Since there’s neither a Let’s Go, Iowa nor a Time Out Des Moines — what’s up with that? — I decided, after spending three weeks in Iowa over the summer, to compile a resource for campaign reporters heading to the Hawkeye State, with an eye toward places that would make coastal elites feel at home. This project started with a list of about 15 Des Moines restaurants from an e-mail making the rounds, Samizdat-style, written by a major-media newspaper reporter. Since the summer, I’ve modified that list and added to it, and then added recommendations from Des Moines TheGarance readers, friends in Iowa City, D.C.-area former Iowans, traveling campaign staffers, and reporters from some of the top papers and magazines in the country. I’m pleased to now be able to offer a compilation of suggestions for the entire state. Some of this is verbatim from others (as should be apparent from the tone in the Ames “drinks” section), some is edited, and some is my own take. Overall I’ve tried to restrict the focus to places that would appeal to non-Iowans for reasons of quality, though I’ve included some with a high camp or local cultural interest factor, and also added links where possible so readers can make their own judgments. In the smaller towns, where the options are limited, the listed places are local favorites.
I consider this a work-in-progress, kind of like a Wiki, but centrally edited. Feel free to write garanceruta at gmail dot com with recommendations, suggestions, additions, revisions, etc.
And now, for Google bait purposes, a string of keywords: a reviews recommendations guide to the best top favorite restaurants & food & drink & dining in Des Moines and Iowa. Thanks for visiting.
Last updated: 11/23/07.
Jim Duncan of CityView said it best: “Des Moines was designed to service the obesity of Iowa agriculture. The state leads the nation in corn, soybeans and hogs, while the city maintains the world’s largest water filtration system to cope with Big Ag’s poisonous run-off. Restaurants here mostly cater abundance with garish dÃ©cor, gargantuan portions and Styrofoam containers for leftovers.” Here are the exceptions:
Lucca. Excellent contemporary Italian restaurant in the East Village with lovely wine list, minimalist servings, and (alas) highly discombobulated servers. Modern decor. 420 E. Locust St.
Azalea. “Des Moines’ best new restaurant,” according to some. High ceilings, blonde wood, a wide-ranging menu of beef, pork, and seafood. In the old Kirkwood Hotel, which is now all condos. 4th and Walnut St.
Bistro Montage. Upscale neighborhood bistro nearer to downtown than you might think. Good wine list and a fresh menu. 2724 Ingersoll Ave.
Centro. The Cafe Milano/Michael’s of Des Moines (political and media hub). Contemporary Italian restaurant and bar, where you’ll always run into someone. 1011 Locust St. Also in DAVENPORT.
Sage. The only Iowa restaurant that made Gourmet‘s Oct. 2007 “America’s Best Farm-to-Table Restaurants” list. Home-grown polenta, pheasant, pork cheeks. 6587 University Ave. (515)255-7722.
CafÃ© di Scala. Cozy little Calabrian place in a neatly painted Victorian house, a few blocks north of downtown in the Sherman Hill neighborhood. Winner of a 2007 Wine Spectator award of excellence. 644 18th St.
801 Grand Steak and Chophouse. Classic steakhouse of Iowa Caucus lore. #200 at this address.
43 Restaurant and Bar. French brasserie; a nice restaurant for a quiet dinner in the lobby of the Hotel Fort Des Moines. 10th and Walnut St.
Jesse’s Embers. A neighborhood classic old-time (45 years and counting) steakhouse, a throwback with great character. Fancy? No. And you’ll smell like steak for a day or so, but that’s a good thing. 3301 Ingersoll Ave.
Splash Seafood Bar & Grill. Fresh seafood flown in daily. 303 Locust St.
CafÃ© Su. Swell Chinese restaurant in a cool little neighborhood, Valley Junction, with good shops around. 225 5th St. in West Des Moines.
Court Avenue Restaurant & Brewing Company. Excellent local micro-brews, and a largely local crowd. Early evening Happy Hour specials. 300 Court Avenue.
Raccoon River Brewing Company. Right next to the Hotel Fort Des Moines. 10th and Walnut.
Los Laureles. Authentic Mexican food. 1518 E. Grand Ave.
El Salvador del Mundo. Authentic (feeling) Salvadorean place with an extraordinarily cheap menu and tasty pupusas. 2901 6th Ave.
Big Daddy’s Barbecue. This is a dive, but the BBQ is memorable. Open Fridays and Saturdays ONLY; drive-thru option. 1000 E. 14th St.
