Experience: The Iowa City area’s quintessential ‘neighborhood pubs’ and dive bars

Belly up to the bar at these comfortable-but-basic neighborhood pubs and follow the lead of the locals and regulars.

The New Shack Tavern

2545 Old River Rd. S.W., Cedar Rapids

You might bump into your uncle at The New Shack Tavern. You know, the uncle who taught you how to bait a hook? He bought you beer that one time in high school? Back in the day, the Shack was both a bar and a bait shop, and you could order nightcrawlers and a drink in the same breath. Even though the days of the apocryphal minnow shot are long gone, the Shack’s woodsy surroundings, river view, and rustic hospitality are the same as ever. Order the Broasted Tenderloin—it’s truly delicious. Get one for your uncle, too. Don’t you still owe him one?

Baxa’s Sutliff Store and Tavern, Lisbon

J.M. O’Malley’s

1502 H Ave. N.E., Cedar Rapids

Approaching, it looks like a dive bar. Small ramshackle building. Cracked parking lot. You step inside—it’s close, crowded, low-ceilinged and dark in the daytime. Squeezing past the shadowy regulars, you order a drink, and hunch into the nearest open seat. Your eyes adjust, you look around, and the shadows fade. You’re surrounded by friendly, smiling people from the neighborhood, all walks of life, catching up and enjoying each other’s company. It’s almost time for Sunday’s card drawing. Don’t worry—they’ll explain the rules. Is it a dive bar? Yeah—that’s the beauty of it. You’ll be back Thursday for the music.

Baxa’s Sutliff Store and Tavern

5546 130th St N.E., Lisbon

Some Iowa City folks like to ride their bikes out to Baxa’s, coming in over the historic old wagon truss bridge that crosses the Cedar River and landing at the tavern, a building whose edifice looks like it was lifted from the set of “Little House on the Prairie.” Don’t let them and their fit spandex bodies deter you from the deep-fried glories that lie inside the old building. Sign a dollar bill, stick it to the ceiling with all the others and order a cheap beer, Fried Cauliflower with horseradish sauce, a basket of Clam Strips, a Pork Tenderloin and a side of Gizzards, even. Take it all out to one of the picnic tables on the bridge, watch the river flow by beneath you, and laugh at all those people who have to bike back to Iowa City.

Hilltop Tavern

1100 N. Dodge St., Iowa City

There aren’t many places to eat late in Iowa City, and it’s a blessing that one of the few options is as tasty as it is. The Hilltop Tavern, established just after Prohibition in 1933, is home to a local pool league, hosts regular euchre tournaments, has pool tables, darts and videogames, and serves a damn fine Reuben, in addition to other pub fare and a rotating menu of specials that would make your grandma proud. The kitchen stays open until 1 a.m., and the crowd of locals are the perfect companions for a low-key night of drinks, games and snacks.

Shakespeare’s Pub and Grill

819 1st Ave., Iowa City

My dad always goes to Shakespeare’s when he visits me, because he likes to watch college football and no one else does. They always play the Iowa game at Shakespeare’s, and the crowd is usually delightfully free of undergraduates. After the game, I meet him there and we split a basket of unbelievably succulent Jalapeño Garlic Wings and share a Reuben or a Patty Melt with a side of tater tots. Even though the bartender doesn’t see us often, he seems to remember us, and he talks to all the regulars like they’ve known each other for years. Dad likes it there because the food is really good and his beer comes in a glass that’s so cold, the beer turns into slush around the edges. I like it there because everyone seems grateful to be there, relaxing after a long day, finally at home.

Baxa’s Sutliff Store and Tavern, Lisbon
Baxa’s Sutliff Store and Tavern, Lisbon

American Legion #17

3016 Muscatine Ave., Iowa City

Susan, who’s a nurse but cuts hair on the side, says the burger at the Legion is the best one in town. Aimee, who runs the kitchen, says the burger’s good, but she prefers the specials, like Tuna Noodle Casserole or Chicken Enchiladas; her Italian grandmother and Mexican aunt taught her how to cook, and she said she can taste their love in the daily specials she serves. George doesn’t eat when he’s at the Legion, because his wife expects him home for supper, but he loves to hang out and chat with the young bartender, and he always tips a dollar per beer, making sure to say, “Here’s a buck for you, Doll.” On Fridays, the Legion’s crawling with graduate students who love the karaoke; every other day and night, you’ll find George and Susan posted up at the bar. Post up with them. Talk about the weather. And try the Chicken Enchiladas.

J & A Tap

400 N. Dubuque St., North Liberty

With Tuesday night trivia, Thursday night $4 fishbowls, local music, karaoke, and a full menu of breakfast, burgers, and bar classics, North Liberty’s J & A Tap attracts locals year-round, all day and all night. In warmer months, J & A is best known for its three sand volleyball courts, the perfect place to spend a sunny day enjoying a beer, a burger and some sandy, sporty fun.

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