Last year, we shook things up a bit with our annual “Best of Rural Missouri” competition. After tallying your opinions about the best eateries, destinations and activities on a statewide basis for the contest’s first six years, we split the Show-Me State into five regions and asked you to tell us what you love close to home.
Your response was overwhelming, and not just to us. Restaurants and attractions that had lived in the shadow of the state’s best-known found themselves in the spotlight for the first time, and reader interest in these new “discoveries” was evident.
At Piggy’s BarBQ in O’Fallon, for instance, we learned business jumped 30 percent after the contest winners were announced. As a relatively young business, Piggy’s had built a faithful local following, but the regional contest concept gave the smokehouse a statewide stage and new fan base.
We deemed the regional concept a success and decided to stay with it this year, although we did offer several new categories with the hope that you would tell us about the next Piggy’s.
Something strange happened, however. Maybe it was voter fatigue after a long election year, or perhaps the categories we offered weren’t as appealing. Whatever the reason, the number of votes cast this year fell dramatically. In fact, we received nearly 40 percent fewer completed ballots than last year.
We’ve always considered the “Best of Rural Missouri” to be a readers’ choice contest. When we visit with you at the State Fair and elsewhere, we often hear the contest is one of your favorite items in the magazine. However, the voting this year seems to indicate dampened enthusiasm.
So, we want to know: Is the contest something you still enjoy, or has it run its course? If we decide to continue the contest, how would you like it structured? Send your thoughts to the Rural Missouri Mailbag.
We do need to congratulate Gayle Burke of Bourbon, a member of Crawford Electric Cooperative, the winner of the Best of Missouri gift basket.
Now without further ado, here is the Best of Rural Missouri, by region, in a special four-page pull-out section.
Best Restaurant — Southest Missouri: Sybill's Saint James, St. James. Heather Berry photo
Our lone perennial category includes two restaurants — The Pear Tree and Lambert’s — that have placed in the contest every year since its inception. No matter where you live in Missouri, these establishments all qualify as dining worth the drive.
Central: Charley’s Buffet; 23785 Highway B, Lincoln; 660-668-3806
Unless you enjoy waiting in line, be sure to get to Charley’s early. The all-you-can-eat homemade buffet includes all the comfort foods. Open Friday and Saturday evenings only.
Northeast: The Pear Tree; 222 N. Macon St., Bevier; 660-773-6666;
Since it opened in the mid-1980s, The Pear Tree has offered a tantalizing selection of gourmet food and drink, from its famous onion rings and imported batter-dipped lobster tail to its succulent prime rib. Closed on Sundays and Monday.
Northwest (tie): The Railyard Steakhouse; 606 E. Broadway St., Brunswick; 660-548-3300;
The Railyard opened in 2007 and has already established a reputation for both its ribeye and prime rib. The rumble of trains on the nearby tracks completes the experience. Open for lunch and dinner on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
Northwest (tie): The Aberdeen Steak House; 108 W. Vermont, King City; 660-535-6585
Those who travel to King City to marvel at the towering turbines of the Bluegrass Ridge Wind Farm should stop in at this eatery in downtown King City. Hand-cut steaks cooked to order and homemade sides will fill your plate edge to edge.
Southeast: Sybill’s Saint James; 1100 N. Jefferson, St. James; 573-265-4224
The same family that once operated Zeno’s, the popular Rolla restaurant, opened this establishment in 2007 on the north edge of town. Sybill’s seafood and steak selections are impressive, enough so that reservations are strongly recommended.
Southwest: Lambert’s Café; 1800 W. State Highway J, Ozark; 417-581-7655; www.throwedrolls.com
“Home of Throwed Rolls.” Need we say more? Among Missouri’s most popular restaurants, Lambert’s offers up its old-fashioned home cooking in Sikeston, too.
Best Barbecue — Northeast Missouri: Piggy's BarBQ, O'Fallon. Bob McEowen photo
Whether it’s slathered in sauce or dry-rubbed to perfection, Missourians know their barbecue. So it was no surprise to us that all of last year’s regional winners won back-to-back honors.
