How one Cedar Rapids restaurant survived a full century
The Lighthouse Inn began in 1912
A loyal customer following seems to attest to the food and service at the Lighthouse Inn supper club in Cedar Rapids. But that alone isn't the reason it's survived 100 years.
The local landmark at 6905 Mount Vernon Road SE is a story not just of Iowans' dining-out habits, but of America's transportation system.
When it opened, the Lighthouse was far out in the country, on a rutted farm-to-market road that in bad weather was often the only passable route from Cedar Rapids to Mount Vernon, and from there to the state capitol in Iowa City.
Later, Mount Vernon Road became part of the Lincoln Highway. Opened for travel in 1913, it became the first paved highway across America.
"The whole reason the restaurant's lasted as long as it has is that it's a supper club," General Manager Theron Manson said. "In the early days of the Lincoln Highway and Highway 30, travelers stopped at supper clubs for dinner, and then stayed overnight to avoid paying city hotel taxes."
The Lighthouse rented cabins to folk passing through, who in turn provided a core of demand for dinner. The Lincoln Highway was so busy that it virtually ensured the survival of the restaurant in those early days.
Even after business slumped following the Great Crash in 1929, members of the Ulch Brothers Bank in Solon, which had foreclosed on the establishment, kept the Lighthouse open.
With its rural location, the Lighthouse didn't have the law looking over its shoulder the way city restaurants did during Prohibition. It became one of the spots where a savvy traveler could still obtain an illegal drink of alcohol, and visitors occasionally caught a glimpse of John Dillinger and other Chicago gangsters who'd drop by.
Supper clubs were part of a larger phenomena of tourist camps along the Lincoln Highway, according to Mark Stouffer Hunter, Cedar Rapids historian, who said hotel-tax avoidance was a key attraction.
"Dillinger sightings at the Lighthouse were documented," said Stouffer Hunter said.
He did not dispute Manson's claim that Al Capone also visited the Lighthouse, but added that such sightings tend to lack documentation because witnesses were often warned not to repeat what they'd seen — and often didn't mention it publicly for years.
Today, the Lighthouse is believed to be the second oldest continuously operating restaurant in Iowa, according to Manson. It's a classic Midwestern supper club, known for meaty staples such as prime rib, filet mignon, barbecued ribs, baked cod and shrimp.
The Lighthouse also has been known for live jazz on weekends. Its been photographed for an upcoming book on the Midwestern supper club phenomena by Dave Hoekstra, a longtime staff writer of the Chicago Sun-Times.
Manson in many ways is the latest caretaker for a long Lighthouse tradition. He worked at the restaurant as a boy growing up in Cedar Rapids, then went on after military service to operate restaurants in northern Indiana.
When Manson moved back to Iowa in 1986, his mother volunteered him to help out when her friend and Lighthouse owner Josephine "Josie" Babcock was short staffed. Daryl Babcock, her husband, had died in 1984.
Manson declined to be paid for his service and was rewarded with a meal at Josie's house. The meal went so well that they soon were married, and Manson became the regular Lighthouse manager.
As a way of celebrating the restaurant's 100th anniversary, the owners decided to give away every 100th meal free. So far, they've given away about 161 meals.
"We don't tell them until after they've ordered," Theron said. "Most of the time, the winners have been people out celebrating a birthday or an anniversary. They're really taken aback that somebody's buying their dinner."
The Lighthouse is one of those places a customer rarely forgets. Bryon and Mary Burkey celebrated their 21st wedding anniversary at the Lighthouse this past Thursday. Byron's last visit had been more than two decades ago, and Mary had never been to the supper club.
"I remember all the good food and great music, and what a nice atmosphere there was," said Byron, who thought the place looked much the same as on his last visit. "It's very relaxed, very comfortable, and the food is always good."
Mary found the atmosphere and service much different than a chain restaurant, with a more calm and relaxed feel.
Beside the 100th anniversary of the Lighthouse, the Mansons also this year are celebrating their purchase and removal of a long-vacant building next door that had formerly housed the Windy Oaks supper club. Removal of the bare metal-clad Windy Oaks building will improve the visual quality of the neighborhood, and Manson said it may open up possibilities for an outdoor dining or special-events area, too.
While the basic structure of the Lighthouse hasn't changed much over the years, it's had space added to the rear that allows room for private parties. The Lighthouse can seat about 220, and Manson doesn't expect it ever to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places because he's had the place clad in steel siding.
While Theron oversees the restaurant, Josie has her own full-time business, Chateau Salon, located to the south.The couple has no immediate plans to leave the business but have a likely successor when they do do. Lighthouse Manager Steve McAtee, after about nine years, knows just about everything needed to run the place and is interested in taking over someday.