IOWA CITY — Cheeseburger platters sit on the counter next to coffee mugs bearing the Hamburg Inn’s logo.
The wait staff places more food on the counter as customers sitting at the tables around it finish their meals.
It’s not obvious which patrons are at the restaurant for lunch and which are there for the book launch of “The Burg: A Writers’ Diner” by Marybeth Slonneger.
It was business as usual with a twist on April 24, but anyone who’s eaten at the Hamburg Inn, 214 N. Linn St., will tell you those twists are common.
You might even say they’re expected.
(Contributing writers will read from the book at 7 p.m. on May 8. Find more information here.)
Consider the well-wishers crowding the restaurant. Some waited to have their copies of “The Burg: A Writers’ Diner” signed by Slonneger, but others made a beeline for owner Dave Panther, congratulating him on the book’s publication, too.
“Marybeth came up with the idea over a year ago and we all encouraged it; we were all for it,” Panther says. “I was just blown away by how it turned out.”
Honoring the writers and artists who have found inspiration at the Hamburg Inn for decades, “The Burg: A Writers’ Diner” also celebrates the restaurant, its owners, staff and customers.
A former Hamburg Inn hostess, Slonneger says she was inspired by the framed column penned by Gary Sanders in 1990.
“A restaurant with a soul” is Sanders’ love letter to the restaurant that gave him a job and, eventually, a home.
“I got a job here and started to meet all kinds of people and began to get involved in all sorts of different things,” Sanders says Tuesday, wearing one of the white aprons he wore as a cook more than 30 years ago.
Standing on a bench to read Sanders’ words, Slonneger says she had to write a book about a restaurant that embraces everyone who comes inside.
“I wanted to capture that sense of companionship,” Slonneger says.
Her research uncovered the restaurant’s creative past, from poems scribbled on paper napkins to doodles that later became part of something bigger.
“People were here for more than food,” Slonneger says. “They were creating. They were writing. I wanted to show how the Hamburg Inn became their creative outlet.”
Dave Morice is one of those artists.
As a participant in the Poetry City Marathon in 2010, Morice remembers sitting at a table at the restaurant, penning several poems that begin with the words “At Hamburg Inn.”
“I remember thinking, when writing these poems, that they’d make a cute book for the Hamburg Inn, and look what happened,” Morice recalls.
Some of the poems Morice wrote two years ago appear in the front and back pages of “The Burg: A Writers’ Diner,” along with sketches he completed in 1978.
A regular customer, Morice says walking in the Hamburg Inn is almost like Norm walking into “Cheers.”
He’s greeted by name and the waiters know what he wants before he orders.
“You feel like you’re a part of this ongoing play and you’re one of the actors,” Morice says.
Copies of “The Burg: A Writers’ Diner” are available for purchase at the Hamburg Inn, Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St., and Iowa Book, 8 S. Clinton St. All proceeds from the book will benefit the Johnson County Heritage Trust.
“It’s just wonderful to have all of this in print — the stories, the photographs and the memories,” says Roma Panther, Dave’s wife. “Even if you are not someone who worked at the Hamburg Inn, I think this book can be seen as a history of Iowa City and how it’s changed.”
- By Meredith Hines-Dochterman