3101 W. White Oaks Dr., 217-726-5070; 3019 S. Dirksen Parkway, 217-529-6200
It's hard to dispute the popularity of Panera Bread. Nearly any time of day, a line of people can be found waiting with anticipation to order freshly baked bagels, brownies, loaves of sourdough, and sandwiches. Everything on the menu is delicious. But the variety of food Panera serves (and the free samples near the entrance) is not the only thing that makes this bakery chain special. The relaxed, casual atmosphere has made Panera a meeting place for business lunches and casual get-togethers. You might find a group of young mothers with their babies in tow meeting for an afternoon cup of joe or college students with their laptops nestled in for a day of studying. The comfy faux-leather chairs are just the place to sit back and enjoy a cup of coffee and a slice of sesame semolina or Asiago-cheese bread.
Runners-up (tie): Jubelt's Bakery and Incredibly Delicious
Corky's Ribs and BBQ
3458 Freedom Dr., 217-787-2227
Our readers have good taste, at least when it comes to barbecue. Since 1984, Corky's has been serving up its slow-roasted hickory-smoked ribs and barbecue in the South. The Memphis-based chain was named No. 1 by readers of Memphis magazine for 18 years and No. 1 by Southern Living magazine for six. Springfield may be a long way from Dixie, but we like Southern tradition -- at least when it comes to pulled pork and chicken slathered in tangy sauce. Strap on your bib and dig into a rack of tender ribs, served wet or dry, or a sandwich piled high with beef brisket or pulled turkey, chicken, orpork. And of course, because this is Springfield, there's even a Corky's 'shoe -- made with smoked pork. Local owners Barry and Christina Hickman deserve a big hug for bringing real Southern barbecue to central Illinois. Barry, who was born in Memphis before moving north with his family, says his first solid food was barbecue.
Runner-up: Smokey Bones BBQ & Sports Bar
BEST BEER SELECTION
617 E. Washington, 217-525-6399
The rules of engagement in tavern management state: Serve beer, and they will come. Mike Parkes, owner of the Brewhaus, took that maxim to heart when he and Wally Beck opened their doors 10 years ago. Parkes stocks an extensive variety of beers totaling more than 250 different brands and blends of the ancient mix of bubbles in alcohol. To aid your search of the vast volume of beer, the Brewhaus provides a handy listing of the various libations available at the bar, with spots for checkmarks so that you can keep track of your beer travels. Take your time and don't get lost. It's an adventure worth savoring.
Runner-up: The Barrel Head
700 North St., 217-241-2104
There's just something about eating inside a Quonset hut that makes the food taste better. OK, not really. But when it's served in a Quonset hut decorated as a '50s-style shiny diner chockfull of nostalgia, that opinion certainly holds true. Not that Charlie Parker's needs any help in the kitchen. The plate-sized portions of pancakes and breakfast horseshoes made with cheese sauce or gravy are served all day. If you can eat the four-pancake stack without help, the diner pays for the meal. The unofficial motto is "Nobody leaves here hungry." The portions are huge, and the prices are right. You can even get a bottomless cup of coffee for 93 cents. To top it all off, the setting makes it seems as though you're stepping back in time to the days of bobby socks and James Dean.
Runner-up: D & J Café
1774 W. Wabash Ave., Jerome, 217-787-8299
Illinois Times readers have spoken: Bigger really is better. Buffet City, which calls itself the "largest New York-style Chinese buffet in Springfield," offers more than 150 items. And there's something for everyone -- from sushi rolls to Chinese dumplings and everything in between. There's soft-serve ice cream and crab legs. Or how about ribs, fresh fruit, and egg-drop soup? The food is fresh and replenished frequently. Just follow your nose around the large serving stations featuring tubs of steaming entrées, from sesame chicken and dim sum to chicken legs and potato wedges. Fresh-seafood options include snow-crab legs, baked and raw oysters, mussels, and peel-and-eat shrimp. As soon as you're finished with one plate of food, a member of the fast and friendly waitstaff will whisk it away so that you can load up another one. A sushi bar and Mongolian grill are located at the back of the restaurant. A word of advice: Head there first, or you might never make it.
