George's Buffet has a secret
People in this town say what makes George's Buffet good is that it never changes. Richard Katz, 65, said as much. Katz can normally be found tucked up to the lacquered wooden bar during his office hours around 6 p.m.
"The room looks the same as the first time," Katz said. While he couldn't put a day to his first visit, he approximates it to be sometime in 1973. "That's when I got here and this place hasn't changed since."
In Katz's tenure as a fixture at George's, he's seen the current owner Charles "Mike" Karr's entire career. In 1976, Karr started as a table waiter under former owner Jim Wallace. Karr told the Press-Citizen in 2009 he didn't know anything about tending bar when he was hired. He recalled reading a manual drafted by Theodore Hamm, the German immigrant who founded the Hamm Brewing Company in 1896, to learn how to properly draw a glass of beer. In 1979, the bar manager stepped down and Wallace asked Karr to take over with the option to buy him out. And in 1989, he did.
“I didn’t want to change anything that was working,” Karr said.
The bar first opened its doors at 312 E. Market Street in 1939, a venture of proprietor George W. Kanak, then the deputy to the Iowa City city assessor. There is only one picture from the period he owned it. Kanak wears a crisp white shirt and a dark tie. He and an employee in the same uniform smile towards the camera. The picture is undated, but it was likely shot around the yuletide given the Santa Claus poster above the bar with a speech bubble reading "Merry Christmas."
Never changing the space is something Karr takes seriously. The wooden bar counters are the same. The Market Street-facing window upfront is the same. There is even a PBR bottle visible on the counter in front of a line of three folks sipping and jawing with staff. These regulars might as well be still seated at the counter today (minus the fedora hat on one gentleman, but maybe that too).
The story goes that Clarence Ruppert didn't change it when he bought the joint in 1948, and neither did Edward Kriz when he took over in 1953. When Kriz was shot and killed outside Hamburg Inn No. 2 in 1962 forcing the widowed Bernice Kriz to sell, buyer Jim Wallace came in with a promise not to change a thing.
And so stretch the generations to Mike Karr who in his turn has imparted the same idea to his son Alex Karr. On the first day of 2019, Alex himself began buying his father out of the business and appears to share his father and the prior owners' vision for the place.
"There is a lot of history here," Alex said.
An article about George's would be remiss not to mention its house cheeseburger —locally sourced fresh ground beef, hand-patted patties, a little ketchup, mustard, pickles and onions. The patties are cooked in a self-contained electric broiler, a machine Mike Karr said is key to the flavor.
"I've taken the same patties home, the same slice of American cheese," Mike Karr told the Press-Citizen in 2014. "I've barbecued it. I've fried it. I've broiled it. I've boiled it. I've nuked it. It just doesn't taste the same as it does coming out of that machine."
Mike used the burger to impart to his son what he thinks makes George's good.
Alex had been working at the bar for about a year and someone asked for the obligatory cheeseburger with everything on it. Traditionally when a slice of cheese is added to the burger, it is done on the grill to let it melt sufficiently. But Alex tried putting it on the bun when it was warmer. ("So it would melt over the condiments and give it this nice melted look.")
That's when Mike walked into the kitchen.
"Why did you do that?" Mike said.
"I wanted to try something different."
"We've got the best burgers in town," his father said. "Why would you change anything about it?"
On Saturday, July 20, 2019, George's Buffet will celebrate 80 years in Iowa City. In those 80 years, plenty have taken on the charge: what is it that makes this neighborhood bar special? There are so many bars in Iowa City. Why this one?
A look at the Press-Citizen archives shows multiple reporters over the years have taken a crack at figuring it out, and digging through the dossier, it's clear that they expose George's greatest secret.
"Wafting through the air are the familiar strains of tunes of Van Morrison, Rickie Lee Jones and Neil Young," begins Amy Peters column on the joint back on April 5, 1994. For Peters, the jukebox present the year I was born was iconic, "a jukebox considered by many area aficionados to be the best in town."
Something clearly happened because in a review of jukeboxes from 1982, Starla Smith wrote:
“George’s Buffet, 312 E. Market St., carries a mixture of old rock tunes, some big band era Benny Goodman, and a few top 40s. One of the standard numbers is a rather schmaltzy rendition of The Anniversary Waltz."
"Schmaltzy." Hardly the glowing sentiment to be had just 12 years later.
Fast forward to today, the "simple compact disc jukebox in the corner" is a flashy smartphone app operated TouchTunes machine capable of queuing between Olivia Newton John's "Xanadu" to William Onyeabor's "Atomic Bomb" all from the comfort of your creaky wooden booth.
And what of the people? Some writers channeled Whitman depicting George's as Iowa City's "common table."
"George's Buffet is the kind of a bar you could take your mother, grandmother, uncle and your little cousin-on-your-lap to visit," Starla Smith wrote in 1980. "Patronized by a mixed clientele, no one group dominates the space. Professors, businessmen, professionals, students, factory workers, construction workers, retired people, musicians, actors, playwrights and poets gather in the small tavern to talk of politics, religion, wars and sports."
