Iowa City’s most iconic bars: A look at George’s past and present

George's turns 75
For 75 years, George’s Buffet has been a Northside institution. They will host a two-day celebration June 20-21. — photo by Bill Adams

One never knows who they’re going to run into or what they’ll see when they visit a bar. I like old bars, especially ones with the right kind of atmosphere; the kind of bar that George’s is and has been for the last 75 years. What is it about a place that seems to give a sense of permanence? What is it at George’s that retains the aura of the old school bartender with red vest and tie, sideling up with ready banter and a beer or cocktail?

George’s is a 75-year cross section of experiences imbued by the owners, patrons and neighborhood. It is a Northside bar, which says something, but it’s not just for Northsiders. Patrons at George’s are more than just customers and include a cast of characters that include folks — young and old, men and women — business and tradesmen, occasional farmers, Nobel laureates, famous authors and scientists, doctors and lawyers, academicians and possibly the highest concentration of bar know-it-alls in the city. Many patrons live nearby, but always present are a smattering of bicyclists, walk-ins and out-of-towners either visiting for the first time or reliving some decades-past experience they shared with the place.

Original owner and builder of George's, George Kanak, 1945. -- image courtesy of Mike Karr
Original owner and builder of George’s, George Kanak, 1945. — image courtesy of Mike Karr

The essence of George’s arises from the booths, stools and tables humming with avid conversation often interrupted with laughter, exchanges with passersby, jokes loaded with the occasional absurdity or vulgarity, voicings of vociferous curmudgeons, constant traffic from front to back and ever-present smell of cooking cheeseburgers. It was noted by Esquire Magazine as “one of the nation’s 24 best late-night food establishments” in its September 2012 issue: The $4.50 cheeseburgers hold it all together in so many ways, and their preparation keeps them special. Starting with never-frozen chuck from Ruzicka’s Meat Processing in Solon, the meat patties are made by hand and cooked to order in the restaurant’s irreplaceable 1950s Clark electric broiler; that old-fashioned little broiler imparts a savory and unique flavor.

George's in the 1970's. -- photo courtesy of Mike Karr
George’s in the 1970’s. — photo courtesy of Mike Karr

George’s exterior is not flamboyant with its subtle art deco-styled, two-storied symmetrical tan brick façade set up with a street-level central window flanked by two doors. One door leads to the interior and the other to the upstairs apartments. Matching its 20-feet, 5-inch by 62-feet footprint, the interior volume contains the very anniversary-fitting legal capacity of 75 seats. The 9 dark wooden booths feel secure and so very convenient for conversation, laptops, personal space, intellectual reveries and a little romance. Their backs are just low enough to see over from their plank seats. Coat hooks on the pillars supporting the booth’s backs add a period touch, and the piles of coats make a snug curtain against winter’s chill.

James Wallace, former owner, in front of tiger murals that were painted on the walls of George's. -- photo courtesy of Mike Karr
James Wallace, former owner, in front of tiger murals that were painted on the walls of George’s. — photo courtesy of Mike Karr

The back bar is original and designed in the Skyscraper-Moderne style, a late version of art deco. The original two-section bar is a good place to settle in for burgers, beers and various nibbles. In the 1960s, flocked wallpaper was popular, and the wallpaper at George’s was bought from Pagliai’s Pizza after their own remodel had some left over around that same time. George’s is the only place in town that Pagliai’s will deliver to due to a 1960s agreement between the owners.

A business and a building pass through many times and lifetimes in 75 years. The first owner was entrepreneur George Kanak, who started construction in 1938 and opened in 1939 with the intent of a running a buffet. Kanak died sometime after 1945 leaving a young widow. Clarence Ruppert leased the space from Kanak’s widow and kept the name. He turned it over to Les Kole who ran the place in the 1950s, and may have been the one who had the tiger murals painted in the 1950s.

In 1962, George’s was sold to Ed Kriz who was murdered later that year, and the case is still unsolved. After closing he had headed out his back door to the Hamburg Inn, where he was confronted by a young armed robber and shot to death. With Kriz’s death, the bar was sold to James Wallace, proprietor for 35 years. Current owner Mike Karr bought the place from Wallace in 1989 and operates it with his wife, son and daughter involved, enjoying their own 25th anniversary as proprietors.

Alex Karr at George's
Alex Karr, son of George’s current owner, Mike, undergoes early on-the-job training (serving water only). — image courtesy of Mike Karr

In the 1930s, the next door breweries were closed and the air was absent of hops and malt smells. The lack of liquor due to Prohibition was made up for by bootleggers from the Curtis Bridge area that used the old Red Ball Road, because it was paved, to highball corn liquor into Iowa City. From the 1940s to the 1960s, the neighborhood ran on bonded whiskey imbibed with straight cigarettes, spittoons and neon. It was a time of porkpie hats, 1950s women’s fashion and real big autos. Through the early 1970s there was a bit of vice around George’s, which local legend suggests included high-stakes poker, numbers running, gambling and slot machines, along with female entertainers in back rooms and curtained booths fed the more prurient community interests.

Today, George’s serves a variety of brews from the tap and bottles and cans of all sorts including the occasional cold can of Hamm’s beer brought out from the cooler and set upon the bar like a blast from the past. George’s now has live entertainment with amazing local musicians several evenings a month. It’s great to see pedestrians through the front window hear the music and stop to listen, then look in, and on impulse drop in, where ambiance and cheeseburgers take over and keep them coming back.

A favorite personal romantic musing is found in a pair of mid-20th century motorized Hamm’s signs on the back bar. Their endless, idyllic, north-woods vignettes of a campsite scene with fire — scrolling in turn to a beached canoe, trout stream with rapids, waterfall, then starting over — are great visual fun. The magic is in personal memories of oldsters back in the day when these first came out telling youngsters that in a minute they’ll see a man come out of the tent and tend the fire — just wait. This bit of perpetual lamp light seems just like what George’s was, is and will be for another 75 years — an ever scrolling happy place set between times old and new.

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