Dining Day Trips

These restaurants and eight others are the hidden gems of 417-land’s dining scene, and they’re located all over our corner of the state.

We know something you don’t know...

Actually, we know a few things you don’t know. There’s a restaurant in Mt. Vernon that sells the best chicken-fried steak you’ll ever eat. And a spot in Golden City that makes 40 varieties of pie. Branson is home to a German restaurant-slash-pizzeria that has arguably one of the best views of Table Rock Lake, and there’s a Joplin restaurant that cooks up wood-fired pizzas unlike anything you’ve ever tasted. These restaurants and eight others are the hidden gems of 417-land’s dining scene, and they’re located all over our corner of the state.

Now just so you know, we’re not talking about places known for their fine wine or cloth tablecloths. But each of these restaurants has fantastic, unbeatable, delicious food. And when we say this, we’re speaking from experience. We gave them all a visit and ordered some of the best-selling menu items. The food checked out, and the verdict is in: These spots are all worth the drive. So grab your keys, work up your appetite and hit the road: It’s time to make some dining day trips.


The German Eatery: Altenhof Inn

680 Jakes Creek Trail, Branson, MO; 417-338-5091
Altenhof  german food in Branson, MO

Gertraude Santo says her restaurant offers Branson diners one of the city’s best views of Table Rock Lake. “If you don’t like my food, you’ll like my view, guaranteed,” Santo jokes. But chances are, you’ll probably enjoy both. A hidden gem of sorts, the eatery is located in a mixed-use building (which also features living quarters), and it features a large deck with a breathtaking view of Table Rock Lake. The menu offers everything from German specialty dinners, such as wiener schnitzel and bratwurst, to pizzas, sandwiches and burgers. “But I don’t make hamburgers,” Santo says. “I make specialty burgers.” These specialty burgers include a Bavarian burger topped with sauerkraut, sautéed onions, mushrooms and Swiss.

Santo moved to the United States from Germany in 1966 when she was 23. She has been running the Altenhof Inn since 1998. She loves pleasing her customers, who are always invited to sign the restaurant’s guestbook before they leave. And if she isn’t too busy, she’ll also give them a hug before they go.

What I Ordered
I had the wiener schnitzel dinner with vegetables and German potato salad ($17.95). The star of the meal is the veal cutlet, which is hand-breaded with a slightly buttery coating. It was so tender that I cut it with my fork. The potato salad is heavy on the dill, which makes it just as refreshing as it is filling. I tried it warm (it is served warm or cold in Germany), and I recommend you do too. “In the summer, our busiest season, I can make anywhere from 20 to 40 pounds of potato salad daily,” Santo says.

Photo by Kevin O'Riley


The Fish Fry: Beaver Creek Paylake and Fish Fry

10936 Hwy. AF, Mountain Grove, MO; 417-453-6153
Beaver Creek Paylake and Fish Fry in Moutain Grove, MO

A little more than three years ago, Leo Dowden started a catfish pay lake approximately 25 miles north of Mountain Grove. “But people were more interested in eating the fish than catching it,” Dowden says. A small cook shack on the property eventually transformed into a full-fledged restaurant that fills to capacity every Friday and Saturday night and Sunday afternoon from April to October. Beaver Creek Paylake and Fish Fry draws a lot of regulars, but also many visitors. “Lots of families come and fish, then eat,” Dowden says. The man-made lake is filled with approximately 6,000 pounds of catfish and stocked weekly. “All of our stuff is hand-breaded,” Dowden says of the restaurant’s catfish, shrimp and chicken options. Dowden’s wife, Becky, is the restaurant’s main cook. The menu features everything from fried and grilled catfish, shrimp and chicken to burgers and sandwiches.

What I Ordered
The catfish dinner with baked beans, fries and hushpuppies ($7.95). The catfish is available in nuggets or filets, with the fried nuggets being the most popular. They come lightly breaded in cornmeal mixed with a few other signature spices, so each bite is crispy and has a bit of zip. During my visit, I also got a chance to taste alligator, frog legs and a tall slice of homemade cheesecake.

Photo by Kevin O'Riley


The Bake Shop: Red Barn Cafe and Hen House Bakery

107 W. Mt. Vernon Blvd., Mt. Vernon, MO; 417-466-4650
Red Barn Cafe and Hen House Bakery in Mt. Vernon, MO

If you’ve been working in the kitchen for 42 years, you’re going to be an amazing cook. Shari Copenhaver, owner of Red Barn Café and Hen House Bakery, is living proof. Copenhaver started baking pies and cakes when she was 15 years old. She went on to bake and cook at several restaurants throughout the years, perfecting her skills along the way.

