by | Mar 20, 2023

Contest reveals Rural Missouri readers’ favorites

For more than two decades, the readers of Rural Missouri have never been shy about sharing their favorite places in the Show-Me State. This 20th edition of the contest received thousands of responses from across the state highlighting what makes Missouri such a great place to live, work and explore.

Each category has a first place, runner-up and editors’ choice. All who entered every category in the online ballot were entered in a sweepstakes to win a $500 Visa gift card to use at whatever Missouri destination they enjoy most. This year’s winner is Beverly Lemon, a member of Southwest Electric Cooperative.

A new feature this year is the addition of the Best of Rural Missouri Hall of Fame on page 28 to recognize those restaurants, businesses and places that are not only voter favorites but have become Missouri institutions in their own right. In addition to highlighting the 2023 winners on the following pages and online, we’ll display these pages in the Missouri’s Electric Cooperatives Building during the Missouri State Fair in August. Be sure to stop by and see us.


1st: The Mudcat Coffee House, Oak Ridge, 573-382-2642

Diners can’t go wrong ordering off the menu at The Mudcat Coffee House, but that spoils a little of the fun for owner Rebecca Moore. Tacos featuring pulled pork, fish, beef, Buffalo chicken and pork loin are popular for lunch or dinner, and you won’t miss anything if you order The Kitchen Sink. Simply order The Matt if you’re up for an adventure, because that lets Rebecca surprise you. The chef likes to get creative in the combination coffee shop and kitchen, turning out inspired made-to-order appetizers such as bourbon molasses sweet potato fries alongside specialty coffees sourced from local roasters. Whether you’re hungry for The Haystack breakfast of a biscuit and gravy, a Boss Hog wrap or a cup of joe to get you down the road, you won’t leave Oak Ridge unsatisfied.

Runner-up: Home Town Diner, Hermitage; 417-912-6704

Editors’ Choice: L’il Black River Cafe, Grandin; 573-593-4023


1st: Exit 92 BBQ, Craig 816-538-2751

When Steve Hogle retired from a 20-year career with the Omaha Police Department, he and his wife, Susan, only had one retirement destination on their minds: their cabin on Big Lake. Steve, a Maryville native, used his newfound free time to focus on his hobby of crafting delicious barbecued meats and cold-smoked cheeses. The Atchison-Holt Electric Cooperative member quickly built a word-of-mouth reputation around the lake for his grab-and-go delicacies including pork ribs, homemade barbecue beans, pulled pork egg rolls and smoked pimento cheese. In contrast to the sweet taste of Kansas City barbecue, Exit 92 BBQ’s taste profile is most similar to North Carolina’s spicy, cider vinegar-based sauces. Steve uses a secret family recipe for his sauce which perfectly complements his slow-smoked meat fresh from the grill.

Runner-up: Kehde’s Barbecue, Sedalia, 660-826-2267

Editors’ Choice: Strawberry’s BBQ, Holcomb, 573-792-9689


1st: Rich’s Famous Burgers, Sullivan, St. James and Steelville,
573-468-5555 (Sullivan)
573-261-3838 (St. James)
573-775-8888 (Steelville)
Since 2016, Jason Cusick has been honoring the business and burger traditions of his mentor, the late Rich Robson, whose legacy lives on at Rich’s Famous Burgers. In short order, Jason expanded from his original restaurant in Steelville to two additional locations in Sullivan and St. James. Adventurous diners will find unique takes on fresh Angus beef with signature favorites such as the Jam Burger and the Big Cheesey. Both behemoths come served on Texas toast. If you’re not in the mood for burgers, Jason and his team have you covered with stuffed hash browns, fried catfish, Italian beef, BLTs or the Hot Mess Chicken and four different takes on cheese curds.

