People & Places

Iowa's oldest restaurant relies on community, family

Breitbach’s Country Dining is illuminated Oct. 11, 2017, in Balltown along the Great River Road. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Breitbach’s Country Dining is illuminated Oct. 11, 2017, in Balltown along the Great River Road. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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For 120 years, people have gathered at Breitbach’s County Dining in Balltown for Wednesday night euchre games.

“It’s just a good time,” said Eldon Pape, 88. He lives just a mile down the road from the storied restaurant, and he has been playing in the weekly games since he was about 15 years old.

The longevity of that euchre club speaks to how much this restaurant, billed as the oldest continually operating food and drink establishment in Iowa, is interwoven with its community.

Mike Breitbach and his wife, Cindy, are the sixth-generation owners of the family business.

“I started here when I was 7, doing dishes. I never left. I don’t know anything else ... You meet lots of good people. Your regulars become your friends,” Mike Breitbach said, greeting customers by name as they walked in. “You treat people how you want to be treated, and they don’t forget that.”

Breitbach’s, established in 1852 under a federal permit issued by President Millard Fillmore, just six years after Iowa became a state, serves classic Midwest diner fare like broasted chicken, pork tenderloins, popcorn shrimp and country ham steaks. Its buffets are popular, though people also order off the menu. It serves breakfast Tuesday to Saturday, and lunch and dinner every day except Mondays, when it is closed.

The restaurant sits near a scenic overlook just north of Dubuque. Though it is in Balltown, the community has a population of less than 100, so the address is technically listed as Sherrill. Fall is the busiest time of year, with tour buses and “leaf lookers” driving the Great River Road to see the fall color, Mike Breitbach said.

Cindy Breitbach oversees the kitchens and a staff that includes a host of Breitbach children and grandchildren who help keep the restaurant buzzing.

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Daughter Anne Wilert helps the kitchen crank out the homemade pies — during the busy fall season, that means making 70 to 80 pie crusts a day. There’s not much down time in this business, and when she isn’t in the restaurant, Wilert is helping her husband run their dairy farm.

“I just am not a sit-down kind of person,” she said. “We’re all kind of movers.”

Her brother, Mike Breitbach Jr., left for graduate school in Nebraska for a year, where he studied toxi- cology, but then the restaurant and the surrounding close-knit community drew him back. People who have worked at Breitbach’s are also the ones who used to baby-sit him and drive his school bus.

“People stick around for a long time,” he said. “On a personal level, people get to know you.”

That ethos proved true when the community rallied around Breitbach’s a decade ago, when disaster struck not once but twice. A gas explosion and fire destroyed the original tavern in 2007. The family rebuilt, but the new restaurant was open less than six months before a second fire in 2008. The second rebuilding was finished in 2009. The new restaurant is 6,200 square feet, almost twice the size of the original building that burned, with multiple dining areas, along with outdoor patio seating.

The long-standing euchre game kept going during the rebuilding. The Breitbachs built a small building across the parking lot that served as a bar and an office — and a place for the euchre players to gather.

Leon Sigwarth, 78, said he has been coming to these games for more than 60 years.

“You meet new people, and old people, you make friends. It’s like family,” he said.

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