As I look back on 2019, it was the chains locals have been clamoring about for years, wishing to have here, that made the biggest news.
But it wasn't P.F. Chang's or Portillo's that excited me most – it was the places I visited of people who recently returned to the local restaurant scene.
My favorite chef, Mark Graves, who opened Soul Pig BBQ in the spot he once made famous as Marko's on 2nd, stood head and shoulders above the rest when it came to the most impressive food I had this year.
And when it came to service and pure excellence in concept and atmosphere, my first visits to Pastor's Place – opened by former Chop's founders Chuck and Kara Pastor – were exemplary and resulted in a five-star review. Then there was Lindi's, the most recent venture of downtown lunch aficionado Lindi Miller. It brought all of what made her previous ventures so popular – especially her soups and salad bar – into a charming little spot along Main Street.
Seeing these local legends get back into the game and thrive was great, especially considering many corporate spots are opening. Having those big-name places is nice, but what truly makes this area's dining scene so special are the wonderful places founded and operated by people in our community.
Let's hope that never changes.
Chicago Dog House, Warsaw – It was a lot closer than Chicago and a lot better than any other place in the area featuring Chicago favorites. Sadly, this quaint little shack of an eatery closed in September and a new buyer has not been found.
Copper Spoon, 301 W. Jefferson Blvd. – The food at the former Wine Down has risen to great levels thanks to the addition of chef Aaron Butts. Savor the sweetbreads and other high-end fare, or just engorge yourself on The Baron, a big sloppy mess of a delicious double burger.
Nine House, Huntertown – A small ever-changing menu features some of the freshest Thai food made traditionally – not muted for American tastes. If you like your Thai hot, this is truly the place for you, but you don't have to like the heat to think it's a treat.
Pastor's Place, 1533 W. Dupont Road – The lobster roll is worth seeking out, and the consistency of everything will keep you coming back.
Soul Pig BBQ, Decatur – The tantalizing features, spot-on smoked meats and to-die-for burgers are all worthy of a trip to Decatur.
Mediterranean Nachos; Welch's Ale House, 1915 S. Calhoun St. – They weren't nachos at all; they were lightly fried flatbread triangles that were a little crispy outside but still soft and yummy. Piled with seasoned ground lamb, diced onions, tomatoes and cucumbers, feta cheese and cool, creamy tzatziki sauce, they are divine.
Samusas; Nine House – These big, crispy, fried egg roll skin-wrapped triangles were stuffed to the max with a delicious blend of spiced potatoes and a plethora of seasoned meat. They sell out fast with good reason because they are some of the best you find in the area.
Avocado Toast; Solbird Kitchen & Tap, 1824 W. Dupont Road – Sourdough was the perfect base – soft enough while still toasted enough to crunch with a lot of crevices to capture the creamy avocado mash. Atop that mash were diced tomatoes, red onions, cilantro and thinly sliced radishes, all drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt. The radishes and onions added the right peppery flair, the tomatoes were sweet and ripe, and every bite was exciting.
Thick-cut bacon; Cork 'N Cleaver, 221 E. Washington Center Road – This slab of bacon with maple and black pepper was served over jalapeņo cornbread with Sriracha drizzled on the plate. The bacon was cooked slow and low to make it tender and still a little fatty, but it had just a little crispness from a few minutes under super-high heat at the end. A weekly feature, it deserves a permanent menu spot.
Veal Sweetbreads; Copper Spoon – Probably the best version of the fried thymus gland I have ever eaten; the veal was perfectly breaded and crispy to fend off the moisture of the pumpkin seed vinaigrette and scrumptious goat cheese polenta. The inside meat was creamy, tender and as mild as an offal can be. Agridolce cipollini onions added a wonderful sweetness and peppery arugula offset its richness beautifully.
Marvelous main courses
Catfish Po'boy; Soul Pig – A lunch special that appears often, it featured a gigantic fillet of fatty, moist, meaty catfish on a hoagie bun that was encapsulated by a hard shell of crunchy breading that was a tad dark from spices. Sliced tomatoes and shredded lettuce were nestled underneath, and a delicious, runny tomato and jalapeņo remoulade all over the top and dripped down the sides.
Italian combo; Chicago Dog House – Perfectly seasoned, thinly shaved, tender Italian beef and a split, grilled Italian sausage were joined on a hoagie roll with a blanket of melted mozzarella. I had mine with spicy pickled giardiniera, grilled onions, and hot and sweet peppers. Order it dunked in au jus and be prepared for a messy endeavor, but one well worth it as the herb-dotted jus is good enough to eat. Easily the best Italian beef creation I have had outside the Windy City.
