Welcome to the Winners' Table
Welcome to the Winners’ Table, where the food is always the best and the company is convivial and friendly because we’re all neighbors and, when you take the long view, it’s obvious we’re all in this together.
Fort Wayne does seem to be proving that a city that might be challenging for one good restaurant can be great for a group of them.
Let me explain: I moved here when Cafe Johnell (sighs of delight from those lucky enough to remember …) was the only show in town cuisine-wise, and its proprietor was always talking about the struggles he faced. Today, highly trained chefs are in the kitchens of taverns (where, of course, they have revolutionized the food), and you can count on good soup, a truly fresh salad and actual vegetables and skillfully made sauces alongside your entrees in restaurants, bars and diners all over town. Busy, bustling restaurants, bars and diners, it is important to note. Going out to eat here requires a lot more decision-making than it used to. And that is a great problem to have!
Fort Wayne’s local restaurateurs have built — and local diners-out eagerly support — a food culture that respects a good restaurant meal as a celebration, a reward, a respite and just plain fun. And it leaves room for a meal out as a practical necessity without making it something to dread: The food is still great and the service smiling and neighborly. I think we owe our local restaurants a big thank you for so capably providing every kind of restaurant experience modern life demands. We actually have what we need. The things we still want are actually embellishments and extras … and would be really wonderful additions (hint, hint).
The 32 restaurants that will be mentioned throughout this Best Restaurants issue won this moment of fame thanks to their loyal fans and patrons who voted for them in our July balloting period, pushing them to the top of the 154 restaurants that received votes. The winners group themselves gracefully into a handful or so of fascinating categories, so here we go.
BEST OF THE BEST
1. Baker Street
2. Cork ‘n Cleaver
4. Black Canyon
7. Oyster Bar
8. Club Soda
9. Hideout 125
If you want to make a solid choice for a great meal out – lunch or dinner – this crowd-sourced list cannot be beat. Choose any restaurant on it. If you’re especially hungry, choose the one you’re closest to. If you’ve got plans after dinner, choose the one closest to your event. You’ll enjoy a great meal with great service in lovely surroundings.
That said, Baker Street did get special praise from its fans on their ballots. Sandra Payton pointed out its “excellent service and outstanding food.” Cheryl Williams added praise for its “wonderful menu, fantastic food and wait staff are on their jobs!!”
Robert Barrett offered advice for menu selections: “Lobster bisque and Bananas Foster are a great beginning and ending to the evening dinner at Baker Street.”
Drew Hirsty, whose ballot included five of the Best of the Best restaurants, called attention to a particularly nice service he appreciates: “Bravo to the Oyster Bar for the ability to split entrees.” It’s a service I’ve seen rendered at other fine restaurants in town, too, and it’s very much appreciated when people want to dine out but do not want or need to eat very much.
This list is strong in steaks and seafood, and it branches out into some individualistic territory under exploration by talented chef/owners, too. Hideout 125 and Catablu have especially interesting menus, and Hideout 125’s bar menu is fascinating in and of itself.
It seems unlikely if not impossible, but in case anyone still doubts the high quality of Fort Wayne’s top restaurants, here is an important report.
It comes from Karen Adams, who voted for Baker Street, Paula’s and Club Soda. She explained that she was “on a one-year work assignment in Fort Wayne. Tried to hit everything suggested by colleagues and friends. These three stand out.”
BREATH OF FRESH FLAVORS
2. Black Canyon
3. Bar 145
4. Hideout 125
5. Wine Down
6. Lodge at Coyote Creek
7. THE Hoppy Gnome (special editor’s mention)
This category is cause for special celebration. Look at this strong group of newcomers! We have added The Hoppy Gnome with a special editor’s mention because it opened during the balloting period for this contest and really didn’t have a chance for recognition by readers. But it is an obvious early success, and it deserves a mention among the group of strong newcomers. This group of restaurants, gastropubs and bars adds whole new dimensions to dining out in Fort Wayne. Bravas, the very informal restaurant/carry-out place, quickly transformed its legion of food truck fans of its imaginative hotdogs into legions of fans for its imaginative burgers. Wine Down has dramatic interior design and high-tech wine dispensers. The Lodge at Coyote Creek is a wonderful restaurant with a menu stretching from a nice dinner to after-golf snacks because it’s also the restaurant at Coyote Creek Golf Club. One of the dining rooms and the outdoor patio overlooks the gorgeous 18th hole. Bar 145 is a big hit with the college crowd, judging from the email addresses on the votes for it.
