Here’s how our Readers’ Choice poll works: You, the reader, pick up a paper, fill out a form and send it in. Someone on our end opens the mail, collects the faxes and prints out the e-mails and types up a neat list of responses. Here we regurgitate that list in narrative form. This is our chance to find out what real people think are the “Real Best” things in the Triangle, because frankly, who are we, a staff of a handful of people, to be the arbiters of what’s best?

However democratic that ambition may sound, polls–in any shape–are rarely accurate reflections of those polled. Our process, far from being what George Gallup would endorse, is unscientific at best, but still well-intentioned. To avoid stifling our readers’ creative energy, we refrain from imposing rules on this system.

We must say then that it’s a tribute to the human soul that people found so many ways to rig this poll. One person it seems–you shall remain nameless until we reach your category, Linwood Sanders–copied the ballot many times with his info already filled in the appropriate blank and handed them out to patrons to do the rest of the work. Another group of people must have been unable to lift their fingers from the “submit” button of the online ballot when it came to voting for their neighborhood. Another voter was unimpressed by our categories and created his own. This year, we salute that competitive spirit as well as all the honest-to-goodness winners.

And if your “bests” didn’t win anything this year, we strongly encourage you to stuff the ballot box next time around.

Best locally owned coffee shop

This popular question ended in a three-way tie between Chapel Hill’s Caffe Driade, Raleigh’s Third Place and Cup-a-Joe. Voters didn’t specify which Cup-a-Joe, but we’ll assume any and all of the locations of the small chain will do. Carrboro’s Open Eye Café also received earnest responses.

Best healthy lunch

“Healthy” can be a pretty subjective term, but no one can argue with salad as a nutritious lunch option, in the Triangle or in the world. Where to get this salad however was a matter of heated debate. Wellspring, Durham’s Greenhouse Café and Carrboro’s Weaver Street Market were winners, alongside burrito barons Cosmic Cantina. One respondent answered our question in full: Next time you’re at the Blue Corn Café in Durham, ask for the chicken chipotle salad with cilantro vinaigrette dressing.

Best cheap date

If you like your date OK, but he or she’s not worth, say, chateaubriand and a night at the theater, read closely. If you don’t like looking at your date, take him or her to a movie theater, preferably the Blue Ridge 14, Starlite Drive-In or the Raleigh IMAX at Exploris. If your date likes to eat, feed him or her at one of the El Rodeo restaurants. And after all that, walk him or her around a bunch at Duke Gardens or the Eno River. However, few of those things would work on one respondent’s ideal cheap date: The Bubble Boy. How cruel.

Best beer selection

With a wall lined with beer taps, who can argue that Raleigh’s Flying Saucer can keep you in original brews year ’round? For those souls who prefer to diversify their drinking habits at home, shop at Durham’s Sam’s Quick Mart, known to some as the “Blue Light,” conveniently located next to Duke’s campus for frat boys with discerning taste. Other voters narrowed their beer selection to one: Colt 45.

Best bartender (and where he/she works)

Sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came, right? Apparently not many readers repay this family feeling with votes in our poll. There’s no clear winner for best barkeep, but check out the service provided by Chad Lloyd at Top of the Hill, Mark at Satisfaction, and Christy Barbee at the MacGregor Ale House to see if you’ll make them winners next year. For the James Bond in you, we hear the “late night woman at Henry’s” makes a mean martini.

Best nonsmoking nightspot

Ouch! Lots of cattiness in this category. Smokers believe “nonsmoking nightspot” is an oxymoron and are indignant that such businesses exist, whereas nonsmokers seemed so angry at the dearth of smoke-free establishments they preferred to stay at home. Movie theaters aren’t exactly what some of us would think of as “nightspots,” but they are open at night and politely ask that you not smoke, so technically they’re our winners. For those who are earnest about their search for the ultimate haven from the evil cancer sticks, try Franklin Street’s Silk Road Tea House.

