Iowa City's Beef and Beer Bistro
Iowa Chop House features self-serve local beer
Downtown Iowa City has more restaurants per square foot than almost any urban locale in America. While most successful restaurants specialize—burgers, pizza, Thai, Italian, Chinese and so on—the Iowa Chop House is the place to go for three things: Beef, beer and a taste of Iowa.
Brothers George and David Etre grew up in Iowa City, and the Chop House is the latest in a line of restaurants they’ve piloted to success, from Takanami to Givanni’s, and the Chop House continues their passion today.
The farm-to-table style restaurant and taproom focuses on Iowa-sourced organic and seasonal ingredients, from prime cuts to craft beers and wine. It opened in September last year at 223 East Washington, former home of Chef’s Table and Xie, next door to the Englert Theater.
“Everyone told us this space was cursed and no one would ever be successful here,” George said. “We were excited to be next to the Englert.”
Concertgoers are drawn to the Iowa-based atmosphere following eclectic Englert shows, and the headliners often drop by, though not always to sit at the bar.
“A lot of times the performers come in before and/or after a show,” Etre said. “We try to keep it as low-key as possible, because after a performance the last thing they want is fanfare. We sneak them in the back sometimes and put them in the Wine Room where no one sees them.”
The décor inside the Chop House centers squarely upon life in Iowa.
“We’re really invested in the Iowa theme,” Etre said. “It’s a pride thing for us. In the past, growing up, you always got those people who think Iowa is all cornfields—’how do you have sushi in Iowa?’—and we’ve always wanted to put Iowa on the map and showcase what we have. If you want to know what Iowa is, you come to Iowa Chop House.”
All the framed photos in the dining room are from the Seelman farm near Oxford: the old barn, cows grazing at pasture, a 1949 Chevy truck, a stud bull. All the wood in the dining room is from the 150-year-old barn. The Seelman family donated the barn to the Etre brothers, and a photograph of it prior to dismantling is the centerpiece of the dining room.
“The wood you’re touching on this table? It’s from that barn,” Etre said. “All the shingles, everything is from that barn. So when you’re in here, not only are you eating Iowa, you’re touching Iowa, you’re hearing Iowa, you’re drinking Iowa.”
That would include the Hawkeyes, be it football, basketball or whatnot, shown, along with the Cubs and Cardinals and other sports heroes, on eight TV screens.
You won’t find CNN at the Iowa Chop House, but you will find two virtual beer menus scrolling through a list of brews.
“Iowa City is a political hotspot, so you have to be very careful,” Etre said. “We stay away from the news networks because people are so passionate about it. We stick to the sports.”
A lot of traditional steak houses and fine dining places don’t have TVs, but Etre’s research uncovered a new wave called “Steakhouse 2.0,” a spin on the traditional kind of dark, dingy beeferies that are going out of style. What people want to do these days is watch games.
“They want the game on, they want to see the score,” Etre said. “TV is embedded in people’s lives and most people cannot be away from a TV; it’s a withdrawal thing. It’s more of a comfort issue.”
It’s like music: If you ask ten people what tunes should play at the Iowa Chop House, you’ll get ten different answers. With TVs it’s, “I can’t watch CNN, but I can watch ESPN.”
“We try to take everybody’s feedback but stay focused on what we believe is best for all customers,” Etre said.
The Chop House features two private dining enclaves—the Wine Room and the Saloon Room—as well as the sidewalk patio out front on Washington Street.
The informal Saloon Room seats up to 15 revelers—ask an employee to tell you about the racing car hood hanging on the wall—and the cozy Wine Room accommodates up to 25. Etre said the space was created by Eric McDowell for Chef’s Table; the room was voted one of the top five wine rooms in the country by Wine Enthusiast magazine.
“Being next to the Englert, and this room? For us it was a no-brainer,” Etre said. “Everything just kind of built off of this room. It’s cool because it’s not stuffy, and this”—he indicates the room with a sweeping arm—”is if you want to buy an expensive bottle of wine, the porterhouse steak. We also have people who come in here and eat burgers. There’s no limit in here. It appeals to everybody.”
Hundreds of bottles of wine are on display in the Wine Room, with over 200 different labels.
But it’s the Beer Wall in the Beer Barn that really sets Iowa Chop House apart from other downtown bars. The first “pour-your-own” beer wall in Iowa features 10 rotating craft beers from around the Midwest. The wooden floor and wooden barrel tables create a tavern-like ambiance in the Barn.