Big Tomato. A hole-in-the-wall by a tattoo place that serves the best pizza in town. By the slice after 11 p.m. and by full pizzas anytime, including delivery. Open until 3 a.m. 2613 Ingersoll Ave. (515)288-7227.
La Mie. French bakery/cafe with v. good lunches and “the best Sunday brunch/breakfast in town,” according to one diner. 841 42nd St., just north of I-235.
Iowa Machine Shed Restaurant. Get yer meat and don’t forget the bowl of cottage cheese. A “restaurant honoring the American farmer.” In Urbandale at the Living History Farms. 11151 Hickman Road (I-80/35 – Exit 125).
See Des Moines CityView “Best of Winners 2007″ for more.
Chequers Lounge. Legendary bar at the Hotel Fort Des Moines where as many secrets are spilled as drinks. 1000 Walnut St.
Star Bar. Surprisingly good food. Often used for events by local Democrats, and for after-event drinks by younger campaign staffers. Martinis and tapas. 2811 Ingersoll Ave
Wellman’s Pub. Serves three shifts a night: locals; early bird-dinner elderly; and students/campaign staffers. Where field staff go to drink. Outdoor patio. 2920 Ingersoll Ave.
Royal Mile Okay, the food’s not spectacular, but it’s not bad either, and it’s a great English pub hangout. On 4th St. between Court and Walnut.
The Continental. Live music, also a (very hit or miss) restaurant. 428 E. Locust
Hessen Haus. If you want to polka. 101 4th Street.
Starbucks. This is the main one. Across the hallway from a chic flower & housewares shop that will make you rethink the Midwest. T-Mobile Hotspot. 10th & Locust.
Amici Espresso. Free wi-fi & great coffee in a quiet, upscale downtown setting across from the Courthouse. 6th Ave and Mulberry.
Mars Cafe. Great coffee shop by Drake University. Free wi-fi. 2318 University Ave.
The Village Bean Co. Cool little coffee shop in the “East Village” of Des Moines. On Locust between E. 4th and E. 5th.
Ritual Cafe. A hipster-hippie vegetarian coffee joint (every small city has one), for an escape from the rythms of politics. On 13th St. between Grand & Locust.
Gateway Market Cafe. New foodie haven, sited inside the local version of Whole Foods/Dean & Deluca. Tasty offerings, from fresh-baked pastries to salads and panini (plus a take-out deli), makes this the perfect place for a casual pit-stop close to, but away from, the downtown hotels. Also has a fireplace, which makes it a cozy place to sit and sip in the winter. Free Wi-fi. On the corner of MLK and Woodland Ave.
Java Joes. A bit grungier, free wi-fi. 214 4th Street, between Walnut and Court Ave.
Zanzibar’s Coffee Adventure. 28th and Ingersoll.
WHERE TO STAY.
Hotel Fort Des Moines. The journalists’ hotel. Also popular with campaigns. 1000 Walnut St.
Hampton Inn Des Moines Airport. Some people love them a Hampton Inn. If you’re among them, this one won’t disappoint. The exact same inexpensive hotel with complimentary Wi-Fi, high-carb breakfasts and late night snacks you’ll find anywhere in America. A recent upgrading of the beds and bedding to near-luxury hotel standards have elevated the chain past its no-frills origins. 5001 Fleur Drive.
See also the Des Moines WikiTravel Guide for more (Marriott, Hilton, Holiday Inn, Renaissance Savery etc.).
Apple Store. 101 Jordan Creek Parkway, West Des Moines. (515) 440-6860
Staples. Open until 9 p.m. every day but Sunday, when it closes at 6. 906 E 1st St, Ankeny. (515) 964-0338
Hamburg Inn No. 2 Inc. If you’re in Iowa City, your trip probably started here. Home of the Coffee Bean Caucus. Since 1948. 214 N. Linn St.
Devotay. Fabulous small plates and tapas right across the street from the Hamburg Inn; excellent wines. Great for lunches, too. Chef Kurt Friese is “a leading member of the international ‘Slow Food’ movement,” according to a UI dining site. 117 North Linn St.
Linn Street Cafe. Best high-brow restaurant in Iowa City. 121 N. Linn St.
Givannis Italian Cafe. Semi-upscale food in a casual setting on the Ped Mall, for when you want some simple fish or pasta and wine without the fanfare of the Linn Street Cafe. A bit deficient in the charm department. 109 E. College St.
One Twenty Six. “Midwestern nouvelle cuisine,” a.k.a. contemporary American. Excellent grilled cheese sandwiches — “the highest-brow grilled cheese I’ve ever had,” says one University of Iowa professor. 126 E. Washington St.
