Feature Stories

Top 10 restaurants

Votes reveal new territory in our restaurant landscape

By Connie Haas Zuber
Pembroke Bakery and Cafe's deli sandwhich (PHOTO BY NEAL BRUNS)
Chops Wine Bar's carpaccio (PHOTO BY NEAL BRUNS)
Club Soda's grilled prime rib (PHOTO BY NEAL BRUNS)
Oyster Bar's shrimp cocktail (PHOTO BY NEAL BRUNS)
Oyster Bar's smoked salmon (PHOTO BY NEAL BRUNS)
Catablu Grille's rice fried jumbo firecracker shrimp (PHOTO BY NEAL BRUNS)
Casa's signature Casaburo salad (PHOTO BY NEAL BRUNS)
8"" Degrees Wood Fired Pizza's signature pizza (PHOTO BY NEAL BRUNS)
Downtown Deli and Marketplace's half sandwich and soup with green tea (PHOTO BY NEAL BRUNS)
Baan Thai's Pud Thai Noodles (PHOTO BY NEAL BRUNS)
Fort Wayne Monthly’s readers have spoken, and they’re talking about how vibrant the city’s restaurant scene has become.

We’ve long been known as a place with lots of good opportunities to dine out, but this year’s readers poll results go a step further and define what it is we’re doing with our restaurant dollars.

 

TOP 10 FINE DINING
(In descending order of vote totals)

1. Club Soda
2. Chop's Steaks & Seafood
3. Joseph Decuis
4. Baker Street Steaks, Seafood, Spirits
5. Catablu Grille
6. Oyster Bar
7. Eddie Merlot’s
8. Cork ’n Cleaver
9. Paula’s on Main
10. Chappell’s Coral Grill

 

THE Headlines
•  We support an admirable group of fine dining establishments.
•  We continue to have a special place for one of our largest local restaurant group, the Casa d’Angelo family, in our hearts and wallets.
•  We have developed a strong relationship with a heretofore unrecognized category of restaurants we can characterize as “insanely great little places.”
•  We have some fascinating newcomers to watch and enjoy.

The polling results are so robust that in this issue Fort Wayne Monthly is recognizing two Top 10 lists plus three other restaurants and Casa’s as worthy of wearing our new “Reader Favorite” badges in our restaurant listings for the coming year.

The city’s restaurants can be proud that their customers gladly go to the effort of voting in our poll to help them win extra recognition for an entire year. Such loyalty and appreciation from customers says a lot about how high the quality is in these restaurants. Both the votes and the comments we have solicited from several of the voters indicate that we as customers will settle for nothing less than excellence in whatever a restaurant chooses to offer.


FRONT of the class
The meat and potatoes, as it were, of a readers poll like this is the identification of the best of the best, the restaurants that set their standards the highest and deliver a distinctive dining experience worthy of a visit to celebrate a special occasion. This vote is also a good time to celebrate the fact that all of these fine dining establishments survived the Great Recession and continue to support the highest standards in food and restaurant customer service in our city.

We can philosophize about why the order came out like it did, for example, by mentioning that Joseph Decuis, which has won more fine dining recognition nationwide than any other Fort Wayne area restaurant, is actually in Roanoke, which is a short drive away but long enough that it might place it in our readers minds as someplace to choose only for very special occasions but not to go to as often as other places closer by.  

None of the restaurants on this list are a surprise. But it is impressive that Cork ’n Cleaver, which 30 and maybe even 20 years ago really was one of the few places in town to get a great steak, has maintained its high ranking in people’s hearts and minds despite now facing a hugely more competitive market.

It’s also nice to note that no one in Fort Wayne is forced to drive very far for a fine dining experience. We have Club Soda, Oyster Bar (also a longtime survivor with a loyal fan base) and Paula’s on Main downtown or next door to downtown. Chop's, Catablu, Eddie Merlot’s and Chappell’s make the Time Corners to Jefferson Pointe stretch of the westside a fine dining destination. And Baker Street and Cork ’n Cleaver keep the north side classy. Looking more closely we see a lack of winning restaurants in this category in the southeast and bustling northwest parts of town, which is a shame. It’s not like there aren’t people there who want a spectacularly good meal.

 

Casa IS special
Looking at the votes made it obvious that the Casa d’Angelo group of Italian restaurants (four locations west, northwest, northeast and central north) have to be considered separately. As we have come to expect in balloting where the voters fill in the blanks to name their favorite restaurants, most people just write “Casa” and do not specify which one. All of the Casa votes together would put the restaurant firmly in the Top 10, but that did not seem fair because that would have allowed a group of four big restaurants to unfairly compete with other restaurants with a single location.