Rick Hills, then the head bartender, was quoted in 1982 saying, "We have everything from construction workers to contractors to lawyers to retirees" — the whole hierarchy sitting in the same place.
But it wasn't always like this. Karr recalled that when Jim Wallace was running the place, he wanted a change.
"It was the first bar in Iowa City with carpeted flooring. People thought he was crazy," Karr said. "He kicked out the guys who swore and cussed, and (Wallace) started bringing couples in, husbands and wives, and it steadily built from there."
So the rough-and-tumble spot becomes a place you can take the "cousin-on-your-lap" — whatever that meant in 1980.
The aforementioned cheeseburger has stayed much the same. The other food offerings: pickled quail eggs, candy bars and the "Little Nut Hut" are the same. The chips still hang in the same location clipped to the left of the bar. But that is not all George's has sold over the years.
Past food offerings included sandwiches and Polish sausage dogs complete with sauerkraut. During football season, a crockpot of chili could be found on the counter. According to Peters' column mentioned above, they even sold three flavors of frozen pizza (sausage and mushroom, pepperoni, and "deluxe") warmed up for hungry bar-flys.
Even the iconic velvet and nicotine-stained-silver wallpaper across the back of the bar (a donation from a bygone renovation of A & A Pagliai's Pizza) is far from the original. In the 1980s there was a Great Dane that was commonly spotted snoozing on the floor. There were Christmas carols on the appropriate eves. Believe it or not, old articles mention giant tigers that were drawn on the walls, but those tigers are now long extinct.
In 75 A.C.E., Plutarch wrote about Theseus' ship. Theseus returned from Crete on a ship with 30 oars that he asked the Athenians to preserve while he was away. The Athenians took away old wooden planks as they decayed, putting in their stead new, stronger ones. Plutarch's question was this: if all 30 oars and every single plank was replaced, did it remain Theseus' ship?
Some philosophers will say that the new ship is in fact Theseus’ ship because what we are calling Thesius' ship refers not to any number of oars or boards but refers instead to a form, the idea of Thesius' ship.
But Heraclitus didn't think so. Heraclitus is famous for his line, "upon those who step into the same rivers, different and again different waters flow." The parts of Thesius' ship were gone; therefore, Thesius' ship was gone.
Whether he knows it or not, Alex Karr thinks a lot about Thesius' ship. And looking up Linn Street, it's no wonder.
At 210 N. Linn St., there was Tuck's Place but it closed. Then it became Ugly's but that too closed. Ugly's turned into Sonny's, and today, Wild Culture Kombucha occupies the place. Bars are precarious. Alex Karr said he worries that if the parts that make up George's change, George's may be George's no longer.
"It's like the benches. We could totally get nicer benches that feel better, that are more spacious, that are more comfortable, but I believe these are the original benches from like 1939," he said. "Why would you ever replace them? We are going to keep them as long as possible."
And so Alex Karr, like every owner before him, lacquers the benches and lacquers the bar in hopes of sealing in the magic that makes George's Buffet itself. When they change the carpets every 10 years or replace the fans, there is fear.
"We changed it out and we expected people to lose their shit. But no one said anything," Karr said. "We painted the ceiling tiles. We got new ceiling tiles. Most of the people don't notice at all."
The fact is George's Buffet is not the same as it was when it opened 80 years ago. It is not the same as it was 20 years ago. Taps that once only poured Hamm's and Olympia now purvey NoCoast's Yoga Poser, Guinness and more. Flavored vodkas are numerous, standing spatially and ideologically far from the single malt scotches — all of them inconceivable from when George Kanak first opened the doors all those years ago.
Immanuel Kant didn't buy Plutarch or Heraclitus. He would say that neither the boat as Thesius left it nor the boat as he returned to it was Thesius' ship. Thesius' ship exists only in the mind, Kant would explain. It has no connection with external things like boats. You see, Thesius has no ship. All he has is are the thoughts of what he left and what he found when he returned.
George's greatest secret is that it changes. With each visit, taps rotate, carpets change, jukeboxes disappear. Beloved waitstaff are here with us for a time and then leave in their turn. What holds over from year-to-year will with time change, disappear and be forgotten as we change, we disappear and we are forgotten.
But before that ultimate moment in the glow of the string lights — maybe with a cheeseburger in each of our hands — we feel connected to this place, to this history, even if it shares little with whatever it was 80 years ago.
There is no George's. Long live George's.
On Saturday, July 20th, George's is turning 80. They are turning the parking lot into a beer garden and will have live music, drink specials, adult snow-cones, special merchandise and yes, cheeseburgers. Pub Quiz kicks off at 2:30 p.m. The Recliners play at 4:30 p.m. Crystal City plays at 7 p.m. Dave Zollo plays at 9:30 p.m.
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Zachary Oren Smith has been going to George's since he got to Iowa City in 2017. He has spent many of those afternoons performing field research for this article beer in hand. Reach him at email@example.com or 319 -339-7354, and follow him on Twitter @zacharyos