The Ottumwa Courier

August 16, 2013

Canteen is New York Times good

Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA — The owner of a local landmark found out Friday her place has been recognized at the national level — again.

The New York Times "frugal" food columnist, Seth Kugel, drove about 800 miles through Iowa in search of good, inexpensive meals. One stop on his trip: "a drab old building underneath a parking garage" in the modest meat-packing town of Ottumwa: the Canteen.

"The Canteen is proof that if an expert combines fat, carbs, sugar and salt in just the right ratio, the result can be worth the calories," Kugel wrote this week.

Despite the tongue-in-cheek nature of the column on, owner-manager Shirlee McBeth of Ottumwa didn't seem offended.

"I found out about it 15 minutes ago," she said Friday morning. "Of course, it's wonderful. It's really something for a little restaurant to be in the New York Times."

"The experience at the lunch counter," writes Kugel, "feels very middle school cafeteria: a lunch lady look-alike takes your order and spoons loose ground beef — sloppy joe without the slop — onto a bun, slathers on extras, wraps it and hands it to you. (What, you wanted a plate?) It’s a signature Iowa lunch, generically known as 'a loose meat sandwich.' Here it was simply a Canteen. I augmented the coming lethargy by ordering a strawberry malt, after being encouraged to do so by the visitors next to me."

Lunch lady look-alikes?

"I don't think he meant it offensviely," said McBeth.

Besides, she laughed, that's what we're doing: We're ladies serving lunch.

Kugel described The Canteen as having been, since 1936, "a squat, yellow box of a building; it didn’t budge when a municipal parking garage was literally built over it."

The writer also stopped other places in Iowa, including a visit to Fairfield.

However, said McBeth, this is not the Ottumwa lunch counter's first brush with fame. In May 2012, New York Magazine put The Canteen on its list of memorable meals from every state. The landmark spot has been featured in numerous newspapers, magazines and TV segments around the state.

Still, it's word of mouth that brings in most customers, she said. Residents have told out-of-town guests, presidential candidates and congressmen they “have to” try the Canteen.

In just the past few years, they’ve served presidential hopeful Ron Paul, U.S. Congressman Dave Loebsack, U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd, well-known Iowa Republican Bob Vander Plaats and, depending on who is in town, groups of off-duty Secret Service agents.

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— Check out Ottumwa reporter Mark Newman on Twitter @couriermark