Best Restaurants in Des Moines (For Everyone): 2014 UPDATE

Note: There used to be a list of restaurants here, but I’ve replaced it with an article from another website to give what I think is a more candid assessment of dining options in Des Moines, circa 2015. There are a few restaurants around here that get all of the pieces right, but caveat emptor is a good general rule when eating out in Iowa’s capital city.

Iowa is a vast agricultural region, so a lot of amazing, fresh food is produced and readily available throughout the state. One might think that Iowa’s restaurant scenes would be spectacular as a result, given the abundance of locally-sourced harvests.

One would (mostly) be mistaken. Dining out involves three factors — food, ambiance, and service experience — and getting just one or two of them right isn’t good, even though that’s unfortunately the norm here, and most Iowans seem to happily accept that.

As do the people who should know better. Regional media figures continually fall all over themselves to declare this week’s trendy new opening to be the greatest thing in dining since the hip new opening they shilled last week. Local food critics routinely repeat how much better things are today than they were ten years ago, in a comforting, mantra-like fashion.

But don’t believe the hype: “improved” is not the same thing as “great,” or often even “adequate.”

How can native and captive Iowa diners improve this situation? By letting restaurants know what is acceptable and what is not, and then voting with their feet and their dollars when offered the latter.

There’s no excuse for mutely accepting inferior service, quality and experience, no matter how nice you are. Stand up for yourselves, Iowans! Don’t wait in long lines and pay too much for restaurant mediocrity!

Here are some real observations — all based on four years of first-hand experience — that I would like to share with current and future restauranteurs in Iowa, on behalf of your customers. Food for thought, please?

  • Iowa has a brutal climate. A curtain will not keep it out, no matter how nice it looks. Build a vestibule, and don’t seat customers directly in front of it.
  • A multi-course meal with wine pairings doesn’t work if wines #4 thru #7 all arrive at once, with small plate #8.
  • “Minimalist decor” and “didn’t put much effort into decorating” are not the same thing.
  • If someone makes a reservation for two guests well in advance of the dining date, it is almost certainly a very special occasion. Do not seat these customers immediately adjacent to a shrieking “girls’ night out” party of twelve.
  • The impact of your locally sourced organic creations is undermined if you make people eat them on plastic tables.
  • There is no excuse whatsoever for not taking reservations on Saturday nights during the busiest dining hours of the week, just to force people into your bar-shaped holding tank.
  • State pride is fine, but that does not mean that you must put Maytag Blue Cheese or LaQuercia Prosciutto in every single cheese and meat dish you offer.
  • There’s a difference between “timely service” and “rushed out the door.” Guess which one customers prefer?
  • If you open a second location for your successful restaurant and send all of your good staff there, your first location will suffer.
  • There’s a difference between “kitschy” and “tacky.” You might want to make sure your designer knows it.
  • A cement slab with a dozen plastic tables on it, up against a busy roadway, does not constitute “patio dining.”
  • If you advertise “tapas” or “small plates,” then each of the servings should not be larger than a human head.
  • “De Burgo” and “Cavatelli” are not actually real Italian foods, nor are “Rangoons” actually Asian, nor is cream cheese a traditional sushi ingredient.
  • If there are only two parties in your large, open, quiet dining room, then do not seat them at immediately adjacent tables for the sake of server convenience.
  • Just because a food tastes good on its own, this does not mean that you should put it on a pizza. Or on a hamburger. Or in a beer. Or on a donut.
  • If your menu is tailored toward drunken 24-year old customers, you may not use the words “fine dining” in your marketing.
  • There’s really no excuse for offering both red sauce and white sauce on the same pasta dish at the same time. Ever.
  • No one is going to record a concert in your dining room because of its great reverb. Dampen the sound. Please.
  • You are not an airline. Don’t overbook reservations just because you can, and don’t routinely run two hours late for “maintenance.”
  • We don’t live in a 16th-century theocracy, as much as it might seem so.  So open your damn restaurant on Sundays.

Best Restaurants in Des Moines (For Everyone)

Note: There used to be a list of restaurants here, but I’ve replaced it with an article from another website to give what I think is a more candid assessment of dining options in Des Moines, circa 2015. There are a few restaurants around here that get all of the pieces right, but caveat emptor is a good general rule when eating out in Iowa’s capital city.

Iowa is a vast agricultural region, so a lot of amazing, fresh food is produced and readily available throughout the state. One might think that Iowa’s restaurant scenes would be spectacular as a result, given the abundance of locally-sourced harvests.

