In an effort to explore all that Iowa has to offer, I will attempt to review at least one location I visit per week. They may be restaurants, stores, museums, etc.
Also bars. You see, the bar in town is much more than a bar. It is an institute of higher learning where citizens meet for intellectual discussion. Don’t believe me? Welcome to Runnells University, aka Morgan’s.
Establishment: Morgan’s University of Runnells Bar and Grill
Location: Runnells, IA
Background: Runnells is a small town about 25 minutes east of Des Moines bordering the Des Moines River. The last census has Runnells’ population at a whopping 507 residents. You know a town will be interesting when your household accounts for 0.5% of the people who live there.
With a downtown approximately 3 blocks long, Runnells has little to offer would-be travelers. As my roommate Carl put it, “Blink and you’ll miss it.” However, one thing Runnells does have is Morgan’s Bar and Grill, colloquially known as the “University of Runnells”. I can only imagine why.
Décor: An unassuming building, you’d hardly know Morgan’s was a bar, save for the sign hanging above the equally bland door. The interior is reminiscent of friendly neighborhood dives: sparse seating, weathered beer paraphernalia, and homages to local patrons. I was struck by the number of “Bartender only behind the bar” signs. I thought the message seemed obvious. I was wrong.
Staff: Joey, the bartender, was a tall man with a taller beard. He wore a John Deere baseball cap (actually, I was the only male patron not wearing a hat). After grabbing me a beer, he asked where I was living in Runnells. After reciting the address, he thought for a moment. “Yup. I trap kye-oat over there.” About an hour into my stay, Joey’s shift ended. Before the next bartender arrived, someone walked up to the beer cooler and pulled out two beers. Now the signs made sense.
Patrons: Four people were in the bar when I entered. They looked simultaneously confused and intrigued by my presence. Kurt, a mustachioed, camouflage-wearing man, was the first to say hello. His wife, Candy, was the first to ask who I was. Her blaze orange hoodie matched her energetic personality. Candy asked where I came from, what I did for work, whether antelope lived at the wildlife refuge (they don’t), told how she once ate the corn husk they serve tamales in, and insisted I visit the Iowa State Fair in summertime. Mario and Abel, two men in the kitchen, shouted disagreements, assuring me the fair food was poisonous.
I guess that’s a good transition to dinner.
Food: I asked Joey what was good. Shrugging, he suggested anything on the menu, or the special. When I asked what the special was, he responded, “Mexican something…hold on,” then called to Mario in the kitchen.
“It’s a Mexican baked potato with cheese, sour cream, seasoned pork, and beans.” Sure, I’d try that.
They brought the beans out early, as the potato would take a while to cook. The beans were simple but tasty, garnished with a sprig of parsley (or “green shit” as Kurt called it). The potato arrived the second I finished the beans. Wrapped in foil, it again seemed basic, but was tasty all the same. The seasoned pork topping was especially good, and would have made an excellent dish by itself.
Drink: Morgan’s had four beers on tap: Miller Light, Bud Light, some beer I had never heard of, and Budweiser. I chose the latter. It was served in a tall, chilled mug. Oddly, not a single patron ordered from the tap, instead favoring bottles. Coors light and Busch light seemed popular. Again, I chose Budweiser.
The bill: Joey informed me my first beer was free, as the previous patron had left a quarter on the bar table. I didn’t get the correlation, but decided not to argue with a free beer.
3 mugs of Budweiser
1 Saturday Night Special (Mexican Baked Potato)
Total tab: $12
Yeah, I didn’t believe it when I was handed $8 change for a $20. Even if my first beer was free, $12 for 2 beers and dinner seemed insanely cheap. Safe to say, I left a good tip.
Verdict: As I walked out, I said goodbye to the patrons, now numbering seven. Each one stopped their conversation to say goodbye and told me to return again.
And I will. Cheap food and beer aside, this was a friendly neighborhood bar with people who went out of their way to welcome me. Even if the conversations veered into the strange (male birth control and faulty roto tillers), they were still entertaining conversations with entertaining locals. “It’s called the university for a reason. We have very deep conversations.”
Yes, you do. And I hope to add my two cents in the future.
Runnells University! Ra! Ra! Ra!