These are strange and troubling times, indeed, though life goes on in Athens County, albeit in a piecemeal and fragmented manner. While our local lives are improved immeasurably by the many people, places, institutions and businesses who make Athens a better place to live, many of them aren’t available at their full level, or in some cases can’t operate at all, during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Yet, we still think it’s worthwhile to celebrate the best in our communities – in fact, perhaps there’s no better time than now to do so.
That being the case, in today’s issue and then again April 16, we are presenting the first and second installments of the results for The Athens NEWS’ Best of Athens Readers Choice Awards for 2020.
The short blurbs for each winner are written as if all of the retail businesses, restaurants and bars, and other institutions in our community are still operating as they normally would be. As you read about the winners of this year’s Best of Athens, please join us in looking forward with optimism and hope for when your favorite restaurants, bars, stores and parks reopen their full services to the public.
In the meantime, please thank all of the health-care personnel, first responders and front-line retail employees who are risking their own health to make our daily lives tolerable during this pandemic. If anyone deserves a Best of Athens during this difficult period, it’s these people.
This year, The Athens NEWS Best of Athens Readers’ Choice Awards underwent a total renovation and expansion, after 30 consecutive years of informing and enlightening Athens and Athens County.
In this 31st year, we drew out the duration of Best of Athens, with the nominating round in the final two weeks of February and the voting round (including the five finalists in each category with the most votes) running from March 9-30.
When we planned this expanded Best of Athens late in 2019, we had no idea that much of it would take place during this unprecedented pandemic. With foreknowledge, however, we might have done it anyway. Many people in our community (we included) are welcoming positive distractions from all the negatives we’re seeing in our news feeds and TV viewing every day. In keeping with long-standing tradition, we’ve retained the irreverent, at times silly writing style. because, well, we’re too old and silly to change.
This year, we’ve also refurbished and expanded our list of categories, removing some, adding some and improving some. As in past years, we’re running categories in seven different sections – People, Foodies Favorites, Places in the first round, and in the second round, Commerce, Nightlife, Miscellaneous and special section for Ohio University and Hocking College students, For Students Only. That second batch of results will be released online and in print next Thursday, April 16 (and can be viewed here).
All voting was done online.
If you have any questions, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We hope you enjoy our expanded Best of Athens this year and very much appreciate your participation.
And remember, once we get past this crisis later this spring or summer, make sure you reward your favorite local businesses and institutions with your patronage. They’re going to need it.
Law Enforcement Officer
K-9 Alex, OUPD
One thing we’ve noticed about the Best of Athens is that when an animal is in the running (or a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback from The Plains), if you’re anybody else, you’ve got no more chance of winning than a T-bone steak has of surviving 30 seconds in a cage with a hungry lion. Which is a long way around of saying that this year’s top honors for Best Law Enforcement Officer go to K-9 Alex, the Ohio University Police Department’s bomb detection dog.
According to Lt. Tim Ryan of the OUPD, “Alex was rescued as a homeless dog off the streets of Columbus by the Franklin County Animal Shelter when he was around 1 year old. The shelter employees recommended him to the Columbus Fire Department as a bomb dog candidate because they always found him running around the shelter every morning after breaking out of his crate every night. They knew he had the drive to be a great working dog – and they were right! After his initial training with CFD, Alex was then assigned to OUPD. Alex is probably one of the best OU employees – he always loves coming to work and never has a bad day!
“Alex is now 7 years old and is an excellent explosives detection canine. He can often be found on patrol around campus and also donates his time and talent all around the State of Ohio. In his down time, he enjoys chasing squirrels around the Athens Campus. He also loves meeting members of our community, but he takes his work seriously, so please check with his handler before approaching him…”
Bow-wow Alex drew several hundred more votes than second-place finisher Jimmy Childs of the Athens County Sheriff’s Office. Childs has won this category many times in the past. Athens Police Chief Tom Pyle places third.
Local Business Owner or Entrepreneur
Art Oestrike, Jackie O’s
For the fifth consecutive year, Art Oestrike, owner and founder of Jackie O’s Pub & Brewery and co-owner of Bagel Street Deli, wins the top spot in Best Local Business Owner of Entrepreneur.
