The difference between a good restaurant and a great restaurant largely comes down to staffing and knowledge. A good restaurant purchases ingredients and has cooks that follow a recipe to produce a plate of food. A great restaurant hires chefs who understand what those ingredients are, and how they work with other ingredients to create a balanced and delicious dish.
Similarly, anyone behind a bar following a recipe can put out a decent margarita, but a quality bar program is staffed with knowledgeable barkeeps that understand the products they are using, and know the building blocks and techniques used to create great cocktails. Here are six great bar programs in the CRANDIC and the folks responsible for them.
1507 C St SW, Cedar Rapids
If there’s one person responsible for quality cocktails in Eastern Iowa, David Basinger would be that person. Prior to being a part of the opening team at Rodina — and being named Hospitality Employee of the Year by the Iowa Restaurant Association — Basinger was behind the stick at spots like The Sanctuary and Clinton Street Social Club. He’s spread his wings at Rodina, putting out ever-changing drink menus that are rooted in the classics, and at turns playful (Sour Patch Kid-infused gin) and thoughtful (white port definitely belongs in a Gin & Tonic). It’s a deep menu, and full of surprises — you’d better make a return trip to take it all in.
Cobble Hill Restaurant
219 2nd St SE, Cedar Rapids
Cobble Hill shines in its research. Classic cocktails are listed by date of creation, and there is a long list of housemade liqueurs: amaro, limoncello, coffee, “Iowa-ish” cream — even a version of Amer Picon, the French liqueur that is featured in a handful of cocktails, but is unavailable in these United States. Approaching its 10-year anniversary, the restaurant is old enough to have a list of classics from menus past, including the popular French Oak Old Fashioned, but still puts out a seasonal list of new creations. Lauren Velez is the bar lead — try her Pretty Little Thing, with strawberry-infused rum, pink peppercorn, tarragon and lemon.
1202 3rd St SE #102, Cedar Rapids
The best thing about the drinks list at Caucho: co-bar leads Nate Harriss and Ella Kasper’s embrace of a full range of Latin American spirits — including tequila, rum, mezcal, liqueurs and even an agave-based gin — rather than just a tired menu of flavored margaritas. The second-best thing about the drinks list at Caucho: sipping a margarita on tap while deciding what cocktail to have.
LP Street Food
302 3rd Ave SW, Cedar Rapids
If you walk into LP Street Food on a night that bar champ Jaime Jackson is working, you’re likely to find her checking on whatever housemade ingredient is simmering away on the bar top in between mixing drinks. The cocktails here have a tiki vibe to them, so all of those syrups come in handy. The menu changes a couple of times a year, but if you can’t decide, let the bartender pick for you: a recent request for something “brown and stirred” yielded a delicious, balanced cocktail with two kinds of whiskey and two amaros. Quality.
1120 7th Ave, Marion
Caleb Scales, the head bartender at this Marion upstart, certainly knows what he’s doing. The alumnus of LP Street Food won a People’s Choice award at the 2021 NewBo City Market Cocktail Classic before the bar was even open for business. He’s kept up his winning streak — Doesn’t Have the Range on the current menu is a perfectly balanced blend featuring sherry and Grand Marnier.
Wilson’s Ciderhouse & Venue
4823 Dingleberry Rd NE #1, Iowa City
It’s a small but mighty menu at Wilson’s Ciderhouse, formerly known as Rapid Creek Cidery. Some, like beverage director Becca Breazeale’s dinner winner A Peppered Pear of Apples, feature their own Wilson’s Cider. Some, like the Breakfast Marg on the brunch menu, do not. Either way, they’re delicious; have one of each, see for yourself.
This article was originally published in the 2022 issue of Bread & Butter magazine.