Niagara Gazette — The stage was set for underdog Lewiston to take the crown. But at the end of the day, Santa Fe, N.M. was named the best small town for food in the Rand McNally/USA Today Best of the Road contest.
The home of the Brickyard, Casa Antica, Hibbard's Custard and about 30 more restaurants and food service offerings just couldn't sneak through the behemoth towns dwarfing it in the competition.
"It wasn't from a lack of trying," Lewiston mainstay Tim Henderson said after the ruling was announced via a travel convention in Seattle, Wash. Tuesday.
"We knew the competition was tough," Lee Simonson, who organized the area's push, added. "It brought out the best of each town. Santa Fe probably has some of the best food in the world, though."
The contest considers towns of 150,000 people and less as small towns. So entering meant Lewiston, which officially clocks in at 16,262 as of 2010, went head-to-head with Santa Fe (67,947) and its southwestern fare and Walla Walla, Wash. (31,731), which featured plenty of seafood options.
Burnsville, Minn. (60,306), Charlottesville, Va. (43,475) and Bloomington, Ind. (80,405) were also in the mix.
But for Simonson and his merry crew of volunteers who racked up countless hours organizing online voting campaigns and guided restaurant tours just to stand a chance, the experience was a moral victory even though the judges called someone else's name.
Jude Russo Casserta, who ran the organized tour of Lewiston's plethora of eateries when judges Mike Shubic and Brian Cox visited a month ago, said the community can feel extremely proud it got as far as it did in the contest.
"I think we're a community which always seems to feel down about itself," she said. "We always seem to feel we're not quite as good as the rest of the grown ups. This has led to a lot of pride. But here, it isn't true. We didn't need to win this to get validation."
Best of the Road also offers other categories, including Friendliest, Most Beautiful, Most Fun and Most Patriotic, which some of the organizers said they may try for next year. Best of the Road judge Mike Shubic, who rolled through town for the first time ever when the village got its chance to shine in mid-June, said Lewiston needs to take a shot at something next year.
Even if it's not Best for Food.
"If they don't plan on going for Best for Food next year, they need to look at Friendliest," he said from Seattle after the judging verdict came in. "Lewiston has so much to be proud of. It was one of the most heartfelt towns on the map. It almost brought me to tears twice and I don't cry."
Shubic and Cox, in their travels for the contest, visited 19 different states in a little more than 30 days. They drove approximately 4,700 miles, stepped through the doors of more than 100 restaurants and tasted 400 meals.
At the end of the day, Shubic said only one of the six communities was pretty much eliminated at the beginning of the pair's pitch to the final judgement group, which was made up of Rand McNally and USA Today representatives. The pair was tasked with announcing the top two for the Travel Channel special which will air at 8 p.m. Wednesday, July 25.
"It was, no question, epic is a word that comes to mind," Shubic said. "We met some unbelievable, fantastic people along the way. It was really an experience of a lifetime, while also happening at this breakneck speed. It was hard to thoroughly enjoy it."