Best Iowa Restaurants 2008 | Once Again, Cafe Dodici Takes the Cake … and the Appetizer and the Entree, Too


At Revelations, winner of this year’s "Best People Watching" award, owners Jennifer Howland, Joan Allen, Julie Stephens, and Betsy Howland gawk at the folks lining up to eat and drink in their cafe/bookstore. Photograph by Mark Paul Petrick

In the abyss of one of the most miserable months ever, February 2008, our readers took a break from scraping icy windshields and shoveling snowy driveways to think about a far more alluring subject—their favorite places to eat! The 4th Annual Readers’ Choice Regional Restaurant Contest attracted voters from all over Iowa—and a few beyond our borders—who happily endorsed their favorite eateries and shared their most memorable restaurant stories.

For the third year in a row, Cafe Dodici won the hearts of many, many voters, winning top honors in four categories. A big congratulations to the owners and staff at that beloved Washington institution! Read on as our voters describe some of their perennial favorites and few new restaurants, too. Now . . . winter be gone—let the spring feasting begin!

BEST SUNDAY BRUNCH

Cafe Paradiso
Owners: Steve and Meret Giacomini. Chef: Peter Lee. Fairfield (641) 472-0856

You already know that people love their coffee, but did you know that people also love taking in a happening Sunday brunch at Fairfield’s Cafe Paradiso? Readers were full of praise for the “cozy and friendly and lively” atmosphere where they can enjoy delicious food and see all their friends. As one voter explained, “On Sunday mornings, the first thing we always think of is to get over to the cafe. It’s where the action is at!”

And they love the delicious pancakes, pastries, sausages, potatoes, and quiche prepared by chef Peter Lee, too: “Peter makes the best herbed potatoes,” said one voter. “This is the best organic brunch in the universe!” said another. I guess that’s why, for a lot of readers, “It’s the social event of the week.”

Other Comments
• “Great atmosphere of good eats and bohemian creativity abound.”
• “Peter Lee is a great chef.”
• “Delicious apple pancakes and rosemary-citrus roasted potatoes.”

Finalists
Voters love the Eggs Benedict and Hollandaise Sauce, the blueberry French toast, and the farmer’s omelets at Washington’s Cafe Dodici. “Nutritious and delicious cuisine, attentive and courteous service, elegant and comfortable atmosphere, and a fair price. What more can any feller ask for?” And readers were full of praise for Oxford’s new restaurant, Augusta, with their homemade challah and breakfast sausage and their wood-fired grill. “The hollandaise sauce is fantastic—everything is fresh and made from scratch. I would expect to pay twice as much for the amount and quality of the food,” said one voter. Another loved the generous portions of delicious food: “With any breakfast entree you get a choice of 3 sides, so you can get a taste of everything and no chance of leaving hungry since everything tastes great!”

BEST AFFORDABLE MEALS

Oasis Falafel
Owners and chefs: Ofer Sivan and Naftaly Stramer. Iowa City (319) 358-7342

“Fresh daily” are the bywords at Oasis Falafel, a paradise of mouth-watering Middle Eastern food at a price everyone in the Sultan’s kingdom can afford.

Owners Ofer Sivan and Naftaly Stramer fashioned the recipes themselves, not stopping until the dishes “tasted right,” and structured their menu “the way you do it in the Middle East where you can get anything you want,” Ofer says. Every morning, dishes like hummus, babba ganoush, and tabbouleh are made from scratch using the best quality ingredients, like olive oil, fresh chick peas, and garlic. Voters truly appreciated the care bestowed on every dish, raving about the “best deals on amazingly delicious food” and “falafel to die for.”

Other Comments
• “Hands down the best on-the-go food in town.”
• “The best Middle Eastern food in Iowa. Absolutely delicious.”

Finalists
Topping our finalists in this category—and deserving special mention—is the Augusta Restaurant in Oxford, which had been open barely a month when the contest began and the votes poured in. Founded by two New Orleans chefs who end up in Iowa after Katrina, Augusta makes everything from scratch, from the bread for sandwiches to wood-fired meats.

BEST PEOPLE WATCHING

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

You know that place. The place where it takes you ten minutes or more to walk from the door to the counter because you are greeting everyone you know, which feels like everyone in the room. The place where you go if you are hoping to hook up with some friends on a Friday or Saturday night, or get in a little socializing on your morning coffee run.

According to our voters, that place is Revelations Café and Bookstore in Fairfield. As one voter said, “No matter what time of day . . . it is hopping!” Another voter called it “Conversation central.”

Sisters Julie Stephens, Jennifer Howland, and Joan Allen, who own and run Revelations along with their mother, Betsy Howland, have no trouble drawing crowds with their delicious menu offerings, friendly staff, and the “busy, but relaxed atmosphere warmed by thousands of books to browse while waiting for your friends or [to] read, if you are alone.” One thing is for sure; you won’t be alone for long at Revelations.

