This was a tough decision - is The Sanctuary Pub a great beer bar with over 15 beers on tap and over 100 bottled beers - both domestic and imports - to choose from? Or is it a great pizza joint with excellent thin crust pizza and fresh natural toppings?
Actually, it's a lot of both.
The Sanctuary is known as having a number of good and eclectic beers to choose from, and they're also known as a place to get one of the best pizzas in Iowa City.
One of the things this blog sort of makes me do is to visit new restaurants - or revisit ones that I used to go to, but haven't been to in a number of years. The Sanctuary is the latter, in this case. I used to go to The Sanctuary a lot years ago, especially when one of my dealers had his store right next to the pub on Gilbert Street just south and east of downtown Iowa City (see map). It's been, probably, four years since I was last in the place.
Opened in 1973 by Daryl "Woody" Woodson, The Sanctuary has long been a hang-out for the counter-culture crowd in Iowa City. For years, they have had folk, blues and jazz singers come to play on their little stage opposite the bar. The little pub has a friendly and intimate feel to it, even when the smoke from cigarettes pours out of the place.
But I like A) their beer selection; and B) their pizza. Many of the interesting domestic and imported beers I like these days, I first tried at The Sanctuary. The selection of beers - especially those on tap - will change from time to time, giving people a great chance to try a number of great beers over the course of the year.
Cindy and I drove to Iowa City one evening earlier this week to have dinner with her son, Eric, and her sister, Anita. No one had really decided where to meet up for dinner, so I suggested The Sanctuary. Anita said she used to come to The Sanctuary to listen to the music years ago. "This was my hang-out," she said when we met up at the pub.
Since there's no parking on Gilbert Street in front of the place, we parked in a lot just to the south of small complex of stores next to The Sanctuary. There is also a city-owned metered lot directly behind The Sanctuary, but they quit enforcing the meters at 5 p.m.
When we got inside the front door, I noticed something different - they'd added on since I was last in there. Or at least I thought they had. They had a signs pointing to the "pub" area - or smoking area - of the place, and one pointing to the "cafe" area - or non-smoking area. I had only been in the "pub" area and don't ever remember the cafe being part of the mix.
We went in and sat at a booth toward the back of the cafe. It was early, about 6 p.m., and there were just two other couples in there having an early dinner. The old brick walls were exposed above the high backs of the booths along the wall. The lighting was the same as it was over in the pub side, low and understated. But not having to deal with cigarette smoke was a definite plus.
Our waitress gave us our menus, but I went directly to the beer list, which showed the beers they are featuring for the months of May and June. While the beer selection doesn't change all that much every two months, they do feature some good seasonal beers during that time.
The first beer I got was a pint of the Three Floyd's Brewery Alpha King pale ale. Three Floyd's is a brewery just across the border from Illinois in the far SE side of Chicago. It's not far from a dealer that I call on down there and have told myself that I really need to go try the food at their little brew pub they have. And having an Alpha King reminded me that I do like their beers, as well.
We ended up ordering two pizzas - the Sanctuary Special, a good ol' standby where they throw everything on it (spicy sausage, pepperoni, ham, fresh onions, green peppers, black olives and mushrooms); and a simple sausage, pepperoni and jalapeno pizza.
I ended up ordering a Boulevard Pale Ale for my second beer, which is one of my all-time favorite pale ale's. But I have to say, the taste of the Boulevard was not as vibrant as the Alpha King pale ale. I went back to the Alpha King after finishing the Boulevard. Looks like I'll have to get some Alpha King the next time I go into Chicago.
Cindy and her sister were hungry, so they ordered the spicy spinach/artichoke dip. It was a creamy concoction that had a spicy bite to it. Served with toasted bread topped with herbs, it wasn't bad. In fact, Cindy thought it was some of the best spinach/artichoke dip she'd ever had.
After about 20 minutes, our waitress brought out our pizzas - except she screwed up the ingredients on the one. She had the cook put mushrooms on the one with the sausage and pepperoni. Cindy doesn't like mushrooms (which is funny - everyone in her family, including her son and daughter LOVES mushrooms), but she was a gamer and said she'd just take 'em off the pizza.
The pizza was exactly has I remember it. Thin, crisp crust with a thick crust edging. The toppings and cheese were heaped on top of the pizza. I remarked, "Why can't they have pizza like this in the Quad Cities?"
(As an aside, Anita was telling me there is a pizza place in Cedar Rapids called "Cranky Hank's". They bill themselves as having "Quad City Style Pizza", similar to Happy Joe's, Wise Guys and Harris Pizza - all three of which are not very good, in my opinion. See my synopsis on Quad City pizzas here. In fact, the name - Cranky Hank's - is an obvious take-off on the Happy Joe's name.)
The food was too much for all of us and we had to split up some of the remaining slices for Eric and us to take home. But that was fine with me. The reheated Sanctuary pizza I had for lunch the next day was every bit as good as when it was served hot and fresh the night before.
I haven't been too happy with Pagliai's in Iowa City the last couple three times I'd been there. In each case, the pizza crust was burnt and that burnt taste permeated the pizza. And they've begun to skimp on the toppings. They've begun to put very little meat on their pizzas. They've been very disappointing, to say the least. I used to think Pagliai's was the best pizza in Iowa City, but now I'm not too certain.
I have to say that I was very happy with our pizza at the Sanctuary. Along with the great selection of beers on tap and in bottles, it's one of the more interesting and unique restaurants in the Iowa City area. And being in business for 34 years now, Woody must be doing something right.