Central: Chuck Wagon BBQ;
13683 Highway 7 West, Warsaw; 660-438-2503
After a day on Truman Lake, there’s nothing better than the Chuck Wagon for dinner. “The best I’ve ever had” is how one Rural Missouri editor describes the ribs, which have the perfect proportion of smoky bark outside and tender deliciousness inside.
Northeast: Piggy’s BarBQ;
327 S. Main St., O’Fallon;
A purveyor of Kansas City-style barbecue, Piggy’s offers the best of the classics. Be sure to stop in on your way to a River City Rascals game this summer for “Full Slab Fridays,” nearly 3 pounds of ribs for $14.99.
Northwest: Wabash BBQ;
646 S. Kansas City Ave., Excelsior Springs; 816-630-7700;
Housed in the historic Wabash Railroad Depot, this joint should be one of your regular whistle stops when in Excelsior Springs. We recommend the “Piggyback Combo,” a sampling of all four of the Wabash’s sliced, smoked meats, plus ribs and two sides.
Southeast: Missouri Hick Bar-B-Q; 913 E. Washington St., Cuba; 573-885-6791
Located on old Route 66, the décor at Missouri Hick isn’t typical of what you usually find along the Mother Road. The brisket and pulled pork are both moist and flavorful. Sauce is not required, although all of Missouri Hick’s homemade sauces are worthy of space on any shelf.
Southwest: Richards Hawgwild BBQ;
22 East Olive, Aurora; 417-678- 4294; www.richardshawgwildbbq.com
Owners Richard and Donna Helgerson refer to theirs as “the finest barbecue this side of Memphis.” Their pit-smoked meats certainly would be at home in that Tennessee town. Locals also rave about the barbecue nachos.
Best Fried Chicken
Best Fried Chicken — Southest Missouri: Cookin' From Scratch, Doolittle. Jim McCarty photo
With a seasoned, crispy skin that keeps things moist inside, few foods offer the comfort that a piece of fried chicken affords. Colonel Sanders isn’t the only one who can fry a chicken, however.
Central: Landmark Restaurant; 301 S. Main St., Lowry City; 417-644-2349
The Landmark serves up skillet-fried chicken family-style on Wednesdays and Sundays with your choice of three vegetables.
Northeast: Hodak’s Restaurant & Bar; 2100 Gravois Ave., St. Louis; 314-776-7292; www.hodaks.com
Ask anyone in St. Louis where to get a plate of fried chicken, and they’ll send you to Hodak’s. Their famous chicken platter comes complete with four pieces of chicken, as well as healthy portions of fries and cole slaw, all for under $8.
Northwest: Stroud’s Restaurant & Bar; 5410 NE. Oak Ridge Dr., Kansas City; 816-454-9600;
Stroud’s cooks up chicken like your grandmother did: pan-fried. The old-fashioned preparation may take longer, but the mouth-watering flavor is worth the wait.
Southeast: Cookin’ From Scratch; 90 Truman St., Doolittle; 573-762-3111; www.cookinfromscratch.com
Located just off Interstate 44 in a town named for a World War II hero, Cookin’ From Scratch serves up a cast iron skillet-fried chicken dinner that satisfies any road warrior.
Southwest: Smith’s Short Stop; Bolivar, Collins & Clinton; 417-275-4575
Smith’s is a hometown gem that is well-known for its giant breaded pork tenderloins. However, the fried chicken definitely holds its own as the centerpiece of a down-home meal.
Last year, we asked you to pick your favorite place for dessert. This year, we narrowed the category to find the perfect pie. Not surprisingly, many of the winners remained the same.
Central: Lehman’s Restaurant; 15830 Highway 5, Versailles; 573-378-4010
This Mennonite restaurant takes the cake for its made-from-scratch homemade pies. You can taste the love and care in every bite.
