Last week I spent a few days in North Central Iowa with my husband and brother (who drove up from Indianapolis to meet us).
My husband and I drove down 52 from Minneapolis, and stopped enroute at Little Oscar's
in Hampton, MN. http://www.facebook.com/pages/Little-Oscars-Restaurant/122160184487354
I had a cup of their homemade chicken noodle soup and a slice of their cherry crisp pie -- as you'd expect, with a streusel-type topping. My husband had the Great Northern bean and ham soup and a BLT. Everything was good. The place is very popular locally and has a vast diner-type menu. The owner's collection of model trains sometimes operates and circles the room on a track near the ceiling.
We continued from there to Cedar Falls, Iowa. Our destination: The Blackhawk Hotel
Billed as the oldest continuously operating hotel in Iowa, this is a great, historic, boutique-type hotel. The renovation of the place is top-notch and the staff is very nice. We got junior suites and had plenty of room -- those rooms include a refrigerator and wet bar. I recommend that you book a room on the third floor (assuming you have no problem with stairs -- there is no elevator) and in the back, as the lower floors near the lobby and bar/restaurant area can get a little noisy. There's also a 1950s style motor inn (two stories) behind the main hotel.
There is a tapas bar there, but we didn't try it. Our destination was J's Homestyle
This is a place that is fairly close to the University of Northern Iowa, but is not particularly "collegiate." As the name suggests, it's a homestyle cooking (roadfood) type place, with many older couples dining there. I had excellent broasted chicken, and the cheery waitress was happy to let me substitute mashed potatoes (homemade) for the broasted potatoes and cottage cheese for the cole slaw that came with it. The cottage cheese, incidentally, was EXCELLENT. It was so good, I asked the brand name. The waitress said it was Silverbrook. I can't imagine they are importing cottage cheese from New Hampshire, but this was the only listing I could find for it online. http://www.kimblecrafts.com/Bulk/Index/Cheese%2BCottage
My brother had a fried shrimp dinner, which was really a throwback to the 1950s. He substituted their homemade chips for fries, and loved them. My husband had the meat loaf, which he enjoyed very much.
All dinners come with a choice of a homemade wheat or white roll. Both were good; the wheat was the better of the two.
The had a list of pies on a whiteboard. I chose cherry; my brother had French silk. He really enjoyed his pie. My cherry pie was fine, although it was right out of the refrigerator and cold. The waitress had offered to heat it up. I probably should have taken her up on it.
We had a nice time looking around Cedar Falls. The area by the hotel -- Main Street -- has a lot of neat shops, including an art supply shop where they were selling a print to raise money to rebuild the 1920's Art Deco bath house that washed away in the flood in 2008. http://www.islandparkbeachhouse.org/Pages/History.aspx
There's a band shell in a park behind the hotel, and the municipal band has concerts on Tuesday nights (we were there on Wednesday and Thursday, alas). There are also several historic buildings, including an old gas station and an ice house, all worth a visit, though unfortunately they weren't open at the times we were there, so we only got to see the exterior. http://www.cfhistory.org/
On Thursday morning, we drove out to Gravy's Diner
Although it is retro in feel, I think it opened under the current ownership fairly recently. It's one of those diners with formica-topped tables and a 1950s ambience. I had a waffle, and it was tasty. My husband and brother each had egg-bacon-hash brown breakfasts, and enjoyed them.
Then we headed up to Mason City. We got there shortly after 11:00 -- just in time to take a docent-led tour of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Park Inn
hotel. The hotel was renovated and reopened last fall. We couldn't get a room there -- they were completely booked by a wedding party -- but the tour was well worth taking. We got to see all the public rooms. The guest rooms are off-limits to tours, but we lucked out because a couple in our group were staying at the hotel, and they invited the whole group to see their room -- which turned out to include one of the original 10' x 10' single rooms (now incorporated into a suite), with the original sink in the room. http://wrightonthepark.org/
After the tour, it was time for lunch, so of course we went to Suzy Q Cafe
, which is listed on this site. We were just in time, as the diner is closing in July for restoration. http://www.northiowatoday.com/?p=19243
The owner was there, and did some magic tricks in between his food preparation. He is VERY proud that Davydd rated his BPT so highly -- in fact, the teeshirts the owner and staff wear say their Spic N Span BPT's are second best in the USA.
I don't eat BPT, so I had a grilled cheese sandwich. My brother had a cheeseburger. But the pressure from the staff and patrons was overwhelming, so my husband had the Spic N Span -- he enjoyed it, but found it rich and a little too much. The pie of the day was cherry, so I had a piece, and it was excellent -- both filling and crust. The waitress brought us a big plastic container of iced tea so we could keep refilling our glasses ourselves. I chatted with an older couple who were there with their granddaughters -- very friendly folks. And my husband had a long conversation with the guy on his left, who turned out to be the mayor of Mason City! He was thrilled that we'd come to visit, but a little annoyed that we weren't able to get rooms at the Park Inn -- I'm sure he'd like to keep the revenue stream flowing into Mason City.
After lunch, we went to see the Cannonball 457
It's not open on Thursdays, but there were some volunteers working on her, and my husband and brother are adept at talking their way in, as they are both enthusiasts, so they got to go all over the locomotive.
From there, we were off to see the Meredith Willson footbridge
, which is very tranquil even though it is right in town. We saw three fawns in the water, as well as a couple of herons. We were then just in time for the final 3 p.m. tour of the day of the Stockman House
, another Frank Lloyd Wright property. http://www.stockmanhouse.org/
This is one of Wright's "$5000 fireproof homes," designed for a middle class family. It's a spectacular property if you like FLW; personally, I find him to be a bit of a control-freak and can't really imagine living in one of his houses.