Runner-up: Ryan's Family Steak House
Steak 'n Shake
3186 S. Dirksen Parkway, 217-529-5823; 2100 S. Sixth St., 217-522-2361; 1580 W. Wabash Ave., Jerome, 217-787-0392; 4211 Conestoga Dr., 217-698-9439
Here in central Illinois, where the Steak 'n Shake phenomenon began, we tend to take this institution in the burger business for granted. This was all too clear when a Texas friend of ours recently called with the big news that the first Steak 'n Shake in her neck of the woods had just opened to great fanfare. We should realize how lucky we are to have four of these jewels right here in Springfield. This restaurant chain focuses on cooked-to-order food, served to guests with real china, glass, and flatware -- no plastic spoons here. The burgers start out as cuts of steak that are then ground, formed into pucks, and cooked on a grill in a kitchen in plain view of the customers (the origin of the famous slogan "In Sight It Must Be Right"). You can also get it topped with cheddar or Swiss, mushrooms, bacon, or barbecue sauce. The best part? You can eat one of these tasty burgers anytime, because Steak 'n Shake is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Runner-up: Krekel's Custard
Joe Rogers' Original Recipe Chili Parlor
820 S. Ninth St., 217-522-3722
You can get it with or without oil or beans. You can get it firebrand hot -- or not. No matter how you like your chili, the bowl of greasy goodness Illinois Times readers like the best comes from perennial favorite Joe Rogers, which overwhelmingly won this category. At one time, more than a dozen chili parlors and even more taverns and local cooks served up chili in the capital city. Although most of them are gone, this local institution, also known as "the Den," lives on. Owner Marianne Rogers still uses the recipe her father did when he opened the original eatery in 1945 -- a tiny place with 11 stools and standing room. Today it's still a true greasy spoon, but we mean that in a good way. There may be more items, such as tamales, on the menu, and the waitresses may wear spiffy matching uniforms now at this cute diner, but the chili's the same. That secret recipe, by the way, is kept under lock and key at a local bank, waiting to be passed on to the next generation.
Runner-up: Steak 'n Shake
BEST CHINESE RESTAURANT
Hunan Chinese Restaurant
1101 W. Wabash Ave., 217-793-0999
According to manager Nia Wong, it's all about the sauce. At Hunan, which also won this title in 1998 and 1999, the special homemade ingredient in many dishes is a spicy stir-fry sauce. "Our sauce is different than others," Wong brags. This cozy Chinese restaurant, with white walls and shiny red tablecloths, doesn't overdo it on elaborate décor. Instead, attention is focused on such specialties as walnut shrimp and tai chenchicken, shrimp, or beef -- although they're not the menu, regular customers know to ask for them. The restaurant, which has been serving diners for more than 20 years, is currently owned by Steven Lo. You can't beat the lunch buffet with 16 items, including ginger beef and crab Rangoon.
Runner-up: Tai Pan Chinese Restaurant
Trout Lily Café
218 S. Sixth St., 217-391-0101
Coffee drinkers take their drink of choice seriously, commenting on tastes and aromas as well or better than any wine connoisseur. Kate Hawkes, owner of the Trout Lily Café, takes that passion to heart and prides herself on great-tasting coffee and the praise of her loyal customers. But a coffeehouse does not become best by its coffee alone. Hawkes serves sandwiches, cookies, bagels, and a fabulously famous butter cake. She also displays and sells the works of local artists and hosts original acoustic music every weekday at lunchtime. Add a colorful exterior and a unique and ever-changing interior, and there you have it: Springfield's best coffeehouse.
Runner-up: Starbucks Coffee
925 S. Seventh St., 217-528-8548
Wedges of rich, dark flourless chocolate cake. Little lemon tarts. Flaky chocolate croissants. These heavenly sweets are just a few of your favorite things -- and they come from pastry chef Patrick Groth, owner of this unique French-inspired bakery located in the historic Weber House. Who needs a Krispy Kreme doughnut shop when you can buy freshly baked pastries made from scratch? Tarts are offered in a rainbow of fruit flavors, in addition to coconut, chocolate, and almond. Cakes come in mouth-watering lemon coconut, orange, chocolate pistachio, and customer favorite lemon raspberry, which is a white cake layered with ribbons of raspberry jam and lemon curd and topped with buttercream frosting. This bakery goes far beyond your basic brownies. (Although those cheesecake brownies are scrumptious as well.) Of course, the desserts served here are the perfect finish to a light lunch. But why save the best for last? Order dessert first -- you'll be glad you did.