Runner-up: Uncle Ernies, Bourbon, 573-668-0331

Editors’ Choice: White Grill, Nevada, 417-667-9889


1st: Bourbon Cafe and Coffee Saloon, Bourbon, 573-668-0108

Newcomers quickly turn into regulars at the Bourbon Cafe and Coffee Saloon thanks to the tasty delicacies that tempt them after eating a hearty, homemade breakfast or lunch. The dessert case is stocked with offerings which might include signature desserts like Barrel King Bourbon Cake,  Amber’s Jumbo Pecan Muffins with a Caramel Crumble, Dolly Parton Banana Puddin’ Cake, Bourbon Walnut Cookies, Michelle’s Cake with Cranberries, Jumbo Blueberry Muffins with Lemon Glaze or Vanilla Chocolate Chip Bread Pudding with real maple syrup and real whipped cream. Be warned: desserts go fast so plan on ordering them first! While you sip a freshly roasted and brewed cup of coffee and enjoy your dessert you will be entertained by local musicians. The cafe is part of Bourbon’s revitalization that has turned the town into a Route 66 destination.

Runner-up: A Slice of Pie, Rolla, 573-364-6203

Editors’ Choice: The Pie Safe, Carthage, 417-385-5705

Food Truck

1st: Ozark Mountain Biscuit Co., Columbia, 573-447-6547

Rural Missouri readers’ appreciation for the fare at Ozark Mountain Biscuit Co. is built on the same simple but important qualities Bryan Maness focused on when he started the food truck in 2013; hot, fresh, homemade and locally sourced Southern-style food. Since that time the company has put down roots with a brick-and-mortar location, Biscuit & Bar, in Columbia, and you can find their take ‘n’ bake biscuits at stores around town. But food truck faithful still track down the mobile eatery for hearty, flavorful cuisine. Biscuits are the food truck’s cornerstone, and they come smothered with gravy, smeared with jam or jelly, sandwiched around bacon, sausage, eggs and cheese or even piled high with pulled pork, greens, gravy, a fried egg, crispy onions and the house barbecue Arkan-Sauce.

Runner-up: Hercules Southern BBQ, Piedmont, 573-223-3654

Editors’ Choice: Ghetto Tacos, Webb City, 417-717-1261


1st: Simply Siam, Maryville, 660-582-2077

When Simply Siam owners Xong and Tue Chang took over the downtown Maryville business from previous owners in 2016, the wife-and-husband  team quickly earned a loyal following for their brand of authentic, made-to-order Thai cuisine. With help from sons, Eric and Alexander, the family business focuses on homemade sauces and spices which give their dishes a flavor profile hungry diners crave. Menu staples including pad thai, fried rice, soy sauce noodles and curries are the most popular dishes, but appetizers such as crab rangoons and Thai wings also have earned rave reviews. Xong says a new offering, curry fries, have grown a following of their own. “We make a curry sauce on the side that you can dip it in or pour it over the fries, and everybody likes it,” she adds. “Some people come in just for that.”

Runner-up: The German Table, Cole Camp, 660-668-0019

Editors’ Choice: The Greek Corner Gyros, Kirksville, 660-665-0300


1st: Cosmic Coffee, Warsaw, 660-438-6171

No morning in Warsaw is complete without a stop at Cosmic Cafe. Shannon Noland has served up big bites, sweet treats and specialty coffee since first opening her doors 17 years ago. Cosmic Cafe offers plenty of familiar breakfast options like biscuits and gravy, egg plates and omelets. Bring your appetite and you can’t go wrong with Shannon’s breakfast burrito. A 12-inch jalapeno-cheddar tortilla is stuffed with scrambled eggs, sausage, roasted red peppers, onions, Rotel and pepper jack cheese. It’s served with a side of hash browns and house salsa. Coffee aficionados will appreciate the coffee Shannon gets from Kaldi’s in St. Louis or one of their signature drinks, such as the caramel vanilla iced latte with toasted marshmallow cold foam.

Runner-up: Billy Gail’s, Branson and Ozark, 417-338-8883 (Branson)
417-582-2600 (Ozark)

Editors’ Choice: Jonesy’s Cafe, Paris, 660-327-5707

Outdoor Adventure

1st: Dogwood Canyon Nature Park, Lampe, 800-456-4812

If the outdoors is your playground of choice, you can just about do it all on this 10,000-acre wonderland dedicated to promoting conservation and protecting the outdoors. Complete with a restaurant, working gristmill, conservation center, bike barn, horse stables and even a treehouse, the grounds of Dogwood Canyon otherwise remain much as they would have appeared to Native Americans and early pioneers. Established by Bass Pro Shops CEO and Founder Johnny Morris, the nature park nestled in the Ozark Mountains offers visitors seemingly no end of opportunities to enjoy the splendor of nature through hiking, biking, horseback trail riding, trout fishing and wildlife and Segway tours as well as outdoor education programs.

