Rural Missouri Magazine

The 2007 Rural Missouri Reader's Choice Award

The campaigning is over, the ballots have all been cast, the counting done and the results are in! It’s time again for the annual Best of Rural Missouri Readers’ Choice Awards. This is the sixth year we have hosted the contest in these pages, and our readers continue to impress us with their knowledge of Missouri culture and loyalty to hometown favorites.

Best seafood: Le Maire's Cajun Catfish, Sedalia

As usual, there are some obvious winners who by now can almost paper a wall with our winner’s certificates. However, in an attempt to mix things up we changed a few categories and were rewarded with some surprises and new places to check out.

You kind of expect to see tourist destinations like Branson, Hermann and Ste. Genevieve among the winners. But who would have guessed tiny Elsberry would field two winners this year? Or that restaurants in out-of-the-way places like Warsaw, Marshall and Collins would have such a following?

But that’s part of the allure of daytripping in rural Missouri — you never know what delights await you off the beaten path. And that’s the reason for this contest anyway, to celebrate the uniqueness of the Show-Me State while at the same time introducing these alternatives to the national chains to our readers.

We hope you’ll put this issue in your glove compartment as you vacation in Missouri this summer. Enjoy!

Dining worth the drive

1st: Lamberts, Sikeston & Ozark, (573) 471-4261 or (417) 581-7655
2nd: The Pear Tree, Bevier, (660) 773-6666
3rd: Charley’s Buffet, Lincoln, (660) 668-3806

No surprises here, our three winners have been the same three since 2004. In fact, Lambert’s and The Pear Tree have been first and second since the contest began, with Lambert’s Ozark location just a few votes ahead of the original in Sikeston. Reader’s love Lambert’s for the “pass alongs,” tasty treats like “throwed rolls” and the generous portions. You can’t say you’ve dined in Missouri until you head north to Bevier for a meal at the The Pear Tree restaurant. The owner will greet you, seat you and ask if you want the onion rings (you do). More readers have called us for directions to Charley’s than any other contest winner.

Best ribs: The Chuckwagon, Warsaw

Editor’s choice: Even if you don’t like German food you will like Der Essen Platz in Cole Camp for its nachspeisen (desserts). (660) 668-2333.

Best ribs

1st: Chuck Wagon, Warsaw, (660) 438-2503
2nd: Buckinghams Smokehouse BBQ, Columbia & Springfield, (573) 449-7782 or (417) 886-9979
3rd: Hickory Log, Dexter, (573) 624-4950

This year our staff decided to specialize in the barbeque category. We picked ribs because brisket isn’t always consistent, not everyone does a pork steak and we just plain like ribs. As a result, last year’s third place winner, Chuck Wagon, took the well-deserved honors. With two locations and the friendliest wait staff, Buckinghams was a close second. An obvious winner was Dexter’s Hickory Log, which measures its rib output in tons these days.

Editor’s choice: The most popular item on the menu at Lonnie Ray’s Café and BBQ in Harrisburg is ribs. Their meat is seasoned with homemade spice rubs with additional flavor coming from the hickory pit. (573) 874-0020.

Best seafood

1st: Le Maire’s Cajun Catfish, Sedalia, (660) 827-3563
2nd: Gary’s (formerly Dowd’s) Catfish & BBQ, Lebanon, (417) 532-1777
3rd: Hemingway’s Restaurant, Springfield, (417) 891-5100

While Missouri isn’t exactly known for its seafood, we figured readers would know what we were talking about. They did, and Sedalia’s Le Maire’s came out on top. For 22 years Frenchie’s been frying up these spicy filets. You know our second place winner as Dowd’s, but the name has been changed to Gary’s and the place has greatly expanded to seat an additional 65. For those who don’t understand “seafood” is Missouri for catfish, Hemingway’s located at Bass Pro Shops Springfield superstore was the logical choice. But will they cook you that big bass in the tank?

Editor’s choice: Unless you’ve been to Hawaii, you’ve never had seafood like they make at Bear’s Aloha Grill, inconveniently located in New Hampton and offering dishes you probably can’t pronounce. Bear pulls out all the stops to make your trip worthwhile and unforgettable, and the coffee is first-class. (660) 439-3013

Best dessert

1st: A Slice of Pie, Rolla, (573) 364-6203
2nd: The Blue Owl, Kimmswick, (636) 464-3128
3rd: Smith’s Short Shop, Collins, (417) 275-4575

There was a time when dessert was just something you ate after you cleaned your plate. Now restaurants that specialize in this category have regulars who come just for the treats. Many a traveler has left Interstate 44 or Highway 63 to pick up a pie at the aptly named A Slice of Pie. Their offerings are varied and always monumental. Last year we joked that The Blue Owl would win if the category was just dessert instead of pie. Perhaps their beautifully crafted desserts were too pretty to eat. Smith’s is a new one this year, best known for its wonderful homemade cobblers and pies that come in peach, cherry, blackberry, strawberry/rhubarb, sour cream/raisin and many more.

