What has been best about the last year? Well, the fact that Fort Wayne still has a thriving restaurant community, which gives me the opportunity to tell their stories in spite of this pandemic, is what I cherish most.
And I appreciate the folks who grind it out at those restaurants every day, even more now given our state of affairs. My expectations of good service have changed as a result.
What might have been considered subpar service a couple of years ago is viewed differently as places struggle to find workers. I used to say a place being short staffed or a server telling me the kitchen is really slow was not my problem and I was not going to let them off the hook. But now you notice the staff shortages without even having to really look for clues. And you can often see it on your server's face as he or she struggles to deal with the issues the shortages cause while still trying to keep you happy.
I appreciate great service more than ever before, and my tip base has risen, along with my level of patience.
Now, before you all get impatient, I'll move on with my bests for the past year:
Big Apple Pizza, 120 W. Wayne St. – After moving to a new location and then being sold to new owners, I was of course a bit worried about its future. Nothing to fear, however, as it is still one of the best pizza places around and it is as welcoming of a place as you will find downtown. It's a place where you can sit down and relax even though it is much easier for pizza places to go carry-out only these days.
Lucille's BBQ, 9011 Lima Road – A second location of what I consider to be the Fort's best barbecue restaurant has been in the works for months now within walking distance of my home and I cannot wait. I am never disappointed here, and it has become a go-to spot for not just my family, but for several out-of-town visitors who come here regularly.
The Pub at 1802, 1802 Spy Run Ave. – I do not know if there is one thing about this place that makes it one of my favorites. Maybe it is the laid-back vibe at every visit. Maybe it is the crowd, which is just as laid back. Maybe it is the staff, which is always right on top of things. Maybe it is the eclectic cocktail list that allows me to jump from a Kentucky Mule to a Mai Tai if I feel the need. Or, maybe it is the great pub fare, starting with the fried green tomato BLT, which is my go-to. The answer is simply that all of these things combined make it a better-than-solid option.
Pizzeria Venturi, Goshen – I had long wanted to try this place, which at one time was the only certified Neapolitan pizza producer in the state. When I finally made it, I kicked myself for not going sooner as its perfect wood-fired pizza alone was well worth finding an excuse to head to Goshen.
Ecuadorian Ceviche, Proximo, 898 S. Harrison St. – A wonderful date night started out on the right note with this delicious starter that featured sweet bay scallops in a vibrant tomato-and-orange marinade. The cumin-spiced chips that came with it were no slouches, either.
Onion rings, Don Hall's Restaurants – A menu staple that has stood the test of time, I have found myself craving them lately. During one group outing my party of 10 plowed through four baskets of them before the main courses arrived and several of us made those one of our sides as well. They are that crispy and delicious.
Chicken Dumpling Soup, Anastasia's Café, 7121 W. Jefferson Blvd. – Imagine one of the best homemade chicken soups you have ever had. Now, imagine it with sweet corn and little dumplings. That is what you get if you are lucky to visit this lunch spot on the day when it is offered.
Asiago Mac and Cheese, Rack & Helen's, New Haven – It's not really an appetizer, it is a side dish, but I would order a bowl of it every time I visited and it could serve as a great appetizer. It is super creamy with shell pasta that holds its form and has a nice layer of chewy melted cheese on top of each individually baked crock.
Border Nachos; Lalos, 1724 W. Wallen Road – These individually topped goodies with their double-tortilla chip base are perhaps the best nachos in Fort Wayne. Crunchy and generously topped, I will be having them regularly.
Delmonico steak, Don Hall's Old Gas House, 305 E. Superior St. – I opted for the filet and my son chose this 16-ounce cut. He proved to be much wiser than his old man as I was stealing as much of this super-tender cut of beef as I could from him. It was tremendous and though the filet was a fine choice, too, it paled in comparison to this hunk of beef.
Seafood Lasagna, Sandra D's, Auburn – Scallops, shrimp and blue crab layered in pasta sheets with cheese and a scrumptious cream sauce topped with asparagus – what is not to love?
Detroiter pizza, Alto Grado, 111 W. Columbia St. – One of the best deep-dish pies around and easily the best Detroit-style pie I have had in these parts. Its crispy, burnt-cheese edge and dollops of ricotta on top make this pie simply perfection.
Won Ton Egg Noodle Soup, Kim Vu, 433 E. Dupont Road – I order this delicious soup – which is easily my favorite Asian soup in the area – with rice noodles instead of egg. It is great with the egg as well, but the rice makes it more like pho, which I prefer. The flavorful homemade chicken broth that holds those noodles also hosts pork won tons (of course), slices of roasted pork and pork cake (a meatloaf-type product made with processed meat). And the crowning touch is a single shrimp wrapped in eggroll sheets and deep fried that is served on the side.
Pozole, La Piñata, 6121 N. Clinton St. – Maybe this was just a year for soup, but this hearty Mexican belly warmer beckons me, especially in the winter.
Banana Split, Grabill Dairy Sweet – One of my favorite ice cream shops changed hands shortly before the pandemic began, and I was a bit scared as to what I would find when I finally made my way there. No need to worry. It is still fabulous and this behemoth – known as the Titanic under its previous owner – is still the biggest, best banana split anywhere.
Pancakes, Mino II, Garrett – I go to Mino because I love the authentic German and Italian fare. My wife and kids go for the pancakes. The kids tried them first when they were young, but after we sampled from their plate we were stunned. Owner Toni Chisholm's recipe for these fluffy gems is so good and they have such a wonderful flavor, they don't even need syrup. They aren't really a dessert, but that is how we have them now because we can't say no to the other food, but must say yes to these pancakes.
There is no way I can hit on all of the places we lost in 2021, but there were a couple of very historic ones that will be greatly missed:
Hall's Original Drive-In, 1502 Bluffton Road – A staple for 75 years, the Drive-In just closed its doors a couple of weeks ago and it is a sad loss. Recent improvements brought this legendary place up to date in terms of looks and menu, and, though formal plans are not yet known, many fear the building could be demolished.
Acme Bar & Grill, 1105 E. State Blvd. – A formal announcement was never made, but this staple restaurant has been closed for several months. It might breathe life again someday, but it has been shuttered too long for me to believe it will remain as the Acme under its most recent owners even if it does reopen.
Rather than trying to come up with a list of new places that have opened – the list would be short given the pandemic has continued – I just wanted to tip my cap to all of the restaurants that have taken the chance to open along the Landing.
This new downtown city center is a wonderful addition to the city and its restaurant landscape. Alto Grado, Mercado, Marquee, Utopian Coffee and The Landing Beer Co. joined Nawa along Columbia Street, and Kanela Blended Drinks and Kilwins Chocolates are fine additions next to Tolon on Harrison Street.
I cannot wait to see what the next great little food-centric place to take roost in this area is and I will for sure be a regular visitor.
Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. Email him at email@example.com; call at 461-8130. DuVall's past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette. net. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @DiningOutDuVall.