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Midwest MLA Annual Meeting 2017: All about Iowa City

Iowa City, Coralville, and Cedar Rapids

Did you know?

  • Iowa City became the only UNESCO City of Literature in the United States in 2008.
  • During the 1993 flood of the Iowa River, a fossil gorge near the Coralville Dam was discovered. Today, you can visit the Devonian Fossil Gorge and walk amongst the fossils, but please don't take any with you.
  • This year, the Cedar Rapids Public Library was awarded the National Medal for Museum and Library Service by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. 
  • The University of Iowa awarded the first Master of Fine Arts degree to African-American artist Elizabeth Catlett in 1940. Iowa dormitories remained segregated until 1945, so Catlett was forced to find other accommodations. In 2017, the University of Iowa opened the 12-story Elizabeth Catlett Residence Hall in honor of this remarkable sculptor and printmaker.


Restaurant List

The conference is being held in downtown Iowa City, and a short hike up the hill to the pedestrian mall will put you within reach of many restaurants. The University of Iowa Special Collections librarians did a wonderful breakdown of local eats for the RBMS conference held in Iowa City this past summer, and this guide borrows liberally from theirs, so thank to Amy Hildreth Chen, Margaret Gamm, Tim Shipe, and Colleen Theisen.


  • Java House: The Iowa City classic, with a location in the Iowa Memorial Union, adjacent to the Iowa House Hotel. Visit once during your time here to pick up great coffee as well as tea, hot chocolate, apple cider, or one of their fantastic pastries or desserts. The walls feature prints by Mauricio Lasansky. If you want a keepsake from your trip to Iowa City, we recommend one of Java Houses’ hand-made mugs. 
  • Prairie Lights: The Café on the second floor of the bookstore is the place for Writers’ Workshop folks to see and be seen. Browse the shelves for a great read while waiting for your drink order. Don’t miss the art on the walls, either; Prairie Lights’ café features a rotating array of works by area artists. 
  • T.Spoons: T.Spoons is a small local coffee shop in the Old Capitol Mall used by faculty and students for meetings and as a cozy study space. I’m a fan of their donuts and most drink offerings (Special Collections advises to steer clear of the hot chocolate).
  • Cortado Coffee and Café: The newest coffee shop on the Iowa City scene, Cortado is inspired by its owners’ Mediterranean traditions. Check out their espresso, Middle Eastern food selection, and chocolate croissants. Cortado also serves tasty, filling breakfast sandwiches. I recommend the egg and cheese on ciabatta.
  • Starbucks: Can’t leave this chain off the list, especially since it's the closest coffee shop to the School of Music. 
  • High Ground Café: Outside of the Ped Mall area, it’s a short walk to High Ground Café on Market Street. But those who make the five minute walk will be rewarded. This coffee shop not only has great coffee, but a good assortment of sandwiches, smoothies, and beer. High Ground also features a larger seating space, which helps if you plan to camp out and work for a while.

Grocery Stores with Coffee

  • Bread Garden: This grocery store has a small coffee bar with excellent quality options. Pick up some gelato or a gluten free cookie on your way out! Less than a five minute walk from the School of Music.
  • New Pioneer Co-Op: An Iowa City classic location, those willing to take a five minute walk from the Ped Mall will be rewarded with excellent coffee and an assortment of hot and cold meal options made to go.

$5.00 Meals

  • Cortado: Upgrade from your Starbucks stop and visit the local outfit. Pastries range from $2-4, as do the delicious coffee drinks. Recommended: Chocolate Croissant ($2.75) + 16 ounce Café Au Lait ($3.00). Ok, that's closer to $6.00, but it's worth it.
  • MesaThe first option is Mesa for pizza by the slice. The Dune-like sandworms painted on the walls initially gave me pause, but this place is serious about pizza and always comes out on top ten lists in Iowa City. Oversized slices and specialty creations are always available at the counter, with 8 vegetarian options always ready to go, and they finish it off in the oven for you just before serving. Recommended: Avocado Delight pizza with black beans, chopped tomatoes, feta cheese, and avocados ($4.75 slice/drink special or try the slice of the month $3 with a side salad for $2)
  • Forbidden Planet: Don’t let “slice” fool you, the $5 slice/drink lunch special at Forbidden Planet, just steps away from the Sheraton, includes a slice that is actually a generous personal sized pizza with a thin and crispy crust for which you get to choose the sauce, cheese, and single topping. If you’re willing to go over budget, drop some quarters into the classic arcade games. Recommended: Pesto + mozzarella + tomatoes or prosciutto. 
  • Le Gourmet: Located in the Old Capitol Town Center is a tiny counter tucked in the side of the wall serving Korean pastries, selected Korean dishes, and sandwiches. (Also a place to procure an excellent croissant). An asterisk on the menu, listed on a sign sitting on the counter, is the large bowl of rice porridge in rotating daily flavors for $4.75.
  • Bread Garden Market: For dinner, go no further than the hot bar back in the Bread Garden Market, but choose wisely. Fruit especially can be deceptively heavy. Stick to buying whole fruits offered over in the market. However, bread is included free with any meal from the hot bar, so here is my recommended choice to come out just under $5 while maximizing flavor. Recommendation: Bread Garden Hot bar: Four chicken strips (sriracha ranch dressing for dipping) Generous amount of sautéed sesame kale (which is super light – great deal!). Grab your favorite free bread Add on a $0.25 banana. You’ll definitely come out under $5.
  • La Regia: This taqueria tops everyone’s list for delicious Mexican food in Iowa City. First a fabulous food truck, they now boast a physical location for their incredible authentic tacos served on house made corn tortillas and sprinkled with onions and cilantro. Most choices are $1.50-$2 per taco. Skip the rice and beans. Just order more tacos. Recommended: Several carnitas tacos, so that you can try all four of the table sauces.      


