Iowa's capital city was recently tapped as the fastest growing city in the Midwest, and that means some serious changes.

David Landsel
June 04, 2018

On what was only recently a rather unremarkable street corner just west of downtown Des Moines, a talented young chef, a two-time James Beard Foundation Award semifinalist, mind you, is running a restaurant—not just any kind of restaurant, but a very ambitious one, featuring a bold, vegetable-forward menu of small plates.

Barely a mile away and just around the corner from a blocks-long public park brimming with world-class sculpture, a dynamic, recently-arrived duo has created, hands-down, Iowa's best coffee shop at the moment, a roaster/café buzzing all day long with the local in-crowd, networking and socializing over espressos, and inventive cold concoctions.

Meanwhile, just across that same sculpture park and facing a giant construction site that's about to become one of the city's most striking modern buildings—a building designed by Renzo Piano, no less—a pastry chef with a flair for the irreverent sells small-batch ice cream from an unmarked window of a historic apartment building most afternoons. Stop by on a hot summer day, and there'll be a line.

Byron C. Jones

There's more, a lot more—the smart cocktail bar in the lobby of a historic newspaper building downtown, the Australian café with its flat whites and avo toasts, the woman-powered microbrewery at the heart of a booming residential area, right in the shadow of the gold-domed state capital building. Since when did Des Moines become so, okay, we'll say it—since when is Des Moines so cool?

Since now, apparently—the last few years have brought serious change to Iowa's capital city, a moment during which the region was named the fastest growing in the Midwest. This is an exciting time to be here, to watch the city evolving, adding new people, new ideas, and, of course, a lot of new food and drink, because all of that changing and growing tends to make people hungry, not to mention thirsty. Headed to town? Curious to see what all the fuss is about? Here are just a few of the stops you ought to be making.


Imaginative, vegetable-focused small plates? In Des Moines? Absolutely. One of the city's most creative young chefs, Joe Tripp, also happens to be co-owner of what is easily one of the city's most interesting restaurants, right now. From reasonably priced tasting menus to a daily happy hour (4-6) featuring inventive $5 snacks and $2 tallboys, there's really no barrier to entry, either. Get yourself here.

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This happening started out as one of the most ambitious food trucks the city had ever seen, and now they've gone and found a permanent home for themselves—a very nice home. Kalua pig sliders, lemongrass chicken soup, a mean Reuben—the menu's a bit all over the map, but don't be frightened, you're in rather capable hands. Big fans of Hawaiian food should stop by on Saturdays, for the restaurant's one-day-only Loco Moco.   

 

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The space is minimal, but the welcome will typically be anything but at this competent roaster/café operation from two Southern California expats, who've managed to create the state's most cutting edge coffee shop in what's easily the city's most stylish neighborhood (yes, there actually is a bit of competition). Their not-your-average cold brew is an excellent way to kick off any summer morning.

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The city's best cheese shop—it's just called The Cheese Shop, that's how good it is—extended its brand considerably with this sharp spin-off last year, and that's been very good news for fans of the original location's grilled cheese sandwiches. Now one can select from an entire menu of cheeses and cheese-related dishes (macaroni and cheese, obviously), not to mention a few dozen beers on tap, and a lot of charcuterie, too. It all happens behind big windows looking out to a happening stretch of Ingersoll Avenue, just a block and a bit over from Harbinger.

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We'll safely assume that nobody was sitting around waiting for Des Moines' first Australian-style café, but they got one anyway, thanks to a Melbourne-raised entrepreneur who moved to New York and ended up marrying into an Iowa family. (Now they're here.) On the ground floor of a beautiful residential conversion, steps south of the downtown core, you've got the whole nine yards, in a giant, gorgeous space—avo toasts, smoothies and salads stake a claim for good living, even in the dead of winter. Yes, they do a flat white. Of course they do. 

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Civilized cocktails in the lobby of a renovated newspaper building, right at the heart of downtown? Sign us up, and sign up a lot of other people, apparently. Inventive seasonal drink menus are complemented by plenty of beer and wine, but don't ask them to put the game on, because—breathes sigh of relief—there's no television.

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Megan McKay (she's the owner) and Joe Kesteloot (he's the brewmaster) have created one of Iowa's most talked about breweries; trouble was, for the longest time, to do a serious tasting, you'd have to make the 45-minute trek out to their Knoxville brewpub. These days, all you have to do is head over to Des Moines' East Village, where they've created a community friendly space for kicking back over a beer or three.

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When Alex Carter was a pastry chef in an actual restaurant, people used to ask where they could buy the ice cream—a couple of years ago, he took the leap and started selling it directly to the public. Well, sort of—you'll have to catch him during the limited number of hours the ice cream is sold from an unmarked window at the northwest corner of the Pappajohn Sculpture Park, but it's worth the effort. Flavors rotate weekly, so there's always something new to try.

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