Oestrike opened Jackie O’s in 2005 on West Union Street as a brew pub in what previously had been O’Hooley’s and before that the Graduate bar. From that initial opening, Oestrike expanded his operations over the years into a larger restaurant bar next door to the Brewpub, and then a taproom and brewing facilities down on Campbell Street. Jackie O’s’ versatile lineup of craft beers has become a common offering in carry-outs, groceries and bars across Ohio and farther afield.
Second place goes to Shelley Lieberman, owner of Friendly Paws Pet Supplies & Grooming on East State Street in Athens, who also places in the Best Local Activist category.
Making third place is Jolene Quirke of CrossFit SEO in Athens.
Bob Beyette, WXTQ/WATH
Bob Beyette, news director at WXTQ/WATH in Athens, takes first place in the Best Local Journalist category this year. Beyette, originally from Western New York State, has been with the radio stations since 1991. (We had to find someone else to do this write-up since our staffers Conor Morris and Terry Smith both hurt their typing hands by punching walls after hearing that Bob took first place. Both were among the finalists for Best Journalist.)
Second place goes to another local radio person, Emily Votaw, arts and culture editor at WOUB. Emily has been doing a great job since taking on this job.
Third place goes to Morris, associate editor of The Athens NEWS. (We were just kidding about him hurting his hands by punching walls; that’s just Editor Smith, who didn’t place at all. ]-;)
In the Best of Athens, 2020 is the year of Joe Burrow, the Athens High School football star from The Plains who went on to earn himself a Heisman Trophy in December and status as a college football legend. He wins several categories this year, including Best Local Activist. Technically speaking, Joe no longer lives in Athens County (at least we don’t think he does) but BOA has never had rigid standards so if you grew up here, that’s good enough for our readers (and they’re the boss). For this specific category, you’ve got to admit that Joe Burrow’s shout-out to Athens County and southeast Ohio in his Heisman Award acceptance speech is an awesome accomplishment that easily earned Joe honors as a local activist. After all, it helped raise more than a half-million dollars for the Athens County Food Pantry, along with other online fundraisers to fight hunger.
Second places this year goes to an actual local activist, Andrea Reik, who in the past has been energetically involved in local efforts to fight fracking and injection wells as well as being an active leader in the local Democratic Party.
Third place goes to Kerri Shaw, who helped organize the Women’s March in 2018 and 2019 and is active in many other local and regional causes. Shaw is a social-work instructor in OU’s College of Health Sciences and Professions.
Joe Burrow, perhaps not surprisingly, this year steals the Best Public Figure prize from Pumpkin the Cat, the beloved Board of Elections feline who last year garnered more votes (1,458) than any other person, animal, place or business in any Best of Athens category. Luckily, Pumpkin is a very humble cat, and told us in an exclusive interview that he is happy for Joe, and doesn’t begrudge the honor. That seemed like a purr-fect attitude to us.
Pumpkin does win the second-place consolation price, however. Third place, wonder of wonders, goes to an actual human being who lives in Athens County, Athens Mayor Steve Patterson.
Local Politician We Hope Will Go Far
Local Politician We Hope Will Go Far Away
Ohio Rep. Jay Edwards
Each year for decades, the Best of Athens has asked which local politicians our readers would like to see go far (in the abstract sense, as in succeed) and far away (in the more concrete sense, vamoose). It’s not unusual in these two good-time categories for the same person, usually a politician, to place in both categories, and this year, state Rep. Jay Edwards accomplishes that feat.
Jay should feel really good about winning “Go Far” and shouldn’t feel really bad about winning “Go Far Away.” In the first case, he can tell himself that Best of Athens is a legit contest with a meaningful result; in the second case, he can tell himself that Best of Athens is a bunch of baloney that nobody should take seriously.
Second place for “Go Far” this year goes to last year’s winner, then Nelsonville City Council member Taylor Sappington (who’s now the elected auditor for that city).
Second place for “Go Far Away” goes to Athens County Prosecutor Keller Blackburn. (He shouldn’t feel bad about this since in many TV shows and movies, the prosecutor’s the bad guy. But darn it, he's just doing his job!)
Third place for the positive category goes to Athens Mayor Steve Patterson with local activist/mayoral aspirant Damon Krane “winning” third in the “Go Far Away” category. Patterson, whom Krane unsuccessfully challenged in last year’s mayoral election, placed fifth in the “Go Far Away” category.