Other Comments
• “NOT the place to go if you want an incognito meal.”
• “Best pizza in Midwest and you’ll see everyone on a weekend.”

Finalists
Other great places to see and be seen are Washington’s Cafe Dodici, which, according to one reader, is the place to find “All the beautiful people of Iowa—well, okay, maybe I am exaggerating. Let’s say all the good people of Fairfield, Washington, and surroundings. . . .” Another reader says, “We always run into people we know and are happy to see when [we] go to Cafe Dodici.” In Fairfield, “the ambiance draws everyone, and you can draw on the tabletops,” at Cafe Paradiso. And in Iowa City, Atlas World Grill draws the people watchers with its “great specials” and “consistently excellent food.”

WORTH THE DRIVE

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

Why do our readers think Washington’s Cafe Dodici is “Worth the drive and then some”? Maybe it has something to do with the “great atmosphere, friendliness, and food . . . and AMAZING desserts” that voters mentioned over and over in their comments on this popular restaurant. One thing is clear: whether they live near (“I only have to drive a few blocks, but I don’t want to go anywhere else.”) or far (“If I lived more than 30 minutes away, I would still make the drive…”) our readers love Cafe Dodici.

Other Comments
• “I wouldn’t drive for anything else.”
• “We always stop there when commuting from the Moline airport to Fairfield—wonderful food and wine—best lamb we have ever had.”

Finalists
Also worth the drive is the Augusta Restaurant in Oxford, run by two New Orleans transplants: As our readers said, “I would drive from New Orleans to eat there,” and “Drove from the Quad Cities and will do it again and again.” Voters were also willing to rack up the miles to eat at Iowa City’s Devotay, “Worth driving from MN”; Mt. Vernon’s Lincoln Café: “Worth an even longer drive”; and Kalona’s Tuscan Moon: “Gas is expensive, but this place is worth it.”

BEST FOR A DINNER DATE

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

From the “warm and welcoming atmosphere” to the “exceptional food,” voters deemed Cafe Dodici the restaurant of choice for a cozy romantic date or an intimate anniversary celebration. One diner, clearly transported by the ambrosial experience, declared, “I can’t believe we’re in Iowa.”

Other Comments
• “Great wine list, personal attention, and the atmosphere you can get lost in.”
• “If this setting doesn’t do it, you have other issues to work on.”

Finalists
Iowa City’s Devotay topped our finalists’ list with comments like, “The most romantic restaurant in town,” and “intimate, special, fantastic food.” Fairfield’s French restaurant, Petit Paris, earned praise (“tres fab!”) for its “French organic food [in a] small, intimate space.” Romantic desserts and consistently great food won Linn Street Cafe a place among the finalists. And one voter said of Kalona’s Tuscan Moon, “Makes you feel special, like taking a trip together.”

BEST COFFEEHOUSE

Cafe Paradiso
Owners: Steve and Meret Giacomini. Fairfield (641) 472-0856

French statesman, diplomat, and grand gourmet Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord once described the perfect cup of coffee as “black as the devil, hot as hell, pure as an angel, sweet as love.” Such a declaration is sure to elicit knowing nods from our regional java connoisseurs. Our readers’ favorite place to go when jonesing for a cup of joe was Cafe Paradiso in Fairfield, by a landslide. The cozy atmosphere, complete with shabby-chic couches, a Pre-Raphaelite-esque mural, and the aroma of freshly roasted beans permeating the air, helped to make this coffeehouse the “best in Iowa without a question.”

The all-organic coffee served was a hit with the cafe’s eco-friendly patrons. One reader gushed, “The organic local milk and foaming techniques make it divine for cappuccinos and lattes. Yummm. . . .” Another praised Paradiso’s attention to detail, saying there was “such care in every cup.” Many readers resonated with the warm intention of the staff, leading one to remark, “I love the care they put in creating their coffees—the roasting of fresh beans, grinding to order, and the consciousness that goes in the preparation.”

Other Comments
• “Best coffee and also the most supremely delicious and croissants this side of the Eiffel tower.”
• “Like a European café: great conversations, cozy atmosphere, excellent freshly roasted coffee.”
• “The ONLY place to go if you’re at all serious about coffee.”

Finalists
Java House in Iowa City took second place; one avid coffee drinker explained, “Whether winding down from a night out or looking for a place to study before the big exam, the Java House has the right atmosphere.” Also popular with the java-chugging crowd was Revelations in Fairfield. One smart mom said, “My daughter, the coffee princess from Texas, says Revs is the best!” Washington’s Cafe Dodici Shop received many votes as well, due to its “excellent atmosphere” and “great organic coffee.” The “relaxing” Coffee Corner in Washington also got praised for its “excellent offerings.”

