo: • “World cuisine at Iowa prices.”


Iowa City’s Devotay won votes for “smiles from the wait staff and even an occasional wave from the kitchen.” Our readers loved the “fast and friendly and attentive” servers at New Pioneer Co-op in Iowa City and Coralville, not to mention “the way they give you samples of everything.” At Tuscan Moon in Kalona, one voter said, “Management and service is outstanding—feels like home.”

Favorite Lunchtime Restaurant: Revelations Café

Owners and chefs: Betsy Howland, Jennifer Howland, Joan Allen, and Julie Stephens. Fairfield: (641) 472-6733

If you’re lucky enough to lunch regularly in Fairfield, a fresh, inviting meal is just a few blocks away at Revelations. If not, the eclectic café and bookstore is well worth the Saturday drive. Grab a good book to thumb through, pull up a chair, and savor the gourmet, often organic soups, salads, and sandwiches, plus desserts, coffee, and tasty wood-oven pizzas that are “the best in the state.”

Other Comments:

• “The place where you’re most guaranteed to run into an old friend.”

• “Fun spot to meet and eat with friends, or for quiet relaxing.”


The town’s Entrée Café is another big Fairfield favorite, with readers praising its signature sandwiches, salads, and entrées.

It should come as no surprise that the IC and Coralville New Pioneer Co-op delis scored big points among readers as well, for their fresh, nutritious lunch munch material, including a fresh juice bar, 18 kinds of freshly baked breads, savory soups from scratch, hearty sandwiches to sink your teeth into, calzones, cold cuts, hot entrees, salads, and more, plus a grocery store brimming with all kinds of healthful goodies. Looking for the “healthiest and tastiest lunch in the area”? Head to the nearest New Pi for “a delicious and healthy lunch that won’t leave you with that mid-afternoon let-down.”

Other lunchtime favorites include IC’s Oasis Falafel (“fast and tasty!”), Masala (excellent lunch buffet”), and Takanami (great deal for an elegant lunch”).

Coolest Vibe: Café Dodici

Owners: Lorraine Williams, Tsalika Drown, and Alessandro Scipioni; Chef: Adin Wheat. Washington: (319) 653-4012

From the “cute twin waitresses, wow!” to the tasteful art and décor, Café Dodici won the hearts of readers far and wide for its unparalleled vibe. Waxed one reader, “Lighting sparkling in the mirrors; the tinkling of glasses; tasteful Italianate décor; hands-on, family-owned, and knowledgeably managed by people who have lived in Italy,” Dodici has it all.

Effused one enthusiastic male patron, “The entire waitstaff is beautiful. It’s kind of a coincidence they all work together!” And then there’s the food: Caprese, Calamari, Raspberry Salmon, Pasta Puttanesca, Pistachio-Encrusted Lamb, and so much more!

Other Comments:

• “It makes you feel good just to walk in the door!”

• “It feels like home to go there.”


Worth the Drive: Café Dodici

Owners: Lorraine Williams, Tsalika Drown, and Alessandro Scipioni; Chef: Adin Wheat. Washington: (319) 653-4012

What makes a restaurant like Washington’s artful and elegant Café Dodici worth driving an extra mile or two to visit? According to our readers, a number of things. Said one, “It’s worth the drive for the artwork, furniture, and décor, but the food is the best around, too.”

Barb Black, of Iowa City, beautifully summed up the Dodici experience for us: “The drive from Iowa City provides a beautiful, rolling, rural landscape that belies the sophistication of the restaurant you’ll find on the square in downtown Washington. The richly colored silk pillows and banquettes along with eclectic art throughout is a comfortable and elegant backdrop for excellent food, from appetizers through dessert.”

Other Comments:

• “The tiramusu is definitely worth the drive.”

• “We live about 250 miles from Washington and always stop in when we are in the area.”

• “Interesting in all attributes: great menu, wonderful wine list priced modestly, well-trained staff, decor well done.”


Mount Vernon’s Lincoln Cafe is worth the drive too, say readers, for its “unique, delicious cuisine” with entrées like “Alaskan Halibut with Black Chickpea-calamari Stew” and surprises like Basil Ice Cream. Be sure to check out Tuscan Moon, where you’ll find “big city décor with a relaxed, unrushed feel” and some of the “most unique food around.” Effused one reader, “Tuscan Moon’s chef, John, has the most amazing palate. He combines food in a way that makes you want to explore the unknown.”

Best Coffeehouse: Café Paradiso

Owners: Steve Jacomini and Meret Amick. Fairfield (641) 472-0856

Eliciting perhaps our favorite comment from the entire competition, Fairfield’s Café Paradiso inspired one reader to write, “Steve [Jacomini] makes cappuccino like Monet paints a garden! Eat your heart out, Starbucks!” Great things are always brewing in this terrific, small-town café, where you’ll find fresh-ground fair-trade coffee, organic dairy products, and a never-ending stream of talented visiting musicians.

