Good food and great antiques in Mt. Vernon, Iowa
2015 update: The Lincoln Cafe is no longer open in Mt. Vernon.
I’ve wanted to go back to Mt. Vernon ever since I read W.E. Moranville’s Datebook Diner review of the Lincoln Café in the Des Moines Register last August in which she raves: “Can a restaurant be perfect? The Lincoln Café comes the closest to such a thing as I have ever seen.”
Pair that glowing review with my memory of a charming college town filled with brightly painted historic homes, and you’ve got yourself a road trip.
Mt. Vernon is a cultural and historic gem just east of Cedar Rapids. The downtown area features art studios, antiques shops, an organic food store, bars, and restaurants. The town offers three registered national historic districts: the downtown business area, a neighborhood of Victorian homes, and the entire campus of Cornell College.
This is a thriving community that entices visitors with frequent festivals and events. Just in the past few weeks, Mt. Vernon hosted a “Chalk the Walk” festival and a chocolate stroll. Next up is the annual 4th of July Antiques Extravaganza featuring the Lincoln Highway Antiques Show and nine local antiques shops. It seems like there’s something happening all the time. Take a look at the community events calendar.
I can vouch for two of the antiques shops, having visited there myself yesterday. Alice’s Wonderland offered some great vintage finds as well as unique jewelry-making and scrapbooking supplies – not to mention several friendly cats. I bought some art-reproduction paper for a craft project yet to be determined.
Down the street is Polly Ann’s Antiques – a shop filled with one adorable room after another. I could have spent hours in Polly Ann’s. I especially loved the frilly, Victorian-styled bedrooms, the bright vintage kitchen, and the many other themed rooms filled with fun one-of-a-kind finds. I bought a small black-and-white tin for my bathroom.
Across the street from Polly Ann’s is a large community building that houses Schoolhouse Antiques, Room 222, and Enchanted Treasures. Also in the downtown area are Fuel, Wolf’s Antiques, and First Brick Antiques. I did not visit any of these shops, sensing that I might be overwhelmed, and I didn’t want to spend my entire day in antiques stores.
Of course, I had to eat lunch at the Lincoln Café and see what all the fuss was about. The restaurant boasts “honest food” with a focus on local, seasonal ingredients. When I got there at about 1 p.m. every table was full. I nabbed the lone stool at the counter and ordered a salad made with pears, walnuts, and Maytag blue cheese tossed with fresh greens and a balsamic vinaigrette dressing. The Datebook Diner was right: It could not have been more perfect. The walnuts were toasted to perfection, and each ingredient came in just the right amount. Everything tasted so fresh…when I was finished, I wanted to lick the plate.
I also ordered dessert, described by the waitress as “sea-salt pecan brownies with buttermilk ice cream, chocolate sauce, and toasted macadamia nuts.” Who could resist such a thing? The fudgy brownies were cut into tiny bite-sized pieces and covered with homemade ice cream. I couldn’t finish it all.
After lunch, I definitely needed to walk, so I spent some time on the campus of Cornell College. Set on a wooded, 129-acre hilltop, it’s a lovely place to stroll. Cornell was the first college campus to be listed entirely on the National Register of Historic Places. Its student population is small – about 1200 – and the college is known for its “one course at a time” approach. The school was founded in 1853, and many of the buildings are from that era.
The residential neighborhoods surrounding the campus and downtown area are as I remembered: Many brightly painted Victorians and other well-loved historic homes with large trees and flower gardens. I took pictures of many of them, half expecting someone to run out to see what the heck I was doing. But nobody bothered me. Residents went about their business, mowing their grass and taking their children to little league games.
There’s more to see in Mt. Vernon and neighboring Lisbon, including a museum in each town, parks, art galleries, and specialty shops, but I decided I needed to head home.
Just west of Mt. Vernon is Palisades-Kepler State Park, which offers a stone lodge built in the 1930s, camping, cabins, trails, fishing, and picnic areas. I drove through the park and walked along the roadway for just a bit; I didn’t have proper footwear (nor insect repellant, nor enough time) to go on a real hike in the woods.
And right next to the park entrance, I spotted a small barn painted with a reproduction of American Gothic (and other scenes). It was painted by artist Mark Benesh in 2008. It’s really quite impressive, and a nice way to launch the scenic (if you don’t mind the road construction on Hwy. 30) two-hour drive back to Ames.