Although we wanted to see the Music Man and Meredith Willson exhibits, it was late. So we drove back to Cedar Falls and, by unanimous vote, elected to go back to J's
for dinner. (We'd considered one of the three or four Italian places near the hotel, but couldn't really get the clerk at the hotel desk to give us a firm recommendation, so we decided not to take a chance on potentially-second-rate pizza. We may have missed an opportunity -- who knows?) Anyway, we returned to J's. The waitress wasn't quite as on the ball as the one we had on Wednesday, but our food was fine. I had chicken again, this time with the broasted potatoes, which were excellent; my brother had the shrimp again, but the waitress mis-heard him and brought him fries instead of the homemade chips. She also brought me cole slaw instead of cottage cheese, but exchanged them when I asked her to. My husband had a BLT. Everything was good, but we were too full for pie. As we left, one of the locals said, "You're missing the whole point if you don't have some of their homemade pie." We assured him that we'd tried it the day before.
Friday morning, we went to Maid Rite
for breakfast. http://www.facebook.com/pages/Cedar-Falls-Maid-Rite/384765404601
My brother and husband both had the breakfast special (eggs, choice of bacon or sausage, home fries, toast); I ordered a piece of chocolate cream pie (the board listed coconut and chocolate cream). The waitress just took our orders and didn't say anything -- she was kind of taciturn, though warmed up as the morning went on. But another lady who was also working behind the counter overheard my order and said, "We have other kinds of pie. We just haven't listed them on the board yet." (It turned out she was the pie maker.) She reeled off the long list, which included banana cream, which I 've been craving for weeks. So I ended up having two pieces of pie for breakfast. Each was excellent. The chocolate cream was on a graham cracker crust, topped with whipped cream and chocolate shavings. Not too sweet -- just right. The banana cream was on a pastry crust ("Crisco and butter," the pie maker said), with slices of banana embedded in the cream and whipped cream topping. I can't say enough about these pies -- they were outstanding.
After breakfast, we went to the town of Oelwein, to see their downtown vintage movie theater, The Grand
. It wasn't open at the time, but we could peek in the front doors and see the art glass on the ceiling. http://www.thegrandtheatreofoelwein.com/
From there, we headed to Spillville. Our destination: the Bily clock museum
This has to be one of the most bizarre museums I've ever visited. As you'll see on the web site, the collection is of two parts: the many clocks carved by the Bily brothers starting in the 19-teens and continuing for several decades, and the Antonin Dvorak exhibit commemorating the summer he spent in Spillville with his family. There's musical memorabilia, photographs, musical instruments, etc. The clocks are stunning, but you have to ask what motivated the brothers to carve so many, so intricately. It really seems to have bordered on an obsession. We had an excellent docent, who is of Czech descent; she was very envious when she learned my husband and I have been to Prague. We also drove to the park to check out the Inwood ballroom
, one of the few remaining ballrooms of its type in Iowa. http://www.spillville.org/Inwood/InwoodHome.html
From there, our next stop was Winona, Minnesota. We got there about 2:30 pm and went straight to the Lakeview Drive Inn
for a late lunch. http://www.lakeviewdriveinn.com/
They make their own root beer, which is superb. There's car hop service, or you can eat at picnic tables or, I guess, inside, though I'm not sure why anyone would do that. Service is instantaneous. My husband and brother both had cheeseburgers; I had a hot dog. We shared fried onion rings. We all had root beer -- my brother had a root beer float (Blue Bunny Ice Cream). The food was good, but, as I said, it's the root beer that makes this a destination spot.
Next stop -- Bloedow's bakery
. Even though it was late in the day, we still wanted to pick up some treats to take home. We got various types of donuts (both plain and filled), cookies, and cinnamon rolls. I think we bought about a dozen different things, and the bill was about $7. Nice, if brisk, service. http://www.visitwinona.com/directory/listings/show/2470/24
From there: the Coca-Cola bottling plant
. The plant in Winona still bottles to the original sugar formula, and in returnable glass 16-ounce bottles. You can buy them at the local grocery store, or directly from the plant. They sell by the case only at the plant. One case is about $12, but that includes the deposit; if you return the bottles, the price drops to about $8.50. http://www.glassbottlesoda.org/bottlers/cokewinona.shtml
At this point, we were getting pretty tired, plus, it was really too late to go to the Marine Art Museum
. My husband and I have visited there in the past; it's a phenomenal museum, with (surprisingly) a lot of French Impressionist paintings as well as the type of maritime/river/lake art you might expect, including some primitives. They also have some "woolies" (sailor embroideries from the 1850s, which fascinate me), and one of Lord Horatio Nelson's desks! It's a must-visit if you go to Winona. http://www.minnesotamarineart.org/
It was a lovely, sunny late afternoon, so we elected to drive up along the river to get back to Minneapolis. We stopped briefly along the way to see the historic railroad depot
in Red Wing, which still handles Amtrak passenger trains, and houses a small art gallery. http://www.redwingartsassociation.org/visit_us.htm
At that point, though, it was time to stop detouring and to head on home to Minneapolis.
We spent the balance of the weekend in Minneapolis -- but that is a separate discussion, for another day.
Final pie ratings from this trip:
Best pies -- Maid Rite
in Cedar Falls. No contest
Second best -- Suzy Q Cafe
in Mason City.
Tie for third place -- Little Oscar's
in Hampton, MN and J's Homestyle
in Cedar Falls.
<message edited by rumaki on Mon, 06/11/12 5:46 PM>