Food & Drink

St. Burch Tavern offers fresh twist on a classic concept in former Atlas location

Strives for supper club feel

St. Burch Tavern is seen in Iowa City on Friday, April 13, 2018. The new restaurant on the corner of Dubuque Street and Iowa Avenue reinvents the former Atlas restaurant as a sleek and modern dining experience with food reminiscent of classic supper club fare. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
St. Burch Tavern is seen in Iowa City on Friday, April 13, 2018. The new restaurant on the corner of Dubuque Street and Iowa Avenue reinvents the former Atlas restaurant as a sleek and modern dining experience with food reminiscent of classic supper club fare. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — Walk into St. Burch Tavern, the new restaurant in the former Atlas location in downtown Iowa City, and the first thing you’ll notice are piles of oysters and clams nestled on ice behind a granite bar at the front of the restaurant.

That’s intentional. Co-owners Cory Kent and Ben Smart — who is also the chef — want patrons to immediately see the seafood their menu emphasizes.

“We want to really expose the community to how good these things are and how fresh we can get them,” Kent said.

Their supplier, Fortune Fish & Gourmet, is located next to O’Hare airport in Chicago, and Smart said that keeps the seafood deliveries timely.

“Hopefully, it’s not more than 24 hours out of the water,” he said.

The raw bar and other seafood offerings like shrimp cocktail, salmon and lobster pot pie are complimented by a robust menu of solidly landlocked Midwestern fare, as tater tot poutine, cheese curds, burgers, a pork tenderloin, steaks, salads and more round out the “supper club” theme. Nods to the former menu of Atlas remain in dishes like the buffalo chicken burrito and the “Atlas mac and cheese.”

Supper clubs and taverns are the inspiration for the restaurant, Kent said, based on places like the now closed Bluegrass Inn in his hometown of Chariton.

“We remember those Iowa roots, from eating out with our parents,” he said. “We remember these places from when we were kids.”

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St. Burch owners are Kent, Smart, Matt Swift, Nate Kaeding and Doug Goettsch. The group also own Pullman Diner in Iowa City and all but Kent are involved with Big Grove Brewery in Solon and Iowa City. They bought Atlas, which originally opened in 2000, from Jack Piper and James Adrian about a year ago and closed the doors this March before reopening as St. Burch on April 12.

“I think when Atlas opened, 18 years ago — and first, it’s awesome a restaurant can last that long — they were ahead of the curve, they had something fresh and new and exciting,” Kent said. “And when we took it over, we were really excited about this concept. It was less about what Atlas was or wasn’t than that we were excited about this concept.”

They transformed the space with bright white paint in the main dining room. Now a side dining room features it’s own palate of blues and books — they call it “The Study.”

“My thing is, you never want to feel like you’re at an undesirable table,” Smart said of the effort to give the room it’s own theme.

The basement, dubbed The Den, features its own bar and smaller, pub-style menu, including a loose meat sandwich served at the bar from a crock pot and available after the upstairs kitchen closes.

“Cory and I both grew up eating at taverns. There’s always some kind of sandwich served at the bar,” Smart said.

They named the new restaurant for an early 1900s Iowa mascot, Burch the bear, who reportedly lived in a cage near the football field.

“The story goes a football recruit would only come if he could bring his pet bear cub,” Kent said.

Smart said he enjoyed designing the menu, focusing on modern takes on classic dishes.

“I think the menu represents the evolution of my career,” he said.

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Instead of edgy presentations and unconventional flavor profiles, he said, that means honing in on perfecting classic dishes.

“When you get older, you realize the things that are really delicious, and the food traditions that have lasted for hundreds of years, have done so for a reason,” he said. “I still love to

play around and put weird things together, but for this place, I wanted to do things that were rooted in tradition.”

What: St. Burch Tavern

Where: 127 Iowa Ave., Iowa City

Hours: Kitchen open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday; The Den bar open 5 p.m. to midnight daily

Details: (319) 341-7700, saintburchtavern.com

l Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

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