Sweet Tooth's Revenge: The Candy Factory, Columbia

Editor’s choice: Past winner Cooky’s in Golden City was just one vote away from the winners. They are known for their fabulous pies. (417) 537-4741.

Sweet tooth’s retreat

1st: The Candy Factory, Columbia, (573) 443-8222
2nd: Richardson’s Candy House, Springfield & Joplin, (417) 883-3900 or (417) 623-7171
3rd: Fourth Street Fountain, Elsberry, (573) 898-9793

A new category for 2007, this one had our readers telling us about all kinds of things the dentist would steer you away from. Our first-place winner is a family-owned business that’s been around for more than 20 years. They make all their chocolates upstairs. Second-place Richardson’s was featured in our February issue. It’s a popular spot for lovers looking for Valentine’s Day gifts. Taking a different tack for third place, our readers selected the old-fashioned soda fountain in Elsberry. The Fourth Street Fountain uses the original soda fountain from its days as a drug store.

Editor’s choice: A more popular tourist destination than the Capitol is Jefferson City’s Central Dairy. You can choose from dozens of flavors, and a one-scoop cone will have at least three scoops. (573) 635-6148.

Best Chili

1st: Dixon’s Chili Parlor, Independence, (816) 861-7308
2nd: Casper’s, Springfield, (417) 866-9750
3rd: Joan’s Drive In, Marshall, (660) 886-7771

Nothing beats a good bowl of chili, even when the weather turns nice. Missouri has a number of restaurants that have built their reputation on this savory dish. Top of the heap is Dixon’s, which has been serving steaming bowls of its signature dry-style chili since 1919. Casper’s is a bit of a dive located in a vintage quonset hut downtown, thus the perfect spot for chili. Newcomer Joan’s Drive In uses a secret recipe but the owner does share part of the secret to her outstanding chili: “I put my love in it.” Plus fresh meat, she adds.

Editor’s choice: Fred & Red’s in Joplin is known for their chili and tamales. Try the spaghetti red and add a little mustard. Get there early. This place hasn’t changed much since 1923 and it only seats 22 customers. (417) 781-5341

Best coffee shop: Lakota Coffee, Columbia

Best coffee shop

1st: Lakota Coffee Company, Columbia, 1-800-452-5682
2nd: Mud House, Springfield, (417) 832-1720
3rd: Cosmic Cofee, Warsaw, (660) 438-6171

Coffee snobs rejoice! This category is back due to popular demand. (The editor demanded it.) No college town would be complete without a coffee house to hang out in, and Columbia’s Lakota Coffee Co. fits that role to a trendy T. Visitors can do their homework while Web browsing through their wireless connection. Second place Mud House comes with some “perks,” including a well-stocked bookcase, artwork and lunch. Shannon Noand, owner of our third-place winner, discovered gourmet coffee and opened her business in the Boonslick Library. For a quick pick up try her Super Sonica with 30 percent more caffeine.

Editor’s choice: Small drive-through coffee spots are popping up around the state, catering to coffee lovers who can’t bear the thought of filling their travel mugs at a convenience store. The best of these is Macon’s Javasmith located south of town. (660) 385-1060

Best winery

1st: St. James Winery, St. James (573) 265-7912
2nd: Stone Hill Winery, Branson, Hermann and New Florence 1-800-909-9463
3rd: Les Bourgeois, Rocheport, (573) 698-2133

Wine has come of age in Missouri, which is home to more than 60 wineries. Our three winners are among Missouri’s largest. For 35 years, the Hofherr family has been making award-winning wines in St. James. Today they produce 150,000 cases of wine annually from grapes grown nearby. Stone Hill Winery, with three locations, has roots that go back to 1847 and helped lead the rebirth of Missouri’s wine industry. Les Bourgeios is as famous for its views of the Missouri River as it is for its fine wines.