The Motley Cow Cafe. More bohemian (but only slightly). 327 E. Market St. MOVING across Linn Street from Devotay in December.
Baldy’s Wraps. Known for its hamburgers. 18 S. Clinton St.
Pagliai’s Pizza. Mediocre New York pizza, which is a small miracle for the Midwest. Half a block away from the Hamburg. 302 E. Bloomington St.
Takanami. Sushi and high-end Asian-American fusion near the unversity. A competitor — one of maybe three such places — for the title of best sushi in Iowa. 219 Iowa Ave.
George’s Buffet Bar. An Iowa Writer’s Workshop hangout. 312 E. Market St.
Dave’s Fox Head Tavern. Also draws a huge chunk of its clientele from the Writer’s Workshop program. 402 E. Market St.
The Sanctuary Restaurant & Pub. Has a wide beer selection, pizza, and — critical come winter — a warm fireplace. 405 South Gilbert Street
The Mill. A bar around the corner from the Sheraton on Burlington whose major selling point for campaign staff and fellow travellers is the convenient location and relatively cheap pitchers. Outdoor patio. 120 E. Burlington Street.
These are among the few places where there will be no table dancing; UI is a big party school.
The Java House. Free WiFi, good coffee, younger crowd. Seven locations, the main being at 211 1/2 E. Washington St.
Starbucks. The usual. 228 S. Clinton St. at Burlington, just around the corner from the Sheraton.
Prairie Lights Bookstore. Independent bookstore that’s the it destination for out-of-town authors. Also has coffee. 15 South Dubuque Street.
WHERE TO STAY.
Sheraton Iowa City Hotel. Surprisingly inexpensive, clean and nice, with free WiFi if you use the signal from the Iowa Public Libraries nearby. Tip: You can get the library signal in many of the restaurants in the pedestrian mall adjacent to the Sheraton, as well. Also: Starwoods Points! 201 S. Dubuque St.
The Hotel Vetro. If you’re working for Conde Nast. Iowa City’s only boutique hotel. 201 S. Linn St.
Rube’s Steakhouse. A steakhouse that’s well worth the trip. The closest thing most folks may be familiar with is the restaurant in The Great Outdoors where John Candy eats a 96-oz steak. Or perhaps they’ve paused on a road trip at the “Big Texas Steakhouse” with the giant neon cowboy off the highway near Amarillo, Texas. Recipient of a Travelocity â€œLocal Secrets, Big Findsâ€ award. Specialty cuts from Rube’s Steakhouse and Meat Company can also be shipped nationwide. 118 Elm Street.
Also in WAUKEE at 3309 Ute Ave.
Montour is 15 miles east of Marshalltown, 18 miles north of Grinnell, 53 miles south of Cedar Falls/Waterloo, and a quick 8 miles to the Meskwaki Bingo Casino.
Highway 63 Diner Steakhouse. Better than average classic Iowa diner serving burgers, pork loin, and steak. 3030 Marnie Avenue.
Great Plains Sauce & Dough Company. Pizza, Denver- and Idaho-style. Unlike most pizza you’ve had before. 129 Main Street.
Hickory Park BBQ and Ice Cream. Great burgers. Milkshakes and sundaes and things. Very popular. 1404 South Duff Avenue.
Battle’s Bar-B-Q. Texas-style BBQ and homemade lemonade. 218 Welch Ave.
Le’s Vietnamese. Delicious Vietnamese. 113 Colorado Ave., off Lincolnway on the West side.
The Spice. Thai food in a contemporary setting. Closed Sundays. 402 Main Street.
Aunt Maude’s. One of the few upscale restaurants in Ames that’s been able to thrive and last in the town’s spaghetti-friendly market. 547 Main St.
Cyclone Truck Stop. Long-haul truckers from all over the U.S. stop in here for meals 24 hours a day, and it’s always interesting to be a fly on the wall. Good corned beef hash, too. I-35 Exit 111 B (US 30, – 1 Mi W).
Cafe Beaudelaire. “The soul of Brazil in the heart of Iowa.” The Spanish burger there is celebrated by some as the best burger in Ames. Wi-fi. 2504 Lincoln Way.
Pita, Pita. Falafel and hummus make for a healthy fast-food alternative. 2508 Lincoln Way.
The two Starbucks in Ames are embedded inside the HyVees at 3800 and 640 Lincoln Way.