Copenhaver starts preparing the delicious pies, cakes and other homemade items she serves at the Red Barn from scratch every day at 4 a.m. The restaurant’s popular menu items include chicken-fried steak and eggs for breakfast, a Frisco melt and a French dip at lunchtime, and catfish, pork chops and steaks at dinnertime. “I think the main thing is that people can tell that everything we make is from scratch,” Copenhaver says. “That’s rare anymore.”

What I Ordered
The chicken-fried steak and three eggs with wheat toast, hash browns and biscuits and gravy ($8.95). The chicken-fried steak is tenderized at the restaurant, then trimmed and dipped in a tasty batter that has a great black pepper flavor. Unlike most chicken-fried steak, this was fork-tender. And the sausage gravy was a creamy indulgence. And about the desserts... It would be easy to write a book on how scrumptious they are. Even just looking at the case was a treat. I tried the pecan roll, which was as large as a dinner plate and had a warm, gooey center. The carrot cake is stacked four tiers high with a dreamy layer of homemade cream cheese icing separating each.

Photo by David Flemming


The Brew House: Bootleggers Restaurant & Brewery

101 S. Madison Ave., Aurora, MO; 417-678-2888
 Bootleggers Restaurant & Brewery in Aurora, MO

The Bank of Aurora was built on the southeast corner of the town’s Madison Avenue and Olive Street in 1888. Today, that same building is home to Bootleggers Restaurant and Brewery. The old bank vault was turned into a brewery, offices were turned into the kitchen and a replica of the original teller cage is now used for the restaurant’s front desk and cashier. Shawn Briggs and Scott Young opened the restaurant in 1998. The two created lunch and dinner menus with a nice variety of appetizers, offering everything from pot stickers to fried alligator, as well as steaks and specialties. The restaurant brews ales and some specialty beers, including a raspberry wheat.

What I Ordered
I tried the char-grilled mushroom-Swiss burger with fries ($7.99). Before I even got my burger, I was greeted at the table with a loaf of freshly made bread and a little tub of butter. The burger was big, a half-pound, and smothered in giant sautéed mushrooms. The meat was juicy, and the ciabatta bread it was served on was plenty strong enough to keep it all together.

Photo by David Flemming


The Pie Purveyor: Cooky's Cafe

517 Main St., Golden City, MO; 417-537-4741
Cookys Cafe in Golden City, MO

Cooky’s Café is one of Golden City’s most happening spots. Located on the city’s Main Street, the restaurant has been a town favorite since 1942 when it was opened by Cecil Cooky Ambler. “My grandma worked for him,” says Greg Eldred, whose family has owned the restaurant for 35 years. Most of the menu is the same as the day it opened. “We did add hamburgers, though,” Eldred says. “They wouldn’t sell them. It was the strangest thing.”

The restaurant is known for its great home-cooking, with baked ham being one of the most popular menu items. “We go through two to three large hams every day,” Eldred says. And desserts, particularly pies, are what the place is really known for. “We make about 45 different kinds of pie,” Eldred says.

What I Ordered
I decided to try the ham dinner with mashed potatoes, salad and green beans ($7). The ham is baked fresh daily, then it’s grilled before it’s served. The homemade mashed potatoes come covered in brown gravy made from brisket drippings. For dessert, I tried the lemon pie. The crust was perfectly flaky and buttery, what I would call superb in the world of pie crusts. In fact, I could have eaten it without anything in it. But the lemon filling and light meringue gave the meal a refreshing, light finish.

Photo by Kevin O'Riley


The Pizza Joint: Woody's Wood-Fire Pizza Bar & Oven

1831 West 7th St., Joplin, MO; 417-782-9663
Woodys Wood Fire Pizza Bar & Oven in Springfield, MO

Pete and Heidi Williams opened Woody’s Wood-Fire Pizza Bar & Oven in 1999. “Basically, we started it out as a bar that kind of happened to serve pizza,” Pete says. “But the minute we opened up, we realized that we were a pizza place that happened to serve beer.” This is mainly because they were doing something unique: cooking pizzas in an Italian wood-fired oven. Items cooked in the oven are placed directly on baking stones. The stones are heated by a neighboring fire burning red or white oak. “The oven helps pull the flavor out of the wood,” Pete says. “And with the pizza, the stones actually pull the moisture out of the crust.” This makes for an extra-crispy crust, and a slightly smoky flavor. With a black ceiling and oversized Christmas lights hanging overhead, the restaurant itself makes for a fun dining experience.