Best hangover food

If you can stand waiting in line for it on Saturday or Sunday morning, order a protein-filled omelet or huevos rancheros at Elmo’s next time you forget when you were supposed to say when. If you’ve exhausted all your coloring options on the duck on the back of Elmo’s kids menu and are feeling too hung over to care, our readers recommend you visit Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen, Char-Grill or Waffle House, or stop by the Teeter to pick up frozen White Castle burgers.

Best ethnic grocery store

‘Tis true that our supermarkets are carrying more and more culturally diverse grocery items, but Lowes Foods is far from an ethnic grocery store. The real prize goes to Durham’s Asia Market on Chapel Hill Boulevard. Raleigh’s Middle Eastern market and bakery, Neomonde, also had a very strong showing again this year, and Conti’s Italian Market in Raleigh showed up on the list for the first time this year.

Best late-night grub

Dave Thomas is throwing y’all kisses from the grave. Wendy’s late-night drive-thru window is the Triangle’s favorite place to pick up some yum-yums, with Cosmic Cantina and Five Star close behind. Or, if you’re following your nose (see Best Smell in the Triangle), Krispy Kreme’s got a midnight doughnut with your name all over it.

Best waitperson

All right Linwood Sanders of the Capital City Club in downtown Raleigh, prepare to accept the laurel branches. We don’t know what’s so special about you–perhaps you can remember our orders without writing them down, or you can carry 10 plates at a time–but around 50 forms were sent to us by fax and through the mail with strikingly similar handwriting in the waitperson column proclaiming you the winner. Whatever you’re doing, Linwood, keep it up. Apparently Allison at Pepper’s Pizza didn’t have the same kind of campaign going, which makes her appearance in second place all that more honorable. If you manage to be lucky enough to be served by either of these folks, promise to tip big.

Best gallery

Screw Thomas Kinkade. Our readers prefer art by real people, thank you, like you might find at Lee Hansley Gallery or LUMP in Raleigh. These two galleries together might easily cover the spectrum of the area’s best art, from traditional paintings to unconventional performance art. Catch ’em during a reception and you can get fed and plastered too.

Best new performance space

You should like the new BTI Center and Meymandi Concert Hall–your tax dollars helped pay for them. But there’s nothing not to like about the posh collection of performance spaces next to the revamped Memorial Auditorium. Lincoln Theatre’s space is hardly new, but the management is, so it earns a mention and Carrboro’s Go! Studios gets a nod although it’s been open for a few years. One vote that can’t be called “new” by any stretch is Hardee’s Walnut Creek, especially since it hasn’t gone by that name in, what, three years?

Best local actor

Ira David Wood III got as much of a workout this year at North Carolina Theater as his own Theatre in the Park. He nailed Fagin in NCT’s Oliver, and put in a cameo for their Footloose. Then he brought authority in the midst to the psychiatrist’s role in that British chestnut, Equus. Plus you might have caught him in that Christmas thing he does. Other actors may have done more challenging work, but few were more consistently visible throughout.

Best local writer

While he’s only churned out one big hit, Charles Frazier shares the winners’ platform with the more prolific Reynolds Price and the Indy‘s very own Melinda Ruley. (No, we didn’t fix this race so she’d win.) A big wink goes to Jason Zengerle, associate editor at The New Republic, who either nominated himself or was nominated by a loved one. Cheers!

Best public art

The answers to this category point out the absence of public art in our fair cities. If The News & Observer hadn’t crammed a new one down your throat every week, who would really think that the wolves were really the best public art they’d seen? At least the Red Wolf Ramble is “public art”; art galleries that are open to the public, like Artspace in Raleigh, do not necessarily qualify as public art–a point that might have been more clear if readers had paid attention to the “best gallery” category. Some more realistic entries included the Free Expression Tunnel at N.C. State, the murals in Chapel Hill and last year’s winner, the art lining Weaver Street in Carrboro.

