Friday, March 13, 2009

COLUMN: Breitbach's Revisited

With the economy down the toilet, winter never ending, and women of the world back to their usual routine of not giving me the time of day, I needed some good news. This week, I got it. It's official: the smell of ham steaks will soon again be wafting down from the bluffs of Balltown. The phoenix is once again rising from the ashes -- Breitbach's is coming back.

For the uninitiated, Breitbach's Country Dining is an unassuming eatery just upriver from Dubuque on a road that only recently discovered pavement. It also just happens to be Iowa's Oldest Bar & Restaurant, as the proud tagline of its sign proclaims.

The road to Balltown is half the fun of visiting the place. Sure, you could take U.S. 61 and zip up to Dubuque in no time flat -- but you'd be doing a disservice to your eyes The far superior ride is to follow the Great River Road north. Just aim for the smell of homemade mashed potatoes and gravy, and you'll soon be climbing the jaw-droppingly gorgeous river bluffs towards Balltown.

Dating back to the 1850's and under control of the Breitbach clan for six generations, it's not just the scenic views and storied history that make the restaurant such a popular attraction -- it's the FOOD. Featuring a menu of down-home Midwest cuisine rivalled only by your grandmother's kitchen, one visit to Breitbach's legendary buffet and you'll understand why some of their clientele drive for HOURS to walk through those doors.

That's why many Iowans had a less-than-merry Christmas back in 2007. In the wee hours of that fateful Christmas Eve, the tiny community of Balltown was rocked by an explosion from the basement of their cherished restaurant. By the time the sun rose, Breitbach's was little more than a smouldering pile of rubble. So extreme was the damage that investigators couldn't put their finger on an exact cause.

Faced with the difficult decision of rebuilding, current owners Mike & Cindy Breitbach leaned towards closure - until the community rallied together. Volunteers poured in from around the state. Amish carpenters built the framework. Fans of the restaurant from states away packed trucks and drove out to lend a hand.

After just 69 days of construction, the new Breitbach's opened to much fanfare last June. The new building was modernized and upscale while classic and gothic. It just wasn't fireproof.

Like a bad joke, Mike's phone started ringing at 3 a.m. on October 24th. He arrived to the scene just in time to see the roof collapse in flames. Once again, a mysterious fire had claimed Breitbach's. An investigation is still pending.

If the FIRST decision was a tough one to make, you might think that the second would have been even harder. But you don't know Balltown.

"This wasn't a family decision," explains Breitbach. "It was a community decision. We had to re-open."

The sentiment is echoed by Balltown resident and construction volunteer Ron Schmidt. "When the second fire hit, it wasn't just disbelief, it was anger. And the best way to work off that anger is to rebuild."

The family hopes to break ground on the new restaurant in mid-March. "With the good Lord willing," Breitbach says, "Cindy's pies will be baking by mid-June."

In the interim, a makeshift tent office on the construction site dubbed The Gathering Place fills every morning with Balltown residents eager for a cup of joe and a piece of the progress planning. A local architect has offered his services pro bono. More than 40 volunteers have already signed up.

"Breitbach's is at the center of Balltown," explains Schmidt. "You can't hear one without the other. Our town would be dead without it."

"America's lost its sense of community and its touch," says Breitbach. "But I'm here to tell you that we haven't lost the touch. Not here in Balltown, Iowa, population: 49."

The world notices the touch. The restaurant may be temporarily M.I.A., but that didn't stop Breitbach's from winning the prestigious 2009 America's Classic award from the James Beard Foundation. This May, Mike and Cindy will take their first ever plane ride to accept the award in the confines of New York's Lincoln Center.

Here's hoping they hurry home. There's ham steaks a-wastin'.

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