When I started this website, I never suspected that one day I’d be writing a post about grocery stores. But here I am. The Iowa City food scene is pretty good, both eating out and cooking at home. In addition to chain stores like Wal-Mart, Aldi, Trader Joe’s, and Hy-Vee, there are a number of good, reasonably-priced markets in town. The budget-conscious here will note that Iowa is one of 36 states that do not tax grocery items. Even better? The exemption covers certain prepared foods, like breads, rolls, buns, biscuits, bagels, croissants, pastries, donuts, Danish, cakes, tortes, pies, tarts, muffins, bars, cookies, and tortillas. And chocolate isn’t taxable when covering ice cream!
If you’re not in the mood to cook, skip down to the restaurants section–find out where to get an excellent chicken sandwich and great fries (with malt vinegar!) for $5.
So after you’ve skipped the national chains, where are the Iowa City food stops for those that like to cook? Here goes:
Yes, Hy-Vee is a large chain, with more than 240 stores. Iowa is covered with them. But except for a few that have spilled over into bordering states, they’re an Iowa chain. In my opinion, for a large chain, they’re a little quirky. The store layouts are kind of odd with parts of the refrigerator section arranged in aisles perpendicular to the rest of the store. But they’re clean, middle-of-the-road stores, offering services you don’t see often anymore like separate bagging clerks and curbside pickup. No self-checkouts either. And for a lot of grocery items, you have Hy-Vee or the highway. If Wal-Mart doesn’t carry it, and it isn’t at one of the small-footprint stores in the area, you end up at Hy-Vee. Take advantage of their sales with fuel saver points on certain items, which can be used right away at their fuel stations. They usually mail an extra page on their ads to residents with extra coupons, not found in-store, but readily give the discounts if you ask.
Don’t miss: single-day and weekend sales, and for fuel saver bonuses for hitting certain dollar thresholds. This week, if you spend $50, you get $0.50 in fuel saver points, good for $10 if you buy the maximum of 20 gallons. Browse the Hy-Vee app and stack discounts with Ibotta for extra savings, and save $0.05 for every reusable bag you use. Ad cycle is Wednesday through Tuesday. Also note that many items with quantity limits are on a per-card basis, not per-visit.
This might be one of my favorite Iowa City food spots. It kind of feels like a cross between Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods in terms of
size and selection. Excellent produce and meats at very reasonable prices (especially on sale), with a bakery, deli/lunch counter, and a few other things that you wouldn’t find at Trader Joe’s. They are a chain, with 35 locations nationally, often in college towns like Iowa City and Boulder, Colorado. Good prices on coffee, and try to resist the giant rice krispie treats at the checkout.
Tip: Shop on Wednesdays. Sales start on Wednesday, and continue through the following Wednesday, making them “double ad” days. Download the Lucky’s app for an immediate $5 discount, and other app-only sales. Surprisingly, Ibotta works with Lucky’s, though their more eclectic selection means stuff in Ibotta is less likely to wind up on the shelves.
New Pioneer is a food co-op, with 3 locations: Iowa City, Coralville, and Cedar Rapids. The Iowa City location is a very cozy spot, in an older building with uneven floors and low ceilings–the kind of place you’d expect given the emphasis on locally-grown and harvested products, from produce to cheeses and beef. It’s not necessarily a cheap place to shop, but definitely offers a lot of things unique to their stores. Do some grocery shopping, then head across the street to Van B’s for a drink. In Coralville, you’ll find most of the same stuff, but in a more typical shopping center setting with a little more room to wander around.
Bread Garden Market
Breadgarden makes the list here twice–first as a grocery store, next as a restaurant. It does both quite well, although it’s not a replacement for bigger stores like Hy-Vee. As the name might suggest, they bake bread, and it’s very good. While not cheap, they’re also a great source for steaks, seafood, and lots of take-home meals. Their on-site eatery gets more discussion in the restaurant section below.
Tip: If just heading in to visit Breadgarden, park in their cozy lot on Linn Street, between Burlington and College. Otherwise, take advantage of one of the nearby parking ramps and their “first hour free” parking, either entering from Iowa Avenue east of Linn Street, or the Dubuque Street Ramp accessed from Burlington and Dubuque Streets. Note that while on Dubuque, which connects with I-80 and might be how you arrive from the dam complex, Dubuque Street makes up part of the downtown pedestrian mall. Get your groceries, and eat before leaving.
Yes, grocery is in the name. No, if you asked about the closest grocery store I probably wouldn’t send you there. But you absolutely want to visit. You see, John’s Grocery has been operating on the corner of Market and Gilbert since 1948. It’s still in many respects the kind of grocery store you’d expect to find in 1948, but with an incredible selection of beer and wine, many of them not available anywhere else in the state. The building itself first opened 100 years prior, in 1848, as a grocery store, when the state of Iowa was only two years old and Iowa City was its capitol. The Alberhaskys that re-named it John’s in 1948 still own and operate it today.
Ok, this isn’t a grocery store. But through the summer (May-October), you can visit the farmer’s market on Wednesday evenings and Saturday mornings. The market operates at the Chauncey Swan Ramp on Washington St. just east of Gilbert. Find parking there or across the street at the public ramp accessible from Iowa Ave.