But Casa is special, and it has to be the strongest top-end restaurant brand in town, which is impressive. It has been around for decades and now has adults taking their children there, just as their parents took them there. The fact that Casa is also an excellent place for family dining out makes it extraordinarily precious to people who like good food and want to take their children along, too.

Sarah Chesebrough is one of the many readers who voted for Casa’s in general, so we asked her why.

“First of all, I love that it’s owned and operated by a Fort Wayne family. I much prefer to support a local business who makes their own food rather than dine at a chain restaurant that just feels so formulaic and impersonal,” she answered in an email. “Their food is delicious, they serve generous portions, it’s reasonably priced and we’ve never had bad customer service. For a family of five, watching their money as everyone does these days, it’s a go-to place where you know you’ll get a great tasting dinner in a cozy atmosphere.

“For that, I enjoy the location by the Coliseum. The very best was the original location, and I was so sad when they decided to close it. It had the best atmosphere, such old-school Italian elegance. *sigh*

“We go there maybe once a month or every other month and have been happy with everything we’ve eaten. My mom’s favorite growing up was always the Shrimp Gambaretti and my dad loved the pasta carbonara, so those are nostalgic favorites of mine. But my personal favorites are the lasagna and baked manicotti … anything with lots of red sauce and cheese! And of course, you can’t visit without eating the cheesy garlic bread and salad. My kids are big fans of their alfredo, or the ‘grown up mac ’n cheese’ as they call it.

“I think, in the end, despite really good food and customer service, the biggest reason I love Casa’s is the fact that it is a locally-owned restaurant.”

’Nuff said.

 

TOP 10 INSANELY GREAT LITTLE PLACES
(In descending order of vote totals)

1. Pembroke Bakery and Cafe
2. Downtown Deli and Marketplace
3. Loving Cafe
4. Henry’s
5. Dash In
6. 800 Degrees Wood Fired Pizza
7. Saigon
8. J.K. O’Donnell’s  Irish Ale House
9. Honey on the Table
10. Baan Thai

 

INSANELY Great
With this readers poll, our readers called our attention, very vividly, to something we hadn’t yet seen as a defining characteristic of dining out in Fort Wayne. I will borrow a telling phrase from the late Steve Jobs of Apple and call them the insanely great little places.

They each are insanely great because they go above and beyond our traditional expectation for little places or new places or ethnic places or longtime bars, as the case may be. They offer food that is way, way, way better (healthier or ethnicities you don’t know you love until you try them or just creatively excellent takes on classics) than expectations.

They are close to home or work, and they’re the kind of very personal places that we get attached to.

And our readers absolutely love them, support them, are grateful for them and voted for them in droves. These restaurants attracted more votes overall than the fine dining restaurants, as it turned out, because they are the places our readers go to not just for special occasions or a special treat but day after day.

You’ll note that vegetarian- and vegan-friendliness, as well as gluten-free options, are common on this list, which speaks to the growing presence of diners in Fort Wayne interested in and needing other things than meat and potatoes.

Pembroke Bakery and Cafe, new in 2012 in the Auer Center downtown, got more votes than any other restaurant in town. Owners and proprietors Angie Quinn and Steve Nagy should be proud of what they’ve created.

Consult our restaurant listings for details on the specialties, but visit any of these restaurants confident you’re onto a great thing. Then post about it on
Facebook and prepare to be surprised by how many of your friends either have already discovered the place or have it on their list of must-visit spots.

Amy Hartzog kindly explained why she ranks Pembroke as No. 1.

“They have delicious, healthy food,” she answered in an email. “Eating a plant-based diet, I always know they’ll have plenty of options for me. I’m a big fan of their beans and rice dish which changes daily. They focus on using local, organic produce when it’s available which makes them unique. “

She visits Pembroke at least once a week but sometimes two or three times.

“It’s a short walk from work so it makes a great lunch spot, but I’ve also stopped in for breakfast and dinner,” she said.

Her favorite order is “any and every beans and rice dish,” she said. “When I have a sweet tooth, I’ll indulge in a Mexican chocolate snicker-doodle cookie.”


New TERRITORY
Not all of the restaurants in this final category are precisely brand new, but they all are newly laying claim to a respected standing in the local restaurant world. Insanely great-ness is part of their strength, but location and people’s desire to have a place that is theirs also matter a lot. Pembroke, discussed above, leads the pack.

Honey on the Table is another good example of this category of in-the-making restaurants, and reader Jacquie Mann offered her insight into what makes Honey on the Table, new this year on the north side, her favorite.

“I love the menu, fresh food, friendly service and open atmosphere of Honey on the Table,” she said in an email. “The food is so, so good, and the baked treats (including gluten-free cookies) are delicious.