  • Short's Burger & Shine: Burgers. The lunchtime favorite of much of Iowa City, Short’s is known for their incredible burgers and fries and total lack of any other food. Their great bean burgers make Short’s vegan-friendly! Just don’t expect a side salad.  
  • Nodo: Sandwiches. For the serious sandwich-lover. Service can be a little slow sometimes, but it’s worth the wait! Outdoor seating is available.  
  • Forbidden Planet: Pizza. Play some pinball while you wait for some of the best pizza in town. They have a wide variety of toppings and sauces to keep everybody happy.  
  • Moonrakers: Gastropub. Two restaurants (one upstairs, one downstairs) owned by the same couple. A perennial favorite for library interviews and people trying to escape the crowd. Outdoor seating is available.  
  • Masala: Indian. The lunch buffet is sizable and vegan-friendly. Come prepared to eat.  
  • Food Republic: Asian. With a sizable menu, the relatively new Food Republic provides plenty of options.  
  • OasisFalafel. Oasis doesn’t take too long, but is a bit of a walk. Best hummus and falafel in Iowa City, by far.   -  


  • Bashu: 121 N. Linn St. For the truly adventurous, Bashu offers what is probably the most authentic Chinese cuisine in Iowa City. The emphasis is Szechuan. Warning—HOT HOT HOT! 
  • Basta: Italian, with a focus on wood-fired pizzas. Good for groups, though having a reservation helps.
  • Bluebird: 330 E. Market St. A slightly upscale diner, Bluebird offers an eclectic selection of comfort food. Many dishes have (sometimes unexpected) Cajun overtones.
  • Devotay: 117 N. Linn St. Locally sourced ingredients, with a focus on tapas. The wine list is one of the best in Iowa, and the atmosphere is friendly and intimate.
  • Hamburg Inn: 214 N. Linn St. The classic Iowa City diner, with lineage dating to the 1930s, this is popularly known as “The Burg.” All the standard diner fare and more. A standard stop for presidential candidates during the Iowa Caucus campaign season, the Hamburg Inn was featured in an episode of The West Wing. A favorite (unverified) rumor: when the New York Times ran a feature on “The Burg,” they singled out their “famous pie shakes”—a figment of the Times writer’s imagination which the cooks then had to invent to meet popular demand! After decades in this single location, Hamburg Inn is poised to become a worldwide chain, with a branch already planned in Shanghai. 
  • Mosley's: BBQ with a good tap and a different whiskey special for each night of the week. Try the collards, mac and cheese, and the "jar of bacon".
  • Oasis: 206 N. Linn St. Delicious hummus, falafel, schwarma - the whole menu is a winner.
  • Pagliai’s: 302 Bloomington St. An Iowa City classic. They serve pizza and only pizza—don’t expect to order a side salad or anything except pizza and drinks. It’s the classic thin-crust, considered by many to be the best in the area.
  • Thai Spice: 1210 S. Gilbert St. A bit more of a walk (beyond the railway overpass), they have the best Thai food in town, IMHO. Across the street from Big Grove Brewery, a recent addition to the Iowa City food and drink scene.  
  • Trumpet Blossom Cafe: 310 E. Prentiss St. Delicious organic vegetarian cuisine, pleasant atmosphere.


Here is a list of happenings October 10-17 in Iowa City.

Get Local


This Midwest slogan t-shirt and collectibles shop is located on the Ped Mall. Their wares kinda speak for themselves.

raygun t-shirt about iowa city


Prairie Lights

This bookstore, in operation since 1978, is an Iowa City staple. Kid's book are in the basement, and there's a great cafe on the second floor. Many visiting authors leave signed copies for sale, and there should be several good readings over the weekend as part of the Iowa City Book Festival both at Prairie Lights and at Iowa City Public Library.

Haunted Bookshop

Iowa City's used bookshop is a great place to find your next read or to purchase puzzles and games for the upcoming winter months. Watch for the bookshop cats and observe all rules for playing the piano.

Iowa City Public Library

The Iowa City Public Library sits on the Pedestrian Mall across from Bread Garden Market. ICPL hosts lectures, readings, musical performances, and other events in addition to providing the best in library services and collections to this UNESCO City of Literature. ICPL's Local Music Project collects recordings from community artists and was one of the first of its kind in the United States.


This non-profit movie theater shows largely independent and repertory films. Beverages and some food are available for purchase, and it's conveniently located on the Ped Mall. 


CVS: 201 S. Clinton St. The closest pharmacy, located at University Capitol Center next to the Voxman Music Building.