Runner-up: Baker's Square
D & J Café
915 W. Laurel St., 217-753-1708
Last year, this popular little café won an Illinois Times award for the first time. It repeats this year for the same reasons: good family-style cooking and friendly service. The diner is owned by Dennis and John Price, who took over operations in January from their parents, Dennis and Brenda, who opened it in 1974. In fact, Dennis and John's parents named the place after them. Dennis, who began washing dishes at the family business when he was 13, says he sees many customers three times a day. The new ownership hasn't changed things much: You can still eat breakfast all day, and there are daily specials such as roast beef and mashed potatoes, horseshoes, and a $6.25 all-you-can-eat walleye dinner served between 4 and 9 p.m. There are also 21 flavors of pie, oh my!
Runner-up: Parkway Café
BEST FISH SHACK
Carter's Fish Market
1900 E. South Grand Ave., 217-525-2571
It's easy to find adequate, and not difficult enough to get bad, but it's really hard to locate a place that serves properly fried, flavorful fish. So when you find a special place that cooks it right, that's wonderful. Our readers wisely say Carter's Fish Market is that place in Springfield. It's the shack for fried walleye, catfish, buffalo, and carp. That's where the good stuff comes from -- tasty and crispy right before it goes soggy and greasy. You know what we're talking about, and so do the folks at Carter's.
Runner-up: Walleye Stop
BEST FROZEN DESSERTS
With Baskin-Robbins to the east and Sno-Bizz to the west, the intersection of Laurel and MacArthur is a tough spot for calorie counters. It's hard to go wrong with ice cream or shaved ice, and we love them both. What we love about Baskin-Robbins is its reliability and accessibility -- you can count on all 31 flavors to be delicious and the store to be open 13 hours a day, seven days a week. The omnipresence of owner Glenn Yanow (celebrating his 30th year with the store) and the vibrant mural he commissioned for the back wall counteract the chain-franchise feel. What we love about Sno-Bizz is just the opposite. Owned by a couple so young that both were born after Yanow bought Baskin-Robbins, the place isn't always open when you think it will be, and the quality of the product varies according to which surfer dude is manning the little wooden shack on any given day. But there's nothing more relaxing than sharing a shaved ice at one of the rickety wooden picnic tables in the shade behind the shack. And the flavor possibilities are endless -- 60 to start with, "and then when you start mixing it's endless, definitely," says 27-year-old co-owner Matt Bluhm.
BEST HAPPY HOUR
620 N. Bruns Lane, 217-793-0440
Don't get this confused with the historic happy hours of days gone by. In the alcoholic fog of the past, when two-for-one drinks were a mainstay of every corner bar, happy hour meant something else altogether. Now it's more about food and atmosphere than how much alcohol can be consumed in two hours or less. Alexander's Steakhouse, the choice of a sophisticated electorate, offers free nachos and vegetables plus a discount menu for kebabs and other appetizers and an occasional daily drink special. The staff turns the TVs on with the sound down and lets the music play in the background, and a happy hour (or two) it is indeed.
Runner-up: Sammy's Sports Bar
2413 S. MacArthur Blvd., 217-726-9800
In a town that prides itself on the horseshoe sandwich almost as much it does on its Lincoln connection, this isn't an easy category to win. After all, nearly every restaurant is town offers a horseshoe of some sort on its menu. But D'Arcy's Pint is doing something right by once again winning this contest by a mile. The Irish pub has smothered some stiff competition in making the capital city's trademark masterpiece of meat, bread, cheese, and fries. Since 1998, D'Arcy's has been a popular place for traditional Irish fare such as shepherd's pie and Dublin pot roast. But it's the cheesy concoction that customers can't get enough of. D'Arcy's offers 12 varieties of 'shoe, including ham, corned beef, turkey, vegetable, walleye, and the deluxe, featuring seasoned ground beef, onion, bacon bits, all served with Texas toast, thick French fries, and homemade thick cheese sauce prepared daily with white cheddar cheese. The crowd-pleaser (and our favorite) is the spicy Buffalo-chicken version, which is served with a side of hot sauce and blue cheese or ranch dressing. After all, too much of a good thing is, well, a good thing.
