Every year about this time, we hungrily tally up the votes in our Readers’ Choice Restaurant Contest to find out where our readers love to nosh. As the four of us pored over mountains of mouth-watering comments describing one delectable dish after another, we unanimously arrived at the same conclusion: time to plan a brunch field trip!
It’s no accident that certain voter favorites show up again and again. These restaurants consistently demonstrate that they have the culinary knowhow to satisfy diners’ palates, the chops to dependably turn out quality meals, and that extra something that makes their patrons feel right at home.
And it’s an extraordinary feat, because running a restaurant is no piece of cake. You’ll find some of the most passionate, committed, and hard-working people in the industry keeping these dining establishments going day after day after day.
So join us in planning your own restaurant field trip, and discover what your fellow readers are raving about.
—Compiled by Claudia Petrick, Sarah Kingsbury, Nina Benjamin, and Christine Schrum
BEST FOR A SPECIAL OCCASION
Washington (319) 653-4012
When celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, and other special occasions, readers flock to Washington’s Café Dodici (above) for “unique, fresh food,” a “warm, inviting atmosphere,” and consistently excellent service. One voter said they are “always treated like royalty” when dining at Dodici, while others described the romantic ambiance as “a true European experience in Iowa—wow!”
Café Dodici’s been wooing readers for years with its rich atmosphere and dazzling dinner menu, which features Italian specialties as well as other inventive dishes, such as Chicken Fajita Pasta. What better place to celebrate? Voters can’t get enough of Dodici’s “elegant-with-hometown-touches” approach to dining. “If you close your eyes you will feel you are back in Italy,” one reader mused, while another boasted of having spent “every New Year & Valentine’s Day for six years” at Dodici. Here’s to more delicious dining—and more happy occasions to celebrate!
• “We do indeed go there to feed our souls.”
• “Incredible in every way!”
• “Lovely place to enjoy a special night out with wonderful family and friends.”
• “So comfortable and special! They make you feel like you are friends coming to visit.”
Augusta Restaurant was this category’s runner-up, praised for its “amazing food” and “fantastic atmosphere”—it “feels like coming home,” said one reader of the New Orleans transplant. Open in Oxford, Iowa, since 2008, Augusta has consistently impressed our readers with its “tremendous combination of New Orleans, Chicago, and Midwestern cuisine,” leading one satisfied diner to proclaim it “the most memorable place in Iowa I have eaten at in my 23 years in Iowa.” Readers rave about Augusta’s personal touch, saying, “You feel like a long-time friend from the moment you walk in the door.” Chef Ben Halperin’s food “makes any occasion special.”
Tuscan Moon in Kalona also received top honors, garnering praise for its “wonderful atmosphere and even better food.” One reader said, “the top-notch service and well-prepared food reminds me of a meal and service I’d receive in a high-end [restaurant] in Chicago.” Others gushed about Tuscan Moon’s “great wine list,” “entertainment at night on the weekends,” and “fantastic owners and caring staff.”
Honorable mentions include Iowa City’s Red Avocado, noted for its “excellent selection of local vegan fare, with organic wine & beer choices to boot,” and Fairfield’s Top of the Rock Grille, which has a romantic atmosphere and a “wonderful variety of entrees.” Iowa City’s Devotay, noted as having the “best ambience around,” also won our readers’ hearts, as did the “very elegant” Orchard Green in Iowa City.
BEST FRESH AND LOCAL FARE
Iowa City (319) 351-6088
It’s no surprise that the Red Avocado was the top vote-getter in the fresh and local category: they practically invented it! With a homegrown, hippie-ish vibe and all-vegan menu, the Red Avocado has doggedly sought out area growers since its inception. Eaters of all stripes—vegans, vegetarians, and omnivores—find something to like in their varied and innovative menu. “It’s vegan, but still good,” said one voter. And many pointed to the Red’s freshness policy: “You can clearly taste and feel the difference in the food quality.”
Besides the seasonal specials, voters praised the Veggie Burger Plate and Jupiter’s Gnocchi (made with a rich tomato-coconut milk sauce) as favorite dishes.
• “Creative, amazing food from local farmers—need I say more?”
• “The same fresh food that is available at the farmers market shows up on their specials and in their dishes. Now that’s local!”
“YUM, YUM, YUM is all I gotta say!”
“Devotay really captures the spirit of locally grown and raised food with their savory and creative dishes,” gushed one voter about the Iowa City stand-by. Our readers also lauded efforts by owners Kurt and Kim Friese to educate the public about local producers. At Augusta Restaurant, just about everything is made from scratch. “Love that they use Iowa meats for their Iowa dishes—and local beverages even,” commented one voter. Perennial fave Cafe Dodici won props for “promot[ing] local producers, freshness, and support[ing] local businesses too.”
