Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Canteen Lunch in the Alley

The Canteen Lunch is located in an alley, and had a parking ramp built over it!
The sign on the inside of the window in Ottumwa, Iowa's Canteen Lunch reads "Tourists treated same as Home Folks".   I never trust signs or sentiments like this coming from locals...anywhere.  I've traveled too much and I always believed it was something I would decide for myself.  I used to be a local, raised about an hour drive from here, but I was also a tourist, back for a visit after more than 25 years.  I ate at Canteen Lunch as a boy and made it a point to stop by for lunch on this trip home, taking my teenage son with me.  

Canteen Lunch was founded in 1936 and is a local landmark, legendary in the region for their loose meat sandwich (chopped up hamburger, lightly seasoned and served on a bun).  Sandwiches like this are a Midwest favorite, especially in Iowa, home of the Maid-Rite restaurant chain.

It quickly becomes evident why the Canteen Lunch has been in business for 75 years at this location.  The menu is simple, they have only one sandwich you can buy.  They don't serve fries, they serve chips if you want them, and fountain Pop (in Iowa, soda is "Pop"...period).  Another thing you notice here is pie.  Frankly, you notice it everywhere you eat in Iowa, but it was something I'd forgotten.  After lunch (called dinner in Iowa) or dinner (called supper in Iowa) you have a piece of pie.  As small as Canteen Lunch is (it seats 12), it has a staggering number of pies to choose from.  I had the lemon meringue.

There is a constantly revolving crowd in Canteen Lunch.  No check or receipt.  You go to the cashier when you're finished eating and tell the lady what you had, she rings you up, you pay and that's that.  

My son signs the notebook journal with our name and city as we get ready to leave and puts a pin in our West Virginia town on the map above him.  I imagine it will be years before I ever get the chance to eat here again and I did something I don't usually do:  I bought a cup with the name and print of the canteen on it as a small memento of a trip down memory lane.  As for the sign about being treated like "Home Folks", I was treated just fine.  Places like this don't need signs to tell visitors how they will be treated, they just need to keep doing what they have been doing so well for 75 years. 


  1. Radar O'Reilly from the long running television show M.A.S.H. was from Ottumwa, Iowa. Surely, he used to eat at The Canteen Lunch before the Korean War.

  2. So what's the deal wit hthe parking garage built over top?

    1. It didn't used to be there and I'm not sure why it is. Clearly, some deal was struck between the city and the Canteen Lunch, but it seems to benefit both. The city gets additional parking in the downtown area (Ottumwa isn't very big), and the Canteen Lunch benefits from the additional roof over it's head. It can snow heavily in Iowa and the parking lot protects it's roof (it's an older building). In summer, the building benefits from being in the shade any time of day. Frankly, I'm not sure of the arrangement. More research is in order.

    2. Here is an article from the Des Moines Register about the parking ramp issue.

  3. Grub Street, Daily Food News from New York Magazine listed Canteen Lunch as one of 50 places you should eat at in the United States.

  4. You captured a great piece of history here. Love it!