Best Community Volunteer
We’ve already explained why Joe Burrow won the Best Activist category this year, and you can just insert that reasoning for why he places first as Best Community Volunteer. Nobody had a serious prospect of topping Joe’s accomplishment this year, inspiring a mountain of donations for feeding hungry folks in our county and region.
Second places goes to Shelley Lieberman, owner of Friendly Paws Pet Supply & Grooming in Athens. Lieberman has been involved supporting local animal welfare efforts in recent years, plus serves on the boards of the SE Ohio Foodbank and Athens County Children Services.
Third place goes to Patty Mitchell, who directs Passion Works Studio in Athens and has been involved in a variety of other community improvement efforts, including discussions to fill the vacuum left by the closing of ReUse Industries.
Best Medical Provider
Sergio Ulloa, D.O.
For the fourth year in a row, Dr.Sergio Ulloa, DO, takes top honors as Best Medical Provider. Dr. Ullua specializes in orthopedic surgery and sports medicine for OPG Heritage College Orthopedics and Sports Medicine.
Second places this year goes to Dr. Beth Welsh, who practices dentistry at Athens Dental Arts on Columbus Road, with third place honors going to Dr. Lance Broy, M.D., who practices family health at Holzer Athens.
Best Church/Spiritual Leader
Joe Burrow, of whose religious preference we have not even the remotest idea, places first in this year’s new category, Best Church/Spiritual Leader. Not sure where our readers were going with this (a phrase we’ve been known to chant to ourselves whenever we read reader comments on our website or Facebook), but they’re the boss, so congrats Father Joe.
Second place goes to Steve Warner, lead pastor at Christ Community Wesleyan Church, with third place going to Father Mark Moore, of St. Paul’s/Christ the King churches in Athens.
Best DJ/Radio Personality
Snagging the top prize (well, there’s really no prize, just a huge, huge honor) for Best DJ/Radio Personality yet again this year is DJ Barticus (aka Michael Bart), known for many dynamic characteristics, including a wide array of jumpsuits and a whole lot of airhorn (that’s basically what we wrote last year and it still applies). Barticus, in addition to being the best-known DJ in Athens, is an actual radio DJ on WXTQ.
Second and third place go to DJ B-Funk (Brandon Thompson) and Chris Riddle of WOUB.
Best Real-Estate Agent
Crashing the Best Real-Estate Agent party this year is Realtor Stephanie Wood of Ohio Realty, an Athens High and Ohio University graduate who’s also involved in various local charity, education and business programs.
Sandi Radcliff, LCR Realty, takes second place, with Ally Rapp Lee of the Athens Real Estate Company taking third.
Ciro: Italian Kitchen and Bar
For several years since Abrio’s closedon East State Street and Toscano’s closed on Station Street, Athens has had had a shortage of genuine Italian restaurants. Ciro: Italian Kitchen & Bar has helped filled that vacuum (with Tavolino before it), and appropriately enough, Best of Athens readers have rewarded the new West Union Street restaurant with first place in the Best New Restaurant category.
Last year, Little Fish Brewing Co. placed first in this category with IHOP placing second.
Second place this year goes to Steak ‘n Shake on East State Street, and third goes to Park’s Place, dubbed “an Amesville roots kitchen.”
Last year we led off the blurb for this category with the short phrase, “no drama in this category.” Guess what, the same applies this year, with the estimable Avalanche Pizza winning yet again. Over the past year, however, we at The Athens NEWShave matured enough where we will resist making a silly pun about Avalanche garnering “an avalanche of votes.” How gauche! On the other hand, our readers’ taste buds obviously do get buried under an avalanche of positive sensory hits when a slice of Avalanche pizza goes down.
Winning second place is Donato’s Pizza on East State Street. Third place goes to Little Italy Pizza in The Plains.
Union Street Diner
For the second consecutive year (and maybe more?), the Union Street Diner on, hmmm, where is that place?, wins first place for Best Breakfast. When local gourmands break their fasts, or bust their slows, their favorite spot is the USD. Over-easy on that order of eggs, please, with a little bottle of hot sauce, plus some tasty crisp bacon and crispy hash browns.
