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WATERLOO — For longtime area restaurateur Gary Shoemaker food is an art, and grilled cheese sandwiches are his canvas.

His new studio is a coffee shop and daytime restaurant is located at 218 E. Fourth St. He and his wife, Christie Shoemaker, recently opened in downtown Waterloo — Lincoln Perk.

The name is a nod to the Central Perk coffee shop on the TV sitcom, “Friends,” and the proximity to Waterloo’s Lincoln Park less than two blocks away.

“I really fell in love with the area ... and all the activities that go on down here,” Shoemaker said.

All sandwiches are named after streets in Waterloo. There’s the Water Street, which features roasted chicken, pepper jack cheese, buffalo and bleu cheese sauce and fried jalapenos between two slices of jalapeno cornbread. Oh, and the cornbread is buttered and encrusted in flaming cheese puffs with a raspberry chipotle dipping sauce.

Shoemaker’s creations come from a recipe box of more than 80 gourmet concoctions that include just about anything you can imagine between two slices of bread.

From cajun alligator to black truffle to kimchi, diners will choose from a rotating list of about 10 sandwiches each week.

“It allows me to be artistic in a different form just by creating new sandwiches and different menu items and different beverages,” Shoemaker said. “When you do hit on one and people go nuts over it, it’s just a good feeling.”

A close-knit downtown community allows Shoemaker to blend in some products from his neighbors, including apple fritters and other breads from Rockets Bakery and a Thanksgiving-themed sandwich with turkey and dressing from Rodney’s Kitchen.

Shoemaker is well-known in the Cedar Valley for his eclectic dishes and family-style restaurants. In 1968, as a teenager, he began working at Freeman’s Cafe on Falls Avenue, and in 1992 he bought the restaurant and named it Garfield’s Cafe. In 2002 he changed the name to Gary’s Restaurant, which closed in 2009.

Since then he has operated a catering business, worked with Hawkeye Community College and was executive chef at the Elks Lodge.

At his peak, he was working six to eight events a day and had 61 employees. Now he has three and is enjoying a more relaxed schedule.

“It’s a fun little business, and the downtown area has been real receptive to it,” he said. “We’re perfectly happy with this combination.”

And for those wondering, one of his popular soups from Garfield’s will be on the menu.

“I am told that I will be running the chicken tortilla soup from the restaurant in the fall because I’ve had too many people walk in and say, ‘You will be running the chicken tortilla soup, right?’” he laughed. “That thing’s got a life of its own.”

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Copy Editor/Staff Writer

Staff Writer at the Courier

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