Lincoln Cafe -- Mt. Vernon, Iowa
Finally made it out to this spot, which is its own sort of "famous" in northeastern Iowa -- knowing what I know now, I'd go to the effort of the drive out of either Cedar Rapids or Iowa City, just to return!
The Lincoln Cafe is (I believe) owned or run by the partner of someone who teaches at Mt. Vernon's private college -- I believe he is a CIA grad, so there is some pedigree here. And the reputation gets around! It's a tiny spot that was completely full on a weekday evening as I had been warned they would be -- so call ahead. They'll put your name on the wait list, which wasn't long in our case.
The menu is tiny as well -- oral presentation plus the chalkboard treatment -- three entrees or so, a soup, a salad, maybe two desserts, etc. So don't go with a specific dish in mind! They rotate almost constantly, from what I understand. Most of their ingredients are local, organic, seasonal, or all three.
It's strictly bring-your-own-wine for a $4 corkage free that covers some nice stemware.
Forgive me for not citing the specific dishes we ordered (it was nearly a month ago), but as I said, the menu rotates which likely makes that irrelevant. Suffice it to say the food was amazing, in particular the soup & the seafood. The presentation was top-notch. The service was professional & friendly & efficient -- although a few of them loosened up by the time we departed as the last patrons -- in the sense that, this is a place which knows it has a good reputation & knows it deserves it. Prices were mid-range upscale, perhaps a few dollars less due to the small-town location... our bill was $70 or so with two entrees, our own wine, an appetizer, coffee & a shared dessert, etc.
Lincoln also serves limited lunch hours, I understand, although we were unable to try that first-hand.
All in all, an excellent (& filling) dining experience -- particularly if you're in Cedar Rapids, where I have always found a lack of good restaurant choices.
I ate there last Saturday. I had been looking forward to it for a month (it was my graduation and my grandfather's birthday) and the Lincoln Café had been warmly recommended by several friends. So I suppose I had my hopes up.
Since when I called for a reservation four weeks ahead of time, the restaurant had already taken one for the evening (that's right, they take a maximum of one  reservations per evening), I did what the hostess suggested and telephoned as soon as it opened its doors for the evening on the day we hoped to dine, so we could get on the list. It seemed to work like a charm and the man who answered the phone offered us a table for 7:30 p.m.
After making the half-hour drive, the hostess then told us rather unapologetically that the wait would be longer than expected — to the tune of one to one-and-a-half hours. No reason was offered for the rather large disparity between the time they had told us to arrive and the actual time it seemed we had a chance of being seated.
Fifteen minutes into our seven-member party's wait, we saw a table of six or so make its way out the door. Our hopes soared — perhaps the restaurant had expected the six to eat dessert, and our waiting time would be shortened appropriately now that they were departing. No such luck. As soon as they had stood up, the waitresses separated the two tables, and seated two smaller parties instead of us. So much for calling ahead and being told you're first on the list.
During the wait, the generally impolite staff continued to ignore us (or, occasionally, argue with us about what time I'd really called, and what they had really said on the phone to me), and made no arrangements to appease this extraordinary situation (or even admit any fault). I have never felt so rudely treated by a restaurant in my life — it's as if they assume because it's Iowa, and because they're the only decent restaurant in Mt. Vernon, they realize they have a captive audience and can take whatever attitude they choose. If it hadn't been graduation weekend, when every restaurant in Iowa City is booked, we would have driven home. But we knew after the drive there, we'd only face an hour-long wait at a restaurant where we had no reservation. Being polite types who don't like to cancel reservations on the day, we hadn't made a back-up. Two tables finally opened up after over an hour, and, finally, we were seated.
Our waitress was the only one who hadn't been snarky to us during the wait (at one point, when a waitress gave us yet another revised seating time estimate, and my mother pointed out that she didn't know whether to believe the estimate given that every potential seating time offered had later been revised drastically further into the forever-imminent future, the waitress turned on her heel and sneered, "Yes, I'm always wrong, and I'm obviously not a very nice person, either!" and stormed off to slam some glassware around). To our eventual server's credit, the service improved dramatically once we sat down. But the remonstrations offered — two appetizers on the house — each seemed a little off. The hummus tasted like it was made with an onion-soup base, and the guacamole lacked for lime.
Between the seven of us, we tried all three main courses on offer that evening. The pork main (peppery pork chop with morels and risotto) was excellent, succulent and tender. The cajun stuffed quail was decent — as the other poster said, apparently referring to a similar dish, the quail was wonderful, but the stuffing seemed dried out. The fish main course (the most expensive on the menu) was so unremarkable I can't even recall if it was haddock or sole. The fish was also the smallest main by far, noticeably more diminutive than both the other entrée choices. The salads were the most interesting menu items, with a smoked trout salad that was simply divine. The chefs can be seen from the dining area, and they did look like they were working hard. Generally, they succeeded, and nothing we ate was a flat-out failure, but it certainly wasn't the restaurant I'd been expecting, based on my friends' stories of the best food in Iowa.