Northeast: The Blue Owl Restaurant & Bakery; 6116 2nd St., Kimmswick; 636-464-3128; www.theblueowl.com
The Blue Owl offers 42 types of pie, so it’s hard to know where to start. We recommend the trademark caramel apple pecan pie, which is made with 18 apples!
Northwest: Corner Cafe; 4541 NW. Gateway Ave., Riverside; 816-741-2570; www.thecornercafe.com
You’ll find down-home cooking throughout the Corner Cafe’s menu. Patrons rave about their baked goods, including their pie selection.
Southeast: A Slice of Pie; 601 Kingshighway St., Rolla; 573-364-6203
Despite its name, this little shop will be happy to sell you a whole pie. Rural Missouri editor Jim McCarty can’t go through Rolla without stopping here.
Southwest: Cooky’s Cafe; 529 Main St., Golden City; 417-537-4741
Of the 36 varieties it offers, this diner bakes nearly two dozen types of pie everyday. Pie is available whole or by the slice.
Best Winery — Central Missouri: Les Bourgeois Vineyards, Rocheport. Jason Jenkins photo
Missouri’s wine heritage stretches all the way back to 1837 when German immigrants settled in Hermann. These winning wineries carry on that tradition today.
Central: Les Bourgeois Vineyards; 12847 W. Highway BB, Rocheport; 573-698-2613; www.missouriwine.com
Located on the bluff top above the Missouri River, the state’s third largest winery offers 11 wines, including its gold medal-winning Chardonel.
Northeast: Stone Hill Winery; 1110 Stone Hill Highway, Hermann; 800-909-9463; www.stonehillwinery.com
Prior to Prohibition, Stone Hill was the nation’s second largest winery. Today, you can tour the cavernous arched underground cellars before enjoying a wine tasting in one of three historic tasting rooms.
Northwest: Baltimore Bend Vineyard; 27150 Hwy. 24, Waverly; 660-493-0258; www.baltimorebend.com
This family-owned winery west of Waverly established its first vineyard in 1997 and offered its first wine in 2003. They grow many grape varieties including Cynthiana, Chambourcin, Chardonel, Cabernet Franc and Vignoles.
Southeast: St. James Winery; 540 Sidney St.; St. James; 800-280-9463;
A recognized leader of Missouri’s wine industry, St. James blends technology with tradition to produce more than 130,000 cases of wine each year.
Southwest: Stone Hill Winery; 601 State Highway 165, Branson; 888-926-9463; www.stonehillwinery.com
While its Hermann location may be better known, Stone Hill’s Branson location has been entertaining visitors since 1986.
Best Public Fishing Spot
Best Public Fishing Spot — Central Missouri: Bennett Spring State Park, Lebanon. Jason Jenkins photo
It’s always nice to share, but readers weren’t too specific when naming their favorite fishing holes. Wonder why?
Central: Bennett Spring State Park, Lebanon; 417-532-4338; www.mostateparks.com/
Bennett is one of three state parks where trout are stocked. Standing in the cold spring water with the park’s beautiful arched stone bridge in the background makes a perfect setting to catch a lunker rainbow trout.
Northeast: August A. Busch Conservation Nature Center, St. Charles; 636-441-4554; www.mdc.mo.gov/areas/cnc/busch
Located adjacent to the Missouri River, this conservation area also features 32 fishable lakes and ponds totaling 550 acres with 43 fishing jetties and docks. Boat rental is available.
Northwest: Dalton Bottoms Access, Dalton; 660-646-6122
You’ll find good catfishing at Dalton Bottoms, which provides access to both the Chariton and Missouri rivers. Populations of carp and buffalo also make for good fishing here.
Southeast: Meramec Spring Park, St. James; 573-265-7387;
Each day, 96 million gallons of pure, cold water erupt from Meramec Spring and make for terrific trout fishing during the state-regulated season from March 1 to Oct. 31.
Southwest: Roaring River State Park, Cassville; 417-847-2539; www.mostateparks.com/roaringriver.htm
Both brown and rainbow trout attract anglers to Roaring River. The first trout hatchery opened in 1910, becoming a state-owned hatchery in 1929. Trout production began in 1932.
