Breitbach’s: oldest, newest Iowa restaurant

The oldest operating restaurant in Iowa also is among the state’s newest.

When Breitbach Family Dining – in Balltown since 1852 – reopened this month, many of the aromas were familiar and comforting. The fifth-generation family business specializes in hearty meals and from-scratch cooking, down to the pickled beets and corn relish that help fill the all-you-can-eat buffet tables.

What has vanished is the collection of family photos that for decades filled walls of the restaurant and bar – reminders of forefathers, culinary matriarchs and German ancestry.

Owners Mike and Cindy Breitbach are learning to live with this, a bittersweet chapter of their lives.

What is new and extraordinary is a plaque from the James Beard Foundation, which this year issued the Breitbachs an America’s Classics award. This honor for restaurateurs is comparable to a lifetime achievement Oscar for actors. Only four to eight businesses per year, nationwide, earn the title, which acknowledges the culinary excellence of longtime, family-owned enterprises.

The Breitbach menu advises diners of a half-hour wait for entrees, if they don’t want the buffet – and to go elsewhere if this isn’t acceptable. Mike routinely makes the rounds with customers, sometimes working the room like a politician, shaking hands and asking people where they’re from, how they like the food.

“Love for Breitbach’s goes well beyond devotion to the restaurant’s fried chicken, bacon-wrapped pork chops and pies,” the foundation wrote, when announcing the America’s Classics award.

So Balltown, population 49 and near the Mississippi River, makes the news. Again. The Breitbachs would just as soon not have attracted some of the headlines, especially on Christmas 2007.

A gas explosion on Christmas Eve resulted in fire that destroyed the restaurant. Mike had only a little time to grab items of value – like the family photos – before the building went up in flames.

The holiday turned into a wake of sorts, with more than 1,000 friends and loyal customers stopping by to offer condolences and vow to help rebuilt the place. That’s just what happened, and by mid June 2008, Breitbach’s again was open for business.

But not for long. The family’s bout with bad luck was not history.

In October, the unthinkable happened, and the nightmare began with a 3 a.m. phone call to Mike and Cindy. “The restaurant is burning,” a longtime friend and employee reported, in tears.

By the time the couple made the 2.5-mile trip from home to restaurant, the building was engulfed and beyond the rescue of the closest fire department, six miles away in Sherrill.

Losing the family business – again – was like the sudden death of a brother or sister. “I was born in the original building,” Mike mentions.

This time the decision to rebuild was not an automatic response for him and Cindy, in their 50s, but another phone call inadvertently nudged them.

The James Beard Foundation made its first contact with the couple on the day of the second fire.

“I thought it was a telemarketer,” Mike recalls. Twice burned, but far from defeated.

For a while, food was prepared and served in the Gathering Place, a shed-like structure that could seat 45. Friends again helped rebuild, and customers were eager to return to Balltown, on a remote countryside bluff where Breitbach’s and a feed mill seem to be the only businesses around.

“When you have floods or health problems, neighbors help neighbors,” Mike observes. “That’s what happened here, too, and you quickly get to know who your friends are.”

Who finds their way here? Locals (from both sides of the Mississippi), tourists following the Great River Road, lovers of down-home cooking and sentimental types. Mike mentions a couple who have visited annually, for 50 years, to celebrate their wedding anniversary.

Since 1892, euchre has been played here on Wednesday nights. Outsiders are welcome to join in, “but you have to know how to play,” Mike says. Not a good match for rookies.

The restaurant is one of the few places with frog legs still on the menu. A pot of soup simmers on a faux vintage black stove. Recent sugary-crust pie choices included fresh peach, fresh raspberry. The dinner buffet is affordable – $12.95 – and the deep-fried catfish is a reminder that you’re near Old Man River.

Up to 300 can dine at once, and kitchen size is twice that of the original building. In the Gathering Place, one of the Breitbach sons recently was paring bushels of pears, to make wine. A seventh generation also has a hand in the business, raising hope that the restaurant will be around long after Mike and Cindy leave their mark.

“Going through two fires seemed like too much at the time,” Mike notes, “but we were blessed.”

For more about Breitbach’s Family Dining, 563 Balltown Road, Balltown, Iowa, call 563-552-2220. The restaurant is 15 miles northwest of Dubuque on the Great River Road (this part is Hwy. C9Y), and less than a block from the restaurant is a stunning overlook of the Mississippi River Valley.

Wisconsin’s Cassville Car Ferry crosses the Mississippi River 15 miles northwest of Balltown, near Millville. It operates 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, until Labor Day, then Fridays to Sundays until Nov. 1.

The nine-car ferry, Wisconsin’s oldest operating ferry service, runs unless river conditions are disagreeable because of area flooding. Catch a 15-minute ride near Cassville’s Riverside Park boat landing; the fare is $2 for walk-ons, $13 per vehicle (which includes one passenger per seat belt).

You might have to wait to board with a vehicle, but usually for no more than one-half hour. Cassville ferry service began in 1833. For more:, 608-725-5855.

Only one Wisconsin restaurant – Three Brothers, in the Bay View neighborhood of Milwaukee – has earned the America’s Classics distinction from the James Beard Foundation. Three Brothers, 2414 S. St. Clair St., has served authentic Serbian food in an unpretentious setting for 59 years. For more about the dinner-only restaurant: 414-481-7530.

For more about America’s Classics awards: James Beard was a celebrated chef, food writer and culinary mentor who died in 1985.

Cyber connections: Follow me on Twitter (look for maryinmadison) and Facebook (or, in this case, feet-book: Look for the feet when searching for Mary Bergin).