We asked voters in our 5th Annual Regional Restaurant contest to describe an unforgettable restaurant experience—poignant, humorous, stomach churning, or rapturous. So many juicy stories poured in that it was tough to pick just one winner. Thanks to all of you who took the time to recount your remarkable tales of dining out.
Live from Oxford, Iowa… It’s Sally O’Malley!
It was my 50th birthday and my family was going to surprise me with dinner and a party at Augusta, but I found out about the party ahead of time and turned the tables on them. I sneaked in the back door dressed as Sally O’Malley from Saturday Night Live. “I’m Sally O’Malley and I’m 50! I can kick, stretch, and kick . . .” They were floored—we have pictures to prove it. It was a blast, the food and wine were terrific, and the staff joined right in on our fun. It was a great “surprise” birthday party.
THE HONORABLE MENTIONS
When we first moved to Iowa from Atlanta, neighbors told us about the Lincoln Cafe in Mt. Vernon. We decided to try it. When we first sat down and asked for the wine list, we were disappointed to hear that they did not have a liquor license.
Our faces must have shown our disappointment because our waitress said that they would be happy to “loan” us a bottle. Sure, I’m thinking, what’s the catch? No catch, just an experience that is uniquely Iowan. We were simply asked to return a bottle of wine on our next visit.
I have often asked myself if I have ever lived or dined anywhere else where such an experience would be imaginable. The fact that the answer is no does not really bother me, since I now live in Iowa where, indeed, such a thing can and did happen.
P.S. And I did return my “loaner.”
—Alfonso J. Damico
The Other Ben and Jeri’s
They come in droves to hear the famous story. How Ben and Jeri got started. No, not Ben and Jerry, the ice cream guys—Ben and Jeri Halperin, along with Nathan Ruble, of Augusta Restaurant. Ben and Jeri were pushed out of New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit. Losing everything they had, they moved to Chicago, where they both had family. A friend that Ben had worked with in New Orleans now lived in Oxford and told them about a place that was available for them to start their new business adventure.
So while on their honeymoon, Ben and Jeri came to Oxford, used every penny they had to get the restaurant going, and the rest is history. Less than a year after the restaurant’s opening, the Iowa Pork Producers awarded Augusta with the title of “Best Breaded Pork Tenderloin” for 2008. It’s so wonderful to have this great thing happen to Oxford. We’re so proud to have them here. —Kristine Scheetz
Yes, We Have No Bananas
At a restaurant in Ventura, California, no matter what we ordered—main dishes of fish, salads—they came back to say they did not have that item. This went on at least four or five times over a period of a half hour—until they finally admitted that all they had were banana crepes. We were so hungry after a long walk on the beach that we begged them to bring us banana crepes. —Patricia Wood
A Petit Paris Celebration
During my time working as an intern for Way Off Broadway at the Sondheim Center in Fairfield this past summer, I was introduced to many incredible people as well as many fantastic restaurants. One of the biggest supporters of our work, Ken Malloy, decided to throw the cast of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat a private party, aided by the staff at Petit Paris. We reserved the restaurant one night, and wined and dined like we never had before, all dressed quite elegantly for the occasion. Delicious cheese hors d’oeuvres, salads with flavorful and simple dressings, delicious chicken and steak entrees, and plenty of good champagne were enjoyed. The service was just as fantastic as the food.
Towards the end of the night, it began to rain, and as we all went out to enjoy the fresh summer night, a downpour greeted us. Running around the streets in the rain after a night of joy and decadence was one of the many memories created that summer that will always make me smile.
Food Not Okay…
Seventeen years ago, I went to a Chinese restaurant in the local mall in Ottumwa. I had never been there before, and after studying the menu, decided on Beef/Broccoli and white rice.
Well, when my food arrived, I thought it looked really great, and started to eat. All of a sudden I saw something moving on my plate. There crawling out of the broccoli were little black bugs.
I called the attention of the waitress, who spoke very little English, and pointed out the little critters to her.
She said, “Okay.”
I said, “Okay what?”
She said, “Food okay.”
At which time I said, “The food is not okay.”
And she replied, “Food okay.”
To make a long story short, I still had to pay for uneaten food and crawling black bugs. The restaurant was closed down three months later and I only complained to the waitress. I guess everyone else who went there wasn’t as quiet as myself.
