Prairie Canary is a culinary hit
I ate in a new restaurant in Grinnell recently that’s already famous.
The “Prairie Canary” restaurant and bar is run by Carly Groben, who won Iowa’s Best Bite Restaurant Challenge last year. Her prize? $10,000 in startup cash, $15,000 in starting inventory, $10,000 in “smallwares,” three months free rent, a $5,000 professional branding package, and free mentoring by Orchestrate Management, the company that runs Des Moines restaurants Centro and Django. Not a bad deal.
Groben, who is a Newton native and looks like Gwenyth Paltrow, had previously operated Proof and Flour in Des Moines. During the competition (according to a Des Moines Register article) she wowed the judges not just with her food, but with her answers to these question: “Will you love, honor, and cherish Grinnell? Will you stand by it both on busy Saturday nights and slow February days? Will you be a part of the community in good times and bad, in sickness and in health?”
Anyone who can answer those questions to the satisfaction of the judges is my kind of restaurant.
When I arrived there on a weekday before noon, only two tables were occupied. By the time I left, the lunch hour was in full swing, the tables were full, and the line to order was a dozen or more people deep.
That’s the drill at Prairie Canary: You go in and find a table, a server brings water and menus, and you place your order (and pay for your food) at the counter. The lunch menu is simple and functional, not one of those massive monstrosities favored by so many chain restaurants. There are soups of the day, several salads, half a dozen sandwiches, and a few pasta dishes.
The salads sounded wonderful, but it was a cold day so I chose a cup of cheesy potato soup and the sweet potato and black bean burger topped with buttermilk ranch, dilly cucumbers, leaf lettuce, and cheddar cheese on a homemade bun. I swear the patty was a full inch thick. I had to eat the sandwich with a fork — and I only ate half. It was divine. My dining companion ordered the soup with a smoked salmon sandwich that came topped with cream cheese spread, pickled radish, and alfalfa sprouts on toasted challah bread (shown above). It looked lovely.
As a vegetarian, I appreciated that the menu offered veggie options in all categories (salads, sandwiches, pasta, and soup) but there’s also plenty for the meat-eaters, too, with burgers, salads with chicken or salmon, a pork reuben, turkey BLT, meatballs, etc. The menu includes local, farm-fresh produce, and the food is served on hand-thrown bowls and plates.
I immediately loved the vibe of the place: It’s open and airy with high ceilings, modern light fixtures, and lots of light-colored wood (including a striking wood floor). To be honest, it wasn’t what I expected to find in Grinnell, which I consider to be a cool, funky college town but not especially upscale. I don’t know what the Prairie Canary is like at night, but I’d love to find out. And there’s a bar located downstairs that I’d also like to try.
If I could make two suggestions it would be these: Don’t have people pay upfront. I might have wanted to add a dessert or coffee after my meal, but since I’d already paid by credit card, it seemed like a hassle. Also, I don’t go in for leaving tips before I’ve been served and since (again) I had paid by credit card, the server lost out on the tip I would have eventually given her. The other thing that didn’t thrill me was the selection of desserts available on the counter. Although they smelled yummy, they were wrapped in plastic wrap, and I don’t find that especially appetizing.
But these are just very minor suggestions to improve an otherwise delightful lunchtime experience. I will definitely be planning return visits to this up-and-coming, uniquely Iowa restaurant.
The Prairie Canary is located at 924 Main Street in Grinnell. The restaurant is open for lunch Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. – 2 p.m., brunch Saturday/Sunday 10 a.m. – 2 p.m., and dinner Tuesday through Thursday 5-9 p.m. and Friday/Saturday 5-10 p.m. The bar is open Tuesday through Saturday nights starting at 5 p.m.