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The Taste of Groupon Awards

BY: Editors | Apr 28, 2016

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Every day, Groupon deals highlight some of the country's favorite local restaurants and bars. But now, we want to recognize the people who make those places so beloved. 

This awards campaign celebrates a restaurant’s entire staff—from chefs to servers, dishwashers to house bands. They can be your favorite restaurants on Groupon, or those that have never run a Groupon deal. If they make your favorite bar or restaurant special, we want to hear about them. 

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And the winners are ...

After a spirited competition in the inaugural Taste of Groupon Awards, we are pleased to announce our very deserving winners:

The Food Award for Most Exemplary Cookery Skills and Creativity

Reva Constantine at Great Lakes Culinary Center in Southfield, MI

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When it comes to food, Reva’s quite literally done it all, from hosting pop-up supper clubs to dazzling judges on Guy’s Grocery Games. Find out what she had to say about her time on TV and Detroit’s emerging foodie scene here.

The Drink Award for the Advancement of Potent Potables

Brandon Phillips at The Duck Inn in Chicago, IL

brandon phillips 600px jpgThe Chicago Tribune named Phillips the 2016 Bartender of the Year for his wildly inventive potables (prime rib old-fashioned, anyone?). Watch him craft one of his specialities.

The Sweets Award for Most Decadent and Delightful Use of Sugar

Roque Heidler at The Chalkboard in Tulsa, OK

bog roqueheidler2k16 HEADSHOT jpgIf you still don’t think food is art after looking at The Chalkboard chef’s drool-worthy Instagram photos, you might need your eyes checked. Read about his five tips for stunning food photography.

The Service Award for Impeccable Hospitality and Kindness

Dale Talde at Talde in New York, NY

tog daletalde2k16 02 jpgThis two-time Top Chef alum is known for his fun and funky Asian-American fusion food. Find out why he’s proud of his signature “inauthentic” cooking style.

The Ambiance Award for the Most Romantic and Otherwise Outstanding Vibes

Mark Cox at Mark's American Cuisine in Houston, TX

tog markcox2k16 HEADSHOT jpgWhen you run a gourmet steakhouse inside a converted church, you’re bound to see a few (or a few hundred) marriage proposals. Find out Mark’s four-part recipe for romantic dining.

More on the prizes:

For our five industry winners:

A two-night stay in Chicago to attend the James Beard Awards for each winner and a guest! 

Dates: May 1–3, 2016

Prize includes:

  • Two nights at a luxury hotel in downtown Chicago
  • Roundtrip airfare for two and roundtrip airport transfers
  • Two tickets to the James Beard Awards Ceremony and Gala Reception at the Lyric Opera on Monday, May 2. Includes transportation to the awards (winner and guest must travel together to the awards). 
  • Access for two to the James Beard Chef's Night Out Industry Party at the Montgomery Club on Sunday, May 1. Transportation not included. 
  • $600 in American Express prepaid cards for incidentals
  • Welcome bag 
  • One-hour welcome meet & greet reception 

For our sweepstakes* winner:

A two-night stay in Chicago to attend the James Beard Awards for the winner and a guest! 

Dates: May 1–3, 2016

Prize includes:

  • Two nights at a luxury hotel in downtown Chicago
  • Roundtrip airfare for two and roundtrip airport transfers
  • Two tickets to the James Beard Awards Ceremony and Gala Reception at the Lyric Opera on Monday, May 2. Includes transportation to the awards (winner and guest must travel together to the awards). 
  • A 10-course tasting dinner for two with wine pairings at Acadia. Transportation not included.
  • $600 in American Express prepaid cards for incidentals
  • Welcome bag

More on the process:

First, Groupon’s own food editors compiled all of your nominations, whittling them down to our very deserving finalists. Now, your votes and those of our expert panel of chefs and food editors will determine the five winners, who will be flown (with a guest) to Chicago for an all-inclusive foodie weekend complete with tickets to the James Beard Awards on May 2.

Meet our Expert Chef Panel:

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Alvin Cailin

Art Smith

Harold Moore 

Alvin Cailin: Since grabbing the attention of SoCal foodies with the cheekily named breakfast spot Eggslut in 2011, Cailin has gone on to amass the longest lines at Grand Central Market as well as the a 2014 award for LA’s Rising Star Chef. This former French Laundry and Spago stager’s latest project is Unit 120, a kitchen incubator that’s drawn praise from Saveur, Eater, and the Los Angeles Times.

