My wife and I had taken a trip to Missouri earlier this year to watch some baseball and meet up with some old friends. On our way back, we took some backroads and ended up in Burlington, IA late on a Sunday afternoon. We were both a little hungry, so we decided to stop at a place that I had been to a couple times and my wife had been to once before in the distant past - Big Muddy's - along the riverfront in downtown Burlington.
I first ate at Big Muddy's about a year after it opened over 25 years ago. I was the general manager of an audio shop in Davenport and we were doing a large whole-house system at a river bluff home between Burlington and Fort Madison. Our lead installer and I drove down one day to take a look through the project and we stopped off at Big Muddy's and grabbed lunch. I don't remember much about the meal, but I was sort of enchanted by the expansive river view the restaurant offered.
Big Muddy's is located in what was the old Burlington, Cedar Rapids and Northern railroad freight house that was built in 1888. It was eventually taken over by the Rock Island railroad in the early 1900's and was known to the locals as the Rock Island freight house for a number of years. When the Rock Island line ceased to exist in the late 70's, the freight house was abandoned.
Even though it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982, the building sat empty for a number of years before local residents Dennis and Karla Standard bought the property and developed it into a restaurant/reception hall. They opened their doors in 1991 and continue to run the restaurant today. The restaurant has survived two big floods - ones in 1993 and 2008 where water from the Mississippi entered the building. (Flood level measurements are prominently displayed in the dining area of the restaurant.) They also survived a flood in 2013 with the help of volunteers that placed sandbags around the building to keep it from flooding inside the structure.
Big Muddy's is located along Front Street in downtown Burlington. (see map) It's sort of confusing if you're coming through Burlington on the main Highway 34 roadway to get there. There are some train tracks you have to go over and then a short drive along Front Street to the parking area next to the river. As I said the view from the river side of the building is spectacular, yet relaxing with the Great River Bridge that connects Burlington with Gulfport, IL off in the immediate distance.
We went in to the hostess stand and saw that there were tables open in the restaurant. However, we were told that there would be a 20 minute wait for a table. I was sort of perplexed thinking that while there were tables open, they wouldn't seat us right away. I figured that there were a lot of people with reservations coming in, but it turned out that it wasn't the case. People who came in after us were also told there would be a wait. We figured that it was probably due to the lack of wait staff on duty that day.
The bar area is right next to the hostess stand and we took a seat there. Flat screen televisions, some framed pictures and some railroad memorabilia hung on the slat wood back walls. I ordered up a Goose Island IPA while we waited for a table to open up.
Past the bar area is a larger reception area that featured a number of long tables and a stage area. The room was more ornate than the bar area and it looked like a nice little space. More railroad memorabilia was found in this room.
We were finally seated - well over 30 minutes after we entered the place - at a table in the dining area that faces the river. Not long after we were seated and our menus were in place, our server - Nicole - came over to greet us. She gave us a run down of the specials that evening and let us alone to peruse the menu.
The salad bar was in a room off to the side of the bar. It was your typical Midwestern salad bar with different greens, a large choice of dressings, and a number of sides such as pickled beets, cottage cheese, macaroni salad and fresh veggies.
I got the blue cheese dressing to go on my salad along with a cup of a somewhat pasty tasting cream of mushroom soup. The salad with the housemade blue cheese dressing was fine, nothing outstanding. My wife's salad was similar, she said. The greens were fresh, the dressing was tasty, the salad was good.
For dinner, I wasn't really certain what I wanted. They primarily have steaks, ribs, pork chops, seafood, pasta dishes, sandwiches and burgers on the menu. The specials that evening - and I can't remember what they were - didn't trip my trigger. I thought about getting something off the chicken part of the menu - they had a number of entrees that sounded pretty good. But I wasn't certain what to get. I was leaning toward getting the portobello mushroom chicken - a grilled chicken breast topped with sautéed portobello mushrooms and a mushroom brie sauce and topped off with melted provolone cheese and sprinkled with parmesan. But our server Nicole suggested I get the smothered chicken - a grilled chicken breast marinated in a teriyaki sauce and topped with sautéed red onions, green peppers and mushroom slices. "It's one of our more popular dishes here," she assured me.
My wife went the pasta route with something called Pasta Rockefeller - penne pasta topped with an artichoke spinach cream sauce, chopped bacon, sliced sautéed mushrooms and sprinkled with parmesan cheese and parsley flakes. For a two dollar up charge, she got some grilled chicken mixed in with the pasta.
My chicken was a bit overcooked and dried out. And I decided that about three bites into the meal that I should have gotten my first choice as the sautéed peppers and onions were overwhelming the overall taste of the meal. Now, I like the taste of sautéed peppers and sautéed onions, but they usually come back to talk to me a couple hours later. This time was no different except that I was tasting the somewhat bland chicken with every burp along with the peppers and onions.
My wife thought her pasta was fine. She, too, thought the grilled chicken breast slices mixed in the pasta were somewhat overcooked and dry. But she put a dent in the pasta eating about half of the dish before throwing in the towel. Nicole wanted to know if she wanted to take it home and my wife gave her standard answer for pasta dishes she doesn't finish, "It's never as good warmed up at home as it is in the restaurant." And she's usually right.
We were both a little disappointed in our visit to Big Muddy's. We waited longer than we were told we had to wait when we first came in. We were sort of incredulous that we weren't seated earlier as there were clearly open tables in the dining area. The meal was just all right - the chicken we had in our dishes was overcooked, chewy and dry. But the salad bar was nice and our server was friendly and attentive. I'm sure there are some some good things on the menu at Big Muddy's - they wouldn't be in business for 25 years serving bland and lifeless food. But we certainly didn't experience it that evening.