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.

Visions of Angels

1. As November turns into December, Ashby Avenue in Des Moines is once again rapidly transforming into America’s Prettiest Christmas Block. Despite my deeply-seated Grinchly tendencies, I have already done my neighborly duty and hung an entirely credible (if not extravagantly complicated) string of blue and white lights around the front of our house. We had to take down a very big (but very sick) old tree in our front yard this fall, so when we replace it in the spring, we’ll have something else out front to hang lights on next year, adding a bit of depth to our holiday presentation. Cars are already beginning to slowly cruise our block with their headlights out, and in the weeks ahead, we’ll be watching similarly-darkened limousines and tour buses crawl by, filled with folks paying their chosen livery professionals for the privilege of gawking at our festively lighted neighborhood. How nice to be able to see it every night, for free!

2. Marcia and I went to see Ang Lee’s Life of Pi at our neighborhood movie theater on Friday night. We paid the premium price for the 3-D version, got our absurdly expensive popcorn and bottled water, and walked into a movie theater with a shockingly, oppressively tiny screen, so that no grand theatrical experience was going to be possible. When the film started, the projectionist didn’t make the adjustment from 2-D to 3-D correctly, so we had a black bar blocking the screen for part of the previews, and throughout the movie, the edges of the print were cut off, most glaringly during an important scene with subtitles, that we could not see fully, because they were projected under the bottom of the screen. I turned to Marcia at some point during the evening and said: “That’s it . . . I am done leaving home to see movies.” And I meant it. We have a large TV at the house with a good sound system and a Blu-Ray player, and it is cheaper for me to buy used Blu-Ray discs of movies than it is for us to go see a film in theater, and the experience is orders of magnitude better at home than it is in a theater. The movie itself was good, for what it’s worth, though its visuals were washed out and muddy for me because of the crappy 3-D effect that does little more than give me a headache and make the film on the screen look blurry. I may have to buy this one as a used Blu-Ray disc a year from now and watch it in the way it deserves to be seen, in the privacy of my own home.

3. USS Enterprise (CVN-65) was deactivated this week after 51 years of active duty Naval service. The Big E was the world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, steaming on the power provided by eight A2w reactors. While I never actually served onboard the Enterprise, she does have some special significance and resonance for me. First, her prototype reactors (A1W-A and A1W-B) were located at the Naval Reactors Facility at the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory, where I worked from 1991 to 1993. The A1W reactors were still being used to qualify sailors for fleet service at the time, and I did my qualifying training as a radiological controls worker in those plants. Second, in my last Naval Reactors job, I was the contracting officer who negotiated and managed a lot of equipment contracts related to Enterprise‘s mid-’90s refueling complex overhaul, so when Big E retired this week, she still had a lot of instrumentation, control, steam generator, circuit breaker and refueling equipment onboard that I would have priced and purchased on behalf of the nation’s taxpayers. She’s a legendary and important ship, and I’m proud to have played a tiny role in Enterprise‘s amazing career. I’m hoping the Navy turns the Big E into a public museum somewhere at some point, so I can go check up on the stuff I bought for her.


Three quickies with piccies, in advance of the holiday . . .

1. I wrote a post for my work blog today called The Bibles of Salisbury House. We have a truly, amazingly, incredibly significant collection of complete and fragmentary Bibles in our collection (including a Noble Fragment leaf from a 1454 Gutenberg Bible), and I’m looking for a financial partner to help us curate an exhibition to share these historic and beautiful works more widely. If you know someone with $25,000 burning a hole in their pocket, let me know!

Spine of the oldest complete Bible in the Salisbury House collection, though we have other leaves and liturgical fragments going back to England in 1200.

2. When we bought our house in Beaverdale (a neighborhood in northwest Des Moines) last year, we learned that the homes in our neighborhood had been build for coal miners and their families in the 1920s and 1930s. Most of them have showers in the basement that can be accessed from exterior doors so the filthy miners didn’t get the main floor of the house dirty when they came home from work. What I didn’t learn until recently, however, was just how short a commute the miners had from home to office: there are several abandoned coal mines located right in the heart of Beaverdale. Here’s an outline map of one, showing just how close it is to where I live today.

The blue dot at upper left is my house. The purple lines are the outlines of a former coal mine. I smell an adventure!

Six Pix

Marcia and I went to see Sumpin’ Doo on Saturday night at Elks Lodge No. 160 and Rose Temple 33 in East Des Moines. A fantastic band in a great community venue, with wonderful company and tasty beer. And an elk head mounted on a purple wall.

This is the heaviest combination of states that produce a winning Presidential campaign of 270+ electoral votes, based on the percentage of citizens who are obese or overweight by state.

The Bumble says “Thumbs Up!” to the fireplace being turned on for heating season as the temperatures drop in Iowa.

This is the oldest combination of states that produce a winning Presidential campaign of 270+ electoral votes, based on the median age by state.

The only downside to living in Iowa is that the daughter remains back in New York, so it’s always lovely to hear from her and see what she’s up to, even if it’s only photographically. Here’s Katelin with her friend Dan, en route to a Prohibition Era themed party. They make 1926 look fun.

This is the richest combination of states that produce a winning Presidential campaign of 270+ electoral votes, based on the per capita income by state. I actually look forward to a day when California, New York and Texas have a chance to give electoral votes to the same candidate . . .

Five Statements, Five Questions II: Albany Edition

1. I am in Albany tonight. Did anyone notice a disturbance in the force?

2. The Albany-Colonie area has about half the population of Des Moines, but the traffic is orders of magnitude worse. Why?

3. I put my suitcase in the back seat of the wrong rental car, and now it’s gone. Do you have my clothes?

4. I had dinner with Jed Davis tonight, who’s one of my favorite songwriters ever. Who are yours?

5. I drove from Great Barrington to Albany tonight taking a shortcut on Dugway Road, which is a gorgeous dirt path southeast of Spencertown. Why does it feel so good to drive fast on dirt roads?

Death Valley, Iowa

Welcome to Des Moines, Summer 2012 Edition.

It has been hot here in Central Iowa for a while, but we moved into whole new realms of scorched here in Des Moines today, with a 107 degree high at the airport late this afternoon. I had figured it was going to be bad when I noticed that we broke 100 degrees before noon. It’s not the hottest weather I’ve ever experienced (Marcia and I endured 120 degrees during a July trip to Las Vegas one year, and it got up to 107 out in the deserts of Idaho on occasion when we lived out there), but 107 degrees is definitely getting up there high on the hot list.

It’s also been well over three weeks since we got any rain, so when those of you back east (and elsewhere) read about the great Midwestern drought of 2012, we’re pretty much right in the middle of it, so we are eating all of the locally-grown Iowa sweet corn we can right now, while we still can, since the crops are rapidly going south, and many farmers have already cut down their fields and filed for crop insurance.

The long-range temperature and precipitation models have us forecast for higher than usual temperatures and lower than usual rain through October, if not longer. Fortunately, the body really does adjust to these extremes, and there have been a couple of evening where we’ve been outside thinking that 90 degrees with a slight breeze feels really, really nice. Even more fortunately, we’ve got two good air conditioning units in our house, which is much smaller and much better-zoned than our house in New York, so we can stay comfortable indoors, which wasn’t the case in Latham when it got above 90 degrees or so.

First world problems, I know . . . but it’s still hot . . .