Iowa City is home to the University of Iowa and full of Midwestern small town charm. The city bursts with energy from an ever-changing student population. There’s pride in local food, a bustling farmers market in warm weather months, and a surprising amount of vegan options for a town in the middle of the Heartland.
In no way does this cover all of the options, but here are 13 vegan-friendly businesses in the home of the Hawkeyes (and surrounding area):
Nile Ethiopian Restaurant
Nile Ethiopian Restaurant is quickly becoming one of my favorite restaurants in Iowa. It opened in April 2017 and is located in a strip mall on the main strip in Coralville.
While they don’t specify on the menu, all of the vegetarian items are vegan. Start with a sambussa, which is similar to an Indian samosa but stuffed with brown lentils.
For the main course, I recommend getting a vegetarian sampler, so that you can taste the wide array of wots (stews). My favorites are the red lentils in a berbere sauce and the yellow split pea stew. But you can’t go wrong with the cabbage and potatoes, green beans and carrots, collard greens, or shiro.
All of the food has a layered, warming flavor that lets the vegetables and legumes shine. And don’t worry. They will keep the injera coming. (That’s the sponge-y bread that’s used as a wot-scooping apparatus.)
With so few Ethiopian restaurants in the state, Eastern Iowa is lucky to have this gem.
An acquaintance told me that when Oasis opened in 2004, he was dubious about how well it would do. He’d never heard of falafel, and he didn’t think Iowans would get behind something called baba ganoush. Well, that acquaintance has eaten his words… along with a heaping serving of hummus.
Oasis is a big fan favorite in Iowa City. Not only does the restaurant itself have a cult following, they also sell Oasis hummus and baba ganoush in many grocery stores throughout the area.
The menu offers loads of vegan options. I’m a big fan of the vegetable kebabs that have a fire-licked flavor from being cooked on flames. The onions in the kebabs take on a caramelized sweetness. The meal comes with two falafel and a choice of sides.
I also recommend the create-a-plate with baba ganoush or hummus, chickpea salad or Mediterranean salad, and madjadra. Their French fries are especially good and taste great alongside a vat of hummus.
Trumpet Blossom is Iowa City’s sole vegan restaurant. They serve lunch and dinner plus brunch on the weekends. They have a full bar, and the menu is focused on local and organic cuisine. (This breaded asparagus appetizer special was fabulous!)
My favorite dinner option is the solstice salad. It’s a kale salad with tahini dressing, topped with falafel. The sweet potato fries are also a “must.”
RSVP is a stationery store in the North side of Iowa City. Their spirited cards are far outside of what you’d find at Hallmark. Designs range from artistic to outrageous. They also have pens, artwork, jewelry, and notebooks.
What makes RSVP especially vegan-friendly is that they carry casual cloth bags and upscale vegan purses from Matt & Nat. They have a nice selection of full-sized bags along with wallets and wristlets.
They also carry cards to offer condolences for people who have lost a companion animal. Dogs and cats become true family members in our lives. It’s nice to have a place to get a grieving friend a card that honors that bond.
New Pioneer Co-op
New Pioneer Co-op has three locations in Eastern Iowa (Iowa City, Coralville, and Cedar Rapids). Much of the produce and prepared products at New Pi comes from local growers. In addition, there’s a deli and bakery, where there are vegan sandwiches, salads, breads, and dessert. You can’t go wrong with the tempeh reuben, spicy Cajun tofuwich, or Cashew on a Hot Tin Roof. (If you get hooked on that last one, try my recipe for making your own picnic sandwich at home.)
Some of the fresh breads vary depending on the day, but I especially love the garlic sourdough and Italian-style baguette. As for desserts, don’t miss the chocolate peanut butter bars, chocolate chip cookies, or freshly made cinnamon rolls.
Read more about the New Pi reuben in this Vegan Reuben Round-Up.
If you’d rather spend your Saturday night watching Skeleton Twins, Boyhood, or The Overnight than Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2, Film Scene is the place for you. Not only do they get art house films and documentaries that you won’t find in the mall movie theatre, they also have a number of vegan food options.
Their popcorn is cooked in coconut oil, and they offer a shaker of nutritional yeast flakes. They have trail mix and banana bread from local vegan restaurant, Trumpet Blossom.
They also offer burritos from Local Burrito, and sometimes have the Thai Peanut Tempeh Burrito. They will toast the burritos in their toaster oven, giving them a crusty exterior. (Don’t arrive too hungry, though. More than once, they’ve been out of them when I’ve placed my order.)
To read more about Film Scene, check out this earlier post.
