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Jul 6, 2002 10:30 PM

Eating in and around Iowa City

  • d

I will be traveling from Chicago to Iowa City next week - perhaps for the 1st of many trips - orientation for my teen-ager's enrollment at U. of Iowa. I would appreciate dining tips for breakfast, lunch, dinner and any anecdotal info you wish to share. Being from Chicago, I am experienced in ethnic dining and probably would be disappointed by gimmicky pseudo-ethnic dining. On the other hand, I have no trouble digging into a big country breakfast or any other classic American cuisine if well prepared/high quality. Thanks, in advance, for any suggestions.

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  1. t
    Thom in Omaha

    In Iowa City itself, I have heard good things about the Linn St. Cafe. Several wine-lover that I know rave about the place. In Cedar Rapids (20+ miles up the road), there's a brewpub called the Cedar Brewing Company. Pretty good beers. There's also one or two brewpubs in Iowa City, but I haven't been to them.

    1. The Red Avocado! The Red Avocado! It's on E. Washington in Iowa City. Track it down. They serve fun and delicious organic vegetarian dishes, often showcasing whatever herbs or veggies looked good in their garden that day (according to what my server's told me). If it's not too humid, you should sit out on the patio, which has green vines growing across the open ceiling.

      I think everything I've had there has been really good. Go for whatever's on special. Oh, they make fantastic juice drinks, too, and they have a not-bad wine selection. Definitely one of the most interesting restaurants in IC.

      It's just across the street and down from the New Pioneer Co-op, another place worth checking out for a quick and awesome deli lunch. Or you could pick up a baguette and some cheese and fruit and a bottle of wine at the co-op and walk down Washington to the park and have a nice little picnic.

      1 Reply
      1. re: Anne

        I wholeheartedly agree with this. I found out about Red Avacado from this board, took my girlfriend (now fiancee) there while visiting her in grad school once and we went back almost every week since then. The Banana Bolt was my favorite drink, by the way. Also they have very good spinach salad (drizzled with toasted sesame seeds), tofu scramble (hearty and "eggy" tasting, sans eggs), and yummy desserts.

      2. >> I have no trouble digging into a big country breakfast

        Drive over to the Amana Colonies to the town of Amana for a huge country family-style breakfast at Colony Inn.

        Big bowl of fresh fruit
        Platter of ultra-fresh sunny-side up eggs
        Platter of Amana bacon and sausage
        Plate-sized buttermilk pancake
        Big bowl of hash browns


        Some still like lunches and dinners at other Amana restaurants such as The Ronnenburg and The Ox-Yoke Inn. To me, however, they now pale in comparison to what they once were. Seems they're catering more to the bus tour crowds now and the food is pre-fab instead of the top quality homemade treats I enjoyed there from the early 1950s until quality started deteriorating about seven years ago.

        It's been about two years since I've been to IC but I sure enjoyed a neat bar and grill downtown right next to Prairie Lights Bookstore. They did some terrific non-traditional items and the gorgeous bar and mirror are worth the admiration. Can't recall the name of it offhand -- not sure if it's still there or not, but hope it is!

        11 Replies
        1. re: Jane

          The name of that bar is Mickey's and it definitely is still there. It's one of five restaurants owned by one man. One of the others, called the Bread Garden, on nearby Clinton Street, has 5-7 freshly made soups(cream of mushroom and tuscan tomato are two of my favorites) daily, served with several LARGE slices of freshly baked bread in a couple of varieties. I especially like the one baked with green and black olives, but the rye is also very good. They also have wonderful made-to order sandwiches, salads and a decent selection of freshly made pastries and other sweets. A favorite for lunch and light dinner.

          1. re: iowagirl

            Thanks, Iowagirl! Yes, Mickey's, that's it! I really enjoy spending time in the bookstore then going to that booth in the front window of Mickey's to people-watch and peruse my bookstore purchases! :)

            I knew the owner had other establishments but couldn't for the life of me remember them. Doesn't he have some restaurants in Des Moines, too? Good people in that Mickey's, and good food!

            Last time I was in IC, I really missed the ice cream shop. I loved going up to the second floor to sit by a window there.

