Foodies who spent the last two years dining only al fresco — or simply a casa — are itching for a change of scenery. While these local spots offer a range of fare, what they all have in common is a comfy, casual atmosphere that will help ease you back into the dine-in experience.
405 S Gilbert St, Iowa City
319-351-5692, View Website
Pile into a corner booth on Sunday for half-price pizzas, snuggle up by the fire and catch some live local music, or bring the whole gang for an intimate evening in the Red Room. Whatever your pleasure, Sanctuary’s vibe is right. This cozy pub is just far enough from downtown Iowa City to avoid being swarmed with college kids, and their eclectic beer tap — usually populated with a good proportion of local brews — is sure to have something to hit the spot. Their cocktails are lovingly made takes on the classics, with just enough topspin to keep you guessing. Sanctuary’s menu of upgraded pub fare has nary a miss on it, and the portions are generous enough to soak up a pint or two. And great news: They removed the short-lived TVs (if you know, you know).
Brix Cheese Shop & Wine Bar
209 N Linn St, Iowa City
319-359-1999, View Website
Don’t let the time-worn trope of the snobby oenophile keep you from hitting up this delightful Northside Iowa City restaurant! The servers are always friendly and willing to make a suggestion, no matter your wine know-how or desired price point. Brix’s rotating selection of both local and imported charcuterie items is always a sensory experience, and the homey interior will make you feel like you’re at a dinner party at your chicest friend’s house. Brix is a perfectly romantic and still-approachable date spot, but some of my cheesiest memories are of sitting around the table for hours of good wine, good friends and good conversation.
And it’s not just charcut’ on offer. They’ve got some lovely soups, salads and sammies so you can spend your whole evening in one place; the Salmon Niçoise salad is to die for. Plus, they’ve got a great selection of wines available for retail purchase, so you can take a little piece of the experience back home with you when you’re done.
Vivian’s Soul Food
2925 Williams Pkwy SW, Cedar Rapids
319-396-2229, View Website
Never has a restaurant had a more fitting name. Vivian’s Soul Food serves Southern comfort classics like barbecue short ribs, baked mac and cheese, fried okra, catfish and more, all cooked with such genuine care and attention that you feel like a visitor in the chef’s own home. My recommendation is the chicken and waffles, which come with whipped butter and maple syrup and are best eaten with a little hot sauce and greedy, sticky fingers. The service is warm and casual, and the jewel-toned interior proudly bears artwork of some of the Black titans of music history. The mix of soul, R&B and jazz playing softly in the background sets an inviting mood. There’s also a bar with wine and cocktails, including a few house specialties. Vivian’s is a great place for a hearty meal with family, be they of the blood or chosen variety — and don’t skimp on the sides, each one more delicious and soul-nourishing than the last.
312 E Market St, Iowa City
319-351-9614, View Website
George’s has been voted Best Home Away from Home in Little Village’s Best of the CRANDIC contest, in addition to multiple wins as Best Dive Bar. Whenever I’ve had the pleasure of spending an evening at George’s, the time seems to pass by in hyperspeed as I sip on a Pabst and hear the town goss in the dimly lit Northside space. And when that midnight munchie feeling hits, the burgers, served by request (don’t expect to be handed a menu; it ain’t that kinda place), are a rite of passage for Iowa City townies. When you’re done, you’ll be as stuck to your booth seat as the melty cheese left over on the wax paper. I always end up running into colorful characters at George’s and leave feeling more deeply connected to my neighbors. But don’t stop in if you’ve got somewhere important to be afterward. At George’s, you’re bound to have a conversation you’ll never forget — or one you’ll struggle to remember.
Lincoln Wine Bar
125 1st St W, Mt Vernon
319-895-9463, View Website
The intimate atmosphere of this Mt Vernon treasure is well worth the drive. Cozy, close-together tables fill the richly colored dining space, sandwiched between LWB’s two claims to fame: the bar, well-stocked with wines to suit every taste, and the open kitchen, cooking up delicious wood-fired pizzas with toppings both creative and traditional. The servers are abundantly knowledgeable but never fussy, so feel free to ask for recommendations. If you want mine, the Greens pizza, featuring pistachio pesto, arugula, lemon and freshly shaved parmesan, is both refreshing and indulgent, with the richness of the housemade pesto perfectly balanced by the peppery bite of the greens. If the table conversation comes to a lull, you can always stare into the comforting flames of the old-fashioned Neapolitan pizza oven bearing the restaurant’s motto, “il cibo è importante,” meaning “food is important.” The way they craft each pie with care extols the virtue of that motto. Lincoln Wine Bar is also known for hosting live local music, which they promise will return when health and safety allows. Be warned, though: This spot is small and widely beloved, so you may want to make a reservation.