Like its seasonal student population, Iowa City is constantly in a state of change. Brand-new downtown diner Harry’s Bar & Grill (116 E Washington St) is offering a chance to step back in time to Iowa City in the ’60s and ’70s, when a beloved and campy landmark bookstore called Epstein’s Books still existed.
The new diner is named after Harry Epstein, an avid Kurt Vonnegut fan and local musician who co-owned Epstein’s Books with his brother Glen for around a decade. The store was “a popular hangout for bibliophiles, beatniks, hippies, and counterculturists of all stripes,” according to Harry’s obituary in the Press-Citizen. “Former Iowa Writers’ Workshop director John Leggett called the store ‘the social center of the Left Bank atmosphere here.’”
Hart Epstein, Harry’s son and a longtime Iowa City restaurateur, tried to capture some of the Epstein’s vibe at Harry’s Bar & Grill, which soft-opened last month. Just the right amount of eccentricities and adornments give the place a bold identity — especially the vintage photos and iconic “EPSTEINS BOOKS” sign on the walls.
The menu at Harry’s includes burgers, appetizers, sandwiches, salads, desserts, cocktails and a decent amount of options for vegetarians (any burger can be Impossible’d). Hart drew inspiration from East Coast sandwiches, Southwest flavors and fellow Iowa City institution Bluebird Diner, which Hart opened and co-owned with Thomas Connolly from 2008 to 2020.
Hart proudly describes Harry’s menu as “elevated but familiar” — a “middle ground” between fancy and fast food.
“Eating out is a luxury, of course, but everyone needs to treat themselves once in a while, and folks who can’t afford a $50 steak still deserve food and drink made from scratch with care and love,” he explained. “I want people to come away feeling good, feel like it’s ‘their place.’”
Diners are encouraged to “smack it,” which adds peppers, onion, garlic, bacon and cheese to any menu item. My heart was warmed to find a burger named after John Hopkins, a departed icon of Iowa City’s music scene and friend of mine, as well as a sandwich dedicated to Motorhead’s Phil Taylor. If I ever lose consciousness, revive me by whispering scintillating menu verbiage such as “gooey, smothered, caramelized, smokey, country-style … sauce,” and I’ll awaken, flapping my wallet at you.
I started with the cheese curds, which came with an impressive dill pickle aioli, before diving into the Philly Cheese Steak Sandwich. My partner ordered the Breaded Mushroom Po’ Boy with wild mushrooms and that amazing dill aioli. To our delight, the sandwiches came on homemade rolls, their contents pouring over. I topped off my meal with a slice of apple pie, though according to our server, the German chocolate cake is the specialty.
The vibe at Harry’s was comfortably raucous for a middle-aged proto-codger like myself. I felt quite at home hearing Manowar and Nirvana on the Sunday afternoon playlist.
After Epstein’s Books closed in 1977 — its Clinton Street building was demolished to make way for the Old Capitol Mall — Harry Epstein became a craftsman, selling decorative mirrors to customers in Iowa City and beyond. (Remember those tiger hawk mirrors? Harry made and sold scores of them.) He died in 2020 at the age of 81.
I asked Hart what his dad would order at Harry’s if he was here today.
“He’d eat whatever we put in front of him!” Hart said, adding that Harry might have gone for the Cheesesteak Hash (with extra green chile; he spent decades living in Socorro, New Mexico), the Huevos Epsteinos, or some fried chicken with lots of hot sauce.
Subscribe to LV Daily for community news, events, photos and more in your inbox every weekday afternoon.
“Honestly, I believe he would love all of it. Wish he could be here to see the place.”
Harry’s Bar & Grill will celebrate its grand opening throughout October, with plans to expand its hours, start delivery through Chomp and add to its dinner menu, including seafood and non-meat options.
This article was originally published in Little Village’s October 2023 issue.