MOST INNOVATIVE MENU

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

What makes a restaurant shine, in a time when so many menus still cling to the typical American (read: boring) standbys, is innovation. Nothing can dazzle a diner more than an unexpected blend of flavors mingling on the palate. When it comes to concocting creative dishes, Chef Adin Wheat at Cafe Dodici takes the cake (Chocolate Kahlua Cake, that is). Readers raved about the originality of the menu: “Always something new and delicious, and something for everyone. It always looks as good as it tastes, too. It’s so fun to eat food that is crafted, not just cooked, and the staff at Cafe Dodici are true artisans.”

Boasting offerings such as pistachio-encrusted lamb with a red wine and pomegranate reduction, it’s no wonder Cafe Dodici earned the top marks for innovation. Voters were delighted to see such a diverse menu tucked away in small-town Iowa. “I can’t believe I’m in Washington!” exclaimed one reader. This atmospheric Italian eatery received accolades for its inventive specials, which were described as “breathtaking” and “always imaginative and terrific.”

Other Comments
• “Big city menu in a small town.”
• “The different foods on your menu sound great but I can’t pronounce them. We just like trying the new stuff.”
• “Tiramisu like Mama made—in fact, it’s her recipe!”

Finalists
The “unusual but tasty” Devotay in Iowa City was praised for its wide selection of innovative options and its “many tapas selections.” Also receiving high marks was Oxford’s new jewel, Augusta. The restaurant’s young chefs are “satisfying Iowa people with New Orleans flair.” Their delicious Cajun offerings include crawfish beignets and deep-fried wild mushrooms. Fans of Motley Cow Café in Iowa City applauded its “brilliant chef, reflected in fabulously created food.” Also lauded were Kalona’s Tuscan Moon (“very current, creative cuisine”) and Fairfield’s Vivo (“Those ravioli!”).

BEST OVERALL DINING

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

Famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright had it right when he said, “Dining is and always was a great artistic opportunity.” The presentation of the meal, the flavors of the freshly prepared food, the ambiance and decor of the restaurant, the gracious and timely service—all of these things add up to a complete dining experience. When one aspect is off, the whole meal can be ruined, but when they work harmoniously, these elements merge to produce a symphony for the senses.

The winner of this category impressed our voters on all levels. Cafe Dodici in Washington flaunted “consistently good food, attentive service, and pleasing ambiance,” and prompted one reader to remark, “ It’s an amazing dining experience every single time.” Another avid Dodician raved, “Even after eating at other ‘fancy’ places in places such as Des Moines, Iowa City, and Galena, IL, this is my favorite place. I never leave disappointed in any way.” Showcasing an impressive array of Italian delicacies, “professional waitstaff,” “the owners’ personal attention,” and “beautiful decor,” Cafe Dodici heralded success in all elements of a gratifying (and artistic!) dining experience.

Other Comments
• “You are more than a paying customer. Wait staff is on the ball!”
• “Wanna go to Chicago in 35 minutes? Come to Washington’s Dodici!”
• “Consistently excellent in ALL areas. A real pleasure every time.”

Finalists
Not only does Iowa City’s Devotay have “great food and great staff,” but our readers also loved its big windows and cozy, eclectic interior. One fan admitted, “It’s always kinda fun to stack the table with tapas and good wine.” Another popular all-around success was Augusta in Oxford, which was applauded not only for having “Simply the best food in eastern Iowa—seriously,” but also for its “warm and friendly but intimate” atmosphere. One reader said of Fairfield’s Petit Paris, “I’ve never felt more welcomed and well taken care of at a restaurant.” Kalona’s Tuscan Moon was recognized for its “fresh, good, flavorful, attractive food, with genuinely welcoming hosts.”

To read the Restaurant Contest results from past years, see 2007 Restaurant Contest, 2006 Restaurant Contest and 2005 Restaurant Contest.

Drawing Winners

Thanks to all of you who voted and made our 4th Regional Restaurant Contest such a success! And congratulations to this year’s drawing winners:

$50 gift certificate from the
At Home store in Fairfield

Ruthie Hutchings, Fairfield
2 tickets to see the Emerson String Quartet at Clapp Recital Hall, April 13
Andrea Jantzen, Riverside
$50 gift certificate toward the performance of your choice at the Englert Theatre
Mary Patterson, Washington
$25 gift certificate from Everybody’s Whole Foods in Fairfield
Allen Cobb, Fairfield
$25 gift certificate from New Pioneer in Iowa City/Coralville
Rosemary Sieren, Washington
2 tickets for Godspell at the Sondheim Center for the Performing Arts
Terry Arellano, Burlington

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