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Newly released book records history of Hamburg Inn No. 2

BY JORDAN MONTGOMERY | MAY 03, 2012 6:30 AM

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Hamburg Inn No. 2 owner Dave Panther remembers the smell of food pouring from the exhaust fan when his family lived in the apartment above their restaurant. He remembers the clanging of pots and pans and the buzz of patrons chatting below.

As a boy, he helped his parents keep the restaurant running. After school, he would help clean up, restock the refrigerator with milk and sodas, and turn sacks of potatoes into French fries — sometimes 400 to 500 pounds at a time.

Panther's father bought the restaurant in 1948, which makes the Hamburg Inn Iowa City's oldest family-owned restaurant.

For more than 60 years, Hamburg Inn has been a place to find interesting people and a place in which interesting people have found themselves.

One of them is Marybeth Slonneger, an Iowa City author that recently penned The Burg: A Writer's Diner. At 7 p.m. May 8, guest writers will read their contributions to The Burg at Prairie Lights, 15 S. Dubuque St. The event will feature readings from Marvin Bell, Paul Ingram, Robert Garner McBrearty, Dr. Alphabet (Dave Morice), Gary Sanders, and Mary Helen Stefaniak. The event is free and open to the public.

When Slonneger arrived in Iowa City in 1982 to pursue a graduate degree in art, she got a job as a host from longtime friend Panther. While working at "the Burg," she noticed a special connection between the restaurant, its clientele, and the surrounding community.

"As hostess up front, I got to talk to quite a number people that were just visiting their children or passing through town. They would always come back and praise the place to me," she said. "There was a man who ate every meal there for five years, from 1965 to 1970 — that's the kind of connection we're talking about."

Her book features perspectives from almost 40 contributors that tell how the Hamburg Inn has affected their lives. One of the contributors is Writers' Workshop alumnus and former Hamburg dishwasher, Robert Garner McBrearty.

He was walking down the street in 1979, and Burg employee Gary Sanders asked if he needed a job.

"There was no application form, and I think I might have even started that same day," McBrearty said. "One night after work, I wrote 'The Dishwasher.' I wrote it from midnight to 5 a.m. at the kitchen table in my crummy little apartment I had. It wasn't based on the Hamburg Inn, but I did write it after a night of washing dishes."

His contribution to the book is "The Dishwasher," which has been reprinted several times and performed a handful of times across the country. He is one of the contributors who admits working at the diner changed the course of his life.

"In a curious way, that particular story really opened a lot of doors for me — it was a prize-winning story," he said. "It seemed like it was a big part of launching my career as a writer, and I would have never written that story if it weren't for my time working at the Hamburg Inn."

Sanders also said working at the restaurant changed his life. He floated around the country from 1965 to 1978. He attended six different colleges and dabbled in occupations from steel mill to private investigator to teacher. He regularly hitchhiked across the country and once sailed on a homemade sailboat from Mexico to Hawaii.

"In 1978, I ran out of steam physically and mentally. I visited somebody [in Iowa City], and I didn't know what I was doing with my life. I had zero plans," he said. "Then I got a job at the Burg."

During his time at the Hamburg Inn, he met what he called "a cross section of the community." He served doctors and gas-station attendants, lawyers and bus drivers.

"I waited on all those peoplem," he said. "So that immediately attracted me to the place. It was the hub where all these different people came. There were no class differences — everybody mingled freely."

In 1990, Sanders wrote "A restaurant with a soul" in his column in the Iowa City Press-Citizen. That article influenced Slonneger's decision to write her book.

From when he was first hired in 1979 to his article in 1990 and its reprinting in Slonneger's book, Sanders will always cherish his time working at the Hamburg Inn.

"It has a sense of community; you can just sit down and start talking to the person next to you," he said. "I'm not sure how many places there are like that, in Iowa City or across the country, where everyone is so relaxed and accepts each other. Whether you have pink hair, or you're 75-years-old and bald, people just like hanging out at the Burg."

The Hamburg community stretches far beyond the city limits.

"Whenever I travel across the country, I wear a Hamburg T-shirt," Sanders said. "And it doesn't matter where I am, people will say, 'Hey, you from IC? I've been to the Burg.' I've heard that in Berkeley, Hawaii, wherever. I've got 14 different T-shirts, and that's usually the only clothes I take with me when I travel."

The Hamburg is perhaps Iowa City's best-known restaurant, and its rich history is captured in Slonneger's book. The book is special to the thousands of patrons who have passed through the restaurant's door over the years, but it is perhaps most special to the man who has kept the door open.

"From a small business back in the '30s and '40s to its gaining state, national, and even international fame with the caucuses," Panther said. "I just think it's really neat to have a book about what my dad started years ago and how it's changed over the years. It's been a nice journey."


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