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.

The Voice of Cheese

1. I had picked Michigan State to win the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament this year, which is why they got bounced last night. As a nice measure of vindication, their men’s hockey team lost 3-1 this afternoon to tiny Union College of Schenectady, New York. When we first moved to New York in 1993, my office was a couple of blocks from the Union campus, and when the weather was nice, I would go buy some bread and cheese at Perreca’s Bakery, and go sit and eat on Union’s lovely campus. That was just after Union stepped up to Division I in hockey. So, go Dutchmen! I’m pulling for you to replicate your arch-rival Rensselaer’s stunning national championship from 1985, and it’s always a delight to see little colleges knocking off giant state universities, especially when they mess up my brackets.

2. I am so excited about this that I can hardly stand myself. As noted here, I would claim Jethro Tull as my life-time favorite band, so having Ian Anderson revisit one of their greatest albums is quite the treat for the Tull geek. That being said, I suspect the absence of Martin Barre and the fact that this album is being billed as an Anderson solo means that this is probably the end of Jethro Tull, some 44 years after the group’s birth. Oh well, if that’s what it took to get Anderson writing album-long suites again, then I will take it.

Dining room at Wasabi Chi.

3. I’ve written about the exceptional food we’ve had in Des Moines in a variety of posts here, and both Marcia and I have to add another favorite to our collective list: both of us agree that the prawn pad thai at Wasabi Chi (in our neighborhood) is the best pad thai either of us have ever had. And let me assure you, between the two of us, we have eaten a lot of pad thai over the years, in many cities. Wasabi Chi’s version is light, not greasy, with fabulous Asian basil flavor, perfectly grilled tofu and pork, dynamite shrimp, and consistently great quality over time, since we’ve had it more than once each. They also have exceptional sashimi at Wasabi Chi (especially the yellowtail), again demonstrating the surprising available of outstanding and fresh seafood in the middle of the continent, as noted in bullet two of this post. I give them bonus points for lovely preparation, as I generally order sashimi a la carte, and they always make it look like an exotic treat when it arrives at the table, over ice. And did I mention that Wababi Chi is in our neighborhood? Yay! This is a very highly recommended restaurant, with a lovely dining room and a great bar, where I’ve caught a basketball game or two with a nice appetizer sized portion of seared ahi tuna and a good glass of Shiraz. See you there?

4. I was very sad to hear the news of Ernie Williams‘ passing this week. I saw him perform many times during my years in Albany, and he was the quintessential bluesman, a born entertainer who made everyone who worked with him better. Marcia and I saw him open for Buddy Guy once at the Starlite Music Hall in Latham, which has been shuttered for years, and is now crumbling back into the wetlands on which is was built. Ernie’s band, The Wildcats, at that point featured drummer Rocky Petrocelli, guitarist Mark Emanatian, and teen prodigy keyboardist Jason Ladanyi. They more than held their own against their much more famous headliner, and they actually probably produced the evening’s most transcendent moments. Bless you, Ernie, your work here is done, and you did it so very well. Yes, yes, yes . . .