Experience the World-Famous Canteen Restaurant Lunch!

experience the world famous canteen lunch collage

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On my last visit to Iowa, I was able to play in the city of Ottumwa. Known for loose meat sandwiches, I was excited to visit the world-famous Canteen Restaurant for Lunch!

Canteen in the Alley

Canteen Lunch is a landmark restaurant in the town of Ottumwa, Iowa. The story of this eatery goes back to the 1920s when a small eatery came up in an alley in the city. The older Canteen Lunch was a simple, no-frills five-seat dining place in an entirely different location. It moved to its present location only in 1936.

The Canteen is, no doubt, a brilliant example of an early 20th-century lunchroom, and it does reflect the style of eating establishment that gained popularity in the 1930s in the wake of economic changes brought in by the Great Depression.

Experience the World-Famous Canteen Restaurant Lunch!

Experience the World-Famous Canteen Restaurant Lunch!

Eating places like The Canteen restaurant were generally visited by people who had little money for eating out but needed to have lunch nonetheless. Small restaurants like these were liked by people who were looking for a friendly place to meet with each other, have some food, and socialize. The Canteen always had an abundance of male visitors partly since they were located very close to factories.

Canteen in the Alley exterior shot

What makes the Canteen so Unique?

The Canteen Lunch is in operation even today. The design of the restaurant is unique. Sixteen stools surround the horseshoe-shaped counter-top. It is regarded as a local institution that has come into prominence mainly for its home-grown delicacies like loose-meat sandwiches and homemade pies.

Canteen in the Alley Food

Many would argue that the sandwiches are very similar in taste to those available in other such shops. Still, these have different kind of seasoning and condiments that make this variety stand out from the others.

The iconic status of the Canteen Restaurant Lunch was evident a few years back when the town wanted to build a new parking ramp on the very spot where Canteen Lunch stood.

There were massive protests from the people of the city, leaving the city no other option but to build a ramp around it. This eating place is accessed through an alley, and the locals consider this place as their first stop when they return home from the office.

Experience the World-Famous Canteen Restaurant Lunch!

The sandwich designs here are very intriguing. Each day the lunchroom prepares around 150 pounds of ground beef, and this grind is much finer than the other varieties of loose meat sandwiches that I have tried. They serve the sandwich on a customized hamburger bun and then wrapped in a wax paper jacket. A spoon is also given to scoop up any remaining beef after eating.

Why is Canteen Food so Successful?

It is complicated to pinpoint any one reason for the sheer success of the Canteen Lunch. It could be that the layout of the restaurant, apart from the excellent food, has played an essential role in its success.

The place follows a somewhat open kitchen system as one can easily see a team member stirring the beef as the meat is cooking in full view of the diners. That makes for a relatively new kind of dining experience for most, and many speculate that this is also one of the reasons for the resounding success of the Canteen Lunch.

Canteen workers stirring the ground beef

The Canteen Restaurant Menu

While they do have a hot dog for those few souls who aren’t serious carnivores (Sorry Andy) the loose meat sandwich is the way to go. You have choices on your sandwich: ketchup, mustard, onions, pickle. You can get it plain or with any combination of the above.

You can order The Canteens with “no salt,” and they skip the quick shot of seasoning that tops it before the close up the bun. You can also try a “Cheese Canteen,” which is what I did. I wanted the full experience and had “the works.” It was beyond tasty!

I also tried the peanut butter shake as shakes were on the smaller side, and I’m not fond of the carbonation of a soda. I topped off my meal with a piece of the peach pie that had apples in it too! That cut down the richness of the peaches while layering another subtle flavor into the mix. My group tried a variety of pie flavors, and all seemed to pass the taste test easily!

each pie at the canteen


The price here is still very moderate as it was during the Great Depression. Believe it or not, you can get a full meal with a piece of pie for as little as $9. Having food in the Canteen Lunch is an enjoyable experience; if you are at Ottumwa for any reason, then you must come down here and enjoy the pristine surroundings.

canteen nin the alley outdoor seating

The Canteen Restaurant Eating Contest

Major League Eating holds the World Championship Canteen Sandwich Eating Contest. Major League Eaters are warmly encouraged to sign up for the chance to compete in this delicious, history-making occasion.

It would be hard to beat Joey “Jaws” Chestnut, who managed to down 28.5 Canteens in the allotted ten-minute window. That record blows my mind as I had a hard time finishing just one sandwich! They are a very generous serving, coming in at a little better than a 1/3 pound burger.

canteen alley pavers

Do you have to wait for seat?

Check out the actual Canteen Alley! As the Ottumwa has been bringing facelifts to different areas of downtown, this project stood out as a winner in my book. They used “green” pavers that helped to reclaim rainwater, along with different artwork concepts. Just check out this incredible piece of functional art; it helps reclaim the water and looks simply amazing!

music clef rainwater reclaim art

You will see local art around they alley also, as well as an amazing area for the littles, with even more coming!

kids play area in canteen alley

The actual alley is becoming one of the lastest event spaces in Ottumwa, easily able to accommodate a crowd and yet keep everyone’s interest.  Just check out the calendar of events for the latest happenings.

Canteen in the Alley Events

Realistically, there is only one Canteen in the Alley event – the Canteen Eating Contest! All members of the public are allowed to apply for a seat at the competition and it is ten minutes of furious face-stuffing.

Hopefully, it will be back as there was no contest in 2020.

Canteen in the Alley Address

It is really easy to find, but here you go: 112 2nd St E, Ottumwa, IA 52501

Canteen in the Alley Hours

Six days a week you can indulge in a tasty treat, Sunday being the only exception. Otherwise, it is open from 10:30 am to 7:00 pm.

Quick facts:

  • The “Landford Lunchbox” from the show Roseanne was based on this very restaurant, that Tom Arnold used to frequent.
  • You may have a wait for a seat, as there are only sixteen stools. We say up to twenty people waiting for our spots!
  • In 2017, the Canteen Lunch in the Alley won the USA Today’s Readers’ Choice as the #1 place to get a loose meat sandwich across Iowa.
  • While The Canteen doesn’t make their pies, they do source them locally from a family in town.
  • There are a lot more than sixteen seats, if you count all the tables and benches outside. In warmer weather. Unless you are a polar bear and enjoy that kind of thing in winter…
  • The Canteen is closed on Sundays – good for them!

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