Best local theater troupe

Their faithful constituency always makes their voices heard when awards are at stake. But this year, upstart director Eric Woodall gave at least three Theatre in the Park shows a well-earned sharpening, in notable productions of Pageant, Anton in Show Business, and David Sedaris’ The Santaland Diaries. Before you knew it, the faithful few weren’t the only ones cheering on the latest developments at Pullen Park. Durham’s less conventional Manbites Dog came in a close second.

Best bumper sticker

There’s no clear winner here but “Re-elect Gore” gets a nod, well, for being the first amusing campaign bumper sticker. “I don’t mind straight people, as long as they act gay in public” is one Senator Helms would appreciate. A big thanks go out to the folks who tacked on a nice addition to the most “duh”-worthy bumper sticker ever created: “Mean people suck, nice people swallow.”

Best local band name

When you hear the band name, Sorry About Dresden, one wonders if these indie rockers are in earnest–“gee, we’re real sorry Dresden got bombed in World War II and all”–or if they’re paying tribute to Kurt Vonnegut and his story about the bombing of Dresden, Slaughterhouse Five. Either way, they win our best band name category, sharing space with the paradoxically named Amish Jihad and the oh so naughtily monikered Snatches of Pink. Sometimes it’s good to judge a book by its cover, and a wine by its label, so why not give these bands an ear sometime.

Best drag queen

Jesse Helms and RuPaul tied for first in this category. Now, RuPaul is a national star and thereby disqualified from our local poll. Jesse Helms, as much as we like putting his name next to something he undoubtedly disapproves of, is not a drag queen, so he too is disqualified. So, our true honoree is Rachel Slur, a slim and stylish Triangle queen whose manners, we hear, are impeccable. And while Purina Chow is not from the Triangle, she is nonetheless a North Carolinian whose muumuu wearin’, bucket of fried chicken holdin’ booger drag is worthy of an Indy mention.

Best place to have a picnic

Duke Gardens won hands down and it seems its praise is well earned. This beautifully manicured-because-it’s-well-funded garden is picture perfect and begs for a checkered table cloth and a carafe of Ernest and Julio’s finest. It’s also nice as a quiet refuge from the horrors of Duke Medical Center’s cafeteria. Other great picnic spots can be found on the lawn of the N.C. Museum of Art during their outdoor movies series, Pullen Park, and Chavis Park.

Best local building that begs renovation

As popular as my house was as an answer, the real winner here is the American Tobacco Complex sitting relatively empty next to the Durham Bulls Athletic Park. The good news is that plans are underway to make your renovation dreams come true, given the new owners, Capitol Broadcasting, see fit to follow through.

Best neighborhood

OK, Duke Park. You win. It’s a testament to your neighborhood pride that you were willing to mount a large online campaign for that part of old North Durham lucky enough to be within walking distance of the city park that gives your area its name. Raleigh’s Hedingham and Worthdale areas also did their best to top the list. Another reader, maybe one who picked up our recent issue covering the Triangle Transit Authority’s plans, suggests the best neighborhood would be anywhere within one mile of proposed rail transit. Hear, hear.

Best mechanic–foreign and domestic

Our nominees were largely foreign-car experts, which may say more about what our readership drives than anything else. Raleigh’s TAO Auto seems a Zen choice (TAO are the owner’s initials, we believe, not his religious philosophy) but we hear their mechanics also do some good work on your Honda. If you don’t own a Volvo, Neil Becker will be unable to help you, but if you do, there’s no one better to tune up your Swedish-made yuppie-mobile.

Best hair on TV

Overshadowing Tom Brokaw in recent NBC-17 promos, it’s easy to see why handsome anchorman Bill Gaines gets a big ol’ nod for his salt-and-pepper curls. He’s followed closely by his co-anchor Sharon Delaney, who is notable because she also won a write-in vote in our last category for Worst Hair. One respondent who voted for Karen Delaney noted that her tresses look an awful lot like those belonging to none other than Halloween’s spokeswoman, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. Other hair hall-of-famers include Seinfeld‘s Kramer, Friends‘ Rachel and Deborah Messing of Will & Grace–none of whom, ahem, are local.

