They’ve outlasted recessions, floods and indoor smoking bans. Every other customer through the doors is a regular. Longtime employees dispense beer, life advice and local legends in equal measure. Some are nestled into neighborhoods, aging alongside generations of residents who find it hard to imagine their hometown without “the bar.” Every nicked table, specific smell and tchotchke nailed to the wall speaks to the good old days. Rediscover some of the CRANDIC’s most historic pubs, taverns, lounges and bars.
Hilltop Tavern Ltd.
1100 N Dodge St, Iowa City
The end of Prohibition in 1933 was celebrated across the country. Here in Iowa City, in the historic Northside neighborhood, part of that celebration was the opening of the Hilltop Tavern. Many decades would go by until September of 1981, when Linda Kuncl took over, and she’s been the main barkeep since. Many Iowa City locals and visitors know how great the food is at the Hilltop, but the beloved spot didn’t start out with a full menu.
“There were three regulars, called the Three Musketeers, that ate frozen pizza for lunch everyday because that was all we had,” Kunci recalled. “We used John Nidey’s recipe for barbecue pork sandwiches. Next we added what we called Maid-Rites, and I then got a nice letter saying we couldn’t call them that anymore, so the Buckshot Burger started in 1981. My customers named it. Kenny Parrot came up with the Buckshot Burger!”
Kuncl has now owned Hilltop for over 40 years, and she calls herself a saloon girl at heart. “I love my job 90 percent of the time. The regular customers, a.k.a. our bread and butter, has been what’s supporting us all these years. The most rewarding part is our interactions with all the customers and the hundreds of stories they’ve told — some of which I’ll take to the grave.”
The Shack Tavern
2545 Old River Rd SW, Cedar Rapids
A local bar is like a watering hole. And when that bar is located right off a river, it can also be a handy place to dry off.
Cedar Rapids and the banks of the Cedar River wouldn’t be the same without the Shack Tavern. Bikers and cyclists alike have made this a regular pitstop and a long list of decades-old customers continue to frequent The Shack for a unique Cedar Rapids experience. Their classic stick-to-your-ribs cooking, river views and summers busy with outdoor get-togethers at their grain bin bar are just a few of the things to love about The Shack. But this old-school tavern also helps local charities by hosting an old-school meat raffle on occasion. Show up to The Shack, buy a ticket, stay for the drawing and you may come home with a bundle of quality meat! And how’s this sound for the winter months: beers and bald eagles? There’s a little something at The Shack for all you bird watchers who like to party, too.
Baxa’s Sutliff Store & Tavern
5546 130th St NE, Lisbon
Baxa’s Sutliff Store & Tavern is dripping with money. Seriously! Upon entering, your eyes are immediately drawn to the thousands of dollar bills that are attached to the ceiling. Layered over one another, every single George Washington tells the story of a past visit. Tyler Light is the current owner and has family ties to Baxa’s and its past owners all the way back to the 1930s.
“It’s a rite of passage, Baxa’s. I hung out here as a kid just like many other regulars and customers,” he said. “It’s a family-first setting here. It’s the one place where it’s OK to have your kids wander around. If you don’t like it then you’re the one that has to get out.”
Baxa’s is known for a family reunion-esque atmosphere. Regular customers inquire about the family of the employees, and the staff reciprocates. Customers also play catch-up with each other, boasting about accomplishments and commiserating over losses over some suds.
“Stop and people-watch for awhile when you’re here,” Light recommends. “It doesn’t matter if you’re in a suit and tie or have hog shit on your boots, you’ll see ’em here. And they’re all welcomed. It’s a safe-zone for beer lovers!”
The view of the Cedar River is spectacular from the bridge. You’re welcome to take your food and drink out on the wooden planks while you gawk. Baxa’s is known for their burgers, breaded pork tenderloins and fried bologna sandwiches, all wonderful. The beer is cold and the ambiance is legendary, including the cash décor — a visual reminder of the many locals and travelers who adore this institution.
312 E Market St, Iowa City
A lot has changed around the Linn Street and Market Street area in Iowa City over the years. Tuck’s became Hanrahan’s, then IC Ugly’s and now Wild Culture Kombucha. Hamburg Inn remains, but the Chill & Grill, Pearson’s Drug Store, Linn Street Cafe, Paul Revere’s Pizza, Frame House & Gallery and Gilpin Paint have all been lost to the ages. Some of the properties turned into different businesses while some have been replaced by modern condos and retail shops.
George’s Buffet has watched this corner of the Iowa City galaxy change with a classic cheeseburger in one hand and a beer-back in the other. Its early 20th century feel has never faded, and its hold on the Northside — where it meets downtown Iowa City — hasn’t either. Currently flanked by a five-story mixed-use development on one side and precious Iowa City public parking on the other, George’s still brings in the crowds that pour into the booths and belly up to the bar everyday. The aroma of Americana is all around you, coming off a double bourbon neat, the hoppiness of a cold draught beer and the meaty haze lingering from the small hamburger cooker in the back. George’s is the ultimate trip into Iowa City’s history and hits the nostalgic sensory angle hard.
Green Gable Inn
1227 J Ave NE, Cedar Rapids
According to owner Steve Bray, Green Gable Inn has been continuously operating as a tavern, legally or illegally, since 1912. The bar takes its name from the days when a trolley turnaround was located right outside the front doors, and rooms were available for rent for weary travelers. The bar continued to operate as a speakeasy during Prohibition. The windows were covered to block light from the bar, and patrons would embark on a journey before imbibing — entering through apartment 1229 upstairs, traveling down a flight of stairs into the basement of the main house, and then up a flight of stairs to the bar located in the extension off the farm house.
The constancy of service — regardless of what’s happening outside the walls of the bar — is something of a feather in the Gable’s cap. In April 1996, there was a significant fire in the bar after the boiler exploded, but the inn closed just long enough for firefighters to extinguish the flames. The bar reopened shortly after, noting that customers wouldn’t mind the smokiness since people smoked so much in bars anyway.
On a recent visit to Green Gable, longtime bartender Brian Marconi also spoke to the longevity of the tavern. “The most rewarding part and the piece that keeps the place running are the people, the longtime regular customers. There are some families where I’ve served three generations. I served his dad” — he gestures to a young man across the bar — “and now I’m serving him, and his little nephew comes in here for soda.”
Keeping the interior relatively the same generation after generation is something Bray takes great pride in. “It didn’t look like anything was redesigned since the ’70s and when we took over, we modernized it and brought it up to code, but it’s not obvious,” he said. “For the people who have always come here, it still looks like the same place they’ve always come.”
This article was originally published in the 2022 Bread & Butter dining guide.