Most great college towns have one. An institutional bar that has been around for eons and serves as a beacon for all returning students and alumni to congregate, reliving the glory of their undergraduate revelry. At Iowa, that bar is the Airliner. A 67 year old relic that has marked the passage of time for generations of Hawkeyes. Since 1944 they have been slinging beers and dishing out their renowned pizza, and I wandered my way through the Pedestrian Mall to give it a try.
In a nod to history, the Airliner is located directly across the street from the Pentacrest, a historic collection of five neo classical buildings found on the National Register of Historic places. The centerpiece building being the gold topped dome of the old Iowa State Capitol, rising out of the pristinely manicured lawns. While waiting for my table, I watched a girl getting her wedding pictures taken among the classical stone columns, dress draped across the granite steps.
Given the wait for a table, an expectation you should be prepared for on a game day, I killed a few minutes at the bar with a couple pints of Leinenkugels. While I may draw the ire of my Midwest friends for this, Leinenkugels may be one of the most overrated beers around. They tend to be weakly flavored, and overly dependent on superfluous fruit additives. Contrasted to the craft Blackhawk Stout from Court Avenue Brewing that I had next door at Shorts Burger, the Leinenkugels was meek and watery. Hardly discernible from Miller Lite.
After settling into a table, my buffalo chicken pizza arrived in short order, the handmade “Airliner” crust piled with cheese and chicken. With the exception of the crust, perfectly crisped but still buttery and pliable, the pizza was pretty straightforward – as one would expect.
While the Airliner is an Iowa City landmark rich in tradition, to a newcomer you would never know it. Extensive renovations have been made to the interior, varnish and fresh paint abound, erasing some of the worn charm that comes from decades of use. From what I could tell, the only original piece remaining is the iconic stained glass mural of a biplane. Regardless, yellow and black sweatshirts were piled into every corner, patrons of all ages enjoying some pre-game festivities, connected in the spirit of Hawkeye Football. It’s just one of those places you have to go.
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