Best winery: St. James Winery, St. James

Editor’s choice: Cooper’s Oak, Missouri’s newest winery, uses its connections with California wineries to produce varieties not normally found in Missouri. It’s located in Higbee next to the A&K Cooperage, producers of wine barrels made from Missouri oak. Its Vidal Blanc is available now and Merlot, Cabernet, Michelle’s Sweet Red and Norton will be ready soon. (660) 456-7507

Best microbrewery

1st: Flat Branch Pub & Brewing, Columbia, (573) 499-0400
2nd: Springfield Brewing Company, Springfield, (417) 832-8277
3rd: Trailhead Brewing Company, St. Charles, (636) 946-2739

Missouri is home to the world’s largest brewer, Anheuser-Busch. But that’s not what we were looking for in this category. Instead, we sought the small craft breweries that may have begun in someone’s basement. With its college location, Flat Branch couldn’t miss though the crowd is more professor than student. The Oil Change Stout (this was once a Studebaker dealership) is popular with the hard-core beer lovers. Springfield’s brew pub was established to research brewing equipment made by its owners. Their Mueller Unfiltered Wheat is the best seller. Trailhead brewery has enough selection to offer a beer or ale that will compliment the many dishes at this full-service restaurant.

Editor’s choice: We featured Little Yeoman Brewery in 1999. The brewery has changed hands since then with new owner Chad Frederick moving it to Cabool. He makes five beers, and they are all good. (417) 926-9185.

Best AgriMissouri product

1st: Burger’s Smokehouse, California, (573) 796-3134
2nd: Hammons Black Walnuts, Stockton, (417) 276-5187
3rd: Memory Lane Dairy, Fordland, (417) 767-2697

Rural Missouri is proud to support the Missouri brand. Businesses like first-place winner Burger’s are putting the state on the map with a mail order following that sends Missouri meats around the world. Likewise, Hammons is the world’s largest supplier of eastern black walnuts. While not world-class yet, Memory Lane is also gaining a large following by bringing back milk — including plain, chocolate and strawberry — in glass bottles.

Best AgriMissouri product: Burger's Smokehouse, California

Editor’s choice: Picking just one AgriMissouri product as the best proved impossible. So we instead direct you to the newly opened Missouri Valley Mercantile located east of Jefferson City on the Osage River. This store features enough made-in-Missouri products to fill our gift basket with a nice selection of jerkies, barbeque sauces and summer sausage. (573) 395-3311.

Best state park/historic site

1st: Ha Ha Tonka State Park, Camdenton, (573) 364-2968
2nd: Elephant Rocks State Park, Graniteville, 1-800-334-6946
3rd: Bennett Springs State Park, Lebanon, (417) 532-4338

Missouri’s state parks and historic sites are the crown jewels of the state’s public areas. They are so diverse there is something for everyone. First place winner Ha Ha Tonka is a case in point. You can come for a look at the impressive castle ruins, or return later for the wonderful hiking trails and nature areas. Elephant Rocks State Park’s second place finish shows Missourians love the St. Francis Mountain region, even with Johnson’s Shut-ins out of commission. Bennett Springs is the most popular of the state’s four trout parks and a fine place to begin a Niangua River float trip when you’re finished fishing for trout.

Editor’s Choice: Kirksville’s Thousand Hills State Park offers Indian petroglyphs, a lake for boating and fishing, plus 17 miles of hiking and biking trails in a setting that is more Ozark than north Missouri. (660) 665-6995.

Best fall festival

1st: Oktoberfest, Hermann, 1-800-932-8687
2nd: Heritage Days, Warsaw, 1-800-927-7294
3rd: Old Tyme Apple Festival, Versailles, (573) 378-4401

There’s no better way to get to know a town or region than to attend one of the many festivals around the state. Perhaps the best reflection of a town’s heritage is the Oktoberfest held in Hermann. Attend this event and you will be eating sauerkraut with the most German of Missourians. Warsaw’s link with its past comes alive in October with a huge variety of craftspeople. This year’s event is Oct. 20-21. The Old Tyme Apple Festival in Versailles offers a fiddling contest, car cruise, sock hop, apple pie contest and more. As many as 35,000 people have attended.

Best offbeat attraction/museum: Laura Ingalls Wilder Home & Museum, Mansfield

Editor’s choice: In a state known for its mules, a festival that celebrates mules has to be the most Missouri of all. We recommend the Clark County Mule Festival set for Sept. 14-16 in Kahoka. No telling what you will see at this year’s event. But you are guaranteed to laugh at the antics of the mules and their riders. (660) 866-2330 or (660) 727-3295.