Here’s how it works: You get an electronic wristband from a waiter and pay per ounce of beer poured. Wall prices range from 35 to 50 cents per ounce, shown on each of the Droid-powered tablet displays above the taps. Each display tells a little about the brewery, and the price per ounce.
When you wave your wristband in front of one of the taps, the display lights up and the tap is activated, allowing you to pour from one to 28 ounces. Beer consumption is settled up when you turn in the wristband. If you get a wristband and don’t pour anything, you don’t pay. Or you can get one ounce of beer at, say, 35 cents and pay 35 cents total.
Etre said they try to have as many Iowa beers on the Wall as possible, and they’ve had over 190 different brews since opening.
“We don’t have all IPAs; we try to mix-and-match so that everybody has a range. We want as much flexibility as possible. A lot of breweries are one-offs, small batch special limited edition stuff they send to us because we can rotate it through,” he said.
There are wine bars, of course, but beer seems a better choice, seeing as how wine drinkers can get a bit snobbish about presentation and such.
“We wanted to showcase Iowa. Iowa has a few good wineries but they have an amazing and growing group of breweries that can stand up against any state in the country,” Etre said. “There are some big boys in Iowa and it’s been a fun project.”
Rest assured The Iowa Chop House has 20 more tap beer handles behind the bar.
The Chop House menu features a variety of Iowa farm products including premium meats and fresh vegetables. The Chop House credo is that great food starts with local, fresh ingredients, thus they source sustainable seasonals from local farmers and feature Certified Angus Beef cuts from the Hoover Angus Farm in Ellston, Iowa, at 80 years one of the oldest Angus farms in America.
Fresh vegetables are bought from local farm markets and farms, including Oak Hills Acres in Atalissa and Springs-n-Sprouts in Pella. In springtime, the Chop House maintains its own vegetable garden at the Ernie Found Farm in Iowa City.
The menu runs from five dollars—the Butternut Bisque is a sturdy yet gliding sonata of squash, roasted garlic and fresh chives—to the beefy 24-ounce Porterhouse steak at over 50 dollars.
In between is a panoply of solid college-town fare, from salads to sandwiches to the ubiquitous burger—substitute a black bean quinoa burger or chicken breast at no up-charge—and entrées featuring a 3-cheese macaroni for $14 —smoked gouda, mozzarella, parmesan and bacon: what true Iowan can resist?
Vegetarians often have to settle for wimpy salads when
tagging along with carnivorous relatives, and the Iowa Chop House offers, along with the quinoa burger, enough vegan/veggie dishes to make dinner with the beefeaters tolerable. Granted, salmon isn’t native to Iowa but a filet ($21), along with a number of vegetarian sides ($4-$7), salads ($5 to $12) and the Almost Famous Frickles ($7; pickles fried in Kalona beer batter with sriracha aioli) offer enough grazing for the hardiest meatless wo/man.
“The Amana cheese curds fly out of here,” Etre’s right-hand man Jason Alt said. “We’ve got the Corn on the Cobb salad, which is Iowa corn, of course.”
“The one thing everyone says ‘I have to try’ is the steaks,” Etre said. “David gets nothing but the best cuts in, and they prepare it to perfection.”
The service is friendly and efficient, by employees who are clearly happy to be working at the Chop House.
“We really like the people who start at the bottom and work their way up because they appreciate things a lot more,” Etre said. “We like people to have no limit to what they think they can do.”
The brothers are themselves disciples of the learn-by-doing discipline.
“The great thing is, our head chef is my brother David. He does all of the back-of-the-house stuff and I do all the front-of-the-house stuff. We work well together because we don’t work together,” Etre said. “He went to the school of ‘We bought a restaurant and now you’re a chef.’ He went to the school of 80-hour workweeks.”
Etre said building relationships with farmers is fun because the farmers are eager to help the Chop House and they in turn enjoy presenting the farmers.
“You know, we can only get 10 or 15 steaks from some of these small farms, but we’re going to do nights where we showcase one farm and have only ten steaks,” Etre said. “The farmers can talk to the tables and you can actually see the people who are providing your product.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
You can’t get a better steak than those at the Iowa Chop House, and the Beer Barn is perfect for connoisseurs who want to savor their suds rather than get hammered swilling bottle after bottle of commodity adjunct light lager.
When You Go:
The Iowa Chophouse
223 East Washington Street, Iowa City
Open Sunday through Thursday 11:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11:00 a.m. to 12:00 a.m.