What follows is an email to an associate about to travel to Cedar Rapids Iowa from which I just returned. He’s a martini man, by the way; Loves his martinis.
Bring your own food (and martini mixings) with you to Iowa.
And plan on either fasting or abandoning meals after no more than a spoonful.
Truly, if you expect nothing more than nationally known chains with, at best, mediocre cooks, you won’t be too disappointed. But looking for more than that, you’ll be crying in your martini and it’ll undoubtedly be a piss poor one at that.
We’re talkin’ wholesome, mid-america, rail center of the continent with millions of animals on their way to slaughter houses. (Ever wonder what’s left in mid-america after Omaha Beef ships all the good cuts everywhere else? Well, you’re about to find out.)
Envision pigs, sheep, corn and soy in every direction for five hundred miles. Today’s futures will headline the 5:00AM news and get more air time than how much rain the land *isn’t* going to get today, and that will be followed by a brief traffic report to help you avoid the tractors moving from one field to another. Something like a pancake breakfast at St. Andrews Catholic Church may lead off the “real news” when they finally get to it. For national news, that’s what they call the doings way out west in Des Moines.
Cedar Rapids downtown was flooded two years ago and, as far as food is concerned, it’s still sunk. (Nobody knows that the Cedar River actually has some rapids not very far from downtown nor how that might be connected to the name of the town. Hello?)
But, alas, I hear you’re on-hook for a visit to there in a couple of weeks and, let me say this, dear friend, we will all look up to your memory, taking one for the team like that.
Here’s my brain dump with the “avoids” first.
Avoid: Biaggi’s – Very pricey, snooty and terribly ignorant servers — they live in Iowa, you know — and anything from mediocre down to just plain burnt food. This place is only for those marketing and sales types who want to impress clients with how much they can spend while not wincing at the taste.
Avoid: Vito’s, 4100 River Ridge Dr NE, Cedar Rapids IA 52402, http://www.vitoson42nd.com/, sports bar, pizza etc — Someone sucked me into this one. I wanted to take him to the shooting range later and persuade him to hold the target while I shot at it but didn’t, much to my later distress when he suggested another place that was “much, much better,” the Irish Democrat Pub and Grille.
Avoid: Irish Democrat Pub and Grille, 1st Ave and 32nd St (NE), Cedar Rapids, IA 319-364-9896, looked promising with Guinness and such “on tap” but apparently coming from rotting kegs presumably bobbing in the Cedar River and connected to the restaurant underground by five miles of lead-lined pipes. The BBQ ribs tasted the same the following day each time I burped them up again and again. The flash-burnt formerly frozen vegetables … Well, let’s say no more about them.
I *did* find two restaurants worth repeat visits. Indeed, after sampling many places that looked worse than the above (and determining that my eye is spot-on in this regard), I ended up at the two restaurants that follow for lunch and dinner on all possible occasions. (In other words, considering Cedar Rapids Iowa, these two are — I hate to risk saying it — not that bad. Some might even say “good” but, well, that may only be in comparison with the rest of the town’s offerings.)
Good: Siam Ville, 3635 1st Avenue SE, Cedar Rapids Iowa, 52402, http://siamville.com/default.aspx, I was there twice recently and twice again on my previous trip to the area. Your customers will know it and some may want to join you. It’s quite good. I’ve had half a dozen different dishes from their menu and enjoyed them all.
Good to Excellent: R. G. Books Lounge and Vino’s Ristaurant, 3611 1st Avenue SE, Cedar Rapids, IA 52402, 319-363-7550, dinner only, http://vinosristorante.com/. Expect $40-50 bill for a drink and an entre. The servings tend to be large so that’ll probably be enough food. The wine bar is fairly good in whites but avoid the Cabernets — but I know you’re a martini man and I suggest you start at the bar and size up the bartender’s credentials before risking it. The servers are pretty good but don’t forget you’re in Cedar Rapids Iowa — try not to expect much; it’ll be safer that way. The calimari appetizer was excellent but, with the entre, I had too much food. Beware: they’ll burn the garlic in most dishes — you might try asking for the garlic “underdone” but I’m not sure that’ll help so you might want to avoid such dishes altogether. Avoid the tira misu for desert; it was missing key ingredients such as the espresso that would’ve offset the syrupy sweetness. But the steak was excellent. And the pasta just about perfect. Even the seafood — for the middle of the country — was actually very nice. I was particularly impressed with the scallops. And they know how to cook a chicken, too.
These two good-to-excellent places are less than 100′ apart. You can park in the same spot for either.
Breakfast is a lost cause in Cedar Rapids Iowa. Utterly hopeless. Don’t even try. Bring bagels in your suitcase as well as coffee from Seattle if you can.
We’ll post your picture on the shelf and put an empty martini glass next to it to toast your memory.