Runner-up: Ritz's Lil Fryer
BEST HOT DOG
113 N. Sixth St., 217-744-3644
Let's make one thing clear: There's more to the dog that meets the eye. First of all, it can't be just any dog -- it's got to be all-beef. Then it needs the right bun -- steamed and the right size to cover its contents. Finally, of course, there are the toppings, from mustard to hot peppers and sauerkraut. Wienerdog owners Mark Anderson and Rob Deaton, who are dedicated to the dog, have it down to a science. They know whereof they speak (and eat). They tuck their dogs inside toasted imported New England-style rolls. They know the hot dog yield of a pound of meat (the small dogs are "ten-to-ones," or 10 wieners per pound). In the land of the beloved Cozy Dog Drive In and Coney Island, this isn't an easy category to win. But Anderson and Deaton's Chicago-style dog is a perfect blend of dog, bun, mustard, deli relish, onion, tomato, pickle, cucumber, celery salt, and all-important sport pepper. Other specialty dogs include the Seersdog, named for the hotdogs served with Cheez Whiz that many Springfieldians recall being served at the Sears store.
Runner-up: Cozy Dog Drive In
BEST ITALIAN RESTAURANT
801 E. Monroe, 217-544-2523
This family-owned restaurant has been serving up comfort food at the same location since 1948. Southern Italian recipes passed down through four generations are used to make lasagna, homemade ravioli, and spaghetti with meatballs. But Saputo's is known almost as much for its clientele as for its food -- its location across from City Hall has made it a favorite among local politicians. You can usually find noted elected officials and other Springfield movers and shakers filling out more than one of the booths and discussing politics over a plate of antipasto.
Runner-up: Olive Garden
BEST LATE-NIGHT MUNCHIES
El Presidente Burritos
235 S. Sixth St., 217-544-9535
Those who dare often scale the dizzying heights of success. And so it is in the case of El Presidente, a Hispanic-influenced downtown eatery. Against all odds and common sense, the proprietors of the restaurant, which is located at the intersection of Sixth and Monroe streets in the location that once housed Jimmy's Sub Shop, decided to stay open past 10 p.m. on weekends! The gumption and gall of these upstarts paid off immediately with a hefty clientele of late-night eaters munching burritos not nearly as big as their heads until 2 a.m. Steak 'n Shake came in second by a mere vote. See? Every vote does count!
Runner-up: Steak 'n Shake
BEST MEXICAN RESTAURANT
Xochimilco Mexican Food
3210 Northfield Dr., 217-544-9206, 2941 W. Iles Ave., 217-546-3116; 6901 Preston Dr., 217-483-1006
With so many new Mexican restaurants popping up all over town in the last year, Xochimilco -- which also won this honor last year -- must have served a lot of chips and salsa to hang on for a repeat win. The real Xochimilco (pronounced "so-she-milco") is an area just southeast of Mexico City whose name means "place of flowers." Springfield's version features a few fake potted plants hanging from the ceiling, but it's the authentic Mexican food and large margaritas that keep customers coming back. Brightly colored walls, hanging piñatas, lively music, and a festive atmosphere serve as a backdrop for the spicy and scrumptious shrimp fajitas, enchiladas, tacos, and quesadillas.
BEST MARTINI SELECTION
11 W. Old State Capitol Plaza, 217-527-9911
Sometimes some things just make sense. Springfield's only officially labeled martini bar, 11 West, wins the martini category Ñ handily. Wow. The club is also privy to a great view of the Old State Capitol and all of the action on the Fifth Street strip. With comfortable couches in which to lounge as you sip one of the many available varieties of martini, it's a place in which to see and be seen. The bar morphs into a body-packed dance club around 11 p.m., so if the concoction you crave is dry or dirty, shaken or stirred, get in and get out, or you'll be dancing and sloshing or ordering a more manageable bottle of beer.
Runner-up: Indigo Grill
BEST NEW RESTAURANT
3317 Robbins Rd., 217-793-1900
When Mariah's restaurant opened last fall in the space once held by the Fox Run Restaurant, it had big shoes to fill -- literally. The large log structure more resembles a ski lodge (complete with antlers on the wall) than an Italian restaurant. But owner Sam Alkhayyat has hit the right note with Illinois Times readers. This is the first restaurant venture for Alkhayyat, who formerly worked at the Olive Garden. He and his wife, Mary -- who named the place after their daughter -- have filled the space nicely with rich Italian dishes. The menu offers soups and salads, plus pasta, steak, chicken, and pork dishes. Mariah's salad is a fabulous mix of fresh greens, carrots, cabbage, artichoke hearts, tomatoes, black olives, and onion topped with croutons. The prime-rib salad is the same salad, served with prime rib on top, for $8.95. And you can't go wrong with the pasta dishes: linguine, lasagna, manicotti, pasta primavera, jumbo ravioli, chicken Marsala, and eggplant or chicken Parmesan.