Best offbeat attraction/museum

1st: Laura Ingalls Wilder Home & Museum, Mansfield, 1-877-924-7126
2nd: Titanic – The World’s Largest Museum, Branson, 1-800-381-7670
3rd (tie): Wonders of Wildlife Museum, Springfield, (417) 887-7334
3rd (tie): Cranes Museum & Shop, Williamsburg, (573) 254-3356

When we added this category we fully expected to receive votes for giant lumberjacks, the Hair Museum and the World’s Largest Goose. We did get those votes but our winners are more attractions than offbeat. Mansfield’s claim to fame is its beloved writer Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose Little House books are among the most widely read children’s stories. Branson’s latest attraction has made a “Titanic” impression on our readers, showing interest in the ill-fated ship hasn’t waned so many years after its sinking. A tie for third place featured two very different places to see. Bass Pro Shops’ fabulous outdoor museum is icing on the cake to an already amazing store. Crane’s is the place to shop for your outdoor work wear with names like Carhartt, Wolverine, Filson and LaCrosse. The addition of a museum (we thought the store was a museum) offers visitors a taste of life from a time when stores like this were the norm.

Editor’s choice: Anyone wanting to celebrate the high price of gas will be intrigued by King City’s claim to the world’s largest gas pump, which towers two stories above the city park.

Most beautiful town

1st: Hermann, 1-800-932-8687
2nd: Carthage, (417) 359-8181
3rd: Ste. Genevieve, (573) 883-3686

Having to pick just one Missouri town for the title of most beautiful must have been difficult for our readers — 160 different towns drew votes. The center of Missouri’s wine industry, Hermann once again came out on top, proving its location, chosen for its resemblance to the Rhine River Valley, was a wise one. Carthage boasts one of Missouri’s most beautiful town squares and courthouses. It’s also a well-known spot on Route 66. Missouri’s oldest town keeps Missouri’s French connection alive.

Editor’s choice: You will love the antebellum charm of Lexington’s historic homes. Don’t miss the courthouse with its cannon ball reminder of the Civil War. (660) 259-3082.

Best vacation spot: Branson

Best vacation spot

1st: Branson 1-800-296-0463
2nd: Lake Ozark, 1-800-451-4117
3rd: Big Cedar Lodge, Ridgedale, 1-800-225-6343

Branson has grown from a sleepy little Ozark town to a world-class travel destination, with attractions for visitors of all ages. With its new Landing added to the mix, tourists will once again find a reason to return. All this attention to Branson hasn’t hurt business at Central Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks though. From golfing to boating to honeymooning, it remains a popular destination. So strong is the Branson pull that attractions like Big Cedar Lodge are becoming destinations themselves. This is one of the most charming places to stay, with plenty to do on site or easy access to Branson proper.

Editor’s choice: We’ve recently rediscovered extreme southwest Missouri, including Cassville, Neosho, Noel and Pineville. This area offers a lot to do and see, with nice float streams and thousands of acres of public land.

Best rodeo/horse show

1st: American Royal, Kansas City, (816) 274-1900
2nd: Sikeston Jaycee Bootheel Rodeo, 1-800-455-2855
3rd: Fall Show and Celebration, Ava, (417) 683-2468

Horses add millions to Missouri’s economy, and riders are getting more sophisticated in their choice of steeds and equipment. The state’s many rodeos and horse shows reflect this trend and offer equestrians a chance to mingle. The granddaddy of them all is the famous American Royal, one of the few big city winners in this contest. It started in 1899 when Kansas City was a cowtown. The Sikeston version of a rodeo gives up nothing to the KC event, offering its own distinctive version of downhome fun, complete with musical performances each evening. Ava is home to the Missouri Fox Trotting Horse Association, and its annual show has been crowning the World Grand Champion since 1959.

Editor’s choice: Hillsboro has been hosting a horse show for 61 years. Last year’s event offered 44 different classes ranging from western pleasure mules to barrel racing. (636) 789-2600.

Best antique shop: St. Mary Antique Mall, St. Mary

Best equestrian trail

1st: Cross Country Trail Ride, Eminence, (573) 226-3492
2nd: Mark Twain National Forest, (573) 364-4621
3rd: Cuivre River State Park, Troy, (636) 528-7247

When Missouri horse lovers aren’t attending horse shows they are riding their horses and mules on the many trails. These days, it’s not unusual for riders to spend $50,000 on a trailer that serves as home away from home to the rider and horse. The Cross Country Trail Ride has changed Eminence from a float town to a float and ride town, with tack shops and BBQ restaurants catering to the horse crowd. For a set-your-own pace ride, the other two winners are great places to go. Many parts of the Ozark Trail are open to horses.