Art Smith: As if being Oprah’s former personal chef isn’t evidence enough of Smith’s talents, he now helms restaurants in four cities across the US, including Atlanta, DC, and Palo Alto. But the two-time James Beard Award winner is perhaps best known in Chicago, where his trademark Southern recipes won over hungry crowds at Table fifty-two and will surely continue to do so at the forthcoming Blue Door Kitchen & Garden.

Harold Moore: As one of the most celebrated Manhattan chefs in recent memory, Moore has enjoyed a dream career—working under both Daniel Boulud and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, earning a Michelin star (with Wayne Nish in the kitchen at March), and opening his own restaurant in the heart of West Village. Moore’s Commerce Sweet Shop and Harold’s Meat + 3 are both slated to open in 2016.  

More on the finalists:

Our editors got to know a handful of our finalists a bit better by asking their opinions on a wide range of food-related topics, and their responses gave us a few surprises. For example:

  • 90% prefer salt to sugar
  • 67% prefer whiskey to beer
  • 78% prefer bacon to sausage
  • 63% prefer a cow to a chicken
  • 90% prefer Samoas to Thin Mints
  • 100% prefer a food coma to a brain freeze

Find out what they had to say about:

Strange Customer Requests

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Servers are used to fielding request for ingredient substitutions, but what about requests for leprechauns or stripteases?

The Best Tips They Ever Got

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Sometimes a great tip is … an actual tip. Bonus points if it comes from a nun.

Lessons They’ve Learned While Working in the Food Industry

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Serving others doesn’t just earn you great karma, it also makes you pretty zen.

Or get better acquainted with all our finalists below!

The Food Award for Most Exemplary Cookery Skills and Creativity

David Bancroft at Acre in Auburn, AL

It’s pretty easy to know where you’re ingredients are coming from—especially if they’re coming right from your restaurant’s own backyard. That’s exactly what Acre owner and chef David Bancroft promises: Acre’s own garden produces much of the vegetables used in the kitchen’s contemporary Southern cuisine, and the rest of the ingredients are sourced straight from local ranchers, farmers, and fishermen before being turned into what our nominator called “beautiful edible art works fit for a king.”

George Salami at AlForon in San Diego, CA

Local goes global at this Middle Eastern spot, where the chefs blend farmers'-market produce with imported olive oil and herbs. The owners adhere to 19th-century Lebanese cooking traditions as closely as possible, using a wood-fired oven to create what one nominator called “the most deliciously spiced flatbreads and sweets [I have] ever tasted.”

Hillary Sterling at Vic's in New York, NY

Our nominator called out Chef Hillary Sterling’s borsas, but don’t take their word for it: Thrillist also had good things to say about the ricotta- and hazelnut-stuffed “pasta purses,” calling them the “true star” of the menu. But despite the fanfare, the Mediterranean-Italian spot remains approachable—surprising given that Sterling earned her chops working for the likes of Bobby Flay and Mario Batali.

Masatoshi "Gari" Sugio at Sushi of Gari in New York, NY

Chef Masatoshi “Gari” Sugio prepared his first sushi at age 19, sparking a lifelong passion for his native country's most renowned cuisine. It's been more than 35 years since he moved to New York City from Tokyo, and still he seeks to elevate his art daily across his four Manhattan locations. A nominator praised Gari and his staff for their "attention to detail" and "pride in their food."

Reva Constantine at Great Lakes Culinary Center in Southfield, MI

The Great Lakes Culinary Center gives aspiring chefs and kitchen newcomers a chance to hone their skills using high-end commercial equipment. Leading the way to inspire the aspiring is executive chef Reva Constantine. A nominator described her as "innovative" and "original" in ways that expand beyond her cuisine. She's also "a genuine and humble fun spirit" seeking to "constantly help, give back, celebrate others, and share her wonderful knowledge of food and preparation."

Tyler Bond at Kru in Sacramento, CA

Kru concocts fresh takes on Japanese cuisine, from beef-tongue sushi with ponzu foam to duck confit ramen. Pushing these innovations farther is chef de cuisine Tyler Bond, whom a nominator described as a "hard working, versatile" leader "constantly creating and learning." As part of his efforts, he forages for ingredients and develops relationships with local farms, keeping Kru's cuisine firmly rooted in the community.