Second place as usual goes to Joe Burrow’s favorite local breakfast sport, Gigi’s Country Kitchen. Winning the third spot for Best Breakfast is Casa Nueva.
Best Chicken Wings
When a restaurant puts its reputation on the line by including its main product in its name, that should tell you they’re confident they can deliver. Miller’s Chicken – some of us old-timers remember it as “Miller’s Poultry” – has reason to be confident, serving up the best fried chicken – ALL parts, not just wings – in the region for many decades. And once again Miller’s places first for Best Chicken Wings in Best of Athens.
Shade on State takes second place, with third going to the Eclipse Company Store near The Plains.
Best Ethnic Restaurant
Taking first place for Best Ethnic Restaurant this year is Gran Ranchero, the Mexican-food cantina on East State Street near Lowe’s. GR has great atmosphere, one of the friendliest staffs in town, and dependable, tasty Mexican food. Their margaritas ain’t bad either.
Second place in this category goes to Restaurant Salaam, with its impressive menu of Middle Eastern/Mediterranean food. Third place goes to Thai Paradise, the only place in town where you can rub Buddha’s belly as you enter the restaurant.
Best Fine Dining
Lui Lui Restaurant
This category was among the tightest with voting for the first three placements, with only 19 votes separating them. After a knock-down, drag-out conflict, Lui Lui emerges victorious. Take a bow, LL.
Taking second place, with nothing to be sad about, is Tavolino on North Shafer Street. Third place goes to the usual winner, Zoe Fine Dining.
Best Food Truck
In Athens, Ohio the phrase “food truck” is almost synonymous with the Burrito Buggy, which is why, drumroll please, the venerable Burrito Buggy yet again wins first place for Best Food Truck. When you want a straightforward burrito that kills your hunger pains and. delights your taste buds, BB has exactly what it takes.
Second place this year goes to Chelsea’s Real Food, with third place going to A-Town Pies & Fries.
Best Place to Satisfy Your Sweet Tooth
Larry’s Dawg House
Believe us, we’ve tried to satisfy our sweet tooth with great TV shows, quality music, and gifts of clothes and jewelry, but for some reason, all it wants is, um, sweets. And our sweet tooth’s favorite local spot to be satisfied this year, according to Best of Athens, is Larry’s Dawg House on West Union Street. They’ve got various types of ice cream and other sweets to give your sweet tooth a huge smile. Which is a good thing, since when our sweet tooth isn’t happy, things can get ugly.
Winning second place is last year’s winner, Fluff Bakery & Catering, on North Court Street. Third place goes to Sweet Arts Bakery & Café, far out on West Union Street.
In one of the most competitive Best of Athens categories, The Pub has reclaimed its long-time primacy for the Best Hamburger. The Pub, an uptown establishment that’s been a local favorite since at least the ’70s, has a lot to be proud of, but its hamburgers are definitely the main attraction. Try the steakburger if you really want to reach hamburger nirvana.
Second place goes to last year’s first place, Jackie O’s Public House on West Union Street. It’s no wonder Jackie O’s and the Pub battle it out in this category; they both grill up some amazing burgers.
Winning third places is Larry’s Dawg House.
Bagel Street Deli
For another consecutive year, a local restaurant that makes sandwiches with holes in the middle earns top honors for Best Local Sandwich. You can’t beat their incredible doughnut sandwiches. What better taste sensation than a glazed donut filled with salami and cheese.
Oh, wait I minute. Somebody’s buzzing me….
Hold on, there. I had some misinformation; the winner of Best Local Sandwich does make sandwiches with holes in the middle, but they’re bagel sandwiches and the winner of course is the Bagel Street Deli. We’re glad to hear this since we were just blowing smoke up your wazoo with that crazy talk about a glazed doughnut sandwich (though when you think about it…).
All kidding aside, Bagel Street Deli (not Doughnut Street Deli) deserves ample credit for its great variety of bagel sandwiches.
This year, Brenen’s Coffee Cafe wins second place for Best Sandwich, with Larry’s Dawg House winning third.
