Just over a year since a fire closed the doors at Riley’s Cafe on First Avenue in Cedar Rapids, the coffee is flowing again.

Riley’s reopened Oct. 9, and it was full of breakfast customers this past Monday morning.

Dean Thomas of Marion was one of them. He said he likes watching the interactions of other customers, getting to know the servers and feeling part of a small community of diners starting their day together over hashbrowns and eggs.

“I came here before the fire. I’m just glad it reopened,” he said. “It’s small, kind of colloquial ... it’s like a neighborhood kind of place.”

Owner Richard Pankey said he worked hard to recreate the pre-fire feel of the space, which first opened as Riley’s in 2004. An eclectic collection of photos, signs and license plates fill the walls again, and the mismatched collection of coffee mugs are back on the tables. A section of the wall signed by President Barack Obama still is in place.

"It has a feel a lot like it had before,” Pankey said. “It’s a good old-fashioned American breakfast house.”

Riley’s also has locations at 2727 Sixth St. SW, 2010 Sylvia Ave. NE and 576 Boyson Rd. NE. While the 836 First Ave. NE location was closed, another of Pankey’s restaurants, Daisy’s Garage and Filling Station, 1117 First Ave. SE, started serving breakfast. Pankey said they’ll continue offering breakfast there, at least for the time being.

It wasn’t always a sure thing that the 836 First Ave. NE location would reopen after an overheated vent behind a dishwasher caught fire, causing damage to a wall, ceiling and roof. Ultimately, a steadfast core of the diners’ fans convinced him to rebuild, Pankey said.

“We thought we’d only be closed for a three- to six-month time period. Part of the additional time was deciding if returning to this location made financial sense,” he said. “It was really by request of the customer base that we made the decision to reopen here.”

He took the past several months to not only clean up the smoke and fire damage, but to update the building to Americans with Disabilities Act compliance, and upgrade the utilities and infrastructure.

The building has a long history as an eatery: Tommy’s Cafe opened in the 1970s, it was named Tommy’s Restaurant in 1983 and in 1994 it was Willy Woodburns.

Molly Haskell, who lives in Nashville but used to live in Cedar Rapids, was back in town for a wedding and brought her husband, David, with her for breakfast. She said she eats there every time she comes back to town.

“I’ve been coming here forever, since it was Tommy’s. We came here after my dad’s funeral. It just feels like home,” she said.


WHAT: Riley’s Cafe
WHERE: 836 First Ave. NE, Cedar Rapids
HOURS: 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily
DETAILS: (319) 364-4779, rileyscafeandcatering.com