2nd: Runner-up: Katy Trail State Park, 573-449-7402

Editors’ Choice: A float trip down Missouri’s streams

Antique Store

1st: Nostalgia Vintage Apparel and Marketplace, Sedalia, 660-851-2749

Carolyn Miller put her love of fashion and vintage clothes on display for Missouri to see when she opened Nostalgia Vintage Apparel and Marketplace in 2016. Based in the former McLaughlin Furniture Store in downtown Sedalia, Nostalgia features a main floor full of vintage clothing and accessories for all ages with three additional floors brimming with vintage antiques, new and used home decor and furniture from more than 60 local vendors. The store’s former vault even houses a booth dedicated exclusively to pop culture items. Although the Miller family lost Carolyn to cancer four years ago, husband Harvey and daughters Kendra and Keesha still own and manage the store, which is known for its window displays and has won the title of Best Flea Market Antique Store in Pettis County for two years running.

Runner-up: Minnie Lane, Maryville

Editors’ Choice: Downtown Antiques, West Plains, 417-256-6487

Place to Take the Kids

1st: Elephant Rocks State Park, Belleview, 573-546-3454
Perhaps nowhere else in the state has captured the imagination of geologists and kids alike in quite the same way as Elephant Rocks State Park. The day-use state park attracts visitors from far and wide as the perfect place for picnics, field trips and, of course, a natural playground if you choose to climb on the massive boulders. The largest of these red granite giants, appropriately dubbed “Dumbo,” weighs in at a truly elephantine 680 tons! The nearly 1-mile long Braille Trail was designed so visitors with physical and visual disabilities could enjoy the grandeur of the 1.5 billion-year-old rock formations, while a short spur trail showcases the area’s history as a quarry and railroad engine repair house during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Runner-up: Wonders of Wildlife, Springfield, 800-456-4812

Editors’ Choice: Kansas City Zoo, 816-595-1234

Getaway Without the Kids

1st: Big Cedar Lodge and Top of the Rock, Ridgedale, 800-225-6343

Looking for an unforgettable vacation but can’t decide what to do? You have your pick of adventures at Big Cedar Lodge and Top of the Rock. Take a boat out on Table Rock Lake, hit the links on five different golf courses, work on your aim at Bass Pro Shops Shooting Academy, catch a concert or bull ride at the ampitheater in Thunder Ridge Nature Arena or simply kick back and relax at Cedar Creek Spa. Visitors have more than a dozen different dining destinations to choose from, and accommodations range from rooms at the lodge to glamping to private cabins or cottages. Groups are welcome, and on-site staff can help plan your next corporate outing or the little details that will make the big day extra special.

Runner-up: Echo Bluff State Park, Eminence, 855-999-6980

Editors’ Choice: The Elms Hotel & Spa, Excelsior Springs, 816-630-5500

State Park or Historic Site

1st: Harry S Truman State Park, Warsaw, 660-438-7711

Why is Harry S Truman State Park so popular among readers? Being an access point for the largest lake in the Show-Me State might have something to do with it, or it could be the memories made between generations of family members enjoying the park’s campground. Whatever your outdoor interests are, it’s a safe bet that this park has all the bases covered. Anglers gather here for a chance at white and hybrid striped bass or to snag a spring paddlefish. Hikers can enjoy wildlife and views of the lake, and swimmers will find a sand beach. Truman also makes a perfect base camp for exploring other area attractions such as the Truman Dam visitor center, Lost Valley Fish Hatchery and all the adventure waiting in the city of Warsaw.