Jackie O’s Public House
For the second consecutive year, Jackie O’s Public House edges out Casa Nueva/Cantina for Best Restaurant/Bar. Every year that we’ve asked this question these two giants of the local restaurant/bar kingdom have battled closely for the top spot. Both stand tall with great alcoholic beverage options, Jackie O’s with its stellar and ever-changing lineup of locally brewed beers and Casa with its world-renowned margaritas and other mixed drinks. (We keep wanting to ask for the margarita in a tall glass, but are afraid people would stare.) On the restaurant side of the restaurant/bar equation, both of these uptown establishments tout great menus of locally sourced food.
Casa, of course, takes a proud second behind Jackie O’s this year, but can be depended upon to battle hard to retake first place next year.
Third place goes to Eclipse Company Store, which added table service over the past few months.
Best Late Night Food
Union Street Diner
Union Street Diner, winner of Best Late Night Food two years ago, got knocked out of first place last year by O’Betty’s Red Hot. This year, the Union Street Diner comes roaring back to reclaim its spot at the top. If you’ve had a hard night bouncing around the taverns of uptown Athens, you can’t do better than the Union Street Dinner or O’Betty’s.
O’Betty’s does stake out second place this year, however, with D.P. Dough taking third place.
Best Vegetarian Cuisine
We’re just about ready to rename this category, the Casa Award, since for as long as the Best of Athens has been asking this question, Casa Nueva has placed first for Best Vegetarian Cuisine. And the great thing about the Casa is that while enjoying a well-deserve reputation for fine veggie menu options, if you want meat, all you need to do is ask.
Winning second in this category is Purple Chopstix. Third place goes to Lui Lui. No doubt about it, Athens has some great veggie options. Some of those who placed after third would compete for first in any other town in Ohio.
Best Uniquely Athens Restaurant
We’re confident that if you travel the world over you won’t find a more Athens, Ohio-centric restaurant than Casa Nueva. Which makes sense since the only place Casa operates is Athens, Ohio. If you think that these writeups are starting to get a little silly, darn it, next year you can write them yourself! Oops, sorry. Anyway, the worker-owned Casa has a special Athens, Ohio vibe – and that’s a good thing.
Another great uniquely Athens restaurant is Purple Chopstix, which wins second place this year. Third place goes to O’Betty’s Red Hot. All of these places are especially, extensively, very unique (all our former English teachers are turning in their graves, and some of them aren’t even dead!).
Best Coffee House
Yawn… Another year, another first-place prize for Donkey Coffee in the Best Coffee category. And why not? Donkey (you add a “the” to the name at your own peril) makes great coffee that you can enjoy in an incredibly relaxed and laid-back atmosphere. Some customers have been known to forget they’re in a public place, thinking for a moment they’re in their rec room at home, and doing things they’d only do at home (going naked, having sex, playing word games with Fido). Kidding, kidding, but maybe?
Second place goes to Court Street Coffee, with third going to Brenen’s Coffee Café.
Best Brewery, Distillery, Winery
Little Fish Brewing Co.
Don’t look now but a brash young entry has burst through to victory in the now competitive Best Brewery, Distillery, Winery category. Yep, Little Fish Brewing Co., that growing craft brewery/taproom/beer garden on Armitage Road, has taken top placement in this category.
Sliding back to second place (really, it’s more of a bump than a slide) is Jackie O’s. With springtime here, we’re already looking forward to enjoying a tasty beer or stout out on one of Little Fish’s outdoor picnic tables, overlooking a bird-filled marsh (eventually, of course).
Third place goes to the Pleasant Hill Winery (the “pleasant” applies more to the winery than the hill, though the hill is OK, too).
Best Local Food/Drink/Product Line
This is the second year we’ve included this category, reflecting an ever-growing segment in the local food and drink market, local producers. While Jackie’s O’s won in a big way last year for its signature beers, this year our readers took a departure from beer and chose Snowville Creamery as Best Local Food/Drink/Product line. While Snowville is actually located in neighboring Meigs County, most Athenians feel it’s a local product since so many of our neighbors work “down there.” Great milk, cream, butter, egg-nog and um well, uh, all the other stuff you can make from the stuff that shoots from a cow’s udder (sorry for that image).
Not surprisingly, Jackie O’s comes in strong with a second place. Third place goes to Frog Ranch Salsa (we like the medium).