At Revelations Cafe, “their ongoing commitment to serving local foods is laudatory.”
We also wanted to give a shout-out to other restaurants for their dedication to serving fresh and local food:
• Lincoln Café, Mt. Vernon: “Great supporter of local foods,” “always fresh, always delicious.”
• Motley Cow, Iowa City: “The always-changing menu is a treat.”
• Bistro 322, Burlington: “Grows their own in backyard gardens.” Wow!
• Kokopelli’s, Fairfield: “All organic lunch buffet” featuring Mexican dishes.
• The Drake, Burlington: “Prides themselves on buy fresh buy local.”
• Top of the Rock, Fairfield: “They serve special items monthly.”
• La Tavola, Burlington: “I run into the owners buying local all the time.”
Revelations Cafe & Bookstore
Fairfield (641) 472-6733
What did we ever do for lunch before the invention of the sandwich? Source readers have identified four restaurants that have turned the humble sandwich into a work of culinary art. Their number one favorite sandwich stop is Revelations in Fairfield. Customers love the atmosphere there almost as much as the “creative and delicious” sandwiches, calling the cozy book café “the best meet and greet place in the region,” Revelations makes their sandwiches on locally baked bread and tops them with locally grown produce. And if you’re yearning for a sandwich, but don’t want to deal with the lunchtime crush, Revelations’ online ordering lets you get the sandwich you crave without the wait.
• “Great turkey burgers and cappucino, great atmosphere surrounded with books, good music on PA, friendly baristas.”
• “Very tasty sandwiches with organic greens.”
In Coralville and Iowa City, the New Pioneer Coop is the go-to sandwich destination. Readers praised the coop’s deli for its large selection, which includes lots of vegetarian and vegan options. As one happy diner put it, “New Pi keeps it fresh, clean, green, and awesome!”
In Washington, sandwich lovers can visit the Dodici Shop (next to Café Dodici) to pick up “delicious, unique, healthy, and fresh sandwiches ready to go” for a quick and tasty lunch.
Meanwhile Augusta Restaurant has put Oxford on the sandwich map with their classic New Orleans-style po’ boys, their big easy burger, and their award-winning pork tenderloin. Best of all, their generously sized sandwiches are served on homemade bread with toppings that include homemade mayo and pickles with homemade sweet potato chips on the side.
BEST SUNDAY BRUNCH
Washington (319) 653-4012
Mmm, brunch. What better way to savor a lazy Sunday—and where better to linger with friends and family than the artful Café Dodici?
Like it sweet? Tuck into an order of gourmet French toast made with freshly baked croissants and drizzled with homemade blueberry compote and real maple syrup. Like it fancy? Readers say “their prosciutto omelet is outstanding,” “the Eggs Benedict are to die for,” and “the Eggs alla Pizzaiola is an excellent dish.” Like it traditional? Enjoy eggs made to order or a hearty breakfast burrito.
One voter said Dodici’s brunch is “always interesting, tasty, and worth the drive.” Another said it was “a wonderful gourmet take on the tradition.” Proprietors Lorraine and Alex have perfected the art of easygoing elegance, so bring your appetite, settle in against the backdrop of fab fine-art finds, and dish with friends over a “truly outstanding brunch!”
On any given Sunday, you’ll find Fairfield’s Café Paradiso (or, Café P, as the locals say) teeming with folks who know a good pancake when they taste one. “Their pancakes are god!” one voter raved. (Did he mean good? Either way, we agree.) If you’re a fan of organic, fluffy pancakes; savory omelets; and robust coffee that’s paradise, one little cup at a time, Café P’s the place to be.
The Augusta’s Sunday brunch sounds like a worthwhile reason to jump in the car. Fans claim they have “the world’s greatest haystack ever.” One reader says Augusta’s brunch offers “so many good things and such generous portions it makes me want to eat ’til it hurts!” With menu items like Crab Benedict, homemade biscuits and gravy, fried cheesy grits, and classic steak and eggs, we can see the temptation.
Dining sans dairy? Readers say the Red Avocado “makes organic, vegan food taste great!” Fresh smoothies, fabulous burritos, savory crepes, hearty scrambles . . . is it Sunday yet?
MOST EXOTIC FOOD
Washington (319) 653-4012
Sometimes you need to step out of your comfort zone and take a walk on the wild side. Or at least dine on the wild side. Source readers’ top pick for exotic eating was Café Dodici in Washington. Not satisfied with serving some of the best Italian food in southeast Iowa, Dodici has made it their mission to show diners the world by hosting guest chefs who in turn serve food from places like China and Cuba. As one guest said, “From kangaroo to ostrich, you can find great feature dishes at Café Dodici, and sometimes Cuban dancers too!”
