Rockford Region Restaurant Week winners and members of the Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau pose for a photo on Monday, Feb. 19, 2024, after awards were announced at 27 Aluna in Rockford. (Photo by Kevin Haas/Rock River Current)
By Kevin Haas
Rock River Current
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ROCKFORD — The Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau recognized five restaurants on Monday as the winners of this year’s “Best of” awards for Rockford Region Restaurant Week.

Dairyhaus, SALT, Ernie’s Midtown Pub, Cheezy’s Grilled Cheese and Hidden Creek Estates were selected in a public vote from 62 participating restaurants and bars to win in their respective categories. The winners were announced during a news conference and awards event at 27 Aluna, 124 N. Main St.

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The visitors bureau said 1,805 votes were cast to determine the winners, up from 1,300 in 2023.

2024 Restaurant Week winners

Best dessert: Dairyhaus, 113 E. Main St., Rockton

Best main course: SALT, 6860 Spring Creek Road, Rockford

Best cocktail or brew: Ernie’s Midtown Pub, 1025 Fifth Ave., Rockford

Best deal: Cheezy’s Grilled Cheese, 2842 11th St., Rockford (inside BJ’s Place)

Best Experience: Hidden Creek Estates, 13276 White School Road, Roscoe

This was the fourth year of Restaurant Week, and it spanned 11 days over two weekends this year. The annual celebration of the region’s culinary scene was created to support local restaurants during what can be a slow time of year. The visitors bureau said restaurants saw increased business from the week before Restaurant Week and had sales above last year’s event.

“We sent surveys out to restaurants, and they all reported an increase in sales during Restaurant Week,” said Lindsay Arellano, vice president of sales and service for the visitors bureau. “On average, participating restaurants saw a 40% increase. We had one restaurant report a 150% increase over their previous week of a non-Restaurant Week.”

Best dessert | Dairyhaus

Brent Murray, the owner of Dairyhaus in Rockton, looks at his award on Monday, Feb. 19, 2024, for best dessert during Rockford Region Restaurant Week. (Photo by Kevin Haas/Rock River Current)

Dairyhaus took home the award for best dessert, which celebrated the “most outstanding and delectable dessert offered.”

Dairyhaus, a family-owned homemade ice cream parlor, participated in the week for the first time. It combined breakfast staples with ice cream:

  • Maple Bacon homemade ice cream: homemade Dairyhäus maple syrup ice cream with real crunchy salty bacon pieces
  • Hausmonster Super Cereal S’more milkshake: a Golden Grahams milkshake with chocolate flakes and marshmallow
    Cinnamon Toast Crunch/Pop Tart Mashup sundae: your choice of homemade Dairyhäus ice creams, topped with crushed Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal and a warm cinnamon pop tart
  • Maple Waffle Bacon sundae: homemade Dairyhäus Maple Bacon ice cream topped with a warm waffle, maple syrup, and crushed bacon

“Rockford Restaurant Week has been the cherry on top of a very successful winter season,” said Brent Murray, owner of Dairyhaus. “We are so proud to win best dessert and are grateful for the community’s support and patronage. As we always have, we will continue to reflect the spirit of our community in every scoop, every flavor and interaction we have with our customers.”

Best deal | Cheezy’s Grilled Cheese

Dustin DiBenedetto, left, and Josh Wilson, the owners of Cheezy’s Grilled Cheese, react on Monday, Feb. 19, 2024, to winning best deal during Rockford Region Restaurant Week. (Photo by Kevin Haas/Rock River Current)

Cheezy’s Grilled Cheese debuted last summer as a food truck, and this past winter moved into its first sit-down space inside BJ’s Place.

For Restaurant Week, it offered its ultimate comfort food experience with its original grilled cheese, served alongside crispy chips and a “soul-warming” soup for $10.99.

“We came a long way in a year, and to be able to be standing here in front of you guys … it’s unbelievable that we’re here,” said Dustin DiBenedetto, who owns Cheezy’s with Josh Wilson. “This award is a testament to the support of our community and our commitment to providing a unique experience with great deals to residents and visitors.”

Best cocktail or brew | Ernie’s Midtown Pub

Andrew Vowles, right, with Chenaire Barmore of the Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, accepts the award Monday, Feb. 19, 2024, for best cocktail or brew during Rockford Region Restaurant Week. (Photo by Kevin Haas/Rock River Current)

Ernie’s Midtown Pub won for the third straight year during Rockford Region Restaurant Week. In past years it had taken honors for the overall best vibe and atmosphere. This year there were new categories, and Ernie’s was celebrated for best cocktail and brew.

Its Restaurant Week drink special was:

  • Cherry bourbon sour:  Muddled lemon and filthy cherries, fresh lemon juice, Stirrings sour mix, Jeppson’s bourbon and soda water.
  • Ernie’s Lager is a fresh, crisp, refreshing lager coming in at 4.5% alcohol by volume brewed by Eagle Park Brewing Co.

“We can feel the love Rockford,” said Andrew Vowles, Ernie’s owner. “We really appreciate you guys.”

Best main course | SALT

ZiZi Altamore, general manager and co-owner of SALT, accepts the award on Monday, Feb. 19, 2024, for best main course during Rockford Region Restaurant Week. (Photo by Kevin Haas/Rock River Current)

SALT, an upscale restaurant that opened in October in the former Josef’s Steakhouse & Oyster Bar, won the award for providing the best authentic and unique main course.

ZiZi Altamore, the restaurant’s general manager and co-owner, said it was an honor she did not take lightly.

“I am particularly honored as a new restaurant to be here with a lot of great restaurants that have been a part of the Rockford region for a long time and some newer ones as well,” Altamore said.

SALT offered a special four-course menu featuring seasonal, local ingredients designed by Executive Chef Michael Turley for $50.

“Our mission is to bring a unique, artistic and upscale experience that is something so creative it can’t help but be memorable,” Altamore said. She said feedback from Restaurant Week “inspired us to continue to do more tasting menus and up our creativity in the Rockford region.”

Best experience | Hidden Creek Estates

Jared Malavolti reacts to Hidden Creek Estates winning best experience on Monday, Feb. 19, 2024, for Rockford Region Restaurant Week. (Photo by Kevin Haas/Rock River Current)

Hidden Creek Estates took home the prize for providing the best “exceptional overall dining experience including ambiance, food and customer service.”

Hidden Creek is located on 30 acres of farmland in Roscoe and provides a full-service wine and whiskey bar with a locally sourced and European-inspired food menu. It also offers lodging and space available for weddings and other events.

“Restaurant Week was fantastic for us,” said Dude Frank, founder of Hidden Creek. “Each week broke attendance and sales records for us. I would guess that 75% of the patrons were new to Hidden Creek. I would consider it a great success.”

This article is by Kevin Haas. Email him at or follow him on X at @KevinMHaas or Instagram @thekevinhaas and Threads @thekevinhaas

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