We took our kids—and we have quite a few—into Cafe Dodici for their Sunday night hamburger special. While we waited for our food, my two oldest girls drew pictures with paper and crayons the waitress brought. I didn’t think anything of it until my husband and I went back to Cafe Dodici for a night out more than a month later. A child at the table next to us had a child’s menu, and when he set it down on the table, I saw the picture that one of my girls had drawn—now on the back side of the children’s menu.
Vesta: Sharing the Spoils
During the flood, many people came down the Iowa River landing to help sandbag the newly developed area in Coralville and the many independent businesses located there. Vesta restaurant knew it would be losing power, but instead of letting some good steaks go to waste, owner/chef Seth Hershey brought out a grill and made some food for many of the volunteers. —Nick Craig
All of my friends were very excited about the opening of the new Everybody’s Cafe Paradiso in Fairfield, which would continue to serve our favorite coffee in town but with a new allure. Affording cozy red booths to snug into with a group of buddies, and a supermarket attached in case a sudden craving for an apple or yogurt set in, it had advantages we were ready to enjoy.
I was there one morning with a friend before work, each of us sipping a vanilla latte, rich with creamy organic milk from Radiance Dairy. We were feeling quite at home in our booth and marveled at the added privacy it gave us. We therefore launched into conversation, catching up on the last few weeks, especially focusing on the topic of the guy my friend had gone on a few dates with. We were startled out of our reverie by a girl calling across the room, “Who’d you say was your boyfriend?”
I guess we had less privacy than we thought. As we cowered out of the cafe, we may have spotted the potential boyfriend smirking from behind his laptop at a corner booth. Lesson learned—in a small town privacy is not an option, but good coffee definitely is! —Donna Schill
A World Apart
Driving from Minneapolis to rural West Central Illinois, we chanced a search on our GPS for a place to eat. With construction routes and detours, we were just about to give up, when on a corner amid the construction dust, we came upon Dodici in Washington. We entered and thought suddenly that we were in a major European capital on a side street. For about an hour and a half, we were transported to earlier spots we had visited on the other side of the Atlantic. The food and ambience restored our spirits and our estimation of that charming rural town. We plan to return. —Charles Weston
Many Names, One Server
It was a warm Friday night, to be spent with some girlfriends over dinner on Givanni’s patio. I called for a reservation and talked with Stephen but forgot to give him a name. I quickly called back and explained the situation to Ryan, who had answered the phone. He said, “Oh sure. I just spoke with you.” To which I asked, “Do you answer the phone with a different name every time?” “Most of the time,” was his response. Apparently, it was a slow night at Givanni’s. —Shannon Thomas
It’s a Small World After All
One time I went into Revelations with my laptop to have a bowl of soup and get some Internet work done. I had several email exchanges with someone for the first hour I was there, and when my battery started to run low, I went to the other room to find an available outlet. The guy I had been emailing was right there!
“I’ll Have Onions with That”
At Linn Street Cafe one evening, a gentlemen at the table across from me ordered the fish special. I also had already ordered it—it had 7 or 8 components, all paired and executed beautifully. I’m a foodie, and it was one of the best dishes I’ve ever had.
Anyhoo, this guy orders it with nothing but the white truffle mashed potatoes that come with the beef tenderloin. “I don’t want any of that foofie s__t, I want some real food, potatoes!” When his table of four got their dinner, they got three beautiful plates—including the special—and a white plate with potatoes and a piece of fish on top. Disregarding the other picture-worthy plates on the table, he told the server: “Oh no, tell the chef I need some diced onions.” The server brought him the diced raw onions—not on the menu—and he proclaimed, “Ah, now it’s perfect.”
I thought about slapping some sense into him, but I was laughing so hard that my date was starting to think about the check.
—Peter J. Kauss
Echoes of Katrina
After finishing another delicious meal at the Augusta restaurant in Oxford, a diner was heard to say: “Well, something good did come out of Hurricane Katrina.” Jeri, the owner and waitress, without missing a beat, said, “I assure you, there was nothing good about that storm. The misery continues.”
You Say Potato, I Say Yuck
One of my worst experiences was at a local restaurant, where I loved to order their baked potatoes. Once when I opened my potato, it looked as if it had either been rewarmed or was just not good—it was very woody and not f luffy like it should have been. So I told the waitress about it. She went to tell the cook/owner, and then she sent her back to tell me that there was nothing wrong with the potato.So I didn’t eat it.
