Atlas Restaurant to rebrand as Saint Burch Tavern next month

Atlas restaurant in April 2017. — photo by Frankie Schneckloth

Update: An earlier version of this story stated Saint Burch Tavern will be dropping Atlas’ Buffalo-Chicken Burrito. Little Village has been informed that the burrito will remain on the new menu.

Longtime downtown fixture Atlas will be getting a new menu, a new concept and a new name, as it becomes the Saint Burch Tavern this spring.

After purchasing the landmark Iowa City restaurant last year, Craft Concepts Group has unveiled plans for their new venture which will roll out in mid-March.

“It’s been a big challenge rebranding a restaurant that’s been around for 17 years,” said Executive Chef Ben Smart. “In the restaurant business, to last 5 years is almost unheard of, and to last 15 years is a testament completely to what Jack Piper and James Adrian created.”

“We hope to be here in another 15 years and to be able to do that, when we finally made the decision to rebrand, we kind of had to go all in. It couldn’t look the same. We can’t just change the name, change a few menu items. It didn’t feel right to us,”

Many current Atlas menu items will disappear from the menu, replaced by more classic items served in iconic Midwest taverns and supper clubs, such as prime rib, porterhouse steaks and seafood towers.

“We all kind of had this romantic idea of a tavern. And we all grew up eating in them,” Smart explained.

“I grew up half a mile from a tavern as a kid. There’s a part of each of us that just loves being where we’re from. We’re all local Iowa people and we like to remember those things that remind us of home,” added owner-operator Cory Kent.

The name of the new tavern reaches far back into Iowa City history. It’s named for Burch, a black bear from Idaho, who served as the mascot for the University of Iowa’s football team from 1908 to 1910.

Alongside the steaks and tavern food, patrons of Saint Burch will be able to indulge in a raw oyster bar, sampling fresh oysters from the coasts. Wanting the raw bar concept to resonate with customers, the restaurant plans to offer an oyster happy hour right off the bat. Seen as the high point of the new menu, the oysters are poised as the counterpoint to some of the more typically Midwestern food on the menu, like cheese curds from Dan & Debbie’s Creamery in Ely, or decadent poutine.

Asked about the menu, Smart said, “A part of me really likes to take it way too far and get really fancy with refinement and plating and get artistic, but that’s not what I’m going to do here. I think the food will naturally lend itself to being beautiful and composed and put together, but I don’t want it to be over the top. I want really good food to speak for itself.”

Burch the bear in 1908.

The food offerings at Saint Burch will provide a mix of stick-to-your-ribs food paired with fresh seafood for something lighter and fresher, alongside classic dishes that have an old-school feel. With plans for Fish Fridays and Prime Rib Saturdays, the group hopes to combine the refined and the rustic, and become a place for everyone.

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This idea of a space for all is further emphasized in the plans for the basement space of the restaurant. Once a favorite spot of nearly every twenty-something in town, the downstairs lounge had recently been primarily reserved for private events and large groups. Hoping to capture some of that bygone energy, the group plans to transform the space into a cocktail lounge called The Den.

“A lot of people in our age range remember this basement and the fun times we used to have down here and we’ve heard it a million times, ‘Oh, are you going to bring back the lounge? Are you bringing back the lounge?’” Kent said. “There will be some red neon signs, some taxidermy. Just kind of fun and playful. It’s going to be pretty edgy, with a Grandpa’s basement-vibe: leather booths, cool old furniture.”

Smart described the restaurant as a dual concept.

“It’s going to be a really stark contrast from upstairs to downstairs. We really want to play off that,” he said. “The upstairs, Saint Burch, will be much lighter, comfortable, and really beautiful. Down in The Den, it’s going to have that grit and it’s going to feel very much like an entirely different space.”

Saint Burch and The Den will each offer something unique, but a uniting factor between the two will be the beverage program. Overseen by Beverage Director Joy Buehler, the upstairs and downstairs will both offer a well-developed cocktail program — a hallmark of restaurants from this group.

Coming from a group known for their locally crafted brews (partners Doug Goettsch, Cory Kent, Nate Kaeding, Ben Smart and Matt Swift have a hand in Big Grove Brewery in Solon and Big Grove Taproom in Iowa City), both the restaurant and lounge plan to champion local beer, highlighting not only some of their own brews, but also the best of other area breweries. While the food at Saint Burch lends itself more to wine, the group aims for a good balanced program.

Remodeling at Atlas will begin next month. The group hopes to open Saint Burch Tavern and The Den in the middle of March.

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