            1. re: Jane

              Thanks a million for the suggestions. I just got back from Iowa City. My 1st trip - orientation day for my son, who we'll be taking there (for good!) in a month. I did manage to get to the New Pioneer Co-op, which I loved - college town co-ops are so great, I actually prefer them to Whole Foods and other elite grocers here in the Chicago area. New Pioneer had a great collection of cheeses, meats from the Amana colonies, a nice deli, and lotsa organic and veggie stuff. I tried to get my son to go to Red Avocado but he's still in the "how about Taco Bell?" phase, and considers fried potatoes to be the staff of life (maybe they are?). On my son's recommendation we also ate at a friendly place with not so great Mexican food - they served most dishes w. mashed potatoes w. a pepper cream sauce that were actually pretty tasty, though the place was kinda grungy - Gringos? The university put on an incredibly lame dinner w. paper plates...chicken breast, green beans, rice, etc.

              I also must admit that I went to John's Grocery. I don't exactly know what the role of this store is in Iowa City (although I did see a perky, almost cartoon-like mini-skirted babe buy a fifth of vodka in the middle of the afternoon there - is that a hint?), but they have a great collection of beers on hand, and I bought quite a few hard to find brews there. They are very friendly, too.


              I'm hoping to make many trips to IC - 'cause it'll mean he's actually progressing towards a degree(!) - and I look forward to trying all your recommendations.



              1. re: Davido

                Well, now you've got a start, Davido!

                If you are going sometime and spending a few days in IC, you might enjoy staying at De Heimat Bed & Breakfast in Homestead (one of the Amana Colonies). It's just a charming place and very nice people. I skip the continental "breakfast" in favor of a real coronary breakfast at Colony Inn. My favorite room is #13 on the second floor, southwest corner. It's perfect for one, but they have lovely larger rooms, too.

                Just a suggestion, if you're going in for a sports event or Parents' Weekend, make your room reservations early! I've heard of folks who had to drive quite a distance from their lodging on those weekends.

                Oh, and in case you didn't already do it on this trip, you'll soon learn to take an ice chest with you to haul home the FABULOUS Amana bacon and sausage. Personally, I've found it to be fresher when I buy it at the Amana Meat Shop in Amana instead of at other businesses outside of Amana. And don't miss the Amana wine tasting rooms. Their wine used to be that grandpa-kind of wine but they've really brought up the quality and it's quite good.

                1. re: Jane

                  Oh, this is making me miss IC! Seven years ago, when we still lived there, The Sanctuary served some tasty chicken salad. Some people would call me crazy, but I loved the manicotti at The Brown Bottle. Once in a while The Mill would serve something interesting as a "special." I remember some weird macaroni and cheese thing with tons of rosemary. Good but strange. You really go to The Mill for open mic night entertainment, not food, on Mondays.

                  Ditto the breakfasts in Amana, and the pizza at Paglia's!

                  And if you want an interesting grocery shop experience, go to The Stringtown Grocery just off of Hwy 1 between Kalona and IC. (Just up the road from the Cheese Factory.)

                  1. re: whitney

                    My mom used to live in Iowa City, and when I went down to interview for grad school she INSISTED that I visit the Brown Bottle. I didn't get a chance to go, but it gets a high recommendation from a former Iowan.

                    1. re: Mangojane

                      I second that, and if you go you must get the Tiramisu which is spectacular.

                2. re: Davido

                  Hi Davido! So glad you made it to John's Grocery - it's our little mecca of good beer and wine, and is a veritable institution here. In fact, when my dad was in high school, it's where HE went to buy beer (they called it "Dirty John's then)! If you make it back there, make sure to chat with Wally the wine guy! He knows his stuff, and always has great recommendations.

                  Not much in the way of great Mexican food here, but two more "authentic" options are El Ranchero on Hwy 6 and Riverside Dr - good, cheap fajitas - and La Casa on Gilbert Ct.

                  Also - if you do come back and need a good breakfast (or lunch) spot, the Hamburg Inn is wonderful. A huge selection of omelets, great pancakes, homemade pies, good, greasy burgers and tuna melts and a true Iowa City vibe. It is a bit grungy, but the food is definitely worth it. They also serve a cheap dinner on Sunday nights, when the dorms aren't serving. Usually something like homemade fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, veggie and roll for $4.95. The Hamburg in is right by most of the east side dorms (Burge, Currier, Daum, Stanley) on Linn St.

                  And on the corner of Linn and Bloomington St is the famed Pagliai's pizza - some of the best thin crust pizza I have ever eaten. Was a weekly visit while I was in college, and still my favorite pizza here in town.

                  Good luck, and feel free to keep asking! :) Glad to brag up my little Iowa town when I get the chance.