Says Italian-born Fairfielder Caterina Tomaselli, “If you want espresso that tastes like the ones in the best ‘bars’ in Rome, you can go to Café Paradiso.”

Other Comments:

• “Hands down best coffee ever tasted from anywhere in the world.”

• “This is the only coffee in the world that I like.”

• “Steve cares intensely. It shows.”


Iowa City’s Java House received accolades as well for their cuppa joe, tea, pastries, and low-key vibe. Praise from fans ranged from the effusive: “Each cup is brewed individually to perfection with bold flavor” to the diehard: “It’s the American Gothic! Accept no substitutes!” to the downright practical: “The jolt gets me going every morning!” If you’re in the I.C. area and looking for “excellence in a cup,” hit the Java House. Other quirky and quality places to filler up: Digger’s Rest Coffeehouse in Burlington; I.C.’s Capanna Coffee and House of Aromas; and Fairfield’s Revelations.

Best for a Dinner Date: Vivo

Owner: Vipul Gupta, G. D. Gupta; Chef: Noah Lobdell. Fairfield: (641) 472-2766

If you’re looking for “high class dining in a small town,” Vivo is a terrific place to wine and dine. Readers lauded the elegant, upscale venue for its dim lighting, candles, relaxed sophistication, fine array of wines, and delectables like Asiago Dip and Miso Grilled Salmon.

“It’s a very romantic setting to take your date,” wrote one reader. Another inventive poller wrote, “Vivo’s has all the shma-shma without the snoodiness!” Hear, hear!


For “great food and hipness without pretension,” head to Iowa City’s Devotay, where much-loved chef Kurt Michael Friese will whip up all manner of sumptuous and slow-grown fare, from hot or cold tapas, gourmet salads and wraps, and entrees like Vegetable Paella and Grilled Wild Life Lakes Elk Tenderloin.

Romance is in the air at IC’s Taste on Melrose, “a small, quaint restaurant . . . with a very warm and welcoming feel.” Our readers favor The Motley Cow, also in Iowa City, for its cozy atmosphere and “incredible, delicately balanced dishes.” Other divine dining spots include Kalona’s Tuscan Moon and Washington’s Café Dodici.

Best Desserts: Café Dodici

Owners: Lorraine Williams, Tsalika Drown, and Alessandro Scipioni; Chef: Adin Wheat. Washington: (319) 653-4012

Are you sensing a theme here? Yes, once again, the winner is Café Dodici, this time for its dreamy array of desserts that hit the sweet spot for readers from Fairfield to Cedar Rapids—and beyond. The ambient Washington café’s Chocolate Kaluha Cake and Tiramisu had voters waxing both terrestrial and celestial, with comments like, “The Chocolate Kaluha Cake is a little piece of heaven!” and “Their Chocolate Kahlua Cake and Tiramisu are probably the most enjoyable desserts anyone could have on earth.”

Other Comments:

• “Fantastic desserts—if you leave room for them!”

• “The homemade desserts are simply delicious.”


Other toothsome treats can be found at Fairfield’s Vivo (3-Pot Crème Brulee Trio, Caramel Pear Bread Pudding); Iowa City’s Atlas World Grill (“flourless chocolate cake that’s to die for”); and the IC and Coralville New Pioneer Co-op (a wide array of “desserts to dream about but never feel guilty eating!”).

Best-Kept Secret: Tuscan Moon

Owners: Paula and Warren Miller. Chef: John Olson. Kalona: (319) 656-3315

If you haven’t yet, our readers strongly recommend you hop in your car and escape to Kalona’s Tuscan Moon Gift Studio and Wine Garden for a few treasured hours of big-city living with an Old World flair.

“People are amazed that Kalona has such a unique spot,” wrote one reader about the venue, which dishes up mouthwatering fare, charming décor, excellent vino, and regular entertainment by great names in music including David Zollo, Kevin Burt, and Lazyboy & the Recliners.

Located in the renovated Old Kalona Hotel, the Tuscan Moon serves dishes that are decidedly “not your mama’s standard fare,” and range from Pesto Crostini to Linguini Diablo and Jamaican Jerk Porkloin. “This place deserves a lot of recognition,” wrote one reader. “The owners and staff work hard to bring the best food, service, and live entertainment week after week.”

Other Comments:

• “This restaurant is in a class of its own.

• “Every effort has been made to keep the old-town atmosphere while adding an incredibly upscale dining experience.”


Other perhaps little-known but much-loved dining nooks include Gupta’s Vegetarian in Fairfield for wonderful Indian food prepared by the owners. And in Iowa City: Motley Cow for “low-key, great organic and locally grown food,” La Reyna for authentic south-of-the-border fare (“finally, a really Mexican Mexican restaurant in town”), and Soleil’s Solar Café for “the best ‘word of mouth’ place around.”