Best thing on local radio

The winners of this category, G105’s Bob and Madison were also the result of ballot stuffing, but must be honored as we stated in our intro–and according to Arbitron, we don’t think this is necessarily a wrong appellation. Tom Joyner is syndicated out of Chicago, but his Sky Show brings beaucoup moohlah to local black colleges, so he deserves a mention. For shows that are truly homegrown however, we got college radio kudos to deliver to Ladies First on N.C. State’s WKNC, old-school hip hop and Eight Track Flashback on N.C. Central’s WNCU, and The Blues is the Blues is the Blues on Shaw’s WSHA.

Best local building that begs demolition

Lots of shopping centers made our list, but none got more votes than the newly opened Streets at Southpoint. You think you could have spoken up a while back when the mall-busters were busting their, um, malls to keep it from happening? On the other hand, is there really any way to stop the juggernaut of commerce? Other nominations call for the demolition of the skeleton formerly known as the Heart of Durham hotel, “the big pickle” or “the big green phallic Durham office building” aka University Tower and the Dean Dome. After the Heels’ last season, who’d fight the wrecking ball?

Best place to people watch

Why tear down The Streets at Southpoint when you can do some heavy-duty people watching there? Crabtree Valley Mall also does the job, but those who fear the syndicate choose to spy on folks from the seating areas outside of Raleigh eateries Sadlack’s and Lilly’s Pizza and Durham’s Fowler’s Gourmet.

Best billboard

Most people avoided this question probably for the same reason some folks chose to write this: “They all suck.” But the righteous never fail to praise the lord’s work, so the few of you who really can call yourself that voted for God’s billboards. They’re the ones that say stuff like “Don’t make me come down there” and are signed “God.” These billboards are a national, uh, campaign, but since God is everywhere, we suppose we can call these local.

Best recent victory of good over evil

When Jesse Helms announced his retirement, Indy readers breathed a collective sigh of relief and proclaimed this good’s most recent victory. His recent 180 on AIDS research was a real dazzler, too. Readers also applauded the victories of Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker, Chapel Hill Mayor Kevin Foy and Indiana University over Duke. Sorry Dookies.

Best local act of thoughtful patriotism

This should be a difficult category, however if being thoughtfully patriotic means displaying the flag, waving the flag or painting the flag on inappropriate objects we’ve got a Triangle full of thinking patriots. Some real ways to show the power of pride were also evidenced in Raleigh’s February peace rally, giving blood and voting in the last election.

Best local visionary

Recently elected Raleigh City Councilwoman Janet Cowell takes the prize for vision, holding true to ideas put forward in her pro-citizen, pro-environment campaign last fall. Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker is an also-ran with other local political leaders like Carrboro Mayor Mike Nelson, Chapel Hill Mayor Kevin Foy and Chatham County Commissioner Gary Phillips. Some activists worth mentioning are Middle East expert Rania Masri, peace activist Peggy Misch and Dawn Peebles of Internationalist Books.

Best reason to read the locally owned Independent, instead of that other corporate-owned weekly

Aw shucks, fellas. It’s good to know some folks really appreciate the hard work we do–editing cartoons. We respect the ingenuity of the reader who uses his paper for a little more than reading in the bathroom, and good taste of those who sing the praises of our writers. The little devil on our shoulder was also pleased by negative comments about that corporate-owned weekly, but following the principle of “if you can’t say anything nice … ” we’ll refrain from reprinting those comments here.

Best bike repair

Carrboro’s Clean Machine will clean up your 10-speed and get you on the road, and if they’re too busy, ride down to our poll’s second choice, Performance, near the Chapel Hill-Carrboro split. But if you’ve taken biking to a different, motorized level, get your hog up to snuff at Durham Harley Davidson.