One would (mostly) be mistaken. Dining out involves three factors — food, ambiance, and service experience — and getting just one or two of them right isn’t good, even though that’s unfortunately the norm here, and most Iowans seem to happily accept that.

As do the people who should know better. Regional media figures continually fall all over themselves to declare this week’s trendy new opening to be the greatest thing in dining since the hip new opening they shilled last week. Local food critics routinely repeat how much better things are today than they were ten years ago, in a comforting, mantra-like fashion.

But don’t believe the hype: “improved” is not the same thing as “great,” or often even “adequate.”

How can native and captive Iowa diners improve this situation? By letting restaurants know what is acceptable and what is not, and then voting with their feet and their dollars when offered the latter.

There’s no excuse for mutely accepting inferior service, quality and experience, no matter how nice you are. Stand up for yourselves, Iowans! Don’t wait in long lines and pay too much for restaurant mediocrity!

Here are some real observations — all based on four years of first-hand experience — that I would like to share with current and future restauranteurs in Iowa, on behalf of your customers. Food for thought, please?

  • Iowa has a brutal climate. A curtain will not keep it out, no matter how nice it looks. Build a vestibule, and don’t seat customers directly in front of it.
  • A multi-course meal with wine pairings doesn’t work if wines #4 thru #7 all arrive at once, with small plate #8.
  • “Minimalist decor” and “didn’t put much effort into decorating” are not the same thing.
  • If someone makes a reservation for two guests well in advance of the dining date, it is almost certainly a very special occasion. Do not seat these customers immediately adjacent to a shrieking “girls’ night out” party of twelve.
  • The impact of your locally sourced organic creations is undermined if you make people eat them on plastic tables.
  • There is no excuse whatsoever for not taking reservations on Saturday nights during the busiest dining hours of the week, just to force people into your bar-shaped holding tank.
  • State pride is fine, but that does not mean that you must put Maytag Blue Cheese or LaQuercia Prosciutto in every single cheese and meat dish you offer.
  • There’s a difference between “timely service” and “rushed out the door.” Guess which one customers prefer?
  • If you open a second location for your successful restaurant and send all of your good staff there, your first location will suffer.
  • There’s a difference between “kitschy” and “tacky.” You might want to make sure your designer knows it.
  • A cement slab with a dozen plastic tables on it, up against a busy roadway, does not constitute “patio dining.”
  • If you advertise “tapas” or “small plates,” then each of the servings should not be larger than a human head.
  • “De Burgo” and “Cavatelli” are not actually real Italian foods, nor are “Rangoons” actually Asian, nor is cream cheese a traditional sushi ingredient.
  • If there are only two parties in your large, open, quiet dining room, then do not seat them at immediately adjacent tables for the sake of server convenience.
  • Just because a food tastes good on its own, this does not mean that you should put it on a pizza. Or on a hamburger. Or in a beer. Or on a donut.
  • If your menu is tailored toward drunken 24-year old customers, you may not use the words “fine dining” in your marketing.
  • There’s really no excuse for offering both red sauce and white sauce on the same pasta dish at the same time. Ever.
  • No one is going to record a concert in your dining room because of its great reverb. Dampen the sound. Please.
  • You are not an airline. Don’t overbook reservations just because you can, and don’t routinely run two hours late for “maintenance.”
  • We don’t live in a 16th-century theocracy, as much as it might seem so.  So open your damn restaurant on Sundays.

Many Too Many

I have a whiteboard on the wall of my home office, next to my computer, where I write down ideas for articles, stories, poems or projects, many of which end up here at Indie Moines. Some things, of course, are posted on the blog without ever passing through the whiteboard, dumped straight from frontal lobe to keyboard in fit of inspiration. But some things go on the board and never quite ripen to full fruition, so they often get consolidated into omnibus blog posts involving several short pieces, in lieu of one long one. As I look at the whiteboard tonight, it looks like it’s time to do a little slate cleaning, as I’m running out of space to write new things. So tonight’s omnibus post clears everything off the board, so I can wash it clean, and start afresh. You’ve been forewarned . . .

1. Before there were blogs, there were journals and diaries, and Robert Fripp has been keeping one of the latter since his youth. Fortunately, he’s chosen to share it online with interested readers, including me. I admire him immensely for his guitar-playing skills, of course, but I also admire him immensely as a man: he loves his wife and his pet rabbit, he stands up for what he believes in (even when it is unpopular to do so), he offers sage counsel and wisdom in fields where he is expert, and he appreciates the little things that make life lovely. I especially liked this quote from his August 23, 2012 entry: “How wonderful life can be, in its small details, when your home is where you live.” Amen.

