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What does it take to entice long-distance drivers? 

By Jim Duncan

On the occasion of the Civic Center’s first completely sold-out event, the promoter commissioned a survey of the crowd. With 700 respondents, a 25% sample, we determined that half the audience came from beyond Polk County, and a quarter had driven more than 50 miles. Those were big numbers, but they were anticipated from ticket sales. So, we asked respondents what else about Des Moines lured them into driving to the capital city. Other than big events like the state fair and the wrestling tournament, the No. 1 answer was “the Italian restaurants.”

That was a surprise few saw coming, but it was interesting enough to track. For years to come, I have counted license plates in Des Moines restaurant parking lots. Other than during the fair and the wrestling tournament, the restaurant with the highest percentage of out-of-county plates has consistently been The Latin King, one of the long-term Italian restaurants of Des Moines. Actually, it’s been the biggest long-distance draw during the fair, too. Italian restaurants Chuck’s, Noah’s Ark and The Hilltop also draw long-distance diners well. So does Trostel’s Greenbriar, which is not Italian.

Random checks of license plates are not a scientific method of surveying, but they mean something — namely that restaurants in Des Moines are tourist attractions. That’s not just a thing for New Orleans and Las Vegas. And it’s no longer just the old Italian restaurants that bring people to town.

What does it take to entice long-distance drivers to a local restaurant? The answers are several now. We determined some of them over decades of chatting up customers, owners, servers and particularly bartenders who seem to learn more about their customers than others, even license plate counters. Here are some that stand out.


People visiting their old home towns are extremely interested in visiting their favorite restaurants from their youth. A lot of that is neighborhood centric. Roosevelt grads want to visit Noah’s and Jesse’s Embers. Lincoln alums prefer Bordenaro’s, Barrata’s and, until its recent closing, Noodles. East grads and Grand View alumni are big supporters of Latin King. North grads love Chuck’s, which hosted the sports teams after games for years. Urbandale and Johnston alums in town for class reunions love Trostel’s Greenbriar.  So much of West Des Moines, Ankeny and Altoona has been razed and replaced by newer things that nostalgia doesn’t play as well there. Young Valley grads have told us, though, that Olive Garden and Red Lobster were the biggest deals for prom, so maybe the nostalgia of the future will be franchised by Darden.

Maid Rite president Brad Burt says his company is quite aware that many people returning to Des Moines from out of state visit a Maid Rite as one of their first stops. Curiously, Maid Rite covered the state’s mid-sized towns in the middle of the 20th century and have never really caught on outside of Iowa. Frequent visits to Ottumwa and Marshalltown have revealed huge nostalgia appeal for old-fashioned-designed loose meat joints Canteen Lunch in the Alley and Taylor’s, respectively. Brick Street Market and Café in Bondurant was designed to suggest the wind-grieved Butler Café of 1946. Its loose meat sandwiches, fried chicken and root beer are intentional odes to nostalgia. Paula’s in Valley Junction serves old fashioned loose meat sandwiches in nostalgic trappings.

Sioux City developed its own fast food culture because it was deemed too small for McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC to build there for years. To this day, its Tastee Inn & Out (famous for onion chips), Miles Inn, and Milwaukee Wiener House are often first stops for high school reunion visitors from out of state. When Cronk’s Café closed last year after nine decades, people traveled back to Denison for one last visit.  The great New Yorker food writer Calvin Trillin once said that “if your favorite pizza isn’t the first pizza you ever tasted, then you are a big fat sissy.” Pizza Ranch has moved, like Iowa itself, from small towns to larger towns, to suburbs. It has found built-in customer bases as it moved to larger places because so many people from small towns in Iowa learned to speak pizza at Pizza Ranch. The chain often drove smaller independent pizza vendors from town, assuring its hold on new generations.


Des Moines is the only place in Iowa to find a lot of ethnic cuisines. Iowa City may be more cosmopolitan when students are on campus, but the all-encompassing scope of Des Moines food opportunities overwhelms the college town. In the Internet era, ethnic communities are well connected, so the word gets out when a restaurant opens that serves an underserved type of cuisine.

The city now has multiple African cafés including Patience’s, Africana Halal, Gursha, Taste of Africa Café and Prophecy. Most are mostly East African, serving spongy injera bread, made from teff flour and featuring spice choices influenced by the large Indian populations in East Africa. Far more populous West Africa is barely represented in Des Moines, though Prophecy does just that. (Fifteen years ago, West Africa was represented by multiple restaurants and East Africa by none). Gursha is a modern Ethiopian restaurant that serves food in the “build your own style” of Subway and Chipotle. It’s also located in Dog Town, where young diners are more adventurous. Prophecy is in the Grand View area. Both Drake and Grand View have been expanding their foreign student populations. Word gets out fast.