Editor’s choice: St. Louis County caters to riders with its stables and trails located at Greensfelder Park near Eureka. Campsites include facilities for horses. (314) 615-4386.

Best hike or bike trail

1st: Katy Trail State Park, 1-800-334-6946
2nd: Ha Ha Tonka State Park, Camdenton, (573) 364-2968
3rd: Springfield Conservation Nature Center, (417) 888-4237

Missouri is blessed with a multitude of hiking and biking trails. These can range from easy paved greenways to the 350-mile-long, rugged Ozark Trail. A former railroad, the Katy Trail survived controversy to become one of the nation’s leading rails-to-trails projects. Hikers and bikers can do short sections or attempt the entire 225 miles. Many businesses have sprung up along the trail. Ha Ha Tonka visitors who only stop at the castle ruins miss the 15 miles of natural history on this park’s trails. The Missouri Department of Conservation encourages visitors to its Springfield Nature Center to smell the woods after a rain or surprise a white-tailed deer on one of the center’s six trails.

Editor’s choice: Whether you are on a bike or on foot, the 14-mile loop around Council Bluff Lake near Potosi is a real sample of the Ozarks. This Forest Service Trail features great views of the lake and a swimming area to cool off at the end. (573) 438-5427.

Best golf course: St. James Golf Club, St. James

Best county fair

1st: Ozark Empire Fair, Springfield, (417) 833-2660
2nd: Boone County Fair, Columbia, (573) 474-9435
3rd: Webster County Fair, (417) 859-3925

Like the city in which it is held, Springfield’s Ozark Empire Fair retains a county fair feel while still offering a huge variety of attractions and food such as alligator on a stick. The fair’s organizers keep its primary mission focused on agriculture. The Boone County Fair remains one of Missouri’s largest, with a good mix of music, livestock, tractors and rides. Webster County holds its fair July 18-21 in Marshfield.

Editor’s choice: No other fair offers as many big-name performers as the Montgomery County Fair. Join them for five days of fun July 17-21. (573) 564-3526

Best antique shop

1st: St. Mary Antique Mall, St. Mary, (573) 543-2800
2nd: Heartland Antique Mall, Lebanon, (417) 832-9350
3rd: Ice Chalet, Columbia, (573) 442-6893

Missouri was once home to many shoe factories. When many of these plants closed, they became antique malls like the one in St. Mary, a small town just south of Ste. Genevieve. This monster mall boasts more than 600 vendors and is open seven days a week. Heartland Antique Mall in Lebanon is a frequent stop for tour buses and just one of many attractions in Lebanon. Columbia’s Ice Chalet has 28,000 square feet and brags “no crafts.”

Editor’s choice: Besides having a great name, the Junk-Shun Barn at Willow Springs offers a great selection of vintage items inside its barn-like interior. (417) 469-3339.

Best golf course

1st: St. St. James Golf Club, (573) 265-8688
2nd: Eagle Knoll, Hartsburg, 1-800-909-0564
3rd: Sun Valley Golf Course, Elsberry, (573) 898-2613

While golf won’t replace hunting and fishing as the favorite leisure activities of our readers, it is catching on. Readers tended to favor home-town courses like St. James’ municipal links and the Sun Valley course in Elsberry over the better known clubs at Lake of the Ozarks and Branson. Second place winner Eagle Knoll, however, earned accolades from Golf Digest which called it one of the nation’s best values.

Best cave: Meramec Caverns, Stanton

Editor’s choice: Top of the Rock, just a short drive (in a car, not a tee shot) from Big Cedar Lodge, offers the best views in Missouri while keeping most of the natural features in place. Under renovation, it should reopen in time for the summer season. 1-800-225-6343.

Best cave

1st Meramec Caverns, Stanton, (573) 468-6072
2nd Fantastic Caverns, Springfield, (417) 833-2010
3rd Onondaga Cave, Leasburg, (573) 245-6576

Our readers chose three of the most impressive show caves in a state known for its caves. Lester Dill practically invented the term show cave when he opened our first-place winner in 1935. Fantastic Caverns, where visitors ride in Jeep-drawn trams, has given back much to the community through its many educational programs. Onondoga Cave (a state park) is equally as spectacular as its cousin Meramec Caverns but with a more natural feel.

Editor’s choice: Highway workers accidentally discovered Springfield’s Riverbluff Cave, giving scientists an underground ice age time capsule to explore. The cave’s field house is open to the public and features displays ranging from mammoths to millipeds. (417) 883-0594.

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