CR Gazette | Bluebird Diner 'like an extended family'

By Ryan Tarinelli, The Gazette

JULY 8, 2015 | 7:27 PM

IOWA CITY — At the Bluebird Diner, waiters and customers are on a first-name basis and Midwest soul food is served day and night.

“It’s a really friendly place, and people feel welcomed here,” said Lindsay Chastain, the front of house manager.

Chastain added it’s not unusual for the University of Iowa wrestling team to stop in for a bite.

Co-owner Thomas Connolly said the Bluebird Diner mixes traditional comfort food with better ingredients and an appropriate creative twist.

Connolly and his business partner opened the diner in December 2008 as the economy still was reeling from the recession.

“It’s terrifying to open a new businesses and think ‘Oh my God, will this be the end of me. Will this take all my money, everything I’ve saved?’ But it worked out, and we stuck with it,” Connolly said, adding the first year was challenging at times due to people tightening their budgets.

During a Saturday or Sunday morning — their busiest shifts — the restaurant serves up to 500 people. Chastain said it can go from a few tables to absolutely full in a few minutes, and the diner usually has a line out the door during those shifts.

With the average meal costing about $10, Connolly said the diner aims to create a causal dining experience that people can take part in on a regular basis.

“We’ve been embraced by the community — very grateful for that,” Connolly said. “We’ve tried to create a better quality of food, priced reasonably.”

In April 2012, Connolly and his business partners opened another restaurant, The Bluebird Café, in North Liberty. Connolly also co-owns Forbidden Planet, an arcade and pizza restaurant that opened last year.

Connolly said he started thinking about opening a breakfast restaurant after his good friends in Chicago started a breakfast restaurant.

Co-owner and chef Hart Epstein said the diner has found success in Iowa City because of its great downtown location and high demand for a breakfast and brunch restaurant.

“I think the climate was looking for something a little cooler on the breakfast side,” Epstein said.

But setting up in downtown Iowa City was no easy task. Connolly said transitioning a previous paint shop into a restaurant was time-consuming and expensive.

From the owners to employees, Chastain said there is a family-like camaraderie among the staff that makes working at the diner enjoyable.

Connolly agreed.

“It feels sort of like an extended family, a family that we made,” he said. “And of course it’s never perfect, but I think we usually work together and we usually pull in the same direction.”

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