Newspaper Noodles; Taiwan Express, 820 Goshen Road – The closing of one of my favorite little places for lunch in August saw this yummy bowl of ramen disappear with it. A variation of the restaurant's simple spicy noodle dish created when I asked for mushrooms and Chinese sausage added to mine, now-retired owners Joe and Joanna Ea gave it this moniker after I mentioned it in a column. I miss it dearly.
Night Moves Meatloaf Sandwich; Bird and Cleaver, 1603 N. Wells St. – A thick, moist, beefy slab of meatloaf sat between a beautifully grilled sesame seed bun with oozing melted cheddar, some crispy chunks of iceberg lettuce and the restaurant's “secret sauce,” which had a distinct sweetness and was a little tangy like barbecue sauce.
Nutty Kale Salad; Pastor's Place – The addition of granola to this salad worked wonderfully, giving it a great crunch. All the ingredients – a blend of kale and other greens, goat cheese, strawberries and radishes – were finely diced or crumbled making it like a chopped salad so it was easy to eat. I added tender, nicely seasoned chicken breast to mine and have been back multiple times to have it again.
Buttermilk Panna Cotta; Bird and Cleaver – This chilled sweetened, gelatin-infused cream is one of my favorite light meal-enders, and Bird and Cleaver's was spot-on in terms of its consistency and simplistic approach with just a drizzle of honey and crunchy bee pollen on top.
Hand-dipped Milkshake; Hall's Original Drive-in, 1502 Bluffton Road – They aren't 30 cents like it says on the vintage menu on the wall of this fabulous renovated Summit City staple, but these shakes – and malts if you would rather – put you in the right nostalgic mood. Served with the stainless-steel cup they were mixed in, they are thick, rich and simply perfect.
Key Lime Squares; Lindi's, 256 W. Main St. – The chocolaty crust under the light, creamy whipped base of these bars was my favorite part. It is made with a mix of regular and chocolate graham crackers, and, of course, butter. It had a gritty, crunchy texture that was the perfect foil to the bright, citrus-packed custard and lime-zest dotted whipped cream on top. Lindi makes lemon versions that might even be yummier, but those days are rare.
Mud Pie; Cork 'N Cleaver – A copious amount of fudge is layered atop the coffee ice cream base of this tall frozen pie. It is garnished with whipped cream and toasted almond slivers to tame the sweetness, and is a dessert I often steer people to when they ask me where to go for simply dessert.
Strawberry Pie; Smokehaus BBQ Co., New Haven – This mini version of a whole pie drew out the kid in me as I dug into the tiny foil pie dish and devoured the fresh, gel-coated diced strawberries and the big pile of whipped cream on top of it all. The little crust was well executed and it was just the right size. The lemon and chocolate-cream versions were also yummy, but not as yummy as the strawberry.
Welcome to town
Bistro Nota, 620 S. Calhoun St. – This breakfast- and lunch-only French-American eatery opened in August in a spot that Lindi Miller once called home.
Burger Bar, 223 W. Jefferson Blvd. – This quick-stop spot with just burgers, chicken tenders and sandwiches, fries and shakes opened in the Hampton Inn.
Joanna's, 3720 W. Jefferson Blvd. – After a good run of it at Leo Crossing, the owners of the place that specializes in breakfast opened their second spot in the former Friends, Too location.
Portillo's, 295 Coliseum Blvd. W. – The Windy City favorite recently opened near Glenbrook Square.
Storming Crab, 520 Coliseum Blvd. E. – This small chain specializing in seafood-boils that require bibs opened in a spot that was once a Bob Evans.
Grabill Dairy Sweet, Grabill – It will come back to life next month after it is remodeled and made over by its new owners, but seeing Dave and Mary May walk away after 21 years is tough. They made it one of my family's favorites and we will miss them.
Friends, Too, 3720 W. Jefferson Blvd. – Marianthi and George Hatzigeorgiou lost their mother, Ana, in 2017 and their father, Nikos, in January. The place would never be the same without one of them because they are what made it so wonderful. The siblings begrudgingly sold it in July.
Hello and goodbye
Dawson's Dogs, 3213 St. Joe Center Road – This classic hot dog stand gave it another go starting in January but could not make it through the winter.
Goodbye, hello, goodbye again
Chantili's/Chappell's Coral Grill, 6328 W. Jefferson Blvd. – Chappell's made way for Chantili's in March – with very similar menus featuring seafood and a nice salad bar – but the new name lasted only about six months before the doors were closed.
Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org; call at 461-8130. DuVall's past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.