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J Bruner's | Clarinda, IA

J Bruner's | Clarinda, IA

Staying Power in Southwest Iowa

It's one thing when people travel great distances to dine at the world's top-rated restaurants like Noma in Copenhagen or El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain. But to a small town in southwest Iowa with a population of under 6,000 people? Believe it or not, it happens. Often.

"We're drawing people from Omaha, Kansas City and Des Moines," said Joe Akers, owner of J Bruner's, a fine-dining restaurant in Clarinda, Iowa. "People fly in and we'll pick them up from the airport. That happens several times a year."

J Bruner's, which opened in 1983 under original owner John Bruner, has always drawn people in for their steaks, chops and array of seafood. Diners drive from as far as three hours away, Akers said, and adds it's always been like that. Akers, who bought the restaurant in 2008 with his wife, Emily, moved it from the original location to a more central spot in a restored vintage building on Clarinda's main square in June of 2015.

The new 11,000 square-foot, 450-seat restaurant can hold nearly four times as many as the original in its three large rooms. It offers 15-foot-tall brick walls, original 100-year-old stamp-sealed ceilings, new woodwork throughout and a glass-enclosed host area. In addition to the two main dining rooms, the bar/lounge area has an indoor/outdoor patio finished with retractable garage doors, a large fireplace and a 36-foot-long handcrafted bar with 13-foot-high cherry cabinets and a large iron chandelier that hangs in the room.

While the décor is a draw, it's the food, prepared by original chef Matt Sunderman who started when the restaurant opened in 1983, that keeps them coming back. As the only fine-dining restaurant in the far-reaching area, J Bruner's is known for its beef. The prime rib, which is only offered Thursday through Saturday nights, is one of the most popular entrees. Akers said the restaurant goes through about 150 pounds of prime rib a week. The rest of the steaks, which Akers cuts himself, include the popular K.C. strip, filet mignon, sirloin and ribeye. One of the best deals is the $40 18- to 20-ounce prime sirloin for two that comes sliced and topped with sautéed mushrooms and onions.

Surprisingly, being in a land-locked Midwest town, J Bruner's has an impressive selection of seafood: lobster, Alaskan king crab, shrimp, salmon, channel catfish, rainbow trout, mahi mahi and more. The restaurant gets deliveries three times a week to ensure they can keep up with the demand. And guests would be remiss to leave without having the famous onion rings, which the Des Moines Register said is something you need to eat before you die. Those are hand cut and breaded to order and is easily one of the most popular items on the menu.

"We use super colossal onions and probably go through 12 to 14 50-pound bags of onions a week," Akers said. "They have a house seasoning that only one to two people know the recipe. We season our steaks with that, too. It's one of the biggest factors of the restaurant, that seasoning."

The other spice that keeps things flowing is the Akers themselves. The couple splits management duties: Joe oversees the kitchen while Emily runs the front of the house. The pair both worked in service industries before buying the restaurant so they know that pleasing people is of utmost importance.

"Our No. 1 priority is to keep people happy," Akers said. "My wife is really good with communicating with people. I spent 20 years in retail in the car industry, which is all about customer service. We take what we're both good at."

Top-notch customer service, quality food and a beautiful, spacious environment. No wonder people travel from all over just for dinner.

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