On the way out, they asked me how the meal was. I said it was great except for the potato. The cook came over and opened a potato and said, “See, these potatoes are fine.” I said, “Well, that one is, but the one I had was not.”
She glared at me and acted offended, as if I had insulted her cooking. It had nothing to do with her cooking, it was just a bad potato. Whatever happened to “the customer is always right”? All she had to do was bring me another potato. How much would that have set them back? 25 cents?? I have not eaten there since. My parents were also with me and they have not eaten there since either.
In Case You Haven’t Heard…
First of all, let me start by saying that I have had the good fortune of eating at the finest restaurants in Asia, Europe, and Australia. However, most Iowans have no clue of what is right under their very noses—a fine jewel of a restaurant called Cafe Dodici in, of all places, tiny Washington, Iowa. I came to know of this restaurant by reading the Source—ironic, right?
Now, why is this place great and why should it be compared to finer restaurants in the world? Well, for one, it certainly isn’t going to break your budget. It isn’t cheap by Iowa standards, but good food never should be. Moreover, the offerings are diverse, and the taste—well, that is out of this world. . . . What makes Cafe Dodici superlative is the consistency of it all. (FYI, I highly recommend the pistachio-crusted lamb chops. )
But the story just gets better. The true reason to separate Cafe Dodici from the rest is its owners. Most restaurateurs tend to hide from their customers or turn their places into sterile eateries. The couple that runs Cafe Dodici met in Italy and are gracious, cultured, intelligent, and, dare I say, funny. Why is this important? It is important because it makes one feel special. And it isn’t a one-way street. The owners get feedback on the customers’ pulse of the place—which I think is equally important.
I cannot recommend this place enough. If I did win the 50 dollars, guess what I would do? That’s right, I’d be back in Washington, Iowa, ordering the next luscious offering at this hidden gem. So what are you waiting for? Cafe Dodici isn’t paying me to write this. Go try it out for yourself. Sometimes the best things in life are under your very nose.
Vesta: Keeping the Kids Happy
As told by my husband: My wife, one-month-old daughter, parents, brother, sister-in law, and our two-year-old niece all went out to eat at Vesta in Coralville. We knew this might be a difficult task and that our time at restaurant might be brief due to the unpredictable moods of the children present. My brother and sister in-law, however, had become seasoned veterans of eating out in public and came prepared with a series of snacks, toys, and other items to distract Olivia during the meal.
However, one thing Olivia could not do without was her favorite drink: milk. When our server came and took our drink orders, a brief panic came over our party as we learned that the restaurant did not have any milk available. Sensing the urgency, our server went out and bought some milk just for this eager customer. The crisis was averted and Olivia was a happy girl. Not only that, Olivia’s second staple food was cheese, a delicacy that she thoroughly and vocally enjoys. Throughout the night when our server noticed that Olivia’s plate was nearly clear, he would return promptly with another plate of fresh grated cheese. This not only kept Olivia happy, but the adults were able to enjoy a wonderful night of delicious drinks, appetizers, entrees and dessert. It was a night that will not be forgotten."
Getting Hungry Just Thinking About Cafe Dodici
My sister and her husband celebrated an anniversary at Cafe Dodici about a year after the restaurant opened. They told us we had to go. They said that not only was the food delicious—from the antipasti down to the dolci—but that she overheard the owners speaking Italian. This was the real deal. My husband is first generation Italian, and he loves the chance to converse in Italian. He was sold.
We went for brunch—mmm—then for our own anniversary dinner-—wow! The food was fresh, delicious, and bountiful. And Lorraine and Alessandro were charming and welcoming—they did indeed take the time to sit down and chat with Pete in Italian. Soon Cafe Dodici became our restaurant of choice for many a family celebration and business event.
In fact, in the years since, we have chosen to celebrate the December birthdays in our extended family—there are six of them—at Cafe Dodici. We know that we will find a warm welcome in a relaxed yet festive setting, and that our meals will be prepared to perfection.
What are some of our favorites? The Tuscan cheese tray for starters, the Tuscan tomato soup, the rosemary and champagne glazed chicken, the eggplant parmesan, the portobello ravioli, the tuna and swordfish—and, ooh, the new duck in cherry sauce, and of course, the tiramisu, just to name a few. . . . Wow, I just worked up an appetite and am ready to drive to Washington.
