By Brooke Clayton
Tommy Connolly is a former business partner at Forbidden Planet, which succeeded his Tobacco Bowl at the downtown location. When the pizza and arcade emporium closed, he was anxious to fill some of the gaps in Iowa City’s culinary scene, starting with a quick and filling breakfast in the heart of the Downtown District.
“There are about 15,000 people working in about a mile radius,” Connolly said. “A lot of people work down here, a lot of people come here early, and I feel we have a lot of opportunity here.”
The Dandy Lion, 111 S. Dubuque St., was open for cocktails at the June 23 Iowa City Block Party and débuted its full menu June 24. The restaurant is still new, with blank white walls and a sterility that will fade with time. But Connolly looked at the empty north wall endearingly, idly musing about filling it with a photo of the lions that lived with Melanie Griffith.
The Dandy Lion is Connolly’s pet project, 10 years after he and a partner opened the Bluebird Diner.
Lindsay Chastain, who worked at Bluebird for six and a half years, first as a server and then as a front of house manager, said Connolly approached her in January with the idea of filling the empty space left by Forbidden Planet.
“We felt like there were things missing in Iowa City,” she said. “Especially breakfast-wise.”
Chastain and Connolly worked together to form a menu with vegetarian options alongside Southern influences, food that is light and varied yet still rich. A full plate is a lot of food for a lower price, and Connolly also hopes to have small grab-and-go dishes available once the restaurant gets going.
“[Before], you didn’t have a lot of options as far as finding anywhere to have breakfast before 7 or 8 o’clock or after 11 o’clock,” Chastain said. “Here, you can get a 6 a.m. burger or a 2 p.m. eggs Benedict.”
Alongside convenience and a diner feel, the Dandy Lion’s cocktail bar promises a hint of class. The bartenders are knowledgeable and easy to talk to, happy to help a newly 21 reporter navigate a drink menu with absinthe and egg white.
Dandy Lion baker Emily Mueller recommended trying the Hummingbird Cake for desert, a classic Southern dish with banana, pineapple, and bourbon cream cheese frosting. When it comes to a meal, though, she, Chastain, and Connolly had the same recommendation: the chicken biscuit.
“We’ve got a lot of talent on staff,” Mueller said. “And I think they’re producing something Iowa City doesn’t really have right now, which is a Southern, good breakfast.”
Mueller, who has been in the restaurant business in Iowa City for around eight years, said that while it’s easy to sense competition in such close quarters, “it’s a supportive community.”
That feeling of fellowship is strong at the Dandy Lion, where Connolly greets his guests by first name and makes sure to say goodbye before they go.
“I’ve lived here for a long time, worked here for a long time,” he said. “One of the reasons you own a restaurant is to meet people, to know people, to converse with people.”