Big Grove Brewery
Big Grove Brewery opened an Iowa City location in spring 2017. They already had a location in Solon, and this one is even larger. The expansive building includes an outdoor seating area with fire pits. The space is open and inviting, but be warned that it’s also very loud and echo-y. Conversation may involve some yelling.
Vegan items are marked on the menu. For appetizers, they have chips, guacamole, and salsa. For the main course, go for hongos tacos, which are mushroom tacos topped with poblano rajas, pickled onions, and roasted salsa verde. (They usually come with dairy-based cheese as well. So be sure to specify that you’d like yours prepared vegan instead.) The tacos are very wet and tend to fall apart. Be sure to grab plenty of napkins and a fork. They also have chipotle mushroom tortas as a vegan option.
They have cauliflower wings on the menu, but unfortunately, they are not vegan. (They have dairy in them.)
For more information on Big Grove Brewery, check out this post.
The Dingo Bar
The Dingo Bar is an adorable coffee shop in the Peninsula neighborhood of Iowa City. Across the street from a park, this airy café is an ideal spot for reading a book or meeting a friend to chat on the patio.
While you’re there, get a latte with almond milk. (It’s the only non-dairy milk they offer.) And if you need a snack, they have 2 vegan options of artisan toast.
Thick sourdough bread is toasted and topped with mashed avocado, fresh arugula, and shaved radish. If you’re a savory breakfast person like me, this is the one to choose.
David’s opted for the PB & J, which is slathered with peanut butter, fig jam, and long slices of banana. It was sticky sweet and filling.
Four Square Meals
The Iowa City farmers market is a twice-weekly affair on Wednesdays and Saturdays from May through October. While there are plenty of in-season fruits and vegetables either day, Saturdays are when you’ll find the most hot items.
My favorite? This potato pancake topped with spicy tofu scramble and a ladling of salsa from Four Square Meals. The business is headed by Dave Burt, one of the co-owners of the former vegan restaurant, Red Avocado.
Forbidden Planet is an arcade & pizzeria with old school pinball games and classics like Mario Brothers and Junior Pac-Man. They have themed adult beverages (First Person Shooter is my personal fave), and some of the best pizza in the state. For an appetizer, upon request they will modify their charcuterie board to include items like olives, bell peppers, and roasted asparagus.
They have three different styles of crust – deep dish, Neopolitan (thin crust), and a 6-inch square metro slice. All three styles are vegan. Top the pizzas with any of the following vegan sauces: garlicky olive oil, black bean sauce, or traditional marinara. (The slow cooked marinara contains cheese and is not vegan.)
Toppings range from the usual suspects like tomatoes, olives, and onions to basil, carrots, and broccoli. (They used to have potatoes as shown above, but sadly, they took it off the menu.) Forbidden Planet does not offer vegan cheese, but the pizzas are completely delicious cheeseless.
My go-to choice at Forbidden Planet is a make-shift taco pizza. I ask for black bean spread on a deep dish pizza. Once it’s out of the oven, I ask them to top it with lettuce, cilantro, onion, tomatoes, and pico de gallo.
To see more pictures of the food, check out this earlier post.
Old Capitol Food Company
At last, there’s somewhere to find local and organic tofu in Iowa. Old Capitol Food Company was started by Ethan Brown, Jake Gratzon, and Matthew Mesaros. Their tofu is sold at New Pioneer Co-op, Bread Garden Market, and some Iowa City Hy-Vee locations.
Visiting Wilson’s Orchard is a fall tradition. They are open to the public from August through October. In addition to apples aplenty, Wilson’s also sells apple cider, apple slushies, and apple turnovers that just happen to be vegan. The turnovers can be purchased hot and fresh or frozen to eat later. The frozen apple pies for sale are also accidentally vegan.
For more pictures from Wilson’s Orchard, read about last year’s visit.
While “vegan-friendly” wouldn’t necessarily be the first words that come to mind with a wine and cheese shop, at Brix they have several options for plant-based folks. There’s a Thai curry PB & J on the menu. The roasted red pepper and tomato soup is vegan and comes topped with a drizzling of balsamic reduction. Occasionally, they offer vegan appetizers as well.
As a longtime fan of nibbly nights, my favorite thing to order at Brix is one of their boards. A vegan board is not listed on the menu, but we ask them to bring out any of their vegan spreads along with bread and oil. I especially like the Marcona almonds, Spanish olives, quince-onion marmalade, and tomato confit. I’ve asked several times for them to start carrying Miyoko’s cheese or Treeline, which are both readily available at New Pioneer Co-op. However, so far that’s a no go, sadly.
There’s a small outdoor patio that’s lovely in the warm weather months, and the shop itself is quiet with low lights and a nice place to have a quiet conversation with friends on a Friday night.