The Drink Award for the Advancement of Potent Potables

Brandon Phillips at The Duck Inn in Chicago, IL

No one just ducks in and out of The Duck Inn. Sure, that’s partly because people want to savor every morsel of Chef Kevin Hickey’s rotisserie duck for two, a gigantic bird served atop a wooden platter with duck-fat potatoes. But it’s just as much for bartender Brandon Phillips’s peerless bar program. Named Bartender of the Year for 2016 by the Chicago Tribune, Phillips thrives in using spirits and ingredients not seen on many cocktail lists. There’s the Duck Out, a savory blend of duck fat-washed cognac with sherry and five-spice syrup, and the Anton Chigurh, with splashes of Troussepinette Red, gomme syrup, and saline atop a base of five-year scotch. He’s also a whiz with gin, as one nominator enthusiastically pointed out.

Chris Reale at Grace in Fort Worth, TX

This sleek restaurant in Cowtown is known for doing two things really well: making elegant American comfort food with seasonal ingredients, and pouring a mean drink. Their wine list has received five awards from Wine Spectator magazine, and their cocktails are just as worthy of praise. This is especially true of the specialty cocktails mixed up by Chris Reale, who one nominator described as “a hard-working full-time student and a full-time bartender” whose drinks are the toast of the town.

Jimmie "Angry Inch" Morgan at Lucky 13 in Salt Lake City, UT

An impressive beer and whiskey selection and more than a dozen burgers topped with gourmet ingredients such as house-smoked bacon and roasted green chilies. These are just a few of the things that make Lucky 13, a casual neighborhood roadhouse, so special. Then there’s the bar manager, Jimmy, who regulars compare to the character Ted Danson played on Cheers.

Lorna Renea Mckaig at The Terminal Brewhouse in Chattanooga, TN

Being the first brewpub in Chattanooga doesn’t automatically mean you’re the best. No, it’s the extras that keep The Terminal Brewhouse at the top of the list. Take its historic setting in the restored Stong Building, for example. Or its commitment to green practices, which include donating spent grain to local farms. Or the always-friendly staff members, like Lorna, who, according to our nominator, “always has a smile on her face, even when it's hard to have one.” (PS: the beer’s pretty great too.)

Tyler Jason Stanfield at Blue Nose Brewery in Hodgkins, IL

With its vast selection of craft beers, including Belgian tripels, English brown ales, and fruit-infused IPAs, it’s no wonder that Blue Nose Brewery nabbed a nomination for best drinks. This Old Town hot spot is committed to quality in everything it does, which is why it sources as many ingredients locally as possible. Plus, according to one nominator, some of the bartenders at this dog-friendly establishment even serenade their customers.

Owen McGrane at Odd Otter Brewing in Tacoma, WA

Odd Otter Brewing Company only opened in 2014, but its distinctive brews—the Ottermelon hefeweizen, the Pancake Porter with Vermont maple syrup—have already made a lasting impression on visitors. A nominator laments that "the Odd Otter has ruined me," saying "nothing tastes better than the exotic beers they have here." It's not only a place to enjoy a pint, but a spot to "make some friends" where the staff "always makes time to chat."

The Sweets Award for Most Decadent and Delightful Use of Sugar

Chef Bryant and Michael "Big Mike" Mackey at Beignet in Kansas City, MO

Specializing in creative spins on the classic beignet, this spot brings a bit of the Big Easy to Kansas City. Guests can get traditional hand-rolled beignets dusted with powdered sugar, or they can experiment with decadent versions filled with Nutella, caramel and bacon, or peaches and cream. But there’s more than just phenomenal sweets, according to one nominator: “If their beignets don't get you, then one of [the chef’s] great-tasting New Orleans dishes will do the trick.”

Doug Rennie at Just Rennie's in Evansville, IN

Besides their massive size, Chef Doug Rennie’s cookies are a cut above the rest thanks to high-quality ingredients like imported Belgian chocolate, farm-fresh eggs, and pure vanilla. These components unite in decadent flavors such as chocolate chunk, snickerdoodle, and cranberry orange, among others. In addition to these addictive sweets, Chef Rennie also whips up catered meals that one nominator described as “inventive, unique, and delicious.”

Matthew Ullom at Sweet Melissa in Cleveland, OH

It’s no wonder the industrial-chic Sweet Melissa is so large—chef-owner Matthew Ullom can probably use all the space he can get to execute and display his multifaceted cuisine. In addition to an internationally inspired menu one nominator lauded for its mix of vegetarian, gluten-free, and meat-based dishes, there’s also a massive dessert case and a full bar. But it was the acorn squash that really stood out to that nominator: “My husband asked if I was going to eat the peel of my acorn squash after I scraped it clean.”