“But I confess to you, my main motivation for voting was that I live in the neighborhood, and it is encouraging to see a unique business like this one growing and thriving when it seems like we’re losing the biggies (like Parkview and Scotts). Honey on the Table recently expanded their patio area, and I love it that they are investing in the neighborhood.

“And that’s how they won my vote!”

Chop’s Wine Bar and The Deck on the river at Hall’s Gas House downtown are not new but they are coming on strong as respected and loved places to dine out. It’s possible that their strong showing (not Top 10 but close!) is an indication that the Fort Wayne restaurant market might welcome other small plates and unique outdoor dining restaurants.

Chef Brian Schreffler knew a wine bar was a big-city thing to do when Chop’s opened its wine bar next door to the restaurant. And our readers apparently are coming to appreciate that.

“Chop’s Wine Bar is to me the closest to ‘big city’ dining that we have here in Fort Wayne,” reader Corbin Boyt said in an email. “As a recent transplant from Chicago, I tend to stay away from the chain restaurants. My wife and I gravitated to the Wine Bar almost immediately. The staff is friendly, hospitable and seem to truly care about their customers. The menu is made up of small plates which makes picking a couple of different things and then sharing quite easy. Also, it seems to be constantly evolving with new items coming on frequently enough to keep it interesting, and they are always presented in unique and creative ways. The other plus is that we can’t typically make it there until much later in the evening and they keep the kitchen open late (another nod to ‘big city’ dining).”

He has to claim two dishes right now as his favorites, he admitted.

“One is the KFQ (Kentucky Fried Quail), and the second is brand-new and I just had it a couple of nights ago — a beef carpaccio served with house-made giardinara and arugula. The other can’t-miss item would be the Saturday night ceviche and taco special along with the house-made sangria.

“Truth be told, though, I’ve never had a bad meal there.”

The Deck is a completely different experience — equally powerful because of its uniqueness and the sense that it is a happening place right now. Unfortunately it is open only during the warm months, so we all may be waiting for quite a while to go there again. The food, we should note, is the same as in the Gas House itself.

Reader Bryan Sharp voted for The Deck as his No. 1.

“We love the casual vacation-style atmosphere,” he said in an email. “It is fantastic to have this type of establishment available in downtown Fort Wayne. The servers are all awesome, as well!

“Everything on the menu is delicious — just like we expect from Hall’s restaurants. We especially love the spinach and artichoke appetizer with those scrumptious pita chips. The Chicago burger rocks, and they prepare a delicious filet mignon. We go there as often as we can, at least once a week.”

He has a vision for even more at The Deck.

“How about some live music in the evenings?  We’d love to see that addition!”

One of the newest restaurants in Fort Wayne, open barely a month by the time voting closed for this poll, is already earning respect.

800 Degrees Three Fires on Illinois Road is the new companion to 800 Degrees Wood Fired Pizza (an insanely great little place) out north.

Three Fires has the insanely great pizza plus the space and equipment to grow a menu with a twist on fine Italian dining. On its website Chef Matt Rogers explains Three Fires as an “osteria” restaurant, featuring a limited menu of fresh local specialties and a selection of fine wines. Two wood-fired ovens are joined there by an Argentinian-style wood grill.

Not having to drive so far for the pizza has delighted many 800 Degrees fans, and there’s more for them to enjoy.

“Honestly, I’ve only been to the newer 800 Degrees (Three Fires on Illinois Road) a few times,” said reader Ryan Keirns in an email. But he had voted it his No. 1.

“I’ve been to the original one on Lima Road numerous times,” he said. “I prefer Three Fires not only because of the location, but because they have more beers on tap. The variety and uniqueness of the beer selection (you can’t find many of these in local bars or liquor stores) is one thing that stands out.

“The Mista salad is the best in town. It is very unique and fresh. I love the Casa salad, but the Mista is better. It tastes fresher, lighter, and healthier (no evidence to prove this, but I would guess it). Along with the Mista, that Emily (his wife) and I typically split, I order a pizza.  Their appetizers (garlic bread and others) are good, but I usually don’t have room with salad and pizza.  I usually choose pepperoni and the spicy sausage for my toppings.  The Carne is good, too, along with the signature 800 Degrees pizza.

“My sons love their pizza, too. After trying his first piece of their pizza, Foster (then 4) said, ‘This is better than regular pizza.’ The boys also love that free cookies are available after they eat their pizza.”

Fort Wayne Monthly is proud to give these restaurants special notice as Reader Favorites in our restaurant listings for the coming year.

Posted: Fri, 10/19/2012 - 1:50 pm
Last updated: Tue, 12/04/2012 - 2:10 pm