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Clear Lake, Iowa, quickly became one of my favorite places in the United States. There’s just something special about the town of 7,000 people that fills my heart. Is it the historic Surf Ballroom, where Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper performed in their final concert? Maybe it’s the glacial lake, which is the third-largest lake in Iowa. Maybe, just maybe, it’s the amazing food that seems to taste better with every visit. Whatever the reason, I fell in love with Clear Lake, and my wife and I have visited several times over the past decade. I’ll jump at any reason to visit.
Whatever your taste, the Clear Lake area (including nearby Mason City and Charles City) has you covered. From fresh handmade pizza and Greek-infused steaks to some of the best deli west of the Mississippi River, the northern Iowa town has you covered.
Without any particular ranking (it’s all great), here’s a look at a baker’s dozen of outstanding places to enjoy a meal or treat in the Clear Lake area.
Offering a view of Clear Lake with your meal, PM Park is the perfect breakfast eatery in the area. With giant, fluffy pancakes that fill the plate, you’re sure to waddle away like a stuffed duck. If you prefer a good old-fashioned egg and potato breakfast, check out the PM Breakfast, which features two eggs, a choice of meat, hashbrowns, and toast. Good luck trying to find the bottom of your plate with any dish. The menu also includes biscuits and gravy, as well as its own, larger version of the McMuffin.
PM Park also serves lunch and dinner, highlighted by its broasted chicken, as well as pork tenderloin (an Iowa tradition).
Pro Tip: PM Park is open seasonally, from Mother’s Day through Labor Day.
As one of the best delis in the Midwest, Starboard Market offers about two dozen sandwich combinations. Toss in freshly-made side dishes, such as caprese salad, potato salad, and coleslaw, and you’ll have a lunch that will have you savoring each bite. And the soup, including homemade chicken enchilada, warms the soul no matter the temperature outside. Each visit needs to finish with one of its amazing desserts.
Pro Tip: While open seasonally from spring through early fall, Starboard Market is known to open for special events.
Quickly becoming one of my favorite steakhouses in the country, century-old Northwestern Steakhouse in Mason City, about a 10-minute drive from Clear Lake, combines Greek tradition with the American dish. Using Greek seasonings, each steak has a unique flavor and taste that will have you forgetting steak sauce ever existed. The Greek-style entree also features salad, warm bread, and a choice of potato or rice. Spaghetti is available for an extra cost. Of course, Northwestern Steakhouse’s menu features additional options, including prime rib, roasted chicken, and walleye.
Pro Tip: The popular restaurant opens its doors nightly at 4:30, so you’ll want to be in line early, as tables go quickly. Reservations for groups of six or more can be made ahead of time. For less than six people, reservations can be made after 4:30 p.m. the day of your visit (it’s best to get there early and join the line). Northwestern Steakhouse is closed on Sunday.
With a decor that transports you to an Italian villa, the menu at Mason City’s Pasta Bella brings a taste of Italy to the Midwest. From appetizers such as fried calamari and a sausage platter to entrees, including chicken parmesan, spaghetti with meatballs, and fettuccine Alfredo, Pasta Bella’s red sauce presents a unique flavor that’s not too sweet, but is definitely memorable. Add a bowl of minestrone or pasta fagioli, and you’re in for a treat.
You don’t need to be a sports fan to enjoy a fine meal at Rookies Rockin’ Sports Bar. However, if you are, Rookies has lots of televisions to watch while you enjoy your meal. With standard bar fare, including cheeseburger and fries, turkey club, and, of course, Iowa’s famous pork tenderloin sandwich, Rookies also features daily specials, such as a steak sandwich. Located a few blocks from the lake, it’s a great spot to enjoy a meal before heading to the water for boating or walking along the shoreline. Calling Clear Lake home for more than 25 years, Rookies annually competes for top honors in local contests.
Located in the same building as Rookies but separated by a hallway, Sevens Restaurant and Steakhouse has been a local favorite for more than 12 years. Serving breakfast that includes farm-fresh eggs, you can enjoy omelets, sirloin steak and eggs, and eggs Benedict, as well as pancakes, strawberry French toast, and biscuits and gravy. Sevens’ lunch and dinner menu features a variety of burgers, sandwiches, and hand-cut steaks. With a casual environment, Sevens is an excellent choice for dining near the lake.
