Earlier this year Chris and I were on a quest to visit a lot of different places in the Mason City area and beyond that we had not visited previously. It seemed like we had missed a lot in our town that we needed to become acquainted with. So we visited this cute little diner called Suzie Q Cafe which is located in downtown Mason City on 2nd Street, NW. What I forgot to do was write a blog post about it and of course when I looked for the pictures I took I could not find them. So that meant I needed to make another visit, right?
My North Iowa Blogger buddies were my lunch dates on a brisk November day and even though we were a small, intimate group we are mighty and I was thrilled to find 3 stools together when we entered the tiny diner that could accommodate us. Tiny is right—this place has 10 stools if I counted correctly and we were on the far right end close to the grill action. In a place like this the conversation is lively and everyone kind of joins in on everybody else’s conversations because–well–you are practically sitting in each other’s laps. But that is all part of the charm.
Have you ever even heard of Valentine Diners? According to owner Troy Levenhagen his is one of only about 19 left in existence in the US which makes it pretty darn special. The history of the Valentine diner as reported by Kansapedia, The Kansas Historical Society is very interesting. They were created during the Great Depression to serve as small 8-10 seat diners where two people could do the cooking and serve up good hearty food for a good price. Because they were so small they could be portable and shipped easily to places that would be good fits—-places where there were not many eateries, locations where there were a plethora of workers needing good food at inexpensive prices and also places where travelers might happen upon them.
The little “boxes” were not fancy at all and over the years the estimate is that there were 2000 or so built and in use. Arthur Valentine started Valentine Manufacturing Company in 1947 and went to town. His dream was to own his own business and the success of providing entrepreneurs with their own tiny diner was quite enticing to many. The diners sometimes came with their own built in wall safes where the owners could place their money and Valentine representatives could come around and take their payments without any fuss. The incredible thing —if payments were not made they could just tow the diner away. I would suspect that inspired the owners to make those payments in a timely manner.
The food is prepared right in front of your eyes–full disclosure –nothing hidden. What you see is what you get and Troy cooks up your order with quickness and flair—even offering a magic trick or two as part of the experience. Yep–Troy also is a magician and is known around town as Levey the Great. He did a few tricks for us while we ate and it was pretty fun to see him pull things out of thin air—or so it seemed.
The diner is adorable. The food was served piping hot and the serving sizes were ginormous. Sara and I had the famous Spic and Span Tenderloin and I could not finish it all because it was just so large. The Spic and Span Tenderloin is a throwback item that Levenhagen’s mom used to prepare at the former Spic and Span Restaurant in Mason City. It is battered and deep fried and full of lovely flavor. Jeni had the Gyro Basket which is what I had on my initial visit and thoroughly enjoyed.
The exterior of the diner has recently been renovated due to a grant made possible through Main Street Iowa. The diner is well worn on the inside—it is used a lot—there are a lot of people who love to come to Suzie Q’s and rightfully so. This is one of those neighborhood places that has regulars and folks who depend on having a meal there. On both occasions when I visited here I realized that it was in a place where people who really needed meal options could come and would be welcomed—no matter who they are or what their circumstances are. That makes me smile. Everyone is welcome here. Everyone.
The walls of the diner are covered with signatures of customers and those who have visited the diner over the years. It is fun to take it all in and see what some of the things are that people wanted to leave as a signature.
If you ever find yourself in Mason City you will definitely need to make a stop at Suzie Q Cafe. I have not been there for breakfast but judging from the menu offerings it would be a good place to grab a hearty breakfast. They are open from 6 am until 3 pm so head there early for a great breakfast or lunch offering. I guarantee that between the charm of the diner, the antics of the cook (and I mean that only in a good way), the lively conversation around the counter and the tasty food you will leave feeling that you left a diner that definitely will win your heart.