Friday, November 07, 2008

COLUMN: Breitbach's

If I learned one thing from my high school journalism teacher, Ms. Hinman, it was this: know your audience. If you're working at a paper (like this one) that's distributed to a kajillion people from all walks of life, write about stuff that everyone can relate to.

This week, though, Ms. Hinman needs to stop reading -- I'm about to break her cardinal rule. For this column and this column only, I'm narrowing down my target audience down just a little. This column is directed to an audience of TWO: Mike and Cindy Breitbach of Balltown, Iowa.

I love my community and all, but let's face it -- one of the most fun things to do in the Quad Cities is to hop in a car and leave. Even during my early days as a relocated Augie student, Friend Jason and I would grab some provisions and head out in search of rural adventure. It was during one of these aimless journeys that we first stumbled upon Balltown.

The first thing you notice is the view. Resting high atop the Iowa bluffs, the scenic overlook at Balltown offers the best glimpse of the river valley you'll get between Dubuque and Prairie Du Chien. Iowa hillsides that would make Grant Wood drool cascade to the lazy river while the hazy ridges of Wisconsin beckon in the distance. It's postcard perfect.

But just beside the overlook, there's something else that draws your eye. A non-descript eatery with a sign proudly proclaiming "Iowa's oldest restaurant."

That eatery is Breitbach's, and I'm proud to declare in print that it's since become My Favorite Restaurant Ever. It's not like it's super fancy or anything. There's no menu items you can't pronounce, no fancy wine list, no sorbet to cleanse the pallet between courses. It's simply down-home midwest food, cooked to perfection and offered in abundance. Imagine a buffet where each and every item was cooked by your favorite grandmother and you'd be close. Thick and sweet ham steaks bigger than your plate, mountains of fried chicken and shrimp, lumpy mashed potatoes with achingly perfect homemade gravy, pickled beets like you ONLY get at family reunions, the list goes on and on.

The meal was stellar, the view out of this world, and the drive home was spent loosening the belt in the painful bliss of overindulgence. In all my years of aimless driving, in all the miles covered, Breitbach's remains my favorite discovery.

But on Christmas Day 2007, I paused from roasting chestnuts and decking the halls to peruse the paper. There, buried in a story in the back section, was an article I never wanted to see. "Iowa Restaurant Burns," was the headline, and I gasped when I saw a picture of the smoldering remains of Breitbach's. An explosion in the basement, possibly due to a gas leak, had spelled the end to the buffet of my dreams.

This spring, I once again found myself in the car, north of Dubuque in the vicinity of Balltown. I decided to cruise up for the view and memories of ham steaks gone by. But it wasn't the view of the river valley that was breathtaking; it was the view of a resurrected Breitbach's. I probably broke every traffic law in Balltown peeling into the parking lot.

It turns out that Mike & Cindy Breitbach, the third generation of owners since the family bought the place in 1861, had trepidations about the physical and fiscal task of rebuilding. It turns out, though, that Friend Jason and I weren't the only fans of the place. Out of nowhere, volunteers came from across the state. An armada of Amish carpenters traveled miles to put up new walls. Townsfolk provided food and support while workers erected a new roof. The ductwork was done for free by an Ohio biker who had once stopped by the restaurant on a whim. Families donated untold time and resources, just for the privilege of saving a beloved landmark.

The new Breitbach's reopened in June of 2008 with nary a hint of December's devastation except a photo album in the lobby paying tribute to the volunteers and supporters. Once again, the gravy flowed in Balltown. Just the other day, I was telling my girlfriend that we had to get up there before the snows came. Then, I made the mistake of opening the paper again.

Like some kind of cruel joke, last Friday the NEW Breitbach's burned to the ground. As of press time, investigators still haven't determined a cause, but once again, the great restaurant lay in ruin. And once again, Mike & Cindy Breitbach are left with a decision to make.

According to an article in the Dubuque paper, the family plans to meet soon to decide whether or not it's worth it for a third go-around. My vote is YES. Iowa might not be the most attention-getting state in this union, but it IS one of the friendliest. Mike & Cindy, if you guys can somehow swing it, I guarantee you'll have even MORE help this time around.

At the end of the day, I guess it's kind of a shallow plea. I just don't want those ham steaks to become the stuff of legend. But at the same time, the legacy of Breitbach's is worth saving as much as its gravy. In today's modern era where even the classiest of national chain restaurants do little more than heat up frozen meals, the charm of a home-cooked dinner in a building raised by the hard work and love of a community is priceless. And to the credit of Ms. Hinman, I think everyone can relate to that.

Borrowed with the best of intentions from the Telegraph-Herald. Please don't sue me.

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