• “Wide range of exotic foods. Special menus on special occasions.”
• “Stepping out of Iowa and into Italy no matter the season.”
Indian food is popular with our voters this year. Serving a wide variety of traditional Indian dishes, Exotic India in Coralville serves what one customer called “exotic comfort food.” And voters were also full of praise for the “always tasty” buffet offered at India Café in Fairfield and Iowa City. Last but not least (and not at all Indian), Augusta Restaurant in Oxford offers New Orleans-style eating that is more exotic than you might expect. As one customer asked, “Where else can you get great tasting alligator?”
Fairfield (641) 472-0856
For the sixth year in a row, Fairfield’s Café Paradiso took top honors in the coffeehouse category. With its new location on the square, Paradiso is a magnet to passersby (not to mention its diehard regulars) jonesing for a java fix. “What would Fairfield be without Café P?” one reader pondered. We don’t want to think about it! The organic, fair-trade coffee beans, roasted in-house; the friendly, expert baristas; the ever-rotating cast of local and touring musicians gracing the stage at night—Café Paradiso has made its mark as one of Iowa’s hottest hangouts.
Readers swooned over Paradiso’s espresso, calling it the “best outside of Italy,” even “on the planet!” One faithful fan summed it up well by saying, “Let’s just say I can’t drink coffee anywhere else.” Cheers, Paradiso, to another well-deserved win!
• “Best caramel latte ever!”
• “Awesome croissants on Fridays.”
• “Best place to listen to awesome live music, while nursing a hot beverage and hanging with friends.”
Java House in Iowa City claimed second place, garnering readers’ praise for its “great espresso,” “local, tasty seasonal drinks,” and “cozy setting.” One voter promised that Java House’s Peanut Butter Mocha “will change your life for the better.”
Other readers loved the organic espresso drinks at Dodici Shop in Washington, calling the coffeehouse “warm, cozy, and wonderful,” and extolling its ambiance, whether as a “go-to for out-of-the-office work meetings” or “just a cool place to hang out with great people.” Dodici Shop even earned a special nod from a non-traditional patron: “Excellent. And I’m not really a coffee drinker!”
BEST NEW RESTAURANT
We have a tie in this category! So, lucky for you, we’re tempting you with two very different but highly recommended restaurants to try.
Husband and wife team Shelly Kolar and Bryan Herzic have brought their refined touch to Orchard Green.
Iowa City (319) 541-1642
Chef Bryan Herzic didn’t let a flagging economy stop him when he launched Orchard Green in September 2009. A veteran of Jim Mondanaro’s Fresh Food Concepts, Bryan puts his innovative spin on American food with a Mediterranean flair, all served in rich, elegant surroundings with wood-paneled walls and cathedral ceilings.
Voters praised the fish specialties (flown in fresh from Chicago), thick steaks and chops, and vegetarian entrees. Embracing the “green” part of their name, Orchard Green recycles where possible and sources their pork and beef regionally and other products locally in season.
• “It has become a new favorite for me and all my friends.”
• “Great food, really neat ambience.”
• “Menu items are fresh, local, and incredible.”
Crepe Escape Cafe
Fairfield (641) 472-5199
Owner Christine Goodale makes each crepe to order at Crepe Escape Cafe.
“Who else sells legit French crepes?” asked one appreciative voter. Indeed, French-born owner Christine Goodale brings her sure Gallic hand to perfectly cooked and seasoned crepes, in a modest restaurant tucked into the corner at Everybody’s Whole Foods. Voters already familiar with Christine’s tasty offerings served at the local farmers market welcomed the chance to dine on her specialties every weekday when the restaurant opened its doors in December.
The Crepe Escape Café offers a wide assortment of its namesake on the menu (including the popular avocado, artichoke, black olive, and Jack cheese Californian Crepe and the goat-cheese, pesto, red pepper Bellissima Crepe), plus seasonal specials. Rounding out the lunchtime fare are quiche, spanikopita, soups, and desserts—all expertly homemade and using mostly organic ingredients.
• “Handmade crepes prepared while you watch, made with organic ingredients. This not just a dessert crepe but a complete meal in a crepe. Simply wonderful.”
• “Vegan, gluten-free crepe options. Fresh, satisfying food, and decadent desserts.”
Readers love the family-owned La Tavola in Burlington, just a short walk from the Mississippi River. Sicilian-born Carlo Falcone, with his wife Cheryl and extended family, turn out “homecooked Italian dishes [that] are out of this world” in a cozy trattoria.
“Fresh, like gramma would make” is one voter’s endorsement of El Banditos in Iowa City, where homemade Mexican dishes (like hand-rolled tacos) made from family recipes use local beef, pork, and lamb.
BEST SUNDAY BRUNCH