Best Outdoor Eating/Drinking Spot
Eclipse Company Store
For the second year we’ve asked this question, Eclipse Company Store wins for Best Outdoor Eating/Drinking Spot. Eclipse is a great place to enjoy music outdoors while enjoying good food and drink. What’s not to like? And how many other local beer gardens can boast about having a train come by, within about 25 yards of the venue, on occasion? (Well, we know of at least one more, and we’ll get to that.)
Second place goes to Pleasant Hill Winery, with third going to Little Fish Brewing Co., which, yes, also boasts an occasional passing train.
Best Chain Restaurant
We don’t know about you but when we get hungry for a scrumptious grilled chain, we head to Texas Roadhouse way out east on East State Street. Ha ha, we’re just kidding. “Chain” refers to the establishment being part of a bigger company. No steel chains involved. But TRH does offer great steaks and sides, plus peanuts and sinfully tasty/buttery roles almost as soon as you sit down.
Second place goes to Wendy’s and third to Chipotle Mexican Grill, neither of which serves chains as far as we know.
Best Lunch Spot
We had a lunch spot on our shirt the other day, but a little vinegar and sulfuric acid took it right out. Also, got rid of that mole on our chest.
Yes, we are suffering from PTSD from writing these Best of Athens blurbs all day long. A little food, water and exercise would be nice, Mr. Warden…
Anyway, we’re talking about lunch “places” and Miller’s Chicken takes a well-deserved first place. We like the fried fish sandwich, but of course, you can’t go wrong with the chicken.
Second place goes to Larry’s Dawg House, with third going to the Bagel Street Deli.
Best Local Building
In the Best Building category, The Ridges takes first place this year, beating out second-place finisher Kennedy Museum of Art (located in the most prominent building at The Ridges). So we can’t really say what our BOA voters were thinking in choosing “The Ridges,” since this 740-acre property includes many buildings as well as many non-building attractions (woods, trees, weeds, bugs, animals, etc.).
The Athens County Courthouse, featuring a lovely lady statue at the top, takes third place.
Best OU Campus Site
Once again this year, The Ridges takes the honors as the Best OU Campus Site. This is the fourth year in a row that the Ridges has (have?) won this category, and maybe even more than that. But our institutional memory only goes back four years. Anyway, for many Athens area residents, The Ridges is the go-to spot for walking the dog, hiking, bird-watching, or just strolling with friends. That’s the outdoor part of the Ridges, but this Ohio University-owned property also includes the Kennedy Museum of Art, which at any given time has multiple exhibits on display.
Second place winner, like last year, is College Green (or if you’re old-fashioned like the author of this blurb, “the” College Green).
Third place goes to Emeriti Park, again just like last year.
Best Weekend Getaway
Hocking Hill State Park
For the first time we’ve asked our Best of Athens participants what’s their favorite Best Weekend Getaway, and not surprisingly, Hocking Hills (State Park) places first. Hocking Hills, with its several mini-parks, is an easy drive from Athens, and offers some of the best recreation options in Ohio. And if you’d like to do an overnighter, several different rental companies have hundreds of cottages and cabins available for overnight or multi-day rentals. It’s an easy way to take a quick road trip, with memorable outdoor attractions just a short drive away from your cottage.
Placing second is Burr Oak State Park near Glouster, with third place going to Lake Hope State Park, to the west of Athens in Vinton County. We’re lucky here in Athens to have such great recreation options right on our doorstep.
Best Place for a Fancy Date
Zoe Fine Dining
You want a fancy date? That’s easy; just go to Zoe’s Fine Dining in Athens (of course, wait till the pandemic is over since while ordering take-out on a date is doable, it’s not that fancy). Once Zoe’s reopens, you don’t even have to be on a date. Go with family or friends, or maybe pick up a cooperating stranger!
This year’s second place for Fancy Date is Cutler’s Restaurant at the Ohio University Inn. Third place goes to Restaurant Salaam in Athens.
Best Park in Athens County
Strouds Run State Park
Athens County has quite a few parks, from little pond parks on the OU campus, to playground type parks in the city, to hundreds of car parks (that’s what they call parking lots in the UK). But our readers’ favorite park, as was the case last year, is Strouds Run State Park. Swim, camp, hike, kayak, picnic, stand on your head and spit wooden nickels, you can do almost anything at Strouds.
The second-favorite park in this year’s BOA is Sells Park on Athens Far East Side, with the Richland Avenue (South Side) Park taking third place.