CEDAR RAPIDS — On Sept. 6, the long bridge that spans the Cedar River between Cedar Rapids’ Czech Village and New Bohemia neighborhoods will be transformed into an outdoor restaurant.
There will be 450 votive candles, protected from the wind in Mason jars, strolling guitar players and a 400-foot table set up on the 16th Avenue SW bridge. Diners will start their meal at twilight and be able to see the sun go down, then finish dessert by the lamps along the bridge. A rain date is Sept. 7.
“We have an exciting area here on the south end of Cedar Rapids,” said Monica Vernon, executive director of strategic development for the Czech Village/New Bohemia Neighborhood Main Street District. “We said, we need to do something that puts us on the map.”
Both she and Main Street District Executive Director Abby Huff are fairly new to their jobs, both having started in April. Vernon said she was hired to help bring new people into the district and events like this can help do that.
“It’s our job to keep these two historic neighborhoods vibrant and unique and growing,” she said. “We decided we needed to do a big, iconic event that would pull together people from around the community.”
But they didn’t want a new event to feel like it was either just a NewBo event or a Czech Village event. So they decided to use the main road between the two neighborhoods as their venue.
“The bridge is an iconic part of our district,” Huff said.
The dinner will include food and drink from businesses on both sides of the river. Guests will park and check in on the NewBo side, eat the main meal on the bridge itself and then visit the Czech Village side for dessert tents that will be set up there. Vernon said they will encourage people to stroll the neighborhood as the meal winds down.
“We’re keeping the tables up past 10 p.m. We encourage people to linger, to walk the district, to talk,” she said.
It didn’t take long for the event to sell out, capped at 400 tickets.
An event like this, Huff said, is about “place-making,” helping create a sense of place for a neighborhood that extends beyond the walls of it’s businesses.
That’s part of the motivation between a similar event in Iowa City, the Farm to Street Dinner. The fourth annual dinner, which takes over a long stretch of North Linn Street in the city’s Northside neighborhood, was held Aug. 15.
“The concept behind it was to get a bunch of community members together at one table and talking to people they may not know, and to have local food from local farms, prepared by our chefs downtown,” said Betsy Potter, director of operations for the Iowa City Downtown District, which spearheads the event.
The event, which has sold out its 300 seats every year, is a fundraiser, with money raised split between the Iowa City Parks and Recreation Foundation, which uses it for things like funding community gardens, and a local food-based nonprofit. This year the beneficiary was the Iowa Valley Resource Conservation and Development Group.
These open air pop-up dinners aren’t just unique events. They can help reinforce a message for a nonprofit like the Downtown District, in this case the way local food and local businesses work together to benefit the community at large.
“The core mission is to really focus on reinforcing local food efforts in the community,” Potter said. “Everything has to be locally sourced, to come from a farm in the Johnson County area ... A lot of our restaurants are already working with these farmers, so it’s a fun way to recognize their efforts.”
Indian Creek Nature Center in Cedar Rapids has similar motivation for its recurring Farm to Table dinners, held on its patio in partnership with local restaurants. An upcoming one, on Sept. 19, will feature a vegetarian meal by Cobble Hill chef Andy Schumacher.
“One of the reasons we host these types of dinners is to get an audience here who may not readily identify with the Nature Center’s mission,” said Sarah Halbrook, director of development at the Nature Center. “Once they get on site, they hear more about us ... they get mission moments, but they’re palatable because they’re enjoying the food and the scenery and enjoying great drinks.”
The Nature Center held its first farm-to-table dinner in 2016, then hosted two in 2017, three in 2018 and will host four in 2019. With the Nature Center’s Etzel Sugar Grove farm, where the nonprofit is working with the Rodale Institute on regenerative farming, showcasing locally and sustainably grown food makes perfect sense, Halbrook said.
“We have great chefs and restaurants in the area with similar ethos and philosophy to us, and they focus on local growers,” she said. “One thing we talk about is 90 percent of what people eat in Iowa is imported from out of the state. So when you come to these dinners, you can pretty much guarantee you’re supporting local food and local agriculture, while you’re having this great culinary experience.”
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