Iowa: An Outsider's Guide to the Hawkeye State


Despite the descending flock of journalists, there's no Let's Go, Iowa, or Time Out Des Moines. Help us crowd-source one.


Updated 12/14/11

DES MOINES -- In August 2007, while spending some weeks in Iowa, I discovered that despite the quadrennial pilgrimage of political consultants and members of the press across its flat fields, there was no decent up-to-date statewide guide for outsiders looking to take advantage of what the state had to offer, or at least find some place that was not a fast-food chain to grab a bite while traveling its expanse.

And so I compiled, Wiki style, a crowd-sourced resource for campaign reporters heading to the Hawkeye State, with an eye toward places that would make coastal types feel at home. Some of the text came verbatim from others (as should be apparent from the tone in the Ames "drinks" section); some reviews were edited takes from friends in Iowa, D.C.-area former Iowans, and traveling campaign staffers and reporters; and some were based on personal observation. Overall, I tried to restrict the focus to places that would appeal to non-Iowans for reasons of quality, and also included some with a high camp or local cultural interest factor. In the smaller towns, where the options are limited, the listed places were described as local favorites.

I've done one major update of this guide already in 2011, removing a slew of places that have gone under and adding loads of new material for Pella, Ottumwa, Davenport, Cedar Rapids, Marshalltown and Iowa City -- thank you, contributors! -- but I'm still going to need your help to get and keep this up to date.

Know what's new and hot in Des Moines (especially) or Dubuque? Which of the below places have gone down hill or shuttered? Email with tips and reports, or leave your updates in the comment threads, and I'll update the text on an ongoing basis for as long as this guide seems relevant.




Jim Duncan of CityView said it best: "Des Moines was designed to service the obesity of Iowa agriculture. The state leads the nation in corn, soybeans and hogs, while the city maintains the world's largest water filtration system to cope with Big Ag's poisonous run-off. Restaurants here mostly cater abundance with garish décor, gargantuan portions and Styrofoam containers for leftovers." Here are the exceptions:

Centro. The Cafe Milano of Des Moines (political and media hub), an Italian restaurant and bar where you're sure to run into someone you know. 1011 Locust St.

801 Grand Steak and Chophouse. High-end Iowa steakhouse, located inside the Principle Financial Tower. #200 at this address.

Django. French brasserie that promises "no attitude" despite that. A collaboration from the Hotel Fort Des Moines and the chef at Centro, entrance through the hotel lobby. 210 10th St.

Lucca. Excellent contemporary Italian restaurant in the East Village with lovely wine list, minimalist servings. Modern decor, heirloom tomatoes. 420 E. Locust St.

Bistro Montage. Neighborhood bistro on a street thick with little shops and restaurants. Good wine list and a fresh menu. 2724 Ingersoll Ave.

Proof. Probably the best lunch in town, according to one. Delicious contemporary take on Mediterranean food. Amazing desserts. 1301 Locust St.

Jesse's Embers. A neighborhood classic old-time steakhouse -- "the original" -- with great character (a.k.a. few recent renovations). Fancy? No. And you'll smell like steak for a day or so, but that's a good thing. 3301 Ingersoll Ave.

Splash Seafood Bar & Grill. Fresh seafood flown in daily. 303 Locust St.

Café di Scala. Cozy little Calabrian place in a neatly painted Victorian house, a few blocks north of downtown in the Sherman Hill neighborhood. Winner of a 2007 Wine Spectator award of excellence. 644 18th St.

Court Avenue Restaurant & Brewing Company. Excellent local micro-brews, and a largely local crowd. Early evening Happy Hour specials. 300 Court Avenue.

Raccoon River Brewing Company. Right next to the Hotel Fort Des Moines. Outdoor seating. 10th and Walnut.

Los Laureles. Authentic Mexican food on an incredibly cool Mexican block where you can also get paletas y dulces. 1518 E. Grand Ave.

Tacos Mariana's has even better Mexican food, say some. 2225 University Ave.

El Salvador del Mundo. Authentic-seeming Salvadorean place with an extraordinarily cheap menu and tasty pupusas. 2901 6th Ave.

Nut Pob. "Great Loatian" in South Des Moines. 3322 Indianola Ave.

Zombieburger is the hot new upscale-y burger joint in town, boasting quite the assortment of creative, overkill toppings. Best veggieburgers in town, too. 300 E. Grand.

Big Daddy's Barbecue. Fancy? Not even close. Tasty? You bet. This is a dive, but the BBQ is memorable. Open Fridays and Saturdays ONLY; drive-thru option. 1000 E. 14th St.

Big Tomato Pizza Co. Said to be the best pizza in town by some, best pizza "if you're drunk" by others. Served by the slice after 10 p.m. and by full pizzas anytime, including delivery. Open until 4 a.m. 2613 Ingersoll Ave. (515)288-7227.

Gusto Pizza Co. For when you're not drunk. 1905 Ingersoll Ave.

La Mie Bakery. French bakery/cafe with v. good lunches and Saturday brunch. Also: macarons! 841 42nd St., just north of I-235.

The Machine Shed Restaurant. Get yer meat and don't forget the bowl of cottage cheese. A "restaurant honoring the American farmer." In Urbandale at the Living History Farms. 11151 Hickman Road (I-80/35 - Exit 125). Multiple branches elsewhere in the state.

Panera Bread. Across the street from the Fort Des Moines. Sometimes you just need a sandwich.


Star Bar. Surprisingly good food. Often used for events by local Democrats, and for after-event drinks by younger campaign staffers. Martinis and tapas. 2811 Ingersoll Ave

Wellman's Pub and Rooftop. Serves three shifts a night: locals; early bird-dinner elderly; and students/campaign staffers. Where field staff go to drink. Outdoor patio. 2920 Ingersoll Ave.

Royal Mile. Okay, the food's not spectacular, but it's not bad either, and it's a great English pub hangout if you're into that kind of thing. On 4th St. between Court and Walnut.

The Continental. Live music, also a restaurant. 428 E. Locust

Hessen Haus. If you want to polka. 101 4th Street.


Starbucks. This is the main one -- a convenient place for your daily dose. 10th & Locust.

Amici Espresso. Free wi-fi & great coffee in a quiet, upscale downtown setting across from the Courthouse. 6th Ave and Mulberry.

Mars Cafe. Great coffee shop by Drake University. Free wi-fi. 2318 University Ave.

The Village Bean Co. Cool little coffee shop in the "East Village" of Des Moines. 305 E. 5th.

Ritual Cafe. A hipster-hippie vegetarian coffee joint (every small city has one), for an escape from the rythms of politics. On 13th St. between Grand & Locust.

Gateway Market. New foodie haven, the local version of Whole Foods/Dean & Deluca. Attached cafe has tasty offerings for breakfast/lunch/dinner and there's a take-out deli. On the corner of MLK and Woodland Ave.

Java Joes. A bit grungier, free wi-fi. 214 4th Street, between Walnut and Court Ave.

Zanzibar's Coffee Adventure. 28th and Ingersoll.


Hotel Fort Des Moines. The journalists' hotel. Also popular with campaigns, though some fixtures have a bit of an accidental mid-century modern look because of the lack of recent renovation. 1000 Walnut St.

Hampton Inn Des Moines Airport. Some people love them a Hampton Inn. If you're among them, this one won't disappoint. The exact same cheap, no frills hotel with complimentary WiFi, breakfast and late night snacks you'll find anywhere in America. 5001 Fleur Drive.

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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