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.

Golden Hour in the Human Habitrail

Downtown Des Moines is blessed with a four-plus mile series of elevated corridors that make it possible to move between parking lots, offices, restaurants, stores, entertainment venues and government offices without having to brave the extremes of deep winter and steamy summer. The warren-like system is formally known as The Skywalk, but Katelin and I dubbed it “The Human Habitrail” before we knew that fact, and that nickname has kind of stuck for us now. I go down to the Habitrail occasionally when I need a break from the gym and speedwalk the corridors, which is especially fun to do around twilight, when you get all sorts of wonderful colors and shadows and auras as the sky transitions from blue to salmon to black (at night, anyway), the street lights come on, and the vague, gauzy films of condensed breath and sweat on the windows create weird reflections and unsettling ghost images. I share some sample shots I captured of Golden Hour in the Human Habitrail at the link below, so you can see what I mean.

View the collection by clicking here.

 

Weather Conspiracy and Other Matters

1. The first half of January in Des Moines was so nice, weather-wise, that I had become convinced that the tales of severe Iowan winters were just a myth cobbled up and promulgated by the locals to keep expat New Yorkers like us from moving here. I have ridden my bike, worn shorts and hiked more in the past three weeks than I ever did in any winter month during my 18 years in Albany. Nice! Unfortunately, though, yesterday the temperature dropped into single digits, the wind kicked up with 50 mile per hour gusts, and the dry, stinging snow started flying. Oh well . . . I guess they do have winter in Iowa. But with an annual average snowfall of only 33 inches, I can’t imagine it being worse than a typical endless, icy, sleety, dark Upstate New York cold season. Fingers crossed. Katelin and I did some really nice walks during the warm spells, including another trek out the Great Western Trail and a nice walk around Saylorville Lake.

2. When I was in sixth grade, our family lived at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, while my dad attended the Army’s Command and General Staff College there. Last weekend, Katelin, Marcia and I went down to Kansas City for a night on the town, and on our way there, we popped over to Leavenworth to assess the old homestead. It didn’t look half bad, honestly. When I looked out of my bedroom window, I saw the distinctive dome of Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. My next door neighbor was Rob Heinsoo, who went on to achieve a high degree of acclaim as a game designer, including serving as the lead designer for the fourth edition of Dungeons and Dragons. His brother (another Eric) and I were among his very first dungeon victims, and it was an absolute hoot to read about his tentative first dungeons many, many, many years later in this interview. I still remember the School for Dragons . . . there was no going forward after we bumbled into that. The Napoleonic war game mentioned in the interview was based on the Battle of Jena-Auerstädt and to this day, the only things I know and retain about that battle are based on the game. That was also the year that I became a life-long Kansas City Royals fan. Needless to say, Fort Leavenworth holds fond memories for me!

A Quick Check-In

The move into our new house in Des Moines is going well, and the last of the cardboard boxes left yesterday. Now we’re on to hanging art, touching up paint, and other sorts of second-level decorative or comfort elements, with basic living arrangements essentially sorted.

One of those second-level comfort elements is the installation of internet access in our house, which won’t occur until next week. This means all of my online capabilities are via phone at this point, and that makes it tough to do my usual back-of-house Indie Albany administrative duties.

So please forgive the lack of notification updates and/or any formatting or style issues that have crept in or do creep in over the next week or so. I’ll get the site all pretty again, and get back to notifying you of new content, as soon as I’ve got my home office command center properly deployed.

Thanks for reading, though, even in my absence. It’s nice to see the site thrive without me!

Moving Along With Moving Along

This week is Marcia’s last in her current job, and she will be heading west to Iowa next Thursday, picking up Katelin en route so they can keep each other company through the long drive and first few days in Des Moines. I’m glad things worked out that way, schedule-wise, for both of them.

Marcia will be living in a furnished corporate apartment for the first six weeks or so, while I remain in Albany to take care of various local and regional things that I need to get done before I’m able to join her. If all goes as planned, my last day of work at the University at Albany will be November 9, the packers and movers will take care of clearing our current house on November 10 and 11, I will head west on November 12 (with the cats), arrive in Des Moines on November 13, with closing on our new house on November 14.

