The last time I ate at the Canteen Lunch in Ottumwa I had no idea it would later break into national acclaim. It was just a little lunch counter hole in the wall (literally, given its odd location) where people could stop in and get an honest lunch. It was just one more of a vanishing breed of independent diners that I just assumed would joint the rest and disappear into obscurity. Happily, I was wrong.
As I recall, the fellow who first brought me there was an out of state businessman who was at odds with the locals. His skills at picking a restaurant or bar were only excelled by his ability to pick a fight with strangers. We ended up eating too quickly and he quickly paid with his trademark stack of $2 bills ran out before the lunch counter of now angry locals could gather themselves into a mob.
Nothing had changed in the nearly twenty years since my previous visit. This visit was much more uneventful, though the crowd packing into the place was unbelievable. Everybody had now heard of the place by now with all of the statewide and national coverage and the owners were knocking themselves out trying to meet the demand. I felt a bit sheepish adding my order to the endless avalanche of loose meat sandwiches that were flowing out of the place.
From a sign on the wall the place was established in 1927 and moved to its current location facing a back alley in 1936. The current owners, the McBeth and Staley sisters and their husbands have owned the business since 1976. Sometime in the late 1980s the City wanted to build a parking garage at that location and rather than pick a fight with the locals built it right on top of the restaurant.
We ordered pie for dessert. We asked one of the owners where they got their pies and she answered simply “Hy-Vee.” So there you have it. [2017 UPDATE: The new owners make their own pies!] I almost forgot to mention the food. We both ate the classic loose meat sandwiches. There is no mystery how they are made because they make them right in front of the whole crowd. But the ingredients are just right and unlike some chains that server similar sandwiches, the bun is large enough that the meat does not spill out needlessly.
If you want to get a taste of old-time lunch counter style food then head on down to the Canteen Lunch in Ottumwa.
112 E 2nd St
Ottumwa, IA 52501