Iowa Travel Guide: Des Moines

By Pat Rynard

January 22, 2015

Starting Line will offer a series of Iowa Travel Guides to all of Iowa’s main cities throughout the course of the year for visiting journalists and campaign staff to use on their trips. Let’s start out with the Capitol City. Des Moines has undergone a cultural renaissance in the past ten years. The downtown and neighboring East Village areas have opened amazing new restaurants and bars, and new apartments filled with young professionals spring up nearly every month. There’s so much going on in Des Moines that it’s impossible to even come close to providing a complete guide – we’ll be adding in more as the year goes on. As most of this weekend’s visitors will be downtown, we start there.

Downtown’s New and Hip Scene

Malo – Opened last year by Des Moines’ premier restauranteur George Formaro, Starting Line loves Malo. Housed in the hip Des Moines Social Club building, Malo serves unique Nuevo Latino cuisine you won’t find anywhere else. The restaurant itself is visually stunning and worth the trip alone.
Recommendations: Chorizo tacos, Al Pastor tacos
900 Mulberry Street, Des Moines, IA 50309

Zombie Burger – Consistently ranked as one of the best burger spots in town, Zombie Burger hosts many unique types of burgers. From the Raygun to the Walking Ched, the menu is full of exciting, interesting burger creations.
Recommendation: Cake Shakes, Fry Basket with dipping sauce, and They’re Coming To Get You Barbara burger
300 E. Grand Avenue, Des Moines, IA 50309

Tacopocalypse – Expanding from selling tacos at the Cumming Tap, Tacopocalypse opened in the last year. With nearly a dozen different types of tacos, this central Iowa hotspot will give you a delicious fusion of Asian and Mexican cuisine. Featured just last week on Guy Fieri’s show.
Recommendation: Korean Chicken Taco, Chips and Queso, Sesame Pork Banh Mi Sandwich.
407 East 5th Street, Des Moines, IA 50309

Eatery A – Located just outside of downtown, this recently opened restaurant is worth a stop. With an assortment of gourmet pizzas and other Mediterranean inspired dishes, Eatery A provides an eclectic dining experience.
Recommendation: Olives, Pizza #5 (lamb gyro, feta, pickled onion, raita), Pappardelle
2932 Ingersoll Ave, Des Moines, IA 50312

Alba – For a fine dining experience in the East Village, Alba is one of the best. With an extensive wine list and menu that changes often, Alba provides a gourmet eating experience that will keep you coming back for more.
Recommendation: Chive Potato Gnocchi, Pork Shank Confit
524 East 6th Street, Des Moines, IA 50309

Up-Down Bar – Des Moines’ fun new take on the “barcade,” you can enjoy some craft beers while playing your favorite childhood arcade games. Great place for a fun night out with friends.
500 East Locust Street, Des Moines, IA 50309

Exile Brewery – Des Moines’ local brewery scene has really taken off in the past five years, and Exile is one of the best. Its mainstay beers of Hannah, GiGi, and Ruthie are all superb, and are named after local residents. The great lunch and dinner menus round out this beautifully designed brewery.
1514 Walnut Street, Des Moines, IA 50309

Americana – A popular destination that serves unique twists on American fare. Americana has anchored the growing hub around the downtown Sculpture Garden for several years now, yet still feels fresh and exciting. The perfect spot for an evening out on the town, they offer an extensive drink menu of specialty cocktails. It’s also well-known for its amazing Sunday brunch that offers a bottomless Bloody Mary and Mimosa bar.
Recommendation: Brunch, Tapas, Moscow Mules
1312 Locust Street, Des Moines, IA 50309

Political Hang-Outs

Tumea and Son’s – It doesn’t look like much from the outside as you drive by, but Tumea’s is the best Italian restaurant in town with great food for reasonable prices. It’s also a key South Side political hang-out in town where you’ll find many state senators during session. Italian-American Rick Santorum stops by too. You also have about a 25% chance of running into Starting Line here on any given night. Make sure to order some wine at the bar before taking a seat – the bartender gives very generous pours.
Recommendation: Chicken Asiago, Penne Rigate with Sausage, Chicken Saltimboca, the excellent $11 Steak Sandwich
1501 SE 1st St, Des Moines, IA 50315

Centro – Need an upscale, group friendly restaurant for a fundraiser, VIP event, or power lunch? Well, Centro, an Italian-inspired restaurant, has you covered. One of the first creations by Des Moines chef George Formaro, Centro caters to many of Des Moines’ local politicians, civic leaders, and local celebrities.
Recommendation: Tomato, Basil and Tortellini Soup, Ricotta Gnocchi, any pizza selection
1003 Locust Street, Des Moines, IA 50309

