Best New Restaurant: Popoli Ristorante & Sullivan’s Bar

By Cindy Hadish

Dining inside a bank vault is just one of the uncommon attractions at Popoli Ristorante & Sullivan’s Bar in downtown Cedar Rapids.

The eight-seat dining area, with its 25-ton door safely propped open, is among the draws that contribute to Popoli being named Best New Restaurant in the Corridor.

“I love the atmosphere,” said first-time customer Marlene Hadley of Cedar Rapids on a recent outing with friends. “There aren’t many white tablecloth places anymore.”

That upscale ambiance, combined with a “fun and casual” approach, has helped make Popoli a popular place in the four months since its opening in April, said General Manager Brandon Godwin.

Mr. Godwin, formerly with Vino’s Ristorante and R.G. Books Lounge in Cedar Rapids, said bartenders, chefs and other Popoli staff contribute to that approach.

“Here, it’s completely a team effort,” he said. “We work together as a team and have fun.”

Mr. Godwin echoed Ms. Hadley’s sentiments, noting that the building’s atmosphere also plays a major role in the restaurant’s popularity.

Built in the former People’s Savings Bank, the 1911 building, located at 101 Third Ave. SW, was designed by renowned architect Louis Sullivan, with stained glass windows by glass artist Louis Millet and a four-part mural painted by Impressionist Allen Philbrick.

Ornate chandeliers inside and 10 terra cotta lions guarding the outside perimeter are original to the bank building, which was renovated to accommodate the restaurant after being flooded in 2008.

“It is like a mini-museum in here,” Popoli hostess Kristen Scarfi said of the building, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. “It’s very unique. There’s nothing else like it.”

The restaurant seats a total of 165, including the bar, which was named in honor of Mr. Sullivan. A sidewalk café accommodates four more tables outdoors.

Mr. Godwin said crowds from downtown attractions, such as Theatre Cedar Rapids, the new riverfront amphitheater and the Paramount Theatre, all spill over to the restaurant, found in the up-and-coming Kingston Village neighborhood.

The menu features homemade modern Italian food with a focus on locally-sourced ingredients, and includes fresh seafood, pasta specialties, prime cuts of steak and house-made desserts, all complemented by an extensive cocktail, beer and wine list.

Mr. Godwin said the squid ink spaghetti is among the most popular dishes, while customer Karla Twedt-Ball of Cedar Rapids cited the salted caramel creme brûlée as a favorite.

“It’s the best I ever had,” she said.