Between now and then, I will also be serving in my volunteer capacity as Secretary of the Corporation for the American Institute for Economic Research at their annual meeting, and as reunion coordinator for my Naval Academy class at our 25th anniversary homecoming. I will also be attempting to maintain a small and tidy footprint in our current home, to facilitate selling it soon. So it’s going to be a busy six weeks.

Of course, that period of time is still going to seem somewhat empty to me, since I’ll be alone at the house for much of it. While a six week separation for Marcia and me is nothing compared to what many of my Naval Academy classmates and all of our fellow soldiers, sailors, pilots and Marines endure as a matter of course, it is pretty dramatically outside of the family paradigm to which we’ve become accustomed, as we’ve never been separated for more than a week during the past 24 years.

So I’m advance planning on how to amuse myself during that time to make it go more quickly. Those of you who know me or have read my work over the years are probably aware that I have a fairly deep masochistic streak. Not in the sexual sense, mind you, but rather more in the monastic/ascetic/penitent/endurance athlete model of the word. I often like to push myself to the point of discomfort to see how I manage it, because I believe we learn things about ourselves that way. For example: is it possible for a reasonably fit person to lose 30 pounds in 30 days? Answer: yes, which I know because I’ve done it, though it was a long, long month. What did I learn from the experience? That I never, ever, ever want to gain weight to the point where I feel like I need to lose 30 pounds again. 16 years later, I never have. Mission Accomplished.

So, my planned self-betterment schemes for October and November currently include:

1. Eating The House: You know how you often buy food items on a whim, or when planning some meal that never quite comes to pass, and then they sit in your cupboards for months, or (sometimes) years? We have a good number of those sorts of items about. So, starting October 7, I will not spend a penny on food until I have eaten every bit of food in the house. (Within reason, of course: I’m not going to drink a bottle of Tabasco Sauce straight up or eat a bowl of ground cumin, but rather will be focusing on living off all of the end product dry, canned and frozen goods in the house). As an adjunct to this, my fighting weight for the past several years has been in the 208 to 212 pounds range, and I’d like to see what I look like back under 200 again, since the last time I was there was in 1995, after dropping from 227 to 197 in 30 days (see above). So I’m sure I’ll come up with some extra uncomfortable physical activity to facilitate that piece.

2. Living Off The Stuff: My last paycheck from my current gig will come sometime in late November, and I’d like to be able to put away all of my earnings from October and November to provide some buffer and safety net for the first couple of months in Des Moines. Toward this end, I will be attempting to live completely off money earned or collected outside of my salary and benefits. For example, I plan to hold a CD and DVD sale of the “Three bucks per disc, 10 discs for $25, and 25 discs for $50” in my garage some night in October. I guarantee you that my collection contains a lot of stuff that you’re not likely to find elsewhere, especially at those sorts of prices. I have a restored vintage ARP Solus analog synthesizer that I’ll be selling too, and I’m going to start re-activating some of my paid freelance writing relationships over the next couple of months. Finally, there will be The J. Eric Exotic Escort Service . . . okay, just kidding on that last one. At bottom line, though, all discretionary activities until I arrive in Des Moines (to include gas for getting around outside of work responsibilities, and food, once I finish eating the house) will be funded through such additional income streams, which will also help me de-clutter in advance of the move.

3. One Bag Out Of The House A Day: Some de-cluttering can’t take place through selling stuff, but rather needs to be taken care of by chucking or donating things. For my last 30 days in the house, I want to have one large garbage bag’s worth of stuff (or a similar volume, for items that don’t go into bags) leave the house each day, either into a dumpster, a Salvation Army collection bin, or someone else’s home, in the case of items that can be directly free-cycled that way. I used this approach in a facilities job I had once, and it was amazing how much we cleaned the place up just by forcing ourselves to look for the things that really could go, right now, rather than seeing them and thinking “Well, maybe someday this might could possibly of some use, to someone . . . ”

I’m sure I’ll come up with other games to play to amuse myself, but these are the ones I’m planning at the moment. Watch this space for updates.