What I Ordered
I tasted The Mutha pizza ($16.95). This pie is extreme. It’s crazy loaded. Topped with Canadian bacon, beef, pork sausage, Italian sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, onions, green pepper, red pepper, black olives, green olives and cheese, the crust is literally buried. But unlike most pizzas, whose crust would buckle and fold with all these toppers, this extra-crispy wood-fired crust stayed strong.

Photo by Kevin O'Riley


The Greasy Spoon: White Grill

200 North Commercial St., Nevada, MO; 417-667-9388
White Grill in Nevada, MO

The White Grill has been a favorite to Nevada residents since 1938. Today, the diner is owned by sisters, Diana Wessley and Linda Gower, and their daughters, Megan Foster and Taylor Gower. The White Grill has been affiliated with the same family since James Novak, Diana and Linda’s father, bought into it in 1963. The spot is best known for its hamburgers and cheeseburgers. The ground beef is formed into 4-ounce burgers and cooked on a well-seasoned flat-top grill. They’re often paired with fries or suzies (homemade curly fries). “Our food is fresh, not processed,” Diana says. “We make our own onion rings, too. But only on Thursdays and Fridays.” In addition to the burgers and fries, the White Grill is also known for serving a great pork tenderloin sandwich, and barbecued brisket and pork that they smoke themselves.

What I Ordered
The pork tenderloin sandwich ($5) with a side of onion rings ($2). Sounds pretty basic, right? The meal is, but the flavors aren’t. The piece of tenderized pork comes lightly breaded and fried, and it was overflowing off the side of the bun when it was delivered to my booth. I chose to top it with mayo, grilled onions, tomatoes and pickles, which were the perfect accessories to this masterpiece. And the onion rings? Well, they’re the best I’ve ever had.

Photo by Amy Pennington


The Smoky Stop: Fat Daddy's Family BBQ

16020 US Hwy. 160, Forsyth, MO; 417-546-4604
Fat Daddy's Famly BBQ in Forsyth, MO

"Basically, I’d call this a hobby gone wild,” John Winkert says about his Forsyth restaurant, Fat Daddy’s Family BBQ. Originally from Peculiar, Missouri, Winkert moved to 417-land in 2000. After being injured at work, he bought a smoker and started smoking meats for parties and church events. He opened the restaurant with a partner in November 2006, and today he is the sole owner. A quick look around the restaurant illustrates Winkert’s passion for his community. Three window shelves are filled with pig figurines, all brought in by customers. “They show that this place is partly their place, too,” Winkert says. The spot is even open for breakfast, when it serves up bacon smoked at the restaurant and omelets that include brisket and homemade breakfast sausage.

What I Ordered
The BBQ For Two meal ($22.99). This meal is a steal. It includes fork-tender slices of brisket, half of a smoked chicken, ribs that literally fall off of the bone, homemade smoked sausage and a heaping pile of pulled pork. There wasn’t one thing that I tried that I am not still drooling about. For sides, I tried baked beans and fries. The beans are a favorite for vegetable-haters, filled with hunks of beef and a heavy smoky flavor.

Photo by Kevin O'Riley



The Oompah Spot: Papouli's

725 Missouri 248, Reeds Spring, MO; 417-272-8243
Papouli's in Reeds Spring, MO

Bessie and Tom Haldoupis moved to the United States from Greece in 1969. After living in New York and then Springfield, the couple opened Papouli’s in 1986. Since then, the Reeds Spring restaurant has been a favorite to southwest Missouri residents, particularly those vacationing on Table Rock Lake. Bessie and Tom’s background inspired many Greek dishes on the Papouli’s menu, including spanakotiropita, moussaka, gyros and stuffed grape leaves. And of course, everything is served with warm pita bread that is brushed with olive oil and grilled. Papouli’s also serves many American favorites, including prime rib, pork chops and even Springfield-style cashew chicken.