On the whole, I wouldn't consider it worth the wait. The Motley Cow in Iowa City has a similar local/organic menu, and is far, far less hit-or-miss (and has just slightly better prices, with at least one fully vegetarian main, which Lincoln Café did not on the night we went). And, despite having a seating area maybe half the size of Lincoln Café's, the Cow takes actual reservations (rather than just putting people on a list that seems largely imaginary, if not a function of the hostess's mood) and tends to stick as close to them as possible.
Because ours was a party of over 6, we were charged an 18% gratuity automatically. I realize this is standard practice, but given the extraordinarily poor service during the first hour-and-a-bit of our time at the restaurant, I might have expected to be given the option of tipping to reflect what was dealt out to us. They're obviously not very nice people, indeed!
Wow! Sounds like you were treated rather shabbily at what has been in my experience a wonderful place to dine. I think your treatment at LC was caused by a smallish restaurant with a great reputation dealing with a major event (graduation) which usually= disaster.
I would strongly recommend going back with an open mind at a time when they might be less busy. My wife and I went there for our last anniversary and had a fantastic time. We went on a weekday because we knew the weekends are crazy. We called to put our name on the list when we got in the car and started driving. Our table was ready by the time we got there. Service was superb. The food was excellent and my wife practically had to roll me out of there.
Sorry to hear that you had such a bummer of a time on a special night, but do try LC again. Good eateries are few and far between in Iowa.
If anyone had actually apologised, or acknowledged a mistake had been made somewhere along the line with our booking — I'd write it off, and probably head back on a weeknight some day. Sometimes these things do happen.
But being told that I couldn't possibly have called at 5 p.m. when they began taking names for the list, and that I couldn't possibly have been told there would be a table ready at 7:30 p.m., when I knew damn well when I'd called, whom I'd spoken to, and exactly what he'd said, was just infuriating. The restaurant screwed up — it happens. But when it happens, you apologise to the customer and do everything you can to make it right. It was the endless reams of pure attitude we got that made it a crummy night, more than anything else.
As I said, I thought the food was on the whole pretty good — and the chefs were certainly working hard. But putting up with short-tempered, unhelpful people just sucks all the fun out of a good meal. Even a great one. There are plenty of restaurants in Iowa City. I'm glad you enjoy eating at the Lincoln Cafe and have had good experiences there — but they've lost me as a customer. Maybe it's fine for small groups, but I would strongly discourage anyone with a party larger than two or three from heading there — the restaurant's just not equipped to handle it, and the cold staff will just end up making you regret that you ever thought of offering them your money.
We have eaten there on numerous occaisions, to the point that the staff knew our voices with call ahead. Even with this frequency and familiarity, we were required to wait for upwards of one to one and a half hours for seating on weekends with call ahead. The times are never written in stone and are only estimates.
The staff has always been helpfull and kind even when extremely busy. I believe that the policy on seating is on the restaurants recording. It sounds as though your opinions may be biased and based on your mistaken belief that you would be promply seated at 7:30. Thats simply not the way it works. Not for you or anyone else. Hope the clarification helps.
My g/f and I ate here tonight, and it was quite good, though not perfect.
We nearly chose not to eat there -- when we got there (7:30pm, Friday night), a wait for a table was an hour and a half. But there were seats at the counter, so we opted for that.
We had neglected to bring wine, so we considered heading to the corner wine bar, Devine Wines, but that place was too frou-frou for us. I really object to wine as an elistist pastime.
I ordered the ribeye, she ordered the quail stuffed with pulled pork. The beef was excellent - well seasoned, accented with goat cheese, potatoes, greenbeans. The quail was good-not-great. The quail itself was cooked perfectly. The pulled pork was a little too dry. The succotash it was all in was quite yummy.
After the excellent dinner, the dessert proved disappointing. I got the chocolate cake -- she the gelatin. It became clear to us why restaurants have dedicated pastry chefs--clearly dessert is something you must give your all to.
Would I eat there again? Yes. Would I go in hungry - no. Would I wait until 7:30 on a Friday, no. Would I order dessert -- maybe not.
Please, peterme -- try the dessert again. I had a caramel citrus flan with grey salt a couple weeks ago that was one of the best things I've ever had in my mouth. Crystal, the pastry chef, is nearly always "on"; maybe she went on vacation when you were there. It's great to go for Sunday brunch and get a smoked salmon and asparagus scramble and then try some desserts.