By Cindy Hadish/Homegrown Iowan
CORALVILLE, Iowa — Customers will miss the tender prime rib, popular Sunday brunch and to-die-for twice-baked potatoes at the Iowa River Power Restaurant, but memories of anniversaries, birthday parties and other milestone celebrations make the iconic restaurant’s closure especially poignant.
“This was her favorite place,” Dave Stauffer, 82, said of his wife, Colleen, who died three years ago. “This was a place to celebrate all of our special events.”
The Cedar Rapids artist was among hundreds of longtime customers to make the trek Nov. 26, 2023, through an early snow to dine one last time at the restaurant, at 501 First Ave., Coralville, a staple of the Iowa City area since 1977.
Dave Stauffer photo/Cindy Hadish
Owner Danise Petsel said she was not bitter about the closure of IRP, as many locals refer to the restaurant, though the actual end would have been different under an agreement to extend the lease that building owner Randy Ward claims he didn’t receive.
She and her husband, co-owner David Petsel, were served with papers six months ago, she said, notifying them that the lease would expire on Jan. 7, 2024. Ward could not be reached for comment.
Petsel was able to finish all of the scheduled special events, and ended future bookings at the popular spot, known for its views of the Iowa River, fine dining experience and eclectic memorabilia lining the walls, many with a nautical theme.
While she did not agree with Ward’s decision regarding the end of the lease, “we’re looking at it as a way of trying something new,” Petsel said, just hours before the restaurant was scheduled to close its doors one final time on the Sunday after Thanksgiving.
Scott Burgess, 56, and his wife, Alicia, 55, of North Liberty were among many to reminisce about romantic dates and other special events at the restaurant, citing the unparalleled views of the river among its unique qualities.
“What other place has this ambiance,” Scott said.
Travis Heck, a server at Iowa River Power Restaurant the past 16 years, poses for a photo with his boss, Danise Petsel, on the final day of the longtime Coralville restaurant. (photo/Cindy Hadish)
Server Travis Heck, 36, who has worked at the restaurant for 16 years and is one of Petsel’s most ardent supporters, said none of the 50 or so employees had sought other employment.
“Even though it’s our last day, we didn’t want to leave our bosses’ side,” he said.
Knowing the final days would be especially busy, former staff even returned to volunteer to work, Heck noted.
“That’s what really teared me up,” he said, adding that customers were giving him handwritten notes and cards to show their appreciation, particularly as he stood up for his boss in the face of what he called a surprise eviction, adding that the building owner plans an events center on the site.
Heck posted a moving tribute to Iowa River Power Restaurant on YouTube and is encouraging people to contact city officials and legislators.
“It was a fight for small businesses,” he said, citing one of the reasons he spoke out.
Retired speech pathologist Judith Knabe, 81, had some choice words for the building owner, even as her husband, William Knabe, 83, who taught statistics and computer science at the University of Iowa almost 50 years, tempered his remarks.
William and Judith Knabe enjoy a final meal at Iowa River Power Restaurant on Nov. 26, 2023. (photo/Cindy Hadish)
“We love this place,” he said, pointing to a bouquet of roses that Petsel had given them on the last day. The longtime regulars celebrated birthdays and other major events at Iowa River Power Restaurant.
“Everyone loves Danise,” his wife added, citing the extra help she provided employees when they faced tough times. “She’s just a generous, kind soul.”
Other customers echoed her sentiments.
Denise Fritz, 67, pointed to the veggie omelet with garlic toast that Petsel herself had made for her, with special attention to the retired nurse’s food allergies.
“She’s going to thrive wherever she lands,” Fritz said. “People will flock to her, wherever she goes.”
Hostess Danielle Felix, who has worked for Petsel the past 14 years, agreed.
Hostess Danielle Felix checks in a customer on the final day of Iowa River Power Restaurant. She estimated at least 800 customers would be served Sunday Nov. 26. (photo/Cindy Hadish)
The 34 year old cited arriving by 5 a.m. Sundays to get ready for the popular brunches with Petsel and said she didn’t plan to return to whatever the building would become.
“She’s the best boss I’ve ever had,” Felix said. “I don’t want to work for anyone else. It will never be the same and all of the history is going to be gone.”
An online auction of the antiques and memorabilia of the neighboring Flannigan’s Bar & Grill, which closed last year, ends at 8:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 27. The online auction for Iowa River Power Restaurant items ends at 8:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 3.
A flour mill was located at the site of the Iowa River when a dam was first built in 1844. Around 1886, the Iowa City Electric Light Company was organized at the location; the plant was destroyed by fire on Jan. 3, 1899, according to the restaurant’s history, which was followed by Iowa City Gas & Electric Company.
The plant ceased operations in 1968, and was sold to the city of Coralville, which in turn, sold it to a group of local businessmen. Retaining its towering ceilings and solid brick walls, the Iowa River Power Company restaurant opened in October 1977, and the building has remained in use as a restaurant the past 46 years, with the Petsels changing the name to Iowa River Power Restaurant when they purchased the business in January 2003.
Although their restaurant will no longer be at that site, Danise Petsel said they may continue on as a catering business or at another location.
“Everybody’s been very supportive and sweet and lovely,” she said of the final days. “We’re all just getting ready for our next phase. Don’t count us out. We’ll all be doing something.”
See photos of an Iowa jewelry store closing after nearly a century in business and more from the final day of Iowa River Power Restaurant, below: