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Local performance venues and superb restaurants provide some great pairings.

By Jim Duncan

This year, hope springs eternal with the gray clouds of autumn, especially for the arts and sports worlds. A year and a half of virus fatigue and its accompanying empty stadiums, music halls and auditoriums have held back a world that wants to go out with the crowd again. The resulting shortage of black ink in budgets has stressed out athletics directors, coaches, maestros, conductors and musicians.

There is a glimmer of hope now for a coming season. Both the arts world and the sports world begin anew in fall, when summer aestivations give way to the new year for school, symphonies, concerts, art shows, football, basketball and hockey. This hope carries over to the hospitality industry. If Kinnick, Trice, Carver-Hawkeye and Hilton are allowed to return to full capacity, it will be as much a boon to Iowa City and Ames area hotels and restaurants as to the university athletics departments. It is also hoped that entertainment visitors will lead business travelers back from 18 really bad months.

This is particularly true in greater Des Moines where many hotels have higher demand on weekends than weekdays. That is a new thing, and COVID mutations — from alpha to zeta —  exasperate the dreaded severity and duration of COVID. Restaurants and hotels love sports and entertainment. After all, the old cliché about first dates is “dinner and a show” not “Uber Eats and Netflix.” So, with the hope of a renaissance for big crowds, we looked around the metro for perfect pairings — not of wine with entrees, but of restaurants most convenient to the area’s biggest entertainment venues.

Iowa Events Center + Buzzard Billy’s

Wells Fargo Arena is Des Moines’ No. 1 venue. From the pro franchise of The Wild, the Wolves and the Barnstormers, to blockbuster concerts like Paul McCartney, Garth Brooks and Taylor Swift, to the high school championships in wrestling and basketball, it guarantees bodies in seats all four seasons. While all of downtown is relatively convenient to the arena, no place is more so than Buzzard Billy’s (615 Third St.). It is now open from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week. Breakfast here is a big new hit. Many events at Hy-Vee Hall and Community Choice Credit Union Convention Center begin in the morning, long before most visitors feel like hot dogs or nachos.

Buzzard Billy’s offers exciting breakfasts like southern fried chicken and waffles, Belgian waffles, bananas foster French toast and blackened catfish with potatoes and eggs. Their cinnamon rolls are as big as the parking lot. Lunch and dinner menus also offer things you can’t find many other places in Iowa. Fried alligator tails, cheese curds, poutines with barbecue, crab corn soup, 10 different styles of chicken wings, burnt ends gumbo, and crawfish etouffee, to name a few.

The restaurant specializes in Louisiana cuisine. There is a large menu of blackened fish, steak and seafood dishes, excellent po boys, eggplant canoes stuffed with seafood, and even a dish named after the Tehoupitoulas, an extinct Indian tribe who inhabited the bayous before the Cajuns. Cocktails are exciting, and beers are mostly local craft brews. There are kids’ menus for both breakfast and lunch/dinner. Everything about Buzzard Billy’s says that it is time to have fun. So let it be with autumn of 2021.

The Des Moines Civic Center + Splash

While all of Court Avenue and most of East Village is easy walking distance of the 1979 Des Moines Civic Center, Splash shares an intersection with the Des Moines institution. The Des Moines Civic Center is one of the best managed auditoriums of its size (2,744 seats) worldwide. Some years it has led the world in attendance for its size group. There are Broadway series, pops series, symphonic series, etc. It is one of a very few venues worldwide where both Broadway plays and Symphonic music are performed.

That takes incredibly versatile acoustic design.
Director Jeff Chelesvig says that Broadway stars like Tony winner Cherry Jones are amazed with how the “barn” plays and how much the audience appreciates the performances. The auditorium is designed without center aisles, balconies or box seats. It thus presents a more democratic experience than most buildings. Everyone sits together without any elitist trappings. It is, in this respect, Iowan.

Splash (303 Locust St.) balances a “dinner and a show” evening with lavish trappings and decadent fish and seafood air freighted from Europe, the Caribbean and the Pacific. The furniture includes cloth tablecloths and large stuffed chairs that are upholstered in red ostrich hide. Doric columns, checkerboard floors, aquariums, murals, a balcony area, private rooms and a separate oyster bar contribute to a special night out. 
The salmon is from Norway, the sea bass is Chilean, the yellowfin is Hawaiian. King crab is from Alaska, and lobsters are from Maine. Caviar is sourced both from Russia and the U.S. Mussels grew up around Prince Edward Island. Some steaks are USDA prime. Fish can be ordered char grilled, miso grilled, sake grilled, meuniere, pan seared, blackened or moutarde. The wine list is a perennial winner of top wine awards. 

Temple for the Performing Arts + Centro 

The Temple for the Performing Arts hosts drama, musicals, pop-folk concerts, comedy and chamber music. It sits in the heart of the hot Western Gateway restaurant scene, walking distance from top cafés Proof, Americana, Django, Exile, The Walnut and Fresko. Nothing is as convenient, though, as Centro. It is in the same building, a former Masonic Temple.

Centro’s signature is its coal-fired pizza oven. These gems are disappearing even from Brooklyn where they once dominated the New York market. They are the hottest of ovens and can cook a pizza in a couple minutes. They feature thin crusts, blisters and some charring. Fine ingredients like San Marzano tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, Rosa pepperoni, Niman Ranch ham, and La Quercia charcuterie are used. Lemmo’s handmade cavatelli are a feature of the pasta menu.

Drake Stadium + Jethro’s/Fong’s Pizza

Drake Stadium was the original project that brought the university together with the business community and the civic government of Des Moines. It’s been paying the city back since 1925 with classic brick architecture and its blue oval track. Track meets draw huge crowds to the combined championships of boys and girls track, the Drake Relays, the AAU Junior Olympics, USTF championships and NCAA championships. Smaller meets also draw fans to Des Moines. Drake football competes in the Pioneer League, which includes teams from California, the East Coast, the Deep South and the Midwest. Roosevelt High School plays home games there and occasionally Dowling Catholic does.
Jethro’s and Fong’s Pizza are Des Moines classics. Their neighboring outlets on Forest Avenue are the closest restaurants not named McDonald’s to the stadium. Jethro’s is a nationally famous barbecue for huge appetites. Fong’s is a cross breed of the tiki bar and the pizzeria featuring crab Rangoon pies.

The Knapp Center/Sheslow Auditorium + the Drake Diner 

The Knapp Center is Drake’s all-purpose indoor arena. It hosts Drake basketball’s rising men’s program and its always good women’s team. Volleyball, lectures and concerts are also hosted here, plus both college and high school graduations. Sheslow hosts most Civic Music Association events, plus superb student, faculty and guest concerts. It’s an intimate venue without a single bad seat and fabulous acoustics.

The Drake Diner (111 25th St.) is the epitome of its genre. Modeled after Fog City in San Francisco, it features iconic, checkerboard design, superb gravies, classic rock music, counter and booth service, a screened-in patio, and famous malts and milk shakes. It also draws a big crowd after church services. The Drake Diner makes three kinds of pancakes, including potato and pumpkin. Their French toast is made with cinnamon rolls. Blue plate specials like hot beef, hot pork, hot meatloaf and hot turkey star at lunch and dinner. The walk across campus to Sheslow, the Performing Arts Center and the Knapp Center covers the best of Drake’s grounds.

Grand View arts and sports venues + Prophecy 

Grand View University has been on a roll since the new millennium, with attendance and construction more than doubling and great success in sports. Wrestling and football teams have won national titles. The university wins so many wrestling titles that they often host the national finals. The school also has superb theater and music departments with nice venues to showcase them.

While Iowa Beef Steakhouse is a local classic and Pho All Seasons is a great Vietnamese café, the most convenient place is Prophecy (2100 E. 14th St.). It features West African cuisine, which features more yams, casava, corn and ground nuts than the more locally popular East African cuisine. The restaurant, though, has a higher mission. They believe that food is means to a better end for world peace, understanding and justice.

Iowa State Center + Provisions Lot F

Iowa State’s sports and arts venues are bunched together south of the main campus. Football is so hot there that every game could sell out this year. Their basketball teams are generating more interest, as well. It is hoped that CY Stephens Auditorium will bring back the great national and international performing arts groups, too.

Provisions Lot F (2400 North Loop Drive) is the latest refinement of the restaurant group that made Aunt Maude’s and The Café state of the art of Ames. Most everything is homemade from scratch, food is sourced locally, and some things stick out as “good as they get.” In that group are the tomato ginger soup made with coconut milk and curry, Korean noodle bowls with poached eggs, and the avocado toast with hot chili oil, toasted coconut and fresh fruit.

Principal Park + High Life Lounge

Principal Park is the host to the Iowa Cubs baseball team and usually the state high school baseball tourneys. Sometimes concerts are held there. The ballpark is also home to the Cub Club, which is open to the public for lunch and breakfasts that draw some movers and shakers. It’s not as convenient on game nights, though.

Also, a refurbished building nearby offers interesting fast food like Fuzzy’s Tacos and Blaze Pizza, but their parking lot can be confounding. So, our choice here is High Life Lounge (200 S.W. 2nd St.) a take on mid 20th-century supper clubs. It features broasted chicken, rarebit burgers, beef stroganoff, pot roast, chicken pot pies, deviled eggs and gizzards.

Hoyt Sherman Place + Aposto

Hoyt Sherman hosts some of the most progressive music in town. It’s always had a knack for picking talent that isn’t hot enough for much larger arenas but can pack this place. Gladys Knight is on the tentative schedule, for instance.

The neighborhood has some marvelous recent additions with Lua, A Dong and Gateway Market Café close by. We have to go with Aposto at Café di Scala (644 18th St.). Tony Lemmo’s Victorian café is a romantic sojourn to another time and place. Dinners are prix fixe these days and feature four or five courses, including a homemade pasta, the house’s specialty. Ingredients are fresh and local, and the bar is special. Aposto works with curtain times to make sure you are out in time.
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