Best Camping — Southwest Missouri: Roaring River State Park, Cassville. Photo courtesy of Missouri Department of Natural Resources
Camping is one of Missouri’s favorite pasttimes, whether you pitch a tent or pull an RV. State parks earned a clean sweep of the category this year.
Central: Bennett Spring State Park, Lebanon; 417-532-4338;
Bennett boasts five campgrounds with 15 basic, 128 electric and 48 sewer/electric/water campsites. As is true of all state parks, you can reserve your site online at www.mostateparks.com/campres.htm.
Northeast: Mark Twain State Park, Stoutsville; 573-565-3440; www.mostateparks.com/twainpark.htm
Along with 22 basic and 75 electric sites, Mark Twain has six camper cabins that sleep four adults and two kids.
Northwest: Watkins Woolen Mill State Park, Lawson; 816-580-3387; www.mostateparks.com/wwmill
This site of a National Historic Landmark offers nearly 100 campsites, some of which are open year-round, as well as two showerhouses and a laundry.
Southeast: Sam A. Baker State Park, Patterson; 573-856-4411; www.mostateparks.com/baker.htm
If you’re looking to get away, Sam Baker is the place to go. Camp with either Big Creek or the St. Francis River behind your site.
Southwest: Roaring River State Park, Cassville; 417-847-2539; www.mostateparks.com/roaringriver.htm
Two of park’s three campgrounds are nestled along the banks of Roaring River. If you don’t feel like roughing it, try the park’s Emory Melton Inn.
Best Family Destination
Planning to spend your family vacation close to home this year? You can’t go wrong with any of the winners in this category.
Central: Missouri State Fair, Sedalia; 800-422-3247; www.mostatefair.com
From exhibits to concerts to the midway, there’s not a better way to end the summer. This year’s fair runs from Aug. 13-23.
Northeast: Six Flags St. Louis, Eureka; 636-938-4800; www.sixflags.com
If roller coasters are your thing, there are few more exhilarating than Batman, although the classic wooden coaster Screamin’ Eagle can’t be beat.
Northwest: Worlds of Fun, Kansas City; 816-454-4545;
Not to be outdone, Worlds of Fun’s Mamba roller coaster will take your breath away with speeds up to 75 mph.
Southeast: Elephant Rocks State Park, Graniteville; 573-546-3454; www.mostateparks.com/elephantrock.htm
These curious massive monoliths will fill your family with wonder and delight.
Southwest: Silver Dollar City, Branson; 800-475-9370;
As a vacation getaway, Silver Dollar City offers it all — crafts, thrill rides, family attractions and festivals. Who could ask for more?
Best Bed and Breakfast
Best Bed and Breakfast — Northwest Missouri: Country Colonial Bed and Breakfast, Jamesport. Photo courtesy of Country Colonial
When you want time for just the two of you, leave the kids at home and let these winners cater to you.
Central: School House Bed & Breakfast, Rocheport; 573-698-2022; www.schoolhousebb.com
Housed in what was once a four-room school, this establishment offers 10 luxury guest rooms all with private baths, including four with jetted tubs.
Northeast: Garth Woodside Mansion, Hannibal; 888-427-8409;
Operated as a bed and breakfast since 1987, here you can stay in the same guest room where Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) once slept.
Northwest: Country Colonial Bed & Breakfast, Jamesport; 800-579-9248; www.jamesport-mo.com/cc/
Take a carriage ride through Amish country and enjoy this 1865 Colonial style home. Country Colonial offers three rooms, each with private bath.
Southeast: Rose Bed Inn, Cape Girardeau; 866-767-3283;
With a Mississippi River view from its rooftop, the Rose Bed offers three guest rooms as well as breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Southwest: The Dickey House Bed & Breakfast, Marshfield; 417-468-3000; www.dickeyhouse.com
A stay at this turn of the century Greek Revival mansion comes complete with a gourmet breakfast. Take your pick of seven well-appointed guest rooms.