WE LOVE CASUAL
2. Redwood Inn
3. River bend Pizza
4. Cosmos House of Pancakes
5. Lucky Moose
6. Rib Room
8. Chrome Plated Diner
None of our previous Best Restaurant contests have had a category like this one, and we opened up the balloting this year on purpose to make room for it. The variety of the winners – and the 154 total restaurants that received votes – confirms that opening up the contest was the right idea. Recognizing the importance of these casual restaurants is important. We don’t always have time (or the money in the week’s budget) for fine dining out, but we can much more often relax and enjoy something casual. So we go to one of these wonderful places.
You will note that this list touches on breakfast, lunch, pizza, supper and fun places for a bite to eat while you’re having a drink out with friends. And the family is welcome (except where prohibited by law).
It’s also fun to note the great things happening under the new ownership at Redwood Inn. We are hoping they’ll be thrilled to be a Fort Wayne Magazine Best Restaurant, but, honestly, what could top being able to post on your sign (as the Redwood did earlier this year): “Alton Brown loves our sausage rolls!”
Special diets deserve great food
Two small places loom large in their fans’ hearts for a very particular reason: Pembroke Bakery & Café and Loving Café.
Heidi Bruner explained it on her ballot, which she split between the two cafés: “These two places have been my saving grace to be able to eat amazing food despite my food allergies.”
Their appeal is not limited to people on special diets, of course.
As Naomi Hall said on her ballot, “Pembroke food is always delicious. They have so many options I can come here with my non-vegan friends, and everyone is happy.”
EATING LIKE WE’RE ELSEWHERE
1. China Palace
3. Casa Ristorante
4. Yen Ching
It was no surprise that ethnic restaurants were getting votes in our contest. The fascination for us was with which ones would end up on top. Our monthly restaurant listing is well endowed with ethnic eateries from many traditions.
So, please accept our apologies for lumping world cuisines together. But look at what the comparison suggests.
Suggestion the first: Despite Fort Wayne’s wealth of Mexican restaurants, or perhaps because there are so many of them, none of them made it to this top tier of winners. Instead, we have three Chinese restaurants, three Italian restaurants and a Japanese restaurant.
It’s heartwarming that Chinese restaurants, which were the first ethnic restaurants in cities across the Midwest, are still so dear to us. The ancient cuisine is complex and delicious, and these three restaurants are interesting representatives of it.
Next big thing: It’s newsworthy that this contest is our first in which another Italian restaurant (in this case, another restaurant chain) nudged ahead of Fort Wayne Magazine readers’ longtime favorite Casa Restaurants. Congratulations, therefore, to Salvatori’s!
And it’s interesting that a Japanese restaurant also made it to the top tier. Unfortunately, the balloting doesn’t tell us whether it’s Asakusa’s sushi or its new grill offerings, so we will assume it’s the combination that makes the success.
Vagaries of voting
(or foodies and their weird ways)
When votes are sent in, they are time stamped, which inevitably leads to speculation on our part about what was going on when the votes were cast.
It’s easy to construct the scenario when a burst of votes arrives for, say, Bar 145 between 10:45 and 10:48 p.m. on a Saturday. A group of friends just all voted for Bar 145 (where they are most likely all seated at a table or standing near the bar in the story I’m telling in my imagination), plus whatever other restaurants they are now discussing.
But what about the ones that arrive in a burst at 6:30 a.m.? Who is thinking about Best Restaurants then? Quite a few people who vote in our contest, it turns out. So thanks, folks — whoever you are and whatever the trigger that led to you voting at this unusual time.
And, restaurant owners, you should appreciate the loyalty of your patrons, some of whom voted for you — just as our rules allowed — once a day every single day of
First appeared in the October 2015 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.