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 of mine 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.

Pink Flag at Map Ref 41 N 93 W

Wire have been one of my favorite bands since the late 1970s, and their latest album, Change Becomes Us, has been earning heavy spins on household and car stereos hereabouts since its issue last month. It’s one of their finest discs ever, hands down. For longtime Wire fans, this one has been a particular treat, since it returns to song sketches crafted in the aftermath of their 1979 masterpiece, 154, but only issued in fragmentary or raw form on the live Document and Eyewitness, released when the quartet dissolved for the first time as the ’80s dawned.

With a new Wire album out, I loaded up a bunch of their older tracks — including their remarkable 154-era single “Map Ref. 41° N 93° W” — onto the car iPod when Marcia and I drove down to Asheville, North Carolina last month to visit family. “Map Ref” came on somewhere in Tennessee, and Marcia looked at the title on the dashboard display and asked “Is that a real place, and have you looked to see where it is?” As a hardcore map geek, and a 30+ year Wire fan, I was embarrassed to admit that I had not, so I asked her to use her Smart Phone to look it up and see where it was.

Imagine our surprise when Marcia discovered that the point described by those latitude and longitude coordinates was about 100 miles from our home in Des Moines, down near Centerville, Iowa! When we got back here after our holiday, I did a little research and discovered why lyricist Graham Lewis had picked that point: here’s the story.

For those who know me or have been reading my writing for more than the past ten minutes, it should come as no surprise that I immediately resolved to visit this location, since that’s how I roll. A little Google Earth research showed me that it’s actually a bit to the northwest of Centerville, on the opposite side of Lake Rathbun, where Marcia and I had vacationed for a weekend last summer.

Map Ref 41 N 93 W as Graham Lewis might have first seen it

It appeared to be in the middle of a pasture, about a mile from U.S. Highway 34. I could see that a tree-lined creek bed ran from the highway nearly to the “Map Ref” coordinates, but unfortunately, where the creek crossed under Highway 34, there appeared to be a large production facility of some sort, likely a pig enclosure based on its size and shape from above. That means people, and people means trouble for the casual trespasser. I could also see a dirt road to the west of the creek that got relatively close to the spot, so hoped I’d be able to sneak down that.

Either way, I wanted to get there, and this weekend seemed the ideal time to do it, as Marcia was away in Portland, Oregon, visiting her sister, and spring had actually finally made its first sustained appearance in Iowa. I decided to mark my visit for posterity’s sake, and originally considered placing a geocache there, with my e-mail address in it, so that if any future Wire geeks arrived on the designated spot, they’d be able to share their accomplishment with me. But then, as I thought about it longer, I decided that directly announcing my trespassing tendencies was probably not the smartest course of action.

So instead, I decided to leave a Pink Flag, in honor of Wire’s seminal debut album, which also serves to this day as their website address.

I left Des Moines around 7:00 Saturday morning, and by 9:00 AM, I’d reached the nearest point on the highway to “Map Ref. 41° N 93° W”, and was disappointed to discover that the dirt road approaching the designated spot was barred by a locked, heavy-duty gate, necessary to keep the cattle behind it from venturing onto the roadway. Much of Iowa is corn, soybean or hog country, but this sector is cattle country, which means there is a lot of hardcore fencing, little of it easily crossed. Shucks.

The land did have a little bit of rise and fall, though, so I was able to pull my car down into a little gully beneath the roadside power line and behind some scrub trees, where I hoped no one from the hog enclosure across the way would notice it during the half hour or so it took me to get to the map reference point and back. I walked southward down the east bank of the tree-lined creek for about half a mile, trying to keep out of the sight lines of anybody in the farmhouse on the hill to the east of me, until I reached a pasture that was surrounded by a barbed-wired topped fence. I skirted the fence east to a point about 150 feet north of “Map Ref. 41° N 93° W”, trying to find a way to get over it, until I noticed what it was there to contain: another couple of dozen cows . . . and a bull who seemed to be watching me on behalf of his farmer owners.

I decided that this mission had gone far enough, and that attempting to climb a barbed-wire fence, place the flag, take photos, and then outrun an enraged territorial bull probably crossed the line from “entertaining adventure” into “reckless stupidity”. So I placed my flag on the north side of the fence, saluted the bull, and considered my work done. I left the flag behind . . . I don’t know how it will fare in the Iowa weather, but maybe some other Wire fan will find it, someday, and know that someone who cared was there. Here’s the photo:

Pink Flag at Map Ref 41 N 93 W, give or take 150 feet.

Pink Flag at Map Ref 41 N 93 W, give or take 150 feet.

 

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.

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.

 

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.