Food & Drink

Dinner of Champions: Cedar Rapids restaurants slice and dice their way to top

Again, Zeppelins wins overall best at Dinner of Champions

CEDAR RAPIDS — At Thursday’s Dinner of Champions, the night ostensibly was about which of seven competing restaurants had the best dish. But for many of the participants, winning wasn’t the point.

Rather, it was about the local restaurant scene as a whole.

“Of course you want to win, but it’s always good to see someone else doing well, too,” said Daniel Dennis, executive chef at the Cedar Grille at the Cedar Rapids Marriott. “The most fun part of these events is what happens when the event is over. It’s always a great time when you get together with other chefs.”

The Dinner of Champions at the DoubleTree Hotel by Hilton was the culmination of Cedar Rapids Restaurant Week, GO Cedar Rapids’ annual showcasing of local eateries. The organization sold 550 tickets and organizers expected about 650 to attend, with complimentary tickets included.

Dennis’ career speaks to the interconnectedness of the local restaurant scene. He graduated from Kirkwood Community College, then worked as a chef at The Class Act at The Hotel at Kirkwood Center, then at Lion Bridge Brewing Company and Mercy Hospital before moving to the Cedar Grille.

Many of the chefs, baristas, bartenders and others competing at the Dinner of Champions also have made careers in the local restaurant industry, jumping between businesses, trading ideas and sometimes sharing products.

That is the case for Popoli Ristorante, said managing partner Jude Villafana. It was serving sample-sized portions of flank steak rubbed with Dash Coffee Roasters’ coffee. Dash opened in November a few blocks from Popoli in Kingston Village, and now Popoli makes a point to serve only its neighbor’s coffee.

Villafana said, in his view, a growing number of locally owned businesses in the neighborhood and the city is good for everyone.

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“The restaurant world is sort of its own little subculture. Whether it’s sharing people or ideas or excitement, it snowballs. The trick is connecting all of that excitement with the general public. It takes time to do that, but it accelerates when you have more people working on it,” he said.

Events like the Dinner of Champions help do that, he said, giving him and others a chance to show their products to people who may have never been to their businesses before.

Along with the seven competing restaurants — 350 First, Black Sheep Social Club, Cedar Grille, The Class Act, Pig & Porter, Popoli and Zeppelins — there were other producers like Bass Farms and Chef Run Farms offering samples, plus drink samples and a mixology competition.

This is the third year for the event, which has sold out each time, said Taylor McGurk. director of destination management for GO Cedar Rapids. He said the collaboration mentioned by Villafana was one of the goals for this year’s Restaurant Week.

Despite the collegial atmosphere, however, there could be only one champion. At the end of the night, participants voted for their favorites.

Best mixology went to Local Pour. Zeppelins Bar and Grill won best beef and Black Sheep Social Club won best pork.

The title of overall champion went to Zeppelins, for the third year.

l Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

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