Before I start into a list of some of the Iowa City eateries I like, let me point out that downtown is very accessible. All of the public parking garages give you an hour of free parking, and charge $1 an hour after that. After a bunch of construction in recent years, the downtown core features wide sidewalks, ample parking, and lots of eateries with sidewalk seating. I kind of hate to do it, but I present these places in two categories–the stuff that you really should try to take in while in town, and the places that just fit the bill for good food when you’re hungry.
Downtown/Pedestrian Mall Must-Eats
Downtown Iowa City punches above its weight. Easy to access and navigate, by car or on foot, ample (mostly paid) parking, yet relatively dense with establishments not too far apart from one another. The pedestrian mall was built from a 2-block section of Dubuque and College streets closed to traffic in the urban renewal era. Unlike many of those projects that have been undone as the lack of traffic resulted in vacancies in recent decades, Iowa City managed to get the formula right. You can find lots of shops selling their wares, a playground, upright piano, and a few other points of interest creating a welcoming atmosphere. But of course, you also find lots of food.
Bread Garden Market
Yes, Bread Garden was already mentioned as a grocery store. It’s also a great place to sit down for a quick meal, with an excellent salad bar and grill. Their $5 sandwich combos come on one of my favorite hamburger buns, and with excellent fries on the side. Whether you get a burger, chicken sandwich, burrito bowl, or pizza, you won’t be disappointed. If you’re in a hurry, or don’t want a full meal, check out the hot food and salad bars where you can fill your plate by the pound. Bread Garden does sell alcohol, both for on and off-premises consumption–with a good selection to choose from.
Order grill items at one of 3 kiosks near the center of the store. Then take your receipt to a cashier and pay while they’re cooking your meal. Find a spot at the bar inside, the enclosed (heated and cooled) patio, or on their patio along the pedestrian mall.
This is the default spot for me when it comes to going out for a good breakfast. Whether traditional pancakes or omlettes, corned beef hash, or a fresh cinnamon roll, Bluebird does a great job. Seemingly always busy, expect a short wait. Seating is available at individual tables, the lunch counter, or along their small patio facing Market Street.
Tip: Look for free on-street parking on Gilbert Street in the blocks north of Market before wandering through the metered public lot adjacent to Bluebird.
While far from a guarantee, any restaurant with over 70 years in operation probably has something good–and timeless–to offer. Airliner does, with a full menu with everything from sandwiches and salads to their specialty pizzas. Stop in at lunch time for generous slices at $2.50 each, and try specialty configurations that include taco and Greek fare, along with more conventional “meat cravers” and Buffalo chicken offerings.
This example of a kind of strange way to end up in the restaurant business shows how someone just likes to cook and experiment. The young lady that started the place got going at the farmer’s market, and her dumplings proved so popular that she eventually moved to a permanent establishment on Iowa Avenue just west of Gilbert Street. Quick and casual, it’s not exactly traditional Korean food. You can find familiar dumplings and Bao buns, but with ingredients representing various cultures (Chinese, Nepalese, Korean, Japanese, Mexican, American, etc.). If you don’t believe me, you’ll find a cheeseburger dumpling listed right next to avocado rangoon. No alcohol, and no Coke or Pepsi, though they do offer a soda fountain with local finds.
Tip: Enter the parking garage on Iowa Avenue between Linn and Gilbert Streets. Take a few steps west and you can’t miss it. Enjoy the cozy elevated patio on nicer days.
My first experience here might be clouding my judgment. We stopped in for a drink late into the evening during the block party (next post). The kitchen had already closed, and they were cleaning up on the patio. Milo was with us though, so that’s where we grabbed a seat. The street crowd was belting out Piano Man with the dueling pianos playing on the sidewalk just across the street. The tent set up on the street-facing side of the patio was serving a special menu for the event, but they were winding things down there too. Seeing Milo watching, a lady (turned out to be the owner) asked if he could have a hot dog. He went on to bargain for far more in food than we bought in drinks. Good atmosphere, good menu, and nice patio.
Other Local Eats
Ok, this isn’t real BBQ country here (that’s NC!). But Pop’s is pretty good, and a convenient spot with it’s own parking just north of the center of downtown. If you’re already downtown, it’s an easy walk. Try the mac and cheese, and some of their very unique sauces, otherwise it’s typical good BBQ served on excellent buns (I suspect from Bread Garden).
This is classic Mexican food, done very well. Casual, even basic atmosphere, with lots of room between tables, a few TVs, and a shop selling some grocery items, including fresh chorizo and other specialty items. Their chicken has a great grilled flavor, more interesting than the wet and seasoned shredded chicken much more common in Mexican restaurants.
Another BBQ restaurant with a bit different take than Pop’s, Jimmy Jack’s has three locations in the area, including downtown and North Liberty. The east side location is a little further out of the way, located over near Lucky’s, but offers the best experience. If nothing else, it’s bigger, and its more suburban location offers free on-site parking.
This list is far from comprehensive, and after posting it I’ll surely remember someplace I’ve forgotten. The Iowa City Downtown District’s website is a good resource for exploring local establishments.