There’s Iowa and there’s Iowa City. In that endless sea of corn and soybeans, one imagines towns comprised of a few houses huddled around a water tower; Jack and Diane eating at the Tastee Freeze because the town may not be big enough for a Subway. But Iowa City, a town of about 70,000, boasts an impressive amount of good eating. It’s a UNESCO City of Literature, a bellwether in the nation’s first caucus, and home to an educated populace that seems to demand food befitting of the town’s unique stature within the state.
Whatever brings you to Iowa City likely revolves around the University of Iowa, the lifeblood of a town with a student-oriented food scene. Some restaurants just ooze “my parents are visiting, at least it’s not ramen.” But the good ones range from modern kitsch to casual elegance. You’ll find a lot of boasting over local and consciously sourced ingredients — the forwardness of those claims seems awkwardly necessary. It’s a place that had almost no choice but to offer only cage-free eggs in the dormitories. There’s much fervor for those kinds of stances.
Here’s a meal-by-meal checklist for the next time you visit your undergrad. Check out this handy map of Iowa City that has all the locations with hours and phone numbers.
In a town whose breakfast scene seems to thrive on hangover cessation, locals will tell you there’s only one place that fits the bill: the Hamburg Inn No. 2 (214 N Linn St). It’s famous for being a stop on the campaign trail, and it’s easy to see why. It’s homely, honest, and seems frozen in time. It serves good eggs and rocket-fuel coffee — what more do you need? If you’re there during election season, make sure to vote in their famous coffee bean caucus (each patron gets a bean, each candidate has a jar). Opt for the Iowa Omelet (naturally) with hashbrowns, ham, and cheese folded inside. Oh yeah, and then there’s the Pie Shake.
Hamburg’s breakfast is the kind that will probably have you skipping lunch. So if you’re just looking for a coffee-pastry combo to start your day, go to The Bread Garden Market for the best doughnuts in town and skip across the Pedestrian Mall to Capanna for whichever blend has been roasted that morning.
Iowa City is in no danger of running out of sandwiches any time soon, and the best are found in two shops. Mama’s Deli (125 E Washington St), complete with a picture wall of its patrons’ mothers, features an impressively diverse selection of subs. The Cappacolla is a standout, with cheese melted between two layers of the salty meat (be sure to ask for it with hot peppers).
A relative new-comer, highly regarded for their lunch fare and locavore leanings is Her Soup Kitchen (625 S Dubuque St). Only open for lunch (and brunch on Sundays), this sandwich spot is proudly cobbled together, with mismatched, donated furniture and restaurant equipment gleaned randomly at auction. The menu is anything but haphazard, being effusively committed to local ingredients and sustainable practices. Get their fresh market salad with your sandwich — the Cuban is highly recommended.
Short’s Burger and Shine (18 S Clinton St.) features the city’s best burgers, made from 100 percent corn-fed Black Angus beef raised less than 30 miles away in Columbus Junction. Formerly a shoeshine parlor, it’s a dark, slender cave. The best seat is at the bar, with one of their 10 craft Iowa beers in hand. The Essex (pictured above) comes topped with grilled peppers, mushrooms, Brie, and a roasted red pepper mayo. Their skin-on, hand-cut fries are right on the money.
And those of the vegetarian / vegan persuasion should be sure to visit The Red Avocado (521 E Washington St). You must start with their delicious white bean pâté, but check to see if it’s incorporated into any entrée as well.
One doesn’t have to be an expert navigator to find a drink in Iowa City, but two locations deserve mention. As is demanded of a college town, Iowa City has no shortage of popped-collar bars (yes, there’s even a Brothers down there), and they’re concentrated on the Pedestrian Mall in the middle of town. An aptly named respite from that scene is The Sanctuary Pub (405 S Gilbert St). It’s an old-school den full of dark wood benches, fireplaces, and high-backed leather chairs. In the 1850s the building served as a cast iron stove foundry, and it retains that old-fashioned, industrial aura. There are two-dozen good taps and a very impressive Belgian-heavy bottle list.
There is only one retail location for beer and wine where you need to stop: John’s Grocery (401 E Market St), affectionately known to locals as Dirty John’s. Tightly stacked around shoulder-width aisles, John’s selection is unmatched in the city. Pick up an Iowan six-pack like Hop Wrangler 3 from Peace Tree Brewing in Knoxville, IA — a great local take on the IPA, with an intense floral aroma and a very pleasant citrusy finish.
One Twenty Six (126 E Washington St) is also a great choice for a classy lunch, and especially for a light Sunday brunch. But wait until dinner to take advantage of their full menu. It’s a small, modern bistro sporting a well-composed, compact menu with a Mediterranean feel. It has one of the better people-watching patios looking out at the epicenter of downtown — a perfect spot to relax with a selection from their comprehensive (though not quite value conscious) wine list. Carnivores, take note of the Duroc pork with duck confit and garlic sausage cassoulet.
One Twenty Six recently took over the non-descript sports bar above the copy shop next door and turned it into Hearth (124 ½ E. Washington St.) – a slightly more dressed-down space for tapas and smaller entrees. Get there for half priced bottles of wine on Mondays and Tuesdays and munch on their vegetable samosas (pictured above, left) served with a scrape-the-cup-delicious mint chutney. They also serve good wood fired flatbreads and a brilliant, unctuous brandade topped with a runny fried egg.
Iowa City’s target market rarely allows restaurants to venture too far into haughty fine dining. The place that comes closest, while maintaining a down to earth personality is Linn Street Café. It’s a low-lit, sophisticated eatery with a very Midwestern charm featuring local proteins and detailed preparations. It’s a perfect date spot that’s just as good for a celebratory gathering. The wine list has some great values, along with several vintages of cult wines like Opus One and Stag’s Leap. The lobster bisque is a nice delicate starter and the juicy pork tenderloin with tarragon polenta is a class act. It’s easy to see why it has been consistently lauded as the best restaurant in the city for years.
One Final Bite:
If you’re hungry after bar close, make your way to Falbo Brothers Pizzeria (457 S. Gilbert St.) for $2 slices. Get the spinach, tomato & garlic if it’s up.