Local options: Stomping Grounds, which features indoor and outdoor seating and Wifi (303 Welch Ave); Cafe Diem on Main Street; Burgie’s on Airport Rd.; Santa Fe Espresso on Welch; and Gregory’s on S. Duff.
Or try one of Ames’ coffee-shops-cum-bars: Beaudelaire (above) and the multi-culti Boheme Bistro (2900 West St.).
There are literally thousands of people with world-class educations stuck in Ames from all over the world. If you’re overeducated or have done interesting things and are angry about being temporarily stuck in a small town in the Midwest, come to Ames, find a bar and be visibly grouchy. Someone will surely share your angst. Just remember: only Iowans get to really complain about Iowa.
The granddaddy of dive bars in Ames is Whiskey River on Main St., though some say Thumb’s is better. You can karaoke with locals at the Fox (111 S 5th). Aside from these selections, prime target-rich environments when seeking a frothy beverage include the intersection of Lincolnway and Welch Ave., and Main St. downtown.
The Phoenix Cafe and Inn. A cafe-gallery-bookstore-wineshop-market. Mediterranean-inflected food. Inn has three very inexpensive rooms. 834 Park Avenue.
Kelsey’s Fine Foods. For the prime rib. 812 6th Ave.
The Blue Strawberry Coffee Company. Upscale coffeeshop that also serves wraps, sandwiches, and pastries. Popular site for candidate appearances. 118 Second Street SE, with a second location at 5741 C Street SW.
The Drake on the Riverfront. Stunning views of the Mississippi River from this contemporary American restaurant in historic downtown Burlington. 106 Washington.
The Pepper Sprout. Gourmet “Midwest Cuisine” that wins rave reviews from locals, served in a pleasing dark-wood and exposed brick setting. Solid wine list, but (alas) somewhat irregular lunch hours. 378 Main Street.
Cafe Manna Java. Wood-fired pizza, paninis, pastries, coffee and wifi. Great for lunch. 269 Main Street.
Asian Gourmet. Totally passable pad thai. 115 West 11th St., downtown.
Beecherâ€™s Ice Cream and Yogurt. “OMG, delicious,” says one frequent Dubuque visitor. Waffle cones made on the premises. Only open during the summer. 1691 Asbury Rd., near University.
Betty Jane Homemade Candies & Ice Cream. This will do if Beecherâ€™s is closed. 3049 Asbury Road.
In addition to Manna Java:
Moo Java Espresso. For your drive-through latte, chai, green tea, and coffee needs. Two locations at: 4120 Dodge St. & 245 W 2nd St.
One Mean Bean. Free wi-fi, decent coffee, not that much room to sit. 2728 Asbury Rd.
Miguelâ€™s Coffee Bar. Open late(r than other places) most nights. Free wi-fi. 806 Wacker Plaza, Ste. 116.
The Busted Lift. A good little bar on lower Main that’s part of the 180 Main entertainment complex, which itself is a key part of the Old Main District revival that’s been taking place since 2000. Also has good food. 180 Main Street.
Centro. A second branch of the Des Moines favorite. 131 W. 2nd Street.
The Bistro at Daly Creek Winery. Classy, with a great upscale-ish menu. The wine is, well, not Sonoma or Bordeaux, but it’s still fun and maybe a little oasis for a yuppie in nowheresville. 106 North Ford Street. (319)462-2525
Lincoln Cafe. Foodie/slow-food haven with rotating seasonal menu, no liquor license. 117 First Street West.
Decker House Hotel. A super-weird, super-cool spooky old mansion. One recent guest says, “If I were a ghost, this is exactly the kind of place I would hang out: creaky floorboards, lots of weird ornate flourishes, a large gramophone inexplicably placed in the middle of a third floor hallway, etc. Paradoxically, perhaps, for just $100 you can get a king bed and a whirlpool tub, and there’s a place with coffee and fresh pastries about a block down Main Street.” 128 North Main Street.
The Ivy Bake Shoppe & Cafe. Itâ€™s downtown â€“ not hard to find because downtown is tiny. A bakery/cafÃ© run by the Martha Stewart of southern Iowa. Good stuff, including lunches. Monday-Saturday, 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. 6th Street & Avenue G.
Cafe Dodici. Italian and “international” food. 122 South Iowa Avenue.
Redhead. Casual, funky, inexpensive and about as contemporary as it gets in this far Northeast corner of Iowa. Try the buffalo burger. Located at the corner of Highway 1 and Main Street, at 240 E. Main Street.
Plaza Mexico. “The waitstaff barely speaks English and the food is great,” says one local reporter. 1501 N. Lake Ave.