Best smell in the Triangle

How can you argue with Krispy Kreme? Raleigh’s Person Street doughnut shop is hard to resist especially when they keep the goodies coming ’round the clock. There’s a group of scent connoisseurs that appreciate the sweet smell of tobacco that used to come from the Liggett Myers plant in Durham, while another group obsesses over the scent of roasting coffee beans that waft from Counter Culture Coffee Roasters and Broad Street Coffee Roasters.

Best alternative health-care provider

We’re befuddled by the lack of feedback on this question–aren’t you left-wingers supposed to be into this stuff? Maybe if you were to divulge the secrets of your Dorian Gray-like health we’d all be so good looking. Wink, wink. Those few who received mention included chiropractor Gary Kleibstein, acupuncturist Brian Kramer and the Piedmont Women’s Health Clinic. Restaurateur and soul food spokeswoman Mildred Council, aka Mama Dip, made the list for providing the community with comfort food.

Best hairstylist (and the salon where he/she works)

The d.s. parada color cafe staff’s PR move to stuff the ballot box was successful, despite returning their votes to the wrong Indy office. But when a salon paints each room a different primary color to reflect the dye job they’ve chosen to suit you, and creates a lighting arrangement that exactly mimics the daylight levels you might see outside from 5-6:30 p.m., that’s impressive. If you’re unwilling to drive to Raleigh’s Five Points for a ‘do, readers find that Amy J. at Syd’s Hair Shop in Chapel Hill will cut your coif in fine fashion.

Best name for a professional wrestler

Here’s a sampling of responses:
Nuclear Holycaust
The Spanker
The Great Molinko
Big Crisco Vagina
Ben Hurt
George C. Snot
The Missing Link
Green Grappler
Fightin’ Joe Scrotum
The Bavarian Waffle
Nut Cracker
Claude the Cannibal
Little Biggie
Big Mama
The “Ox”
Cham Pain

Create your own category and declare a winner

Before we list our favorite create-a-category winners, a few items of note: Magician Dan Laffey has got to be the best liked guy in town. Ballots came in from all over nominating this man of magic–or maybe, the votes were an illusion? Also, the crew who nominated No. 1 waiter Linwood Sanders also put in a strong write-in campaign for their favorite church, Christian Faith Baptist Church. God smiles on your efforts and so do we.

Best place to find assorted journals of dermatology (known to the layman as “smut rags”): Reader’s Choice
Best place to get a good deal on a wedding dress: The Bridal Boutique of Raleigh
Best hot sauce: Cackalacky Hot Sauce
Best desserts: Hayes-Barton Café
Best place to smoke a cigar: Top of the Hill (on patio)
Best magician: Dan Laffey
Best community activist: John Schelp
Best midwifery service and birth center: Piedmont Women’s Health Center, Chapel Hill
Best community resource: Jeffryn Stephens, director YPPC
Best local mantra: building community one cocktail at a time [sent in by the “Glendale/Markham Cultural Coalition (GMCC)”]
Best doctor: Dr. Kenneth Holt
Best church: Christian Faith Baptist Church
Best hotel: Marriott at Crabtree
Best child advocate: Al Deitch
Best charity: Triangle Red Cross
Best music store: Radio Free Records in Durham
Best local radical in an Arnold Schwartzeneggar movie: Stan Goff
Best weekend getaway: Asheville
Best local post office staff: Carrboro PO
Best bread: Great Harvest
Worst hair on TV: Karen Delaney NBC news
Best church outreach: Immaculate Conception
Best renovated restaurant: Greenhouse Café
Best new sociocultural slang originating in the Triangle: “Chiddley Chat” (conversing with friends)
Best house painter: Alumni Paint
Best free stand-up comedy: The outgoing message for the Graham Cinema
Best Triangle impresario/a: Kevin Weeks
Best adult products store: Adam & Eve’s Night Dreams
Best place that’s nice, but we absolutely don’t need any more of them: Irish pubs
Best astrologer: Randy Wasserstrom
Best selection of world music concerts: Duke University
Best leather bar: Flex