Paola and family at The Cake Shop in San Mateo, CA

Perhaps the most delicious quandary in life is being given a beautiful cake. You can’t wait to eat it, but you can hardly bring yourself to cut into it. That’s a common problem at The Cake Shop, where Paola and her team build fondant masterpieces inspired by sports teams, animated movies, and even cars. They’re pretty great with traditional buttercream as well, creating impressive floral and ombre effects on special-occasion cakes. “[The] cakes are too beautiful to eat, but when you do, the cake is moist, not too sweet with a perfect texture,” one fan raved in their nomination. Even better, Paola also bakes everyday sweets such as cupcakes, cookies, and macarons.

Roque Hiedler at The Chalkboard in Tulsa, OK

As the only restaurant in the historic Ambassador Hotel since the '70s, The Chalkboard has pretty high standards to maintain. Pastry chef Roque Heidler definitely fits that mold while continually breaking it in his quest for gorgeously constructed sweets. His Instagram feed is a thing of beauty, where a “banana split” crème brûlée is topped with strawberries carved into roses, and spice cakes are spiked with Bound for Glory IPA. He assists with plating The Chalkboard’s entrees as well, which keeps his presentation skills on point. As one fan put it, "I really look forward to the culinary adventures he creates!"

Ted "Joe" Paskevich at Joe's Handmade in Savannah, GA

“Both Chef Ted and [co-owner] Don make every visit enjoyable with conversation, a smile, and great food,” one nominator gushed. “Don still knows I want the soup, no matter the variety, ever since I started eating here.” These two know their success lies in the simple things, dishing out a menu of herbed chicken panini, slow-cooked pulled pork, and fresh-baked desserts in a dining room where regulars say they’re treated more as friends than customers. The sweets are especially popular, thanks to Ted’s award-winning lemon cheesecake and a dessert case USA Today has called “drool-worthy.”

The Service Award for Impeccable Hospitality and Kindness

Allison at Sea Legs in Huntington Beach, CA

French fries topped with three-cheese fondue and truffle oil and served at a pristine white bar. Blue-cheese sliders made with Angus beef and a red-wine reduction, basking in the glow of overhead chandeliers. When it comes to its food and its ambiance, Sea Legs takes what’s familiar and makes it a little more refined. So it should come as so surprise that the service also surpasses expectations: our nominator recalled how one server bent over backward to save the day when a birthday celebration nearly went wrong, proving that this posh SoCal spot is anything but stuffy.

Pat and Linda Beckman at Cannova's Italian Cuisine in Freeport, IL

Cannova's Italian Cuisine is a family-run establishment in every sense of the term. Many of its recipes date back to founder Anthony Cannova's 1921 originals, and to this day, the third generation of family runs the spot. According to a nominator, wife Linda is "behind the scenes, making sure that everything runs smoothly" while husband Pat is "a fantastic host and an amazing entertainer," playing piano for guests on the weekends.

Dale Talde at Talde in New York, NY

It would be worth it to sit through shoddy service in order to gobble down pretzel pork dumplings and breakfast ramen with honey-glazed bacon. Luckily, you’ll never have to. According to our nominators, you can expect to “feel welcomed” and “taken care of” while enjoying the often-funky Asian-American fusion cuisine crafted by Top Chef alum Dale Talde.

Marcus Davis at The Breakfast Klub in Houston, TX

Plenty of celebrities have stopped by The Breakfast Klub to try its famous catfish and grits or wings and waffles. But Marcus Davis, the restaurant’s owner, treats everyone who comes through the doors the exact same: like family. According to one fan who nominated him for his exceptional service, Marcus goes out of his way to make sure everyone is “greeted warmly” and made to “feel important.” And with the line to try his soul food frequently stretching down the block, that’s a pretty commendable goal.

Norberto Camacho at Pizza Hut in Owasso, OK

Most people have heard of Pizza Hut, but fewer have heard about Norberto Camacho, an employee at the Owasso store. He’s been working at Pizza Hut for 14 years, all while holding down a second job to support his family. Despite his hectic schedule, he manages to remember his customers’ names and orders and always have a smile on his face. He’ll even deliver pizzas during snowstorms. According to the diner who nominated him for a Taste of Groupon Award, he’s “hands down the hardest worker I’ve ever met.”

