Every few months, MB and I feel the need to go somewhere where we can eat and drink better than we do in Iowa, and somewhere where we can wander new neighborhoods or hike new trails–you know, just a different town. The goal is an easily drivable town, one we can easily do for just a few days for a reasonable cost. Fairly frequently–or whenever we’re able, really–we get to Saint Louis or Minneapolis. On occasion, but less frequently (see the comment about affordability) we get to Chicago. The easiest spot, and one that always fits the bill, is Madison. About a 2 1/2 drive, with Dubuque–an interesting river town–bluffs, the potential for a stop at New Glarus, and plenty of rolling farmland all along the way. It makes a great one- or two-night trip.
The last few years we’ve taken a very short mid-winter trip down to Iowa City for my birthday at the end of February, only a half hour away. It’s a nice town, and we love being able to eat a decent meal and then spend the evening at our favorite bar, The Sanctuary, with its nice menu of Belgian and other assorted beers. This year I will be in Africa for my birthday, though. We also just needed to get away, so we spent this last weekend in Madison. Once again I’m reminded of how much I love this small city.
What struck me, though, during this last visit was thinking of how many people in Iowa I’ve heard compare the two towns, Madison and IC. Yes, they are both Big 10 cities with a large midwestern university in the heart of town. But the comparison can go absolutely no further than that. Iowa City is a pleasant enough town, but it really has 3 or 4 good restaurants, the Sanctuary, John’s grocery (one of the better beer suppliers in Iowa), a below mediocre brewpub, and a few nice hiking trails. Yes, many will say, but it has the Iowa Writers Workshop, but I’d rather not get started on that. In general, I find the workshop atmosphere rather pretentious and cliquish (oh my god, there I’ve said it).
Madison, however, has a comparatively amazing array of restaurants (for instance, what a treat to be able to choose between the Tibetan or the Nepali restaurant that are just blocks away). While I love the Sanctuary, it was a real treat to spend the evening in Brasserie V, a real Belgian beer lover’s heaven with some decent food to boot. There’s Steve’s liquors for stocking up on all those beers we can’t get in Iowa (yes, we came home with the car loaded down). There is a fine brewpub, Great Dane, and an excellent brewery, Ale Asylum (they have a tap room, but I’ve yet to make it). And the trails and lakes and outdoor culture of Madison can’t be beat. Yes, the real point here is we had a great weekend. But I find myself scratching my head about the people who insist on making the comparison here. I get it that Madison is not only a big-10 university town but also the state capital. So, sure, that affects the culture of Madison so it’s the apples-oranges thing. But even more I wonder, then, why compare them? It makes me think of the recent local commentary about the upcoming movie “Cedar Rapids.” Local politicians are determined to point out how good this will be for our state giving it big-name recognition. An Ed Helms movie about an inept businessman who goes to a convention in Cedar Rapids that was actually filmed in Michigan because our film industry is so appealing? Really? I haven’t seen the movie but I’m not sure it’s going to be good press for Iowa.
I don’t know what my point here is (except maybe to say it’s worth visiting Madison if you haven’t). I’m not trying to downplay Iowa City (I’ve done enough Iowa bashing elsewhere). Maybe it’s just that we’re working hard to be something we’re not. Iowa City isn’t Madison. And Cedar Rapids certainly shouldn’t be hoping for movie recognition. Let’s just do what we do and do it well. So, to that end I’ll point to one positive change from earlier commentaries: now that Iowa has lifted the ban on higher alcohol beers, I’m pleased to say that Iowa now has a first rate beer. Peacetree brewing has shown some promise in early beers, but they are inconsistent and not all that great. But their relatively new Double IPA (which would not have been legal under the old laws) is quite nice. It’s a beer I’m happy to say comes from Iowa. It’s a beer I’ll share with friends from elsewhere. So get a few more good brews in state. Get a few more good restaurants. And then be happy to be small town middle America. A place where we can increasingly know the farmer who grows our food. Where education is valued. And where diversity is supported (oops, maybe I need to rethink that one after we recently voted out the judges who upheld gay rights and gay marriage…. a post for another time).