George's is one of those places that just seems to been there since the advent of time. The official name of the place is called "George's Buffet", but there's no buffet in the place. It's an old time bar on Market Street in Iowa City (see map) that caters more to the locals and a more bohemian clientele who have enjoyed George's burgers for a number of years. Not long ago, I met up with a couple buddies there - Al Kern and Dave Arnold - to have a few brews, a burger and to catch up on some good conversation.
I went to the University of Iowa from 1980 to 1985. I worked with Dave at an old audio store that is now out of business and he was the one who turned me on to George's. It proudly wears the "dive bar" tag with distinction, one that is worthy of a place that has been in existence since 1939. Although there are other bars in the area, George's has been the favorite of a number of people in the northern Iowa City neighborhood around Mercy Hospital for years and years. It is an Iowa City icon, very much like its neighbor, John's Grocery, just down the block on Market Street.
How George's got the name "George's Buffet" has brought about much conjecture from people who have visited the place for years. My theory is somewhat historical - a number of places that served booze, but not food, after Prohibition called themselves "buffets" to soften the still smoldering sentiment of some of the pro-non-drinking public in the years after the 18th Amendment was repealed. The original owner, who was probably named "George", more than likely followed this path by selling just beer at George's. (Liquor by the drink was not available in taverns in Iowa until July of 1963. You could bring in your own bottle and buy "set ups" - mixers for the booze you had the bartender pour from your own bottle. But beer was the only thing that you could buy over the bar from a tavern from 1933 until 30 years later in Iowa.)
Those involved with the temperance movement even after the repeal of Prohibition would still look down their noses at places that just sold beer. But the notion of a place that sold beer AND food somewhat softened their sentiment against such places. God knows that these people would never darken the door of a place that sold food WITH beer, so it's a good bet that many of these "tea-totalers" never knew that George's didn't have a buffet at all, let alone the fact that they didn't sell food of any type.
Well, that was until the 60's when the then owner put in a little toaster oven and began to make cheeseburgers in it. I'm guessing it had to be the 60's - or thereabout - because my brother-in-law used to tell me about going there for 75 cent cheeseburgers when he was dating my sister in college. Located in a small back room off of the bar, the little toaster oven they use at George's can make, I believe, up to six or eight burgers at a time. There's no grill - either a flat top or a flame grill - at George's. The menu is pretty simple - burgers and chips.
I met up with Dave and Al one afternoon and they were already enjoying a Bass pale ale and catching up on what had been going on with their lives. I had a Bass along with them and ended up enjoying a couple beers before we ordered up our burgers. We had caught the bartender on a slow afternoon and he was able to come up with three burgers for us in no time. Or at least as long as it took to make three cheeseburgers in a toaster oven.
The cheeseburger at George's is pretty basic. It's a hand-patted burger sitting on a slice of American cheese with a sesame-seed bun slathered with ketchup, yellow mustard, pickles and onion. The taste of the burger at George's reminds me very much of a burger from Dairy Queen. And Dairy Queen makes very good burgers. So I guess George's has that going for them. The burgers aren't all that large at George's, so two burgers could easily be eaten if you came in with a hearty appetite. It had been a long, long time since I had my last George's burger so it was a nice treat to have. Along with the Bass pale ale and the great conversation with Dave and Al, it was a wonderful afternoon in my life.
George's has a lot of history being that it has been a watering hole for over 70 years and for their basic burgers they've been slinging for probably close to 50 years. While it's not fancy, George's Buffet has a character that is truly Iowa City. It's laid back, it's bohemian, it's unique and, best of all, George's has been unspoiled by age or progression. It's exactly the same today as it was when I first walked in there back in the early 80's to have a burger and beer, and listen to some great music on their jukebox. George's is truly timeless and for an instant that one afternoon, I felt 25 years younger.