One of the things I find handy about living in eastern Iowa is my relatively close proximity to the Illinois border and that state’s, uh, produce markets. Every month or two I gaze into an empty jar, curse my home state’s regressive vegetable supply policies, gas up the car and drive east for exactly one hour (the World’s Largest Truck Stop serves as a kind of midway marker). One quick hop over the Mississippi River later, I’m stocked on greens for weeks.
It didn’t take more than a few times running this errand before I started to fall for the Quad Cities. Now my supply runs also serve as periodic day trips to visit a new QC destination.
Last month, I stuck around Davenport for lunch at Front Street Pub & Eatery, the oldest brewpub and second-oldest brewery in Iowa (Millstream Brewery in Amana is oldest), and the 300th craft brewery in the U.S., according to the business.
Front Street debuted inside a century-old building in Davenport’s historic Bucktown neighborhood in 1992, a seven-barrel brewery tucked in the basement below the pub and restaurant. Within months, owners Steve and Jennie Zuidema were organizing volunteers to pile sandbags as the Mississippi River encroached during the flood of 1993. The building was devastated by floodwaters in spite of those efforts, but the Zuidemas were able to rally community support for renovations.
“As a thank you to all those who helped in the flood-fighting efforts, Steve brewed a special beer and gave it out free to all those who helped,” Tim Baldwin, the current owner, told the Des Moines Register. “That beer was Raging River, one of our most popular core beers.”
It was also the first thing I ordered after sitting down in a booth with a friend at Front Street. When I say this IPA is basic, I mean it in the best way. Sure, I’m the kind of brewfly who tends to order whatever experimental, quadruple-hopped pale ale the house brewer Frankensteined into a barrel that month (some of which do look, as Succession’s Roman Roy puts it, like runoff at the car wash) — and yet nothing pairs better with dinner than a clear, bronze-colored IPA with a reasonable ABV (7%) in which the malt and hops are in perfect sync.
After 20 years of success, the Zuidemas expanded their brew operations at 208 E River Dr to an historic former freight station down the road, 421 W River Dr, around the turn of the millennium. They sold the operation to Baldwin and his partners in 2006. Between and around the two locations are some of Davenport’s biggest attractions: The Figge Art Museum, Analog Arcade Bar, the Raccoon Motel, the River Center, Adler Theatre and Centennial Park, which includes the Quad City River Bandits’ ballpark, a skatepark and a dog park.
The Freight House location was closed the Monday I made my trip, but the original location is the one with a food menu, anyway. And I was hungry for a burger.
Good, fresh Midwest beef just hits different, doesn’t it? My medium burger actually came medium, pink and juicy in the center. The Smoked Gouda Steak Burger is topped with enough gouda cheese (sourced locally from Cinnamon Ridge Farms in Donahue, Iowa), sautéed onions, bacon and mayo to justify its sizable ciabatta bun. I took half of it home and scarfed it down later for dinner; none of the golden, crispy tater tots that came on the side made it into my to-go box, though.
My friend dove into the Spicy Hawaiian Burger (also $15), a patty of fried pepper jack cheese oozing from under the pretzel bun. The popular menu item is topped with bacon jam, mango puree, pickled jalapeños and mixed greens.
I don’t anticipate Iowa’s majority party evolving anytime soon, but as long as I’m compelled to haul my greenbacks east to the Land of Lincoln every couple months, I might as well get better acquainted with the eastern-est of Iowa’s communities — and Front Street is a great place to start. The Mississippi may be getting murkier, but the 14 taps at Iowa’s oldest brewpub run clear and crisp.
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 318.