South Asian food choices have exploded in Des Moines, too. India Star, the original Indian café here, was a North Indian gem with a homemade tandoori oven and the charm of owner Baba Singh. It’s moved to nicer digs a few blocks west since its humble beginnings. At the same time, many new places have come, and some have gone. Most of them featured the cuisine of South India and the Deccan Plateau, especially Hyderabad, which is to India what Emilia Romagna is to Italy, Lyon to France, Barcelona to Spain, and Oaxaca to Mexico — culinary capitals.

Bawarchi, Persis and Amaravati all mention Hyderabadi influences on their menu — mainly dum biryani, rice’s most lavish treatment and the dish most associated with the Andhra capital. All also do tandoori, arguably chicken’s greatest application, and naan. Amaravati and Persis brag more about other South Indian dishes and Chinese-Indian fusion. Nepali restaurant Kathmandu and Pakistani café Lzaza also cover tandoori. Lzaza adds a Chicago menu, with Chicago Italian beef sandwiches. Most of these places serve Halal meats. Most had buffets before COVID-19 sanitized the world. Kathmandu offers thalis, the great invention of the Indian Railroad. They are virtual individual buffets with platters of several different dishes plus bread and rice.

Maccabee’s Glatt Deli is celebrating its 30th anniversary on Polk Boulevard, where it occupies the street’s only commercial building. It is suitably unique, the only glatt deli in town. Glatt is the strictest form of kosher. The deli impressed Fox News during the caucuses. No one expects to find a place like this in Des Moines. Rabbi Yossi Jacobson entertains guests, many international, with life lessons.

Mexican restaurants are rife in Des Moines but two are different from most. La Familia and Baja Taco serve menus that represent the District Federal and Baja California. That means more lamb, goat and broths, plus thicker homemade tortilla takes.

Chinese restaurants are fading from the local scene. Heavenly Asian, though, represents the highwater mark of Chinese luxury in Iowa. Wong’s Chopsticks offers a weekend dim sum menu that draws folks near and far. Pho All Seasons and Pho 515 star on Des Moines’ superb lineup of Vietnamese cafés. The latter is housed in Iowa’s best Asian supermarket — C Fresh.

Ethnic restaurants that entertain diners while feeding them are also popular. Brazil Terra Grill Steakhouse and Ohana both inhabit Clocktower Square as they show off their knife skills. Several exceptional sushi places — the Wasabis, W Tao, Miyabi 9, Sakura — all have itamae chefs and air freighted fish, even blue toro. Also attracting folks from afar are Waterfront and Splash, which air freight divine fish from all parts of the world.

Sports, fire and brews 

Sports fans of particular teams have restaurant representation in town. Wisco Grub and Pub offers a mostly Wisconsin menu with sausages, cheese and fish dominating. Even smelt and walleye are sold there. Truman’s is dedicated to the Kansas City fans with sports bar food plus breakfast seven days a week. Rico’s is a Raiders bar and specializes in chicken wings and fish.

Wood-burning grills are making a comeback in the metro. St. Kilda’s cooks steaks and fish over wood in an open kitchen. Fresko adds chicken. Their steaks include a wagyu ribeye. Firebirds Wood Fired Grill grills  steaks, fish and chicken.

Brewhouses and craft beer outlets abound in Des Moines, and many serve excellent food. Iowa Taproom might be the biggest café attraction in town, especially when big events are playing Wells Fargo Arena. High Life Lounge has a supper club menu and a number of beers on tap. Lua might make the best fries in town plus other kitchen treats. Court Avenue Brewing Company is the original brew pub here, or at least the longest operating one. They also offer food fare from burgers to steaks and pizza. Exile has the most extensive food menu around. Royal Mile offers a full English pub menu. Hessen Haus has the best German menu. Barn Town Brewing offers a decadent menu that includes a section of state fair food.

The alcohol and food combination hits its zenith at The Hall and The Foundry. The latter has a tasting room for all their booze. They are associated with the Templeton Rye distillery. The Hall advertises they are the largest beer retailer in the state. They have three food menus — finger food, German food and burgers. Food sales go to the Justice League for Food, which trains homeless, parolees and foster kids in the hospitality and construction industries.
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