Most residents, even restaurant owners and vegetarians, seem to agree which Ottumwa restaurant is most famous. Now foodies in New York and elsewhere will read about Ottumwa’s love of Canteen Lunch in the Alley.
New York magazine’s online food page, Grub Street New York, searched 50 states for memorable dining experiences. They chose only one for each state and one in Washington, D.C. The single must-see site in all of Iowa is in Ottumwa.
The list, “50 State Dinners, 2012: Food Pilgrimages You Must Make This Summer” include dishes like lobster, lamb — and loose meats.
“Grub Street’s editors have once again scoured the country looking for fantastic, one-of-a-kind restaurants, no matter which part of the country you wind up in,” states the article, currently a “top story” on their page.
“I’m thrilled to death,” said owner-manager Shirlee Mc Beth of Ottumwa. “Especially if there’s only one in each state. It’s quite an honor.”
Long history of recognition
The landmark lunch spot has been on TV with KCCI in Des Moines, had a write up in “Our Iowa” magazine and been featured in numerous newspapers around the state. But this is the first time Mc Beth remembers being on a best-in-the-nation list out of a place like New York.
She didn’t contact New York magazine. Then again, the Canteen doesn’t do much bragging — or even much advertising.
Long before “word-of-mouth advertising” became a cliché, the Canteen relied on a legion of die-hard fans to spread the word. It’s the voters who have told presidential candidates, congressmen and governors that they “have to” try the Canteen.
Ottumwa’s ambassador to Hollywood, Tom Arnold, has been a frequent guest.
“Tom is very loyal and eats here when he’s in town,” said Mc Beth.
In just the past few years, they’ve served presidential hopeful Ron Paul, U.S. Congressman Dave Loebsack, U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd, well-known Iowa Republican Bob Vander Plaats, groups of off-duty Secret Service agents brought in by a law enforcement officer who is an employee’s son — and just about every political hopeful worth his salt, mustard, pickles and onions.
It’s not uncommon for visitors — including VIPs — to stand around, waiting for a place at the little counter to open up. Around 11:30 a.m. Thursday, nearly every seat was taken.
Loyalty includes employees
“... the Canteen’s version,” said New York magazine’s online editors, “which dates back to 1936, has its own fervent following, as do the malts and pies and the ladies who serve them ...”
“I really have a good crew,” said Mc Beth. “I’m very fortunate.”
A server said Mc Beth is a good boss. As evidence, employees started to call out how long they’d been sautéing ground beef there.
Of the employees behind the counter, one woman identified herself as the “newbie” because she’d only been full time for five years. A nearby employee said she’d been there 10 years, and a lady who’d stepped to the back of the shop to get more meat has been working for Mc Beth 17 years. But for spreading the word about the Canteen, she said, nothing beats the loyal customers.
“They visit with each other and talk about the last time they had a canteen. How their grandfather used to take them here, or how they went to school [in Ottumwa] then missed the Canteen when they moved away ...”
They’re hungry when they make it home, she said.
“The record is 12, set by Tom Arnold’s nephew. But that guy over there ate ... what? Ten? Ten at once.”
“That was five years ago,” said Larry Slycord, the man sitting at the horseshoe-shaped counter.
An OHS grad who saw sunny San Diego during his military service, Slycord became a police officer with the California Highway Patrol. He’s retired now. And he eats far fewer canteens at each meal.
“We just come more often per visit.”
A member of his party said the guy eats so many because he’s still living out west and has to get his fill while he can.
“I guess you could say that,” said Slycord.
When he did down 10 loose meats, he was actually camping 50 miles from Ottumwa and says they took their motorcycles to the Canteen. He stayed tough through the first batch but started turning a little green after eight or nine of the big, meaty and wonderfully greasy sandwiches.
“The ladies didn’t go light, that’s for sure,” he said.
The former CHiP officer finished his 10th loose meat, put on his helmet — with full face mask — and began the bouncing, jostling motorcycle ride back to the campgrounds.
“If I had gotten sick, I would have never stopped and gotten the helmet off in time,” he said. “So I didn’t get sick.”
Everyone, said Mc Beth, seems to have a Canteen story.
Lunch patron Peggy Hults has been a Canteen regular for around 50 years.
“When I was a little girl,” she said, “I would take the bus downtown, come here, eat, then take the bus home ... and when my daughter was a baby, I would set her carrier on the counter. She’s 40 now.”
Those outside Iowa will soon know how much Ottumwans care for the place: “When the city wanted to build a parking garage that would have forced the Canteen to move,” states the article, “there was such an outcry from locals that the city built the garage over it.”
Note: Some pages in the Grub Street New York article use an occasional swear word: newyork.grubstreet.com/2012/04/the-best-places-to-eat-in-every-state.html.