Runner-up: El Presidente Burritos
1531 W. Wabash Ave., Jerome, 217-546-4990; 2025 Peoria Rd., 217-522-2464
One thing is obvious from the close voting in this category: People are picky about their pizza. Many local contenders worth mentioning put together a good pie: Bernie and Betty's, Antonio's, Coz's, Gallina's, Luca's, Sam's. The winner -- Vic's - serves up a crispy thin crust loaded with toppings, cheese, sauce, and just the right amount of grease to edge out the competition. A friendly atmosphere, all-you-can eat pizza buffets, and special offers for regular customers, such as free birthday meals, don't hurt, either.
BEST PLACE TO EAT HEALTHY
213 S. Fifth St., 217-544-6972
Bentoh's is a true gem. Not only does the restaurant serve some of the most delicious food in town, but the stuff is also good for you. Who knew? This tiny eatery owned by Jim and Cindy Oh is one of the best things about downtown Springfield. It's the only place in town where the sushi rolls are made with fresh crab, not the imitation stuff. A Bentoh house salad makes eating rabbit food for lunch easy, with mixed greens, English cucumber, Roma tomatoes, red peppers and blue-cheese crumbles topped by the house Asian vinaigrette and two large slices of grilled salmon, steak, or chicken. The Japanese bentoh meal is another treat: a plate of grilled steak, chicken, or salmon served with seasonal vegetables and brown rice. The crab cakes, lightly coated with Japanese breadcrumbs, are the best I've had anywhere. The menu changes daily and seasonally.
Steak 'n Shake
3186 S. Dirksen Parkway, 217-529-5823; 2100 S. Sixth St. 217-522-2361; 1580 W. Wabash Ave., Jerome, 217-787-0392; 4211 Conestoga Dr., 217-698-9439
It's easy to dismiss chain restaurants. After all, we like to salute our local establishments that make a city special. But Steak 'n Shake, a winner in two major categories this year for, well, what else? -- Steakburgers and shakes -- has perfected this combination. The rich, thick, creamy milkshakes are made with hand-dipped ice cream and come in great flavors such as chocolate, strawberry, vanilla, banana, coffee mocha, chocolate mint, and peach. The company brags about the shakes made with "real ice cream." Well, it's hard to argue. Steak 'n Shake makes a darn good shake and has a right to be proud. You can even get two flavors in one glass or order a double-rich milk shake topped with a chocolate wafer and whipped cream served in a big old-fashioned fountain glass.
Runner-up: Krekel's Custard
BEST SPORTS BAR
Sammy's Sports Bar
217 S. Fifth St., 217-789-9803
Since opening earlier this year, Sammy's has quickly become one of the most popular bars in town for a variety of reasons. During the legislative session, it seemed to be the new hangout for political types and officials, who have been searching for a new watering hole to call home since Sam's closed many years ago. It's also a hit with the younger generation. Could it be the expansive interior that offers a nice change of pace from crowded, dark, smoky corner bars, or the dozen televisions lining the room? This lively bar is filled with sports memorabilia, offers some decent bar food, has friendly bartenders, and is open until 1 a.m.
BEST SUB SHOP
1124 W. Jefferson St., 217-793-9101
This was a close race, but the winner serves up such tasty combinations as pastrami and Provolone with a lot of color and a carefree attitude. It's hard not to smile when you drive up to the neon-yellow-and-purple building and even more fun once you step inside and are enveloped by the gold-and-green walls, eclectic décor and reggae music floating through the air. This laid-back, groovy place would be right at home on a sandy beach or a college campus. But let's not forget the best part: the sub sandwiches. They come with the basics: mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle, salt and pepper, and Italian dressing. The large specialty sandwiches come in mouth-watering varieties such as pizza, hummus, and meatball. The meat, cheese, and condiments are piled high on sweet, wheat, or rye bread baked daily and wrapped in white waxed paper. Try the special: any sub, a pint of Ben & Jerry's ice cream, and a large Coke.
Runner-up: Monty's Submarine Sandwiches