Runner-up: Bennett Spring State Park, Lebanon, 417-532-4338

Editors’ Choice: Wakonda State Park, La Grange, 573-655-2280


1st: Apple Butter Makin’ Days, Mt. Vernon

Stirring a copper kettle of apple butter in the shadow of the Lawrence County Courthouse draws quite the crowd to Mt. Vernon. More than 100,000 visitors flock here each fall to check out booth after booth full of handmade crafts and delicious fair-style food while taking in a car show, parades, races and games for all ages. Live entertainment takes center stage all weekend long, and a variety of contests from bubble gum blowing to husband calling gives nearly every talent imaginable a place to shine. If 12 hours of cooking apple butter isn’t enough to satisfy your love of the fall fruit, then bite into a caramel apple or apple dumpling, test your favorite recipe in the apple pie baking contest (or see if your eyes are bigger than your stomach in the apple pie eating contest), try your swing at apple golf or stick around for the crowning of this year’s Apple Butter Queen.

Runner-up: Heritage Days, Warsaw

Editors’ Choice: Bethel Colony Fall Market, Bethel

Made in Missouri

1st: Bankhead’s Candies, Bowling Green, 573-324-2312

Whether you have a sweet tooth for turtles, chocolate-dipped strawberries or peanut clusters, you’ll only need one bite to find out why people have been coming back to Bankhead’s Candies for more than 100 years. The Bowling Green business’s reputation among repeat customers around northeast Missouri and across the Mississippi River is handmade — or rather, hand-dipped — one delicious bite at a time. Owner Laura Portwood and her team still make most of the store’s delectable candies on the 6-by-8-foot marble table that was used by founder T.J. Bankhead and using his original caramel recipe. If you’re searching for a holiday toffee, a Valentine’s gift or just want to treat yourself to a truffle, you’re sure to find a Made-in-Missouri delight — or a whole box of them — perfect for any appetite.

Runner-up: Burgers’ Smokehouse, California, 800-624-5426

Editors’ Choice: Hammons Black Walnuts, 888-429-6887

Winery, Brewery or Distillery

1st: Piney River Brewing Co., Bucyrus 417-967-4001

Since the first beers were canned, the products of Piney River Brewing Co. have been a celebration of and a tribute to icons of the Missouri Ozarks, be they mules, turkeys, black walnuts or float trips. That was the goal for owners Brian and Joleen Durham when they opened the Bucyrus-based brewery and taproom —dubbed the BARn — in 2011. Today, they offer nine year-round brews, one mouthwatering root beer made by son, Andy, and no end of creative limited releases. Weekend visitors can enjoy later “float trip hours” on summer Saturdays, catch a ride to the BARn with a shuttle or rent the Piney River Farmhouse for the “bed and brewery” experience.

Runner-up: Stone Hill Winery, Hermann, 573-486-2221

Editors’ Choice: R/Farm Distilling Co., Mound City, 660-442-1006

Main Street

1st: St. Charles

Established by French fur traders in 1769, it’s safe to say St. Charles has earned its reputation as a historic highlight of the Show-Me State. Nowhere else in town better exemplifies the meeting of past and present than the city’s famous brick-lined streets where a variety of shops and restaurants surround what was once the state’s first Capitol, now a state historic site. Main Street — listed on the National Register of Historic Places — plays host to many of the storied city’s festivals and parades which take place throughout the year. Plus, it’s just a short distance from Frontier Park, the Katy Trail and the Missouri River. Don’t feel like hoofing it? The seasonally operated trolley makes a 40-minute loop around town and has a lift for riders with mobility aids. Whether you’re planning a family vacation, a daytrip of sightseeing and downtown shopping or a visit to the wine country, this Missouri Main Street is the gateway to a little something for everyone.

Runner-up: Cape Girardeau

Editors’ Choice: Hamilton

Hall of Fame

During the 20-year history of the Best of Rural Missouri contest, some restaurants, places and people have emerged as perennial favorites among readers. The inaugural Hall of Fame Class of 2023 listed below represents those entries which have received five or more first-place wins during the history of the statewide contest.

    We’ll continue to list our Best of Rural Missouri Hall of Fame annually,  — and, hopefully, add to that list next year. Please join us in congratulating the places our readers consider to be truly the best of rural Missouri.

Missouri Hick Bar-B-Que, Cuba, 573-885-6791

Ha Ha Tonka State Park, Camdenton, 573-346-2986

St. James Winery, St. James, 800-280-9463

Silver Dollar City, Branson, 417-336-7100


Lake of the Ozarks,

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