                3. re: Jane

                  No problem, Jane! We miss the Great Midwestern Ice Cream Company too - nothing like their fresh blackberry ice cream on a muggy Iowa day!

                  And Mondanaro (owner of Mickey's et al), DOES own at least one restaurant in Des Moines, Mondo's, which is very similar to the Mondo's here in Iowa City. Pretty decent bar-type food, with a great chicken tortilla soup.

              2. re: Jane

                Oh, I definiteyl agree that the Ox-Yoke isn't anything special anymore. It was mediocre-to-bad when I ate there.

                1. re: spellweaver16

                  I would say that my recent experience there was mediocre-to-good, though my wife loved it. (Actually, she has not asked that we return, which says something.) I hear great things about the Colony Inn from a Californian relative that comes to Iowa once a year, but that might be more tradition than taste. I tried to join her there this summer, but it was closed (Sunday evening), so we went to the Ronnenburg. THAT was a huge letdown. The sauerbraten sounded so good, but the result was a slightly acidic, dry boiled beef.

              3. The original comment has been removed
                1. Pizza: Pagliai's is most popular, but for good deep dish and amazing calzones, it's Sam's on Gilbert St.

                  Mexican: I've said it before and I'l say it again - La Reyna - On Keokuk St west of KMart

                  Sushi - Oyama near Sycamore mall

                  BBQ - 2 choices, Jimmy Jacks or the Pit. Ribs at JJ, pulled pork at the Pit. Pit has amazing o-rings too

                  Higher-end - try Motley Cow, currently across the street from John's Grocery (west on Market St), but soon to move across from my place on Linn.

                  4 Replies
                  1. re: Devotay

                    I had to run over to IC last night for a morning appt. Pretty fired up to grab some taco's at La Reyna. Map quested ahead of time from my motel.
                    Got there about 7:30 last night. Was happy to find them open. I ordered a chicken taco, steak taco, and pork taco, to go, from the friendly and helpful lady at the front counter. I asked for the hottest sauce they had available.
                    1.75 a taco is hard to beat. If you get them. I did not. Got back to the hotel and had only the chicken and steak, although I was charged for three.
                    OK, it happens. I'm still better off than if I had to go to Taco Bell, right?
                    The tortillas, 3 for the steak, 2 for the chicken, were fantastic. The steak was not. Some of it dry to the texture of jerky, major disappointment.
                    The chicken, while moist, lacked any flavor other than from the cilantro and onions.
                    Do they not use spices?
                    The sauce was some bright green stuff with little or no heat, but at least added some moisture to the steak.
                    Sorry, I know this place draws cheers from all the Hounds over there. I trust all your judgements enough to try them again. Let's just say that even the best have bad days. Maybe Monday night just isn't a good time.
                    The tray of Carnitas on the counter looked like it would have been incredible, several hours earlier.
                    It actually kinda fit the theme of the trip. Got whipped on the way out of town at Prairie Meadows, got crappy news from the doctor (nothing life threatening), got whipped again at Riverside Casino, And because I'm a glutten for punishment, stopped on the way back into town for another Prairie Meadows ass whoppin.
                    I did salvage some of the day by jumping off I 80 at 2nd ave to Hit Smokey D's again for more burnt ends. This is my 4th time, and I'm liking them more each time. Had the sandwich the first time, now I just order a pound, take em home and keep any other living thing away for awhile.

                    1. re: Bobfrmia

                      Replied to another post about La Reyna, agree with you completely. What's with this situation??? My husband and I are from San Diego, LOVE good Mexican food, and thought this place was AWFUL after having gone with very high expectations. We have eaten at Los Cabos on a strong recommendation from a Mexican friend, but liked it mostly for the cheap Margaritas, maybe?

                      1. re: Bobfrmia

                        I absolutely LOVED La Reyna when it was just a couple weeks old. But I went back in July, and either they were having an off day or the food quality has gone down since it's been busier. Yes, it's cheap, but the chicken I had was on the stringy/dry side, and it seems like the atmosphere had gone down. The worst part was, there was none of the world-famous (and delicious!) pico de gallo on the table! Instead I got the watery salsa. Grrr. Just having the pico de gallo would have made my trip. I hope it's because they didn't find any perfect avocados that morning.

                      2. re: Devotay

                        Best Deep dish in town (in the midwest as far as I'm concerned)is only half in town, and half in Coralville; The Wig and Pen.