The Pantry. A lunch spot downtown where people won’t mind if you strike up a conversation at the counter. 505 Lake Ave.
The Regatta Grill at King’s Pointe Lodge. Offers a good sampling of Iowa fare, including pork and walleye. 1520 E Lakeshore Dr.
The Embers. The place to go for a steak and a stiff drink. 723 Lake Ave.
Smokey’s Tavern If you want some beer and to meet blue-collars and/or try out “northwest Iowa’s only snooker table.” 707 Lake Ave.
Nota bene: Buena Vista University in Storm Lake is believed to be the only college in Iowa where one can tailgate *on the field* before the game. If one is so inclined.
Northwestern Steak House. For a spectacular experience of a slab of Iowa beefâ€¦with a Greek twist. This is a down-home spot that youâ€™d never find if you werenâ€™t looking for it. Itâ€™s been there for decades; it used to be the place that the cement plant workers on the north end would go. Plan on a wait for a table — there are no reservations unless youâ€™ve got a group of six or more. 304 16th St. NW, 641-423-5075
Birdsall Ice Cream Co. Cranking out home-made ice cream since the 50â€™s. 518 N. Federal Ave, 641-423-5365
Jitters Coffee Bar. Southbridge Mall, 100 S. Federal, 641-424-4880 (next to B. Dalton Books)
The Quarry. “Pretty darn sophisticated cooking,” says one former resident. 10 S. Federal Ave., 641-421-0075
Try OMAHA, across the river in Nebraska. Seriously — it’s the largest, most sophisticated city in Nebraska, houses a major regional university, and has a population nearly seven times the size of Council Bluffs (390K vs. 58K).
THINGS LOCALS ENJOY & POINTS OF INTEREST.
The Iowa Speedway. NASCAR in Newton.
Boone Speedway. Dirt-track races.
Downtown Farmer’s Market. Court Avenue, 7 a.m. to noon, Saturdays in Des Moines.
Iowa Cubs. AAA Minor League Baseball.
The Amana Colonies. Stick to the foodstuffs and avoid the tchotchkes. Known for their baked goods and legendary ham, also purveyors of fine 19th century delicacies like dandelion wine. One of America’s longest-lived and largest religious communal societies, founded in 1855 in Iowa, and transformed into a corporation in 1932. Seven villages. German origins. Off I-80 about 15 minutes from Cedar Rapids or half an hour from Iowa City. Small hotels and motel in Amana (the main Amana) provide a cute, cheap alternative to staying in unattractive downtown Cedar Rapids.
Big Creek Lake. Boats and kayaks for rent by the hour or day.
Meskwaki Bingo Casino. Had a rough week? Go crazy and blow some dough at this Indian casino in the middle of Iowa. Just make sure you’ve got a sober driver, because it’s unlikely you’ve got housing anywhere within 50 miles. Other important places to gamble in Iowa: Prairie Meadows Racetrack and various riverboats along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.
Friday Night Lights. High school football games are (mainly) free* anywhere in the state from August to November. The high schools are broken up into divisions by school-size. The 4A division is for the larger schools, with games that are played in the largest stadiums and which draw the biggest crowds, making it easier to blend into them as an outsider. *Some large schools do charge a small admissions fee.
Maid Rite. A local fast-food chain, founded in 1926. Home of the Loose Meat Sandwich. “Honestly delicious, even though it may look a little weird,” says one Iowan. “Also do not forget that salt, pepper, and ketchup are your friends.” Others disagree; one calls the loose meat specialty “disgusting…like a sloppy Joe but with broth instead of tomato sauce.” Multiple locations.
Culver’s custard. Culver’s is a Midwestern chain, not an Iowa-specific thing, but you can find a bunch of their frozen custard outlets in Iowa. Like fro-yo, but eggier. Multiple locations.
John Wayne’s Birthplace. Museum & Learning Center. 216 S. 2nd St. Winterset, Iowa
The World’s Largest Truck-Stop. “Back in 1964 when we began operations at Interstate 80′s exit 284, who would have thought we would grow to be the Worldâ€™s Largest Truckstop? After all, we were just a small, white enamel building with two diesel pumps, one lube bay and a tiny restaurant, located in the middle of Iowa cornfields.” Fuel, food, and dentistry, open 24-7. Also a truck museum. Exit 284, I-80.
The Music Man Square. Childhood home of Mason Cityâ€™s favorite son, Meredith Willson, and a celebration of “the original River City.” 308 S. Pennsylvania Avenue, Mason City.