Stella at Holly Hotel in Holly, MI

The Holly Hotel is proof that good taste, good food, and good old-fashioned hospitality never go out of style. A former inn, it now hosts both a gourmet restaurant—complete with antique afternoon tea service—and a comedy club in its restored vintage setting, where the mahogany wood and Axminster carpeting date back to the Victorian age. Nominators especially call out the welcoming staff, which includes personable restaurant servers, and a resident ghost that takes musical requests.

The Ambiance Award for the Most Romantic and Otherwise Outstanding Vibes

Beverly at Moss Beach Distillery in Moss Beach, CA

Sure, Moss Beach Distillery is #blessed with a pretty ideal location. But the space itself is as much of a draw as the scenery. Folks love the dog-friendly patio, a thoughtful touch as the restaurant is near several walking trails. It’s also a primo spot for whale-watching; once it’s too dark for that, people still linger around the firepits to watch the sunset. Inside, the historic landmark dazzles thanks to stained glass, ceiling frescoes, and, of course, picture windows. Oh, and did we mention the resident ghost?

Germano Fabiani at Germano's Piatinni in Baltimore, MD

Eating at Germano’s Piattini is like eating with family—if your family was made up of Italian-born chefs and professional singers, that is. Tuscan-inspired small plates are served tapas-style, perfect for sharing either in the upstairs Cabaret lounge or in the main dining room, where, according to our nominator, “Germano will delight you with stories of his childhood in Florence.” Either way, you’re bound to be entertained.

John Tunney at Besito in Rosyln, NY

“When you enter the restaurant, you feel like you're in a different world,” according to the person who nominated Besito for a Taste of Groupon Award. It’s true: low lighting, wrought-iron chandeliers, and handcrafted worry dolls given to every diner make this Mexican restaurant memorable. Of course, guacamole prepared tableside and complimentary churros don’t hurt, either.

Mark Cox at Mark's American Cuisine in Houston, TX

White tablecloths, low lighting, and handpainted art deco walls—all located within a renovated church built in the 1920s. It’s easy to see why Mark’s American Cuisine nabbed a Taste of Groupon Award for its killer ambiance. But the food isn’t so shabby, either. In fact, one nominator called the cuisine, which includes dishes like ash-crusted beef tenderloin and hearth-roasted oysters, “some of the best in Houston.”

Paul Virant at Perennial Virant in Chicago, IL

Settled just across the street from Chicago's famed Lincoln Park, Perennial Virant's location plays a key role in both its ambiance and food philosophy. For ambiance, the park's romantic lagoons and sweeping skyline views certainly feed the "cool feeling that isn't too stuffy but still feels special," as one nominator wrote. As for food, the park's large farmers' market sets up directly across the street from Perennial Virant, providing plenty of options for its renowned preservations program. As a nominator wrote, "Go here if you love pickled things. It's one of the chef's specialities."

Ryan Feerer and James Jackson at Abi-Haus in Abilene, TX

This chic spot specializing in funky American cuisine was the brainchild of Ryan Feerer and James Jackson, who both envisioned bringing a bit of big-city excitement to Abilene. You can see their hometown love in everything they do, from a dining room mural proclaiming “Long Live Abilene” to the swarms of locals who have quickly become regulars. As one nominator put it, “This means a lot to our community and to the young people who live here, who see the opportunity for a fun, thriving downtown.”

 

*NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN. A PURCHASE WILL NOT INCREASE YOUR CHANCES OF WINNING. To earn an entry automatically, once per day, vote for at least one restaurant. To earn an entry otherwise, handwrite on a 3x5 card labeled “Taste of Groupon Awards Voting Sweepstakes Entry” your full name, country of residence, home and daytime telephone number (including area code), e-mail address and confirmation that you are at least 18 years old or the age of majority (all of which must be legible) and mail it (up to the limits explained below) with proper postage to: “Attention: Taste of Groupon Awards Voting Sweepstakes Entry”, Groupon, Inc., 600 West Chicago Avenue, Ste. 400, Chicago, IL 60654 to enter receive one (1) entry into this Sweepstakes. Limit 1 entry per person per day regardless of method of entry. Odds of winning depend on the total number of entries received. Void where prohibited by law. Sweepstakes only open to legal residents of the United States (excludes Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands), 18+. Entry period ends: 11:59 p.m. CT on 4/1/16. ARV of prize package: $4,672 USD. Subject to full Official Rules. Sponsor: Groupon, Inc., 600 West Chicago Avenue, Ste. 400, Chicago, IL  60654.