Beechwood Lounge – “The Beechwood” as it’s called by locals, regulars and state legislators, is the spot to be during Iowa’s Legislative session or any campaign season. A typical night entails visits by regulars, politicos, journalists, and at least one state legislator or political party leader. With specials such as Token Tuesdays, friendly bartenders, and all the popcorn you can eat, this is a must-have for anyone wanting to get a feel for the Iowa political beat.
Recommendation: Anything made by Wilson the bartender, popcorn, and at least one song from the corner jukebox.
416 East Walnut Street, Des Moines, IA 50309

The Village Bean – Although not in the busier section of the East Village, this little shop makes a mean espresso. It also affords you the opportunity for a semi-private meeting or quick escape from the activities of the legislative session. Many non-profit and state employees, consultants and Des Moines politicos live and work near this area, so expect a smattering of faces during any visit.
Recommendation: Latte, Frozen Hot Chocolate, or Caramel Apple Cider
305 East 5th Street Des Moines, IA 50309

Lucca – Located down the street from the Continental, Lucca boasts excellent Italian food. It is a prime spot for lobbyists during session and has an outstanding lunch menu.
Recommendation: Scallops, Salmon
420 East Locust Street, Des Moines, IA 50309

Smokey Row Coffee Co. – A cafe familiar to anyone who’s spent some time in Des Moines, this caffeine mecca plays host to meetings and events of all shapes and sizes. Whether it’s soliciting for a campaign donation, arranging your next breaking news story, or just an after-work meeting with a friend or colleague, Smokey Row has you covered.
Recommendation: Sweet Georgia Brown, “Famous” Cheeseburger Chowder, and any of their pies or baked goods
1910 Cottage Grove Avenue, Des Moines, IA 50314

Carl’s Place – Located in the Sherman Hill Neighborhood, Carl’s is the place to go for Democratic staffers, Des Moines natives, and the young progressives that call the Sherman Hill area home. Carl’s is a classic dive bar, complete with neon lights, music, old furniture and a pool table. This establishment is perfect for a hushed interview, night out with friends, or after hours campaign meeting.
Recommendation: Grain Belt, well drinks, and anything in a shot glass
1620 Woodland Avenue, Des Moines, IA 50309

Popular Des Moines Mainstays

Continental – The Continental is the place in the East Village for a variety of small plates with a European influence. It is a great place to meet friends for happy hour to enjoy discounted small plates.
Recommendation: Truffled Mushrooms, Blackened Tilapia Sandwich, Seafood Brie Encroute, Goat Cheese Plate
428 East Locust Street, Des Moines, IA 50309

Hessen Haus – If you are hungry for hearty German food, this is the place to go. Remember to go early, because this place fills up fast. Bring two friends with you, and you can enjoy a beer from DAS BOOT.
Recommendation: German Bier Cheese Soup, Sauerkraut Balls, Bavarian Nachos
101 4th Street, Des Moines, IA 50309

Django – Django is your place if you are in the mood for some fine French food. Without a corkage fee, bring your own wine and pair it with a cheese and charcuterie plate. (Django is Starting Line’s personal favorite, especially for its amazing happy hour cocktails.)
Recommendation: Fried Brussel Sprouts, Coq au Vin, Fillet à Rossini
210 10th Street, Des Moines, IA 50309

Court Ave Restaurant and Brewing Company – Known as CABCo here in Des Moines, CABCo is a local brewery located in the heart of downtown. Famous for their beers and mug club, CABCo also has an assortment of steaks, burgers, sandwiches, salads, and other pub food.
Recommendations: Jack Daniel’s Prime Sirloin, Colossus Salad, Pointer Brown Beer
309 Court Avenue, Des Moines, IA 50309

Splash Seafood Bar and Grill – If you are in the mood for fresh seafood, Splash Seafood Bar and Grill is a great option, as they fly their product in daily. From lobster, oysters, to Alaskan crab Splash delivers high quality seafood in the middle of Iowa. The adjoining oyster bar is open for lunch.
Recommendation: Oyster Rockefeller, Shrimp Risotto, Splash Crab Cakes, Steak and Lobster
Homestead Building Ltd, 303 Locust Street, Des Moines, IA 50309

Dos Rios – Dos Rios provides a modern twist on classic Mexican cuisine. A popular site for happy hours and margaritas. An absolute must is their guacamole, which is hand made at each table.
Recommendation: Tableside Guacamole, Tacos, Grilled Fajitas
316 Court Avenue, Des Moines, IA 50309

El Bait Shop – Who wouldn’t love a 70’s and fishing-themed, Mexican food-serving bar with the most extensive beer selection in town? Seriously, if you like trying new beer, this is the place to go. Quirky and fun, it’s hard not to have a good time here.
Recommendation: bacon-wrapped tator-tots
200 Southwest 2nd Street, Des Moines, IA 50309


  • Pat Rynard

    Pat Rynard founded Iowa Starting Line in 2015. He is now Courier Newsroom's National Political Editor, where he oversees political reporters across the country. He still keeps a close eye on Iowa politics, his dog's name is Frank, and football season is his favorite time of year.

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