What I Ordered
I tried the saganaki ($8.99). The dish has kaseri cheese that’s lightly buttered and grilled, then put on a hot plate, covered with brandy and set on fire table-side. I also ordered the souvlaki ($22.99), the most massive kebab I have ever seen! It’s made with huge chunks of filet mignon (8 ounces total), half a bell pepper, half an onion, half a tomato and a mushroom. The souvlaki also comes with rice, green beans and grilled pita. Yes, I needed a to-go box.

Photo by Kevin O'Riley


The Retro Cafe: Parkview Cafe

200 S. Main St., El Dorado Springs, MO; 417-876-3202
Parkview Cafe in El Dorado Springs, MO

A checkered black and white floor and cozy red booths make Parkview Café a picturesque place. The restaurant has a one-of-a-kind charm and feels like it has been a staple in the city for years, but it’s really only been open since 2006. “We saw it for sale on a Wednesday and bought it on a Sunday,” says Shelly Helm, who owns the restaurant with her husband Randy. With backgrounds in environmental science and construction, the two never expected to be restaurant owners. But nearly five years ago, they opened the spot with Shelly’s mother-in-law, Joy Scott. Scott and her husband own Scott Farms in Appleton City, where they raise buffalo. Parkview Café started as a place to serve it. “We did it with a purpose of getting buffalo meat out there,” Helm says. Throughout the past five years, the farm has grown, and so has the restaurant, offering a healthy variety of breakfast and lunch options. You’ll find many of the typical early morning suspects on the breakfast menu, any that can be paired with buffalo breakfast sausage. The lunch menu includes buffalo burgers, also made from Scott Farms buffalo, plus a nice selection of burgers and sandwiches. Popular sides include homemade suzies (curly fries), French fries and onion rings.

What I Ordered
The western omelet with hash browns and toast ($7.25) and a side of buffalo breakfast sausage ($4.50). The omelet was loaded with sautéed peppers, onions, ham and melted American cheese. The piece of buffalo sausage looked like a hamburger patty, but the meat was much leaner. It has the same spice as pork breakfast sausage, but much less fat, so my belly didn’t feel like a grease pit when I was finished eating.

Photo by Amy Pennington


Rock your Face Off

Undercliff Bar and Grill has a rock-wall that gives the place an unusual feel. And built into a cave, The Cave Restaurant allows people to eat underground. But which one makes for a better cave-like dining experience? We visited them both to compare.

Undercliff Bar & Grill

6385 Old Hwy. 71, Joplin, MO  417-623-8382, undercliff.net
Undercliff Bar & Grill in Joplin, MO

Mike Winn opened Undercliff Bar & Grill in 1995 on his father-in-law's property. "He said, 'I'd finish the building if someone would do something with it, '" Winn says. "I said, 'If you'd add eight feet on the right side, I'll make it a restaurant and gill." Today, the restaurant, built into the side of a cliff, is one of the area's hottest spots to eat.

The Cave Restaurant

26880 Rochester Rd., Richland, MO 573-765-4554, thecaverestaurantandresort.com
The Cave Restaurant in Richland, MO

The Cave Restaurant originally opened in the 1920s, when it was a speakeasy. After some expanding and renovations, the restaurant opened in 1994, and a little more than two years ago, Gary Dyer purchased the property and transformed it into The Cave Restaurant and Resort. The restaurant is built into a cave and sits 30 feet off the ground and 100 feet from the Gasconade river. A little more than two years ago, Gary Dyer purchased the restaurant and surrounding property, which offers guests cabins, float trips and fishing.

The Face Off:

The following items were judged on a scale of 1 to 5 starts, with 5 being awesome and 1 being mediocre.

How was the wait time?

Undercliff Bar & Grill: 5 stars (This place has a neighboring joint called The Hangar, where you can grab drinks and appetizers while you wait)

The Cave: 4 stars

How bat like did it feel?

Undercliff Bar & Grill: 3 stars

The Cave: 5 stars (This is really a cave, people!)

How tasty was the food?

Undercliff Bar & Grill:
5 stars

The Cave: 4 stars

How was the service?

Undercliff Bar & Grill: 4 stars

The Cave: 5 stars

How quirky was the decor?

Undercliff Bar & Grill
: 5 stars (There's a life-size James Dean cutout in the bathroom, and stuffed animal heads in the dining area.)

The Cave: 5 stars (Dining area decor includes a stuffed cougar that watches you eat, a Christmas tree and an old bee hive.)

It was a very close race for the best cave-like dining experience. But it looks like The Cave wins by 1 point!!!

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