Best Holiday Display
We left the holiday up to you, and you selected Christmas light displays for your winners:
Central: Tan-Tar-A Resort, Osage Beach; 800-826-8272
Tan-Tar-A’s Winter Holiday Lights Festival Celebration features lighted displays and trees along the resort’s winding entryway.
Northeast: Fort Zumwalt Park, O’Fallon; 636-379-5614
The park’s Celebration of Lights is a drive-through holiday display where each scene is designed and funded by local organizations, churches and businesses. Started in 1991, it attracts more than 8,000 vehicles each year.
Northwest: Country Club Plaza, Kansas City; 816-753-0100
An annual tradition for nearly 80 years, the best viewing options for the Plaza Lights include the rooftops of Halls, McCormick & Schmick’s, Starker’s Reserve Restaurant, The Intercontinental Kansas City Hotel and the second floor of Barnes & Noble.
Southeast: Cape County Park, Cape Girardeau; 573-335-4146
This park’s display began in 1987 as a cooperative effort between the County Park Board, the County Commission and the Arts Council. Displays vary from decorated memorial trees to elaborately lighted scenes and traditional winter holiday symbols.
Southwest: Silver Dollar City,
The attraction’s five-story, special effects Christmas tree is covered with 300,000 lights that glow and flash in unison to music.
Best Equestrian Destination
When it comes time to saddle up, here are five must-visit trails.
Central: Berry Bend Equestrian Campground, Warsaw; 877-444-6777; www.nwk.usace.army.mil/ht/Camp-BerryBendHorse.cfm
Maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Berry Bend is the trailhead for nearly 25 miles of developed trails around Truman Lake.
Northeast: Cuivre River State Park, Troy; 636-528-7247; www.mostateparks.com/cuivre.htm
Follow the seven-mile Cuivre River Trail to the top of Frenchman’s Bluff, or enjoy the fern and moss-covered hollows of Big Sugar Creek Trail.
Northwest: Poosey Conservation Area, Chillicothe; 660-646-6122
Twelve loop trails of 25 miles are maintained for riders. Equestrian riding is allowed north of Highway A.
Southeast: Cross Country Trail Ride, Eminence; 573-226-3492
Set on the banks of the beautiful Jack’s Fork River, Cross Country Trail Ride is an Ozarks experience that shouldn’t be missed.
Southwest: Bear Creek Trail Rides, Walnut Shade; 417-337-7708
This family-owned business offers one- and two-hour trail rides through spectacular scenery along Bear Creek.
Best Wedding Spot
Best Wedding Spot — Northwest Missouri: Powell Gardens, Kingsville. Photo courtesy of Powell Gardens
When it’s time to say “I do,” any of these locales will do.
Central: Bridal Cave, Camdenton; 573-346-2676; www.bridalcave.com
Local folklore tells of a legendary Indian wedding ceremony held in the cave in the early 1800s. Today more than 2,000 couples have exchanged vows in the stalactite-adorned cave.
Northeast: Thousand Hills State Park, Kirksville; 660-665-6995; www.mostateparks.com/thousandhills.htm Complete your union with the park’s Forest Lake in the background. Point Shelter is the most popular spot in the park for a ceremony.
Northwest: Powell Gardens, Kingsville; 816-697-2600;
Whether you choose to hold your nuptials in the garden’s Marjorie Powell Allen Chapel or the Perennial Garden Arbor, you’ll be surrounded by natural beauty.
Southeast: Chaumette Vineyards & Winery, Ste. Genevieve; 573-747-1000
Nestled in the hillside trees, St. Vincent’s Chapel on the vineyard’s grounds provides an unforgettable setting for a wedding.
Southwest: Stonegate Glass Wedding Chapel, Walnut Shade; 417-443-5083;
With a combination of stone, steel and glass, this chapel overlooking the beautiful Ozarks mountains offers a truly romantic atmosphere.
(click on map for a larger image)