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Cruising the Foodie Trail in Branson, MO

Throughout Branson, eateries offer hearty and delicious fare with a Southern edge. Menus offer abundant helpings of regional favorites like pot roast, fried chicken and chicken-fried steak, catfish, and fruit cobbler. Breakfasts are huge, and moonshine is hand-crafted. It’s like eating at Grandma’s house. In addition, you’ll find some modern takes on great classical recipes.

Here are my culinary discoveries in Branson from a recent media trip sponsored by the Branson/Lakes Area Convention & Visitors Bureau and its affiliates and friends:

Showboat Branson Belle, Table Rock Lake

A 700-passenger paddlewheeler that evokes the spirit of riverboat adventure and glamorous travel, Showboat Branson Belle does double-duty as a dinner-theater. You’ll cruise at a gentle 6 mph along Table Rock Lake while dining on a three-course meal and watching a live variety show featuring favorite pop, light rock and country standards. Perhaps you’ll want to sing along. Go ahead.

Showboat Branson Belle, photo by Branson Convention and Visitors Bureau

Two-hour lunch and dinner cruises launch three times most days. Meals are prepared onboard in the ship’s galley kitchen. We had a choice of four entrees: chicken, pork chop, trout or ribeye steak. A vegetarian option was available. The salad was a tasty heap of mixed greens topped with mandarin oranges and sliced apples dressed with an apple honey vinaigrette. The dessert menu consisted of caramel pecan cheesecake, chocolate cake, lemon mousse cake, and Silver Dollar City’s apple cinnamon ice cream pie. Alcohol is not served. (Showboat Branson Belle and Silver Dollar City are both owned by Herschend Family Entertainment.)

The food was quite satisfying, especially when considering the hundreds of passengers who had to be served at the same time. Note that menus and shows change regularly.

PAM’S TIP: Have your photograph taken on the grand staircase.

I LOVED: My oven-baked, pecan-encrusted trout with wild rice and a Mediterranean vegetable medley.

Level 2 Steakhouse, Hilton Branson Convention Center

Level 2 Steakhouse raises the bar not only for Branson dining but for all steakhouses in general. Located on the 2nd floor of the Hilton Branson Convention Center, the restaurant and its hospitality-minded staff provide a truly exceptional dining experience for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

The menu at Level 2 Steakhouse features 28-day aged, corn-fed Midwestern beef, fresh seafood, heritage Missouri pork, locally grown produce and signature house-made desserts. A 1600-degree infrared oven quickly sears and produces an incredibly tender steak.

Hawaiian ahi tuna on salt block, Level 2 Steakhouse

My medium-rare filet mignon melted in my mouth. But before I got that far, the first course of Hawaiian ahi tuna was divine. It was seared rare and placed on a Himalayan pink salt block, and served with a lemongrass-soy reduction, pickled ginger, wasabi, sweet chili mayo and charred pineapple salsa. Cheesy noodles, a concoction of egg noodles and choose sauce, are a house specialty. Even the bread was multi-flavorful: grilled focaccia with an olive tapenade.

Other steakhouses present diners with slabs of raw meat before they place their orders. At Level 2, you’re offered a selection of gleaming steak knives of varying heft, size and handle. Dine 5 times, and you qualify for the Kut Klub. Here’s how it works: You are presented with a selection of premium steak knives. Choose the one that feels good in your hand. It’ll be engraved with your name and held for you to use the next time.

Missouri butter cake at Level 2 Steakhouse

I LOVED: Dessert was a Missouri butter-cake, which I’d never heard of but am now a fan. It’s a mound of moist buttery cake with a gooey interior and topped with vanilla-bean ice cream, fresh berries and creme anglaise. The recipe is secret, but I heard Drambuie is an ingredient.

Mel’s Hard Luck Diner, Grand Village Shops

Step into Mel’s Hard Luck Diner, and you immediately feel the juke box vibe of the 1950s. It’s decorated with red vinyl booths, red-and-black checkered floor, and scads of music memorabilia on the walls. The staff not only serves up All-American fare, but they entertain the guests as well.

The restaurant is home to Branson’s original singing servers, who are all professional caliber. Some work here between gigs on cruises ships or on Broadway. A couple appeared on the “American Idol” TV show. While at Mel’s, they take turns performing on the restaurant floor, and they’ll be happy to sell you their CD’s.

Love Me Tender Fried Steak, Mel’s Hard Luck Diner

The menu is made up of sandwiches, burgers, wraps, salads, soups and ice cream treats. They’re given cutesy music-themed names like Sixteen Tons Chili Burger and Love Me Tender Fried Steak.

The desserts are humongous. Our group ordered the Climb Every Mountain Ice Cream Avalanche, which has 12 scoops topped with every confection you can dream of: bananas, nuts, cherries, strawberries, pineapple, sprinkles, brownie crumbles, hot fudge, hot caramel, marshmallow cream and whipped cream. This is ice cream decadence! (Shown at the top of this post is the Build Me Up, Banana Cup banana split.)

Mel’s Favorite Carrot Cake, Mel’s Hard Luck Diner

I LOVED: Mel’s Favorite Carrot Cake, a triple-layer cake loaded with coconut, pecans, cinnamon and pineapple, then topped with thick cream cheese icing and paired with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. The whole thing was drizzled with hot caramel.

Florentina’s Ristorante Italiano

Pair authentic local Italian fare with a casual Old World atmosphere, and you’ve captured the essence of Florentina’s Ristorante Italiano. Chef-created recipes feature homemade sauces, classic pastas and signature creations made fresh daily. The Tuscan countryside-inspired decor is warm and welcoming.

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Zuppa Toscana soup, Florentina’s Ristorante Italiano

My pasta was perfectly al dente, and the Zuppa Toscana Soup had big chunks of chicken, sausage and vegetables in a light creamy tomato broth. Build-your-own brick-oven pizzas are a specialty, but I’ll have to try that next time.

Specialty entrees like pollo piccata and salmon trattoria are served with roasted rosemary potatoes and green beans or penne pasta with choice of sauce. For dessert, dig into Italian specialties like tiramisu or spumoni ice cream.

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Toasted ravioli, Florentina’s Ristorante Italiano

I LOVED: Toasted ravioli, pasta pillows filled with seasoned beef, then flash-fried and served with thick tomato-y marinara sauce.

Other worthy Branson eateries to try: You’ll recognize the Great American Steak & Chicken House by the four-story rooster sculpture perched at the entrance of a huge red barn. You’ll remember it by the home-style cooking served in a fun, farm atmosphere. Big Whiskey’s American Restaurant and Bar at the Hilton Promenade at Branson Landing serves up comfort fare for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Locals hang out here, too. Maybe it’s because of the curated offerings of 100 whiskeys and 25 beers on tap. Maybe it’s because everyone feels at home.

An abundance of country-style fare is offered by the restaurants and kiosks at Silver Dollar City, which I’ve written about here.

For more information, go to Explore Branson.

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