The Accidental Anniversay
When I relocated from New England to Iowa for my doctorate three years ago, finding a nice romantic restaurant wasn’t on my top list of priorities. At the ripe old age of 26, I was resigned to the fact that maybe romance and I weren’t a good mix. Shockingly, this kind of sentiment can change quickly—about as quickly as it takes to meet someone and recognize an instant connection. So, when that happened to me, and my ideas on romance pulled a U-turn, I was as surprised as anyone.But I certainly wasn’t complaining.
Anyway, enough of the mush. In no time at all, the “Six Month” milestone was upon me, and I still had to come up a plan for the anniversary. See, I’m extremely superstitious about certain things—namely sports and relationships—and I didn’t want to jinx a great relationship by planning too far in advance. Nevertheless, on the day of our “big date,” I got down to business finding an appropriate venue for our celebration. My first mistake was having a six-month anniversary on the same day that the Hawkeyes played Penn State at home. My second mistake was having said anniversary on the day the Hawkeyes actually defeated the then-No. 3 and undefeated Nittany Lions in the final second. Pandemonium.
When I called restaurants for reservations for that night, I was left with the impression that somehow I should have known better all along. After an hour of being scorned and mocked at all the nice restaurants in town, I started to panic. Desperate, I began searching as far away as necessary—there was no limit to how far I was willing to go to salvage the night. I seriously considered a road trip out of state if I could find something reputable.
Fortunately, things didn’t come to that, as my Google search of “best restaurant in Iowa” directed me to Cafe Dodici in Washington, Iowa. The drive was a little far but reasonable, the menu looked great, and if the food tasted even remotely as good as advertised, I would have been satisfied.
My expectations were met and then some. The food was excellent (the menu offers gnocchi as a choice for a side dish, but anyone who has ever tried it will testify it is not a choice but a necessity), our server was attentive and didn’t hesitate to provide us with any recommendations, and the owner made a point to greet every table of patrons during the meal and have a polite and genuine conversation.
We couldn’t have asked for a better meal, a better restaurant, or a better anniversary. We have been back there and will continue to go back for many special occasions in the future. Except now we don’t need to use Penn State as an excuse.
The Grape Flavor Syrup
This is something I wrote while reflecting on working as an employee at Ritual Cafe.
2008. Summer. Ritual Cafe. Closing shift. Syrup bottles. The grape flavor dispenser. The grape flavor dispenser was like a younger cousin: bothersome, “not fair” attitude, repeated jostling of my sanity via iterated, inane behaviors.
Ritual Cafe is a place where an employee is consistently busy. If I wasn’t wiping a grinder, spot sweeping, wiping a counter, sweeping the entranceway, or wiping and sweeping in general, then I was a few rungs closer to the hell-born-and-raised words: “You’re fired.”
So it was apropos that I pretend to examine the floor for crumbs or wipe the syrup bottles whenever I couldn’t find a spec on the counters. In fact, it was required to wipe the syrup bottles twice daily. Most of the syrup dispensers were dandy little nippers, absent minded when I swabbed them—but the grape flavor dispenser had an agenda. Every time I would wipe it, it spit its flavor somewhere on me out of spite. Or perhaps it was jealous that I had legs, and could walk and talk and choose my career choices, whereas it could only atrophy under the fate of being depressed by hands. I even went as far as to not touch the dispenser and simply give the bottle a meager caressing—like an estranged pedophile—but still it spat it’s poison, it’s hatred, it’s ensconced umbrage … well, it’s combination of sugar, water, and grape flavoring—onto my arms—onto my lips, which, I guess, wasn’t so bad— onto my ultramodern and distinctly fashionable shirts. . .
And all I could do was simply shrug, like a bullied geek suppressing the urge to cry out, while my favorite flavored dispenser disarmed any hope of reprisal. Why? I love grape flavoring. In most scenarios I would select grape over any other flavor. It’s mystic sapidity takes me back to my adolescent days, where I would separate the purple skittles from the lesser ones. I’m not racist, just extremely picky. And it brings me shame to share this ultimate truth: there was never a happy covenant—no mutual understanding. It continued, and to this day continues, to dispense it’s detestation. But, my dearest readers, we can’t despise the dispenser for it’s actions, no matter how unjust. We must understand it’s misunderstanding. It knows no sympathy, despite my consolatory soft hands, and it is tired, so tired, of being used for the pleasure of others.