Boiling Down the Burg--Alumna publishes book on legendary Iowa City diner

An order of verse, with a side of humor Writer, artist, and educator Dave Morice (M.F.A. ’72, M.A. ’86), known to many by his alter ego, Dr. Alphabet, says he has written more poems at Iowa City’s Hamburg Inn No. 2 than at any place outside his home, and several appear in the book, The Burg: A Writers’ Diner, including this one penned in 1972:

“Manners at the Burg”

The waitress brought my breakfast plate
And set it on the table.
I said, as kindly as I could,
“Why, thank you, Mable.”

“No, no,” she said in sugary tones
Like honey poured in tea,
And chirped with emphasis, “Thank you
For thanking me.”

Ah, maple syrup is far less sweet,
So what else could I do?
I said, “Thank you for thanking me
For thanking you.”

Then Mable’s voice went Sweet ’n’ Low.
“No, no, thank you,” said she,
“For thanking me for thanking you
For thanking me.”

The Hamburg Inn No. 2 may not be on campus, but for all the sustenance and sanctuary it has offered to UI students and employees over the past six decades, it might as well be. Located just a few blocks from the eastside residence halls and downtown Iowa City, the diner has become part of the fabric of the community, serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner since 1948.

The restaurant has seen renovations and expansions over the years, but the changes have been rather subtle. Smiling servers still navigate close quarters, delivering omelets or hamburgers anytime between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m., and the ambiance remains casual and welcoming. It’s not uncommon for patrons (or “guests,” as owner Dave Panther refers to them) to sit for hours with a newspaper or a notebook, sipping coffee from chunky, ceramic mugs.

Lining the establishment’s walls are framed “shout-outs” from numerous newspapers and magazines, from Midwest Living to The New Yorker. Dozens of photos mark historic moments like visits from former presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton and appearances in the 1989 indie film Zadar! Cow From Hell and a 2005 episode of The West Wing.

It’s “a restaurant with a soul,” wrote former Hamburg Inn employee Gary Sanders in an Iowa City Press-Citizen column in 1990. Those words—also posted on the diner’s wall—inspired UI alumna Marybeth Slonneger to get creative. An artist and longtime Iowa City resident, Slonneger (M.A. ’85, M.F.A. ’86, M.A. ’05) was working as a Hamburg Inn hostess in 2008 when she resolved to encapsulate that soul in book format by soliciting testimonials from key customers and employees.

The result is her self-published anthology, The Burg: A Writers’ Diner, a collection of photos both past and present interspersed with essays, poems, drawings, reminiscences, and old advertisements gathered from an assortment of folks, many of whom are associated with UI writing programs—and all of whom share a fondness for “the Burg.”

The meat of the matter

“During my shifts, I’d see people sitting around, sharing stories. Being a bookmaker, I naturally wanted to capture that spirit in a book. One night after closing, I read Gary’s piece on the wall, and at that moment, I knew where I was headed,” Slonneger says. “I was a bit tentative about asking people to contribute, but not one person turned me town. They were all enthusiastic, and they convinced me that the project was a good idea.”

While some of the content was created specifically for Slonneger’s book, other pieces had been published previously. Some of it was generated on site.

Among the book’s contributors is Hope Edelman (M.A. ’92), who shares how she wrote the winning proposal and sample chapter for her best-selling book Motherless Daughters while seated at a side table at the Burg. Former Iowa City councilor Karen Kubby (B.G.S. ’82) asserts that, in a college town, “being able to order hash browns with veggies or a sweet potato pancake anytime you want is a great community service.” Writers’ Workshop faculty member James Alan McPherson (M.F.A.’71) likens the diner to a “constant friend,” adding that he cannot imagine Iowa City without it.

Also featured in The Burg are poet and UI professor emeritus Marvin Bell (M.F.A. ’63), novelist Allan Gurganus (M.F.A. ’75), former Iowa legislator Jean Lloyd-Jones (M.A. ’71), several members of the extended Panther family, and many more.

From No. 1 to No. 2

In a day and age when opening a restaurant can be risky business, the Burg has persevered. As one might deduce, the Hamburg Inn No. 2 has its roots in the Hamburg Inn No. 1, a hamburger joint on Iowa Avenue that was frequented by UI alumni from the 1930s until it closed in 1978. No. 1 was operated by members of Panther’s family, and in 1948, Panther’s father and uncle opened No. 2 at the current Linn Street location.

“Most restaurants were independent when the Burg opened. Now there are many more chains,” say Panther, who shares in the book his earliest memories of living in the apartment upstairs and spending Sundays working alongside his father doing prep work before the doors were unlocked at 4 p.m. “I think our success over the years has been the hometown, small-business atmosphere. Dad was very good at relating to his staff and his customers.”

Variety in the menu, Panther adds, probably helped make the diner a staple for many UI students: “I’ve talked to people who said they’d eat two or three meals a day here while they were in school. It’s always good to hear from alumni who are back in town and tell me that they couldn’t wait to come back here.”

Since taking over the business in 1979, Panther has expanded the seating as well as the menu (“When Dad started it, probably nobody even knew what an omelet was,” he says). Pie shakes (the concoction—a slice of pie blended with ice cream and milk—was featured in the New York Times) are a must, and the Iowa omelet (filled with ham, hash browns, and American cheese) is considered a Hamburg classic.

Panther also implemented several successful marketing tools, including Hamburg Inn T-shirts—which reportedly have been spotted across the globe—and the Coffee Bean Caucus.

Budding politicians, take note

Media attention from Reagan’s visit in 1992 and Clinton’s first one in 2003 (the former presidents, respectively, have ordered meatloaf and a slice of Dutch apple pie, and a chocolate shake with hamburgers to go, according to The Burg) was not insignificant, but it was the Coffee Bean Caucus, says Panther, that “put us on the map.”

In the weeks leading up to the 2004 Iowa caucuses, patrons could vote for their candidate of choice by dropping a coffee bean into the appropriately labeled jar. The tradition continued in 2008 and 2012, and the diner became a magnet for presidential hopefuls.

Panther says he started the tradition to be a fun, nonpartisan affair. “I wanted to make it win-win for politicians and for customers,” he says.

Sanders, an Iowa City resident and now a Hamburg Inn regular, was drinking coffee at the counter the morning President Clinton showed up in 2007. The two talked college football (“Absolutely no mention of politics,” he writes in The Burg).

A praiseworthy effort

Sanders says the Hamburg Inn has played an important role in his life, and he was awed by Slonneger’s book.

“The Burg is the only gathering place for an entire cross-section of the community. You can find here a plumber and a professor, a student and a car mechanic, someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing, and, of course, writers,” he says. “It’s hard to define the essence of the place, but it is still, as I wrote in my 1990 column, ‘a restaurant with a soul,’ and Marybeth nailed it.”

The Burg is $18.95 and is available at the Hamburg Inn and at Iowa City bookstores. Slonneger, who also published Small But Ours, about the Bohemian neighborhood in Iowa City known as Goosetown, is donating profits to the Johnson County Heritage Trust.

Sara Epstein Moninger
photo by Tom Jorgensen

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© The University of Iowa 2009