2. Speaking of Robert Fripp, The 40th Anniversary Editions of the King Crimson catalog that he is producing with Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree are revelatory and masterful. They have moved Starless and Bible Black and Lizard up into my all-time favorite album list, and I am really looking forward to hearing Lark’s Tongue in Aspic later this year, since I’ve listened to live versions of songs from that album more than the studio originals in recent years, and hope that the 40th Anniversary treatment lets those studio recordings soar the way they ought to.

3. The vocalist-bassist on Lark’s Tongue in Aspic was John Wetton, later of Asia fame. Before he joined King Crimson, he played with a group called Family, and the two albums he released with them, Fearless (1971) and Bandstand (1972) are also among my all-time favorites, and have also been relatively recently released in strong, well-mixed digital editions. Worth seeking out, if you’ve never heard them. They are sort of cross between a classic progressive rock group and a rowdy English blooze band. Here’s a great live cut from 1971 with Wetton strongly featured: “Spanish Tide.” He’s the one playing the twin-necked guitar and singing.

4. I don’t watch a lot of television, but I’ll generally have at least one show at any given time that captures my attention enough to watch live or make a point of recordings. My current favorite television show, that I tape and watch religiously? Adventure Time. It’s mathematical!

5. The locations of the nine greatest restaurant meals that I have ever eaten, and who I ate them with:

Channel Bass Inn, Chincoteague, Virginia (long closed, me and Marcia)

Cafe Marquesa, Key West, Florida (me, Marcia and Katelin)

Zuzu, Napa, California (me and Marcia)

River Street Cafe, Troy, New York (no official website, many meals with many people)

Driftwood, Oranjestad, Aruba (me, Marcia and Katelin)

Barbes, New York, New York (me, Marcia, Katelin and our friend Pat, two meals)

Hótel Búðir Snæfellsnesi, Búðir, Iceland (me, Marcia and Katelin)

V Mertz, Omaha, Nebraska (me and Marcia)

Unknown parilla (steak house) in La Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina (me, Marcia, Katelin and Katelin’s friend, Kenna. I can’t find the name because apparently it has closed; I know where it was, but it does not show up on maps anymore).

6. The greatest story songs of all time (I’m not doing all the links this time . . . you can find them if you want the proof):

“Ode to Billie Joe” and “Fancy” by Bobbie Gentry

“1952 Vincent Black Lightning” by Richard Thompson

“One Tin Soldier (Ballad of Billy Jack)” by Coven

“Buenos Tardes Amigos” by Ween

“Lady Waters and the Hooded One” by Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians

“Common People” and “Sorted for E’s and Whiz” by Pulp

“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot

“The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” by The Band

“Paradise by the Dashboard Lights” by Meatloaf

“El Paso” by Marty Robbins

“Maddy Groves” by Fairport Convention

7. Gay Tastee’s “Beautiful Brand New” is one of me and Marcia’s all-time favorite songs, a hands-down desert island disc for us both. There’s a video for it on Youtube that somehow makes it even more poignant and haunting than it already is. You need to see it.

8. XKCD’s Click and Drag is the coolest interactive web experience I’ve had since, oh, I dunno, maybe the day I discovered snarg in 1995 or so.  Go explore it, and don’t miss the underground civilization, nor all of the things up in the sky.

9. Vacations are the time to do things that you don’t normally do when you’re at home. When we were in Wyoming, this included going to see the idiotic final Batman movie. The experience made me even more firm in my resolve to never again pay to see a movie based on a comic book superhero. Of course, given the total lack of imagination evident in Hollywood in recent years, this pretty much means I’m just staying home and watching “Adventure Time” most nights.

Five Things That Make Me Happy

Let me note right up front that this is a shallow post . . . I’m talking about little things that make me happy, not profound ones. The big things don’t lend themselves to list-making of this online variety, because my family, and my home, and my work, and my friends please and delight me on such fundamental levels that they’re beyond reducing to a piffle and tripe blog post like this one. The fact that they make me happy goes without saying, so these five items are just the sorts of little details that make me smile amidst the rush and hustle of life. Simple pleasures. Easy thrills. Happy happy happy.

