Named as the third UNESCO ‘City of Literature’ in 2008, Iowa City has a lively arts and cultural scene that spills over into the many bistros, pubs and wine bars. These are the best places to eat in town.
With the University of Iowa student population based just across the road, Short’s Burger and Shine is more often than not packed to the brim with its regular patrons. This is particularly true around lunchtime. Its popularity is well-deserved, as the menu contains an unrivaled quality and variety of burgers. This includes 20 differently topped corn-fed black Angus beef burgers, 12 chicken sandwiches, and five varieties of vegetarian bean burger. The meat is sourced from a local farm and processed by a butcher in Riverside. Each of the dishes is named after a small town in Iowa State. This makes for a dining experience that is a comprehensive cultural tour of the small-town American Heartland.
As an award-winning small American diner, the Hamburg Inn No. 2 has created a legacy far greater than itself. It has welcomed presidential candidates including Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, after whom one of their booths is now named. The famed ‘greasy spoon’ has even had a part to play in fictional political events. It can be spotted in an episode of The West Wing series. The decor has changed little since the 1950s, save for the addition of historic photographs of the place on the walls. These only add to the charm of this traditional venue. Known affectionately as the ‘Burg, the diner serves simple but hearty plates. It is particularly renowned for delicious omelets. For those seeking pudding in a glass, the signature ‘Pie-Shake’ – pie mixed into a milkshake – will surely hit the spot.
Having outgrown its origins at Old Man River Brewing Company in McGregor, Iowa, Backpocket Brewing found a new home in Coralville. Coralville is an Iowa City suburb still on the banks of the evocative Iowa River. The main attraction here is, of course, the beer on tap, hand-crafted within the state and inspired by German lagers. Brewmaster Jake has a background in microbiology and a passion for experimenting. He creates new brews in the onsite laboratory to offer as part of the promotional ‘Lab Series’. For beer enthusiasts, the beer-and-cheese paired sample tray is a must-try. All visitors can enjoy the brick oven pizzas and signature pies. In the summertime, be sure to grab a table on the Riverside Landing patio and soak up the peaceful view. This perfectly complements your refreshing brew, savored over the course of a long, warm evening just outside of the city.
A restaurant that regularly wins awards is Atlas. It contains the most popular sidewalk patio in downtown Iowa City, and a stocked wine cellar underneath. While the permanent offerings such as mac and cheese and chicken burritos are much-loved, visitors really get excited about the seasonal specials. These always seem to traverse a line between traditional gourmet and experimental artisan dishes. For example there has been the kale and mushroom agnolotti with sweet corn cream sauce and the locally sourced Elk strip in Béarnaise sauce. The menu provides Caribbean, Mexican, Asian and Creole dishes alongside rustic classics. This puts Atlas World Grill a whole head above rival American-style restaurants.
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With 25 years under their belt, Linn Street Café still manages to impress customers on each and every occasion, primarily for the wide range of dishes on their fine dining menu, cooked to perfection and presented beautifully, but also for the attentive and thoughtful waiting service. The restaurant, tucked away in the historic Northside neighbourhood, may be quaint and the atmosphere intimate, but the food is of a very contemporary world cuisine, with an emphasis on Midwest ingredients, always sourced to support the local community and economy. The award-winning wine list is often promoted through ‘Wine Dinners’ run by Duckhorn Vineyard’s regional manager, during which guests can experience a variety of wines with each course of fine preparations.
Orchard Green is the premier destination for fine dining in Iowa City, with a menu masterfully designed in American-Mediterranean fusion style by executive chef and owner Bryan Herzic. The old brewery building has been beautifully renovated and decorated to accentuate the exposed woodwork. This brings a tasteful elegance to a large but humble building. The delicate dish combinations frequently change, relying on the seasonal availability of meat and seafood, which dominate the menu. Vegetarians, while catered for, will not have the choice of an overwhelming array of options. The gourmet restaurant is popular with attendees of the annual Writing Festival, particularly those from out of town who are used to upscale dining in cosmopolitan cities. The wine list is extensive and carefully chosen as an accompaniment to entrees. These entrees include Moroccan pork with sweet corn polenta, asparagus, manchego fondue and avocado.
At the top of a mysterious staircase, in an attic above Short’s Burger and Shine, The Clinton Street Social Club has captured and time-locked the feeling of an indulgent speakeasy. It comes complete with more 30 different delicious cocktail ‘libations’, ranging from the classic to the extravagant concoctions. Gastronomical treats and live jazz and blues music are all served with unadulterated enthusiasm well into the late night. You’ll find both the liquor and food offerings plentiful and the selection of whiskeys and beers never fails to impress. Meanwhile, the cheese fondue, oyster sandwich and ‘bucket of bacon’ remain firm favorites with customers who return regularly to enjoy the lively atmosphere. The emphasis here is on the social, and visitors are often pulled into a game of pool or darts, or even a spot of dancing.
Iowa River Power Brunch | Photo by Stefan Krasowski
A relatively recent arrival on the Iowa City foodie scene, Brix Cheese Shop already has a pool of regulars. It is also an active member of the local community, having been involved in a number of local taste weeks and cultural events. The venue is much more than a glorified cheese deli, offering wine classes, gallery shows in their upstairs attic and wood-fired pizza nights. This is all in addition to the signature cheese and meat boards and gourmet sandwiches. The interior itself is cozy, decked out with a brick fireplace and wine displayed in racks against the autumnally colored walls. Whether you stop by for a refreshing spritzer, a tasty cheese board, or simply to pick up one of the beautiful gift hampers, this shop is not to be missed.
Dating back to the early 1900s, the originally named Coralville Power Plant, which has housed the Iowa River Power Plant Restaurant since the 1970s, is a landmark in its own right. The cultural attractions here are numerous and very much apparent. The restaurant is steeped in history, showcasing industrial architecture and exposed pipelines. This is not to mention the superb view from tall glass windows looking out onto the river itself. The options on the menu may not surprise you with innovation but each entree arrives with a loaf of herb bread with honey butter and a side salad. This makes meals that are as satisfying as the gorgeous location. The riverside patio is a perfect setting for long lazy brunches from the incredible buffet. However, the sophisticated atmosphere on the inside is perhaps a little warmer for cool winter evenings.
This establishment is a much-loved Iowa City destination. Calling itself ‘a folk and rock club’, The Mill is as much a casual diner as a music venue. The old coffee house has been at the center of the Americana music scene in Iowa City since 1962. It closed for a brief period of time a decade ago, only to reopen after the public dismay that followed the celebrated landmark closing its doors. For the past 10 years the restaurant has provided the community with soulful music and food to match. It’s known for its unusual pizza creations and ‘the best vegetarian black bean burger in town’. Described as a ‘college-town bar’, the Mill is nonetheless anything but typical. It is visited both by downtown dwellers and light-hearted travelers who enjoy the atmosphere of this piece of Iowa City legacy.