Located in downtown Mason City, it’s easy to mistake State Street Deli for a New York delicatessen. Offering a choice of cold or hot sandwiches, the deli’s menu includes names of famous Chicago streets, such as The Wacker Drive (ham, salami, pepper jack cheese, and provolone) and Lake Shore Drive (smoked ham, provolone, and Russian dressing on rye). Potato salad, macaroni salad, coleslaw, or a bowl of the soup of the day add a tasty side to your order. Main Street Deli is a popular lunch destination, so plan to get there early for a nice seat.
Pro Tip: Main Street Deli is open 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Thursday and until 5 p.m. Friday. Saturday’s hours are 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The deli is closed on Sunday.
Offering a view of the Cedar River, sandwiches and burgers are the highlights of a visit to Pub on the Cedar in Charles City. Its ribeye steak sandwich and French dip sandwiches are outstanding! Each comes with a choice of sides, but the tater tots may be the best pick. Other entrees include steak, pasta, chicken, pizza, and, of course, the PT pork tenderloin, a favorite with diners. The Pub is a great place to spend time with friends and family, as well as catch sports on its many televisions. Pub on the Cedar also has a patio where you can enjoy your meal next to the river.
Located a couple of blocks from the lake, Cookies, etc. offers a delicious selection of cookies, including chocolate chip, chocolate chip with pecans, and monster. Customers can also order hand-scooped ice cream. My wife and I have made it a tradition to stop in whenever we’re in the area and will pull off the interstate when traveling past Clear Lake just to order a dozen cookies for home. While in Clear Lake, we grab a flavored coffee from Cabin Coffee (half a block away) and take a cookie to eat lakeside. There’s something special about enjoying a hot latte and cookie next to Clear Lake.
You can park your boat at its dock or just enjoy the view of Clear Lake as you enjoy dinner and a drink at Lakeside Landing Kitchen and Bar. Offering a simple (but delicious) menu, diners enjoy classic burgers and entrees such as fish tacos, shrimp po’ boy, and Philly cheesesteak. Order appetizers, such as crab rangoon nachos or Wisconsin cheese curds, and enjoy dinner on the patio. The restaurant is located at the Lakeside Inn.
Pro Tip: Lakeside Landing Kitchen and Bar is open seasonally, May through September.
The downtown Mason City restaurant offers a variety of Thai flavors as well as fresh sushi. Thai Bistro and Sushi Bar‘s menu includes four types of curry, from spicy red to mild yellow. Along with fried or jasmine rice, diners can enjoy pad thai with thin rice noodles, or other dishes with wide noodles, as well as stir-fry noodles. Sushi dishes feature salmon, tuna, shrimp, octopus, and barbecued eel. Kick off your Thai Bistro experience with an order of gyoza, a Japanese dumpling.
Dine in a casual setting or enjoy dinner on the patio at Ge-Jo’s by the Lake. Featuring handmade pizza, Italian sandwiches, and traditional pasta dishes, Ge-Jo’s uses fresh ingredients to create its amazing entrees. From spaghetti with meatballs and rigatoni to its Italian grinder sandwich, Ge-Jo’s offers an excellent dining experience. Enjoy custom-ordered pizza at the restaurant or take it to go.
Pro Tip: Ge-Jo’s is open Friday and Saturday evenings.
For more than 90 years, northern Iowans have frequented Birdsall’s Ice Cream Company for amazing frozen treats. Making its own ice cream adds to the Birdsall’s experience, as you enjoy a hand-scooped cone or cup, as well as malts, shakes, sundaes, and banana splits.
For more ideas on what to do in Iowa, be sure to check out these articles:
Tim and his wife Lisa have been writing their blog The Walking Tourists for eight years. They live in the Midwest and enjoy writing about its attractions. They focus mainly on the Midwest, but enjoy traveling all over. With daughters living in the Seattle area, they also have a fondness for the Pacific Northwest.
Tim is a freelance writer and online content creator. He has authored two books about Omaha attractions and restaurants: "100 Things to Do in Omaha Before You Die" and "Unique Eats and Eateries of Omaha". A third book about Nebraska tourism -- "100 Things to Do in Nebraska Before You Die" -- will be published in April 2020. He writes magazine, newspaper, and online articles as well as offering ghostwriting services. He loves writing.
As a one-time community journalist, his affection for the stories journalists share has never waned. Having been a manager of people, he is intrigued by people's leadership qualities and practices.