1. The “Metalocalypse” Theme Song: I love everything about this cartoon centered around a death metal band called Dethklok, who — despite its members’ idiocy and disregard for the consequences of their actions — become the world’s seventh largest economy, worthy of attention from a shadowy supernatural cabal called The Tribunal. But I particularly love the way that the series’ opening theme song boils everything stupid and happy-making about the death metal genre down into a perfectly nuanced 30-second nugget of brutal excellence. We tape “Metalocalypse” on our DVR, and for most shows, that would mean that we fast forward through the opening and closing credits. But I don’t allow that in this case, and make my family watch it in its entirety, every week, because it makes me smile with glee every time. Here ’tis, if you’ve not seen it:

2. Our Backyard Ecosystem: Marcia quickly created an amazingly beautiful series of gardens in our backyard in Des Moines, just as she had done in Albany. My role when it comes to these gardens is to provide brute labor when heavy things need to be moved, and to provide the required elements of chaos, either by sowing Johnny Jump-Up seeds that will propagate and blossom for years to come in places where they aren’t supposed to be, or by putting out feeders that bring critters to lively up the space. I have to refill my two bird feeders pretty much every day at this point, as we get an incredible assortment of avian visitors, and the seeds that they scatter also attracts fox squirrels, chipmunks and bunnies galore. We also have bats and cicadas aplenty, and I like seeing and listening to them, too. Sometimes when I look out at the backyard from our dining room, I can see literally dozens of mammal, bird and arthropod species going about their business, blissfully unaware of how much I am enjoying watching them do it.

Dining room at Alba, Des Moines. (Photo from their website).

3. Alba: This exceptional East Village venue is rapidly cementing its stature as my favorite restaurant in Des Moines, as we keep having outstanding dining experiences there. The menu is eclectic, with most of its dishes based on sautes involving fresh, rough cut vegetables and meats, served with beautifully balanced and tasty sauces. The service is knowledgeable and attentive without being obtrusive, the dining room is comfortable and spacious (it’s situated in a converted car showroom), the decor and location are appealing, and the wine list is strong, creating a complete dining environment that’s hard to match, in Des Moines or anywhere else I’ve been in recent years. We went there for dinner last night, and I had an incredible English Pea Soup followed by a prawn gnocchi dish to die for. Sublime, divine, and deliciously pleasurable.

4. The Lyrics of John Balance: It’s hard to explain why these make me happy, as you’d be hard pressed to find someone more different than me, on some plane, than John Balance, a proudly gay English musician with the group COIL whose chronic alcoholism led to his untimely death by misfortune in 2004. (His long-time musical and personal partner, Peter Christopherson, also flew from this world in 2010, which I wrote about, here). Balance’s subject matter was often dark, and reading many of his lyrics after his demise creates an uncanny sense that he knew it was coming, perhaps even down to the manner of his passing (e.g. “When I find you I will remind you: most accidents occur at home.”) But I still listen to his music on almost a daily basis, and I am regularly moved by the beauty of his words and the imagery that they evoke, regardless of their seemingly insurmountable surface darkness. As I type, I am listening to COIL’s “Are You Shivering?“, which contains the following lines: “In the oceans of the moon / swimming squidlike and squalid / This bright moon is a liquid / The dark earth is a solid / This is moon music in the light of the moon.” “Squidlike and squalid”?!? That’s lyrical magic, and it makes me happy to know that such creative beauty can emerge from such seemingly dark spaces.

5. The Library at Salisbury House: I said I wasn’t going to write about obvious things like my work, and this is equally obviously work related, since as Executive Director of the Salisbury House Foundation, I am responsible for the care and promotion of this incredible collection of books and documents. But the happiness this collection evokes in me is deeper than sheer professional responsibility would dictate, as I am legitimately moved — deeply — by the objects that are housed in my workplace.  I have spent a lot of my time at Salisbury House researching this under-utilized and under-promoted resource, and the more I study, the happier I get about the objects that have been placed under my supervision and care. I have held in my hands a leaf from an original Gutenberg Bible, and a letter signed in 1492 by King Ferdinard II of Aragon, and a hand-illuminated Book of Hours from the 14th Century, and galley proofs hand-edited by James Joyce, and a first edition Book of Mormon, and countless other epic historic and literary works, experiencing their corporeality and presence in ways that few people will ever have an opportunity to share. I spent most of this week working on a grant application to the National Endowment of Humanities to allow us to better catalog and share this awesome material, and among my many aspirations for Salisbury House, few would make me happier than reaching a point where our library receives the international acclaim from scholars and researchers that it deserves.

So those are some things that are making me happy these days. What sorts of things are rocking your worlds?

The library at Salisbury House. The shelves to the left of the fireplace contain some of the world’s most amazing D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce collections, which make me shiver every time I walk into the room. How could I not be happy to spend time here?