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Across the metro, restaurants are serving the needs of their neighbors with a generous dash of nostalgia baked in.

By Jim Duncan

On a Friday midnight visit to Nashville’s century-old Prince’s Hot Chicken, I asked owner Andre Prince Jeffries if she felt safe having enough money on hand to cash payroll, social security and welfare checks for her neighborhood, which was considered “dangerous” by our hotel concierge. Before Andre could answer, a chef chimed in from his station manning six frying pans: “Ain’t nobody ever gonna mess with Ms. Andre, she IS the neighborhood.” She has been for more than 50 years, too.
A renewed popularity of neighborhood restaurants is likely a reaction to how we ate during the deep pandemic when everything was brought to our houses in plastic boxes. Now we want to eat in comfortable places and interact with familiar people.
One Friday night in late January, I met three food business friends at Noah’s Ark. Fortunately, we had a reservation for 5:30 p.m. because every table was taken by 5:20 p.m. Our group had met before at Noah’s and usually spent three and a half hours ordering one or two things at a time. On this recent visit, we were told that our table had to be turned for another reservation by 7:30 p.m.
Clearly the COVID-19 era has passed here. Mandated distancing, requisite masking, forced shutdowns and the unbridled metastasis of Big Brother’s control over our lives are being tossed on the dung heap of memories best forgotten.
Noah’s has a history and tradition that draws people from long distances. It’s extremely popular during high school wrestling, track and basketball championships with people who likely visit Des Moines only a couple times a year. More so, it is a neighborhood joint. All four of us that night ran into familiar faces even though only one of us grew up in Noah’s hood. We also all knew the owner, the chef and several servers.
In some sense, Noah’s is part of the entire Des Moines neighborhood. It exudes a geist produced by a city that is a collection of small towns. Everyone who loves the place has their own nostalgic tie-ins. After we posted a photo of our gathering there on social media, people from all over the world commented about their personal attachments to the place.
“My first dinner date was there.” “I went there after my prom.” “I have never found another place with such amazing yeast rolls.” “My parents took me there for my first pizza.” “I love, love, love this.”
Noah Lacona was the face of his restaurant for more than 50 years, and his son, daughter and grandson have been there since he passed. The recipes are mostly faithful to his mama’s. The word heirloom is overused in the food business, but Noah’s Ark is an heirloom belonging to the family Des Moines. So are those yeast rolls.
Other traditional neighborhood gems on the near westside include Jesse’s Embers where the steaks are impeccable and the aromas enticing.
Across the metro, restaurants are similarly serving the needs of their neighbors with a generous dash of nostalgia baked in. Here are some favorites, moving, like America, from east to west.

Bianchi’s Hilltop shows many reminders of the restaurant’s long history on the walls, paying tribute to past customers. Murals of rustic Italy remind one of décor in the middle of the last century. Hilltop has been family owned since it opened in 1950.
Menu items are out of the 1950s, too. Meatball sandwiches are very generous. Onion rings and pizza are quite thin. Chicken livers are pan fried in butter. A horseshoe-shaped counter, one of few left in 2020s Des Moines, encourages people to converse because everyone sitting there faces everyone else. It also makes singles feel comfortable and not really alone.
On my visits, the restaurant’s main crowd arrived later than at similar westside places like Noah’s, which can be quite busy by 5:30 p.m. A new friend at the counter explained that “east siders work till 5.”
Daily specials, more of a small-town thing than an urban one, are popular. I have run into meat loaf here that esteemed caterer Cyd Koehn labels the best she has ever tasted. 
Other eastside neighborhood restaurants of tradition include: Los Laureles, our city’s first Michoacan/Jalisco style café; Norwood Inn, where it’s OK to put ketchup on an Italian sausage sandwich; Kelly’s Little Nipper of tenderloin and sausage sandwich fame; Eastside Eddie’s with seasonal changes to the daily special menu and fabulous soups; Pho All Seasons, where the café’s history was interrupted by a family move to Arizona and then revived by an all-female family return to ownership; Scornovacca’s, where the limoncello mascarpone cakes will dazzle you and $10 lunch specials include most pasta dishes and 8-inch pizza; and Gerri’s, which frequently wins best wings contests.

Tumea & Sons exudes old-time values. Packed parking lots, even for lunch, attest to a bond of loyalty between the café and its customers. It also might have something to do with bargain prices that mostly stay less than $12 for lunch.
Saltimbocca is faithful to a classic family recipe. Cavatelli are made daily, not just on Sundays. Brashioli are stuffed with bacon and celery and braised in red sauce. The iconic creamy Parmesan dressing is an original recipe. They serve cannoli and irresistible cream-filled peaches for dessert.
One regular customer is comedian Willie Farrell, who has his own booth.
“I grew up in this neighborhood. I remember when Dairy Queen was the only place to eat. Then ‘Papa’ Joe Cataldo decided to make Italian sausage sandwiches and sell them in the parking lot here. 
“Two restaurants tried to make it in this location and failed. Joe Tumea made it work from day one. He came to Iowa as a teenager. His wife, Lou (Lucretia), came here at 13. They worked as tailors and saved money to open this place. There is nothing like it on the southside now. It’s fabulous in every way. The walls are the history museum of the southside. The bocce ball court is the best in town.”
And you can always know that either Joe Sr., Louie, Mario or Joe Jr. will be at your service.
Another southside classico is Baratta’s, which began as a family home and grocery market. Its amaggio is a civic heirloom, breaded in multiple crumbs and grilled, then served with roasted red peppers and mushrooms in a sauce made with fresh squeezed lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, basil and white wine. Baratta’s tortellini are handmade with cheese or spinach. Crab meat and artichoke hearts are pizza toppings.

Highland Park
Chuck and Elizabeth Bisignano opened Chuck’s in Highland Park in 1956. That was before Chuck’s brother opened Babe’s. The pizza has been made behind a storefront window ever since. The walls host historic photos and sometimes paintings from late owner Linda Bisignano’s museum-quality collection. Top notch music is free every Friday and Saturday.
New (2014) owner Emily Jones has kept things the way they were while extensively remodeling and updating. The thin crust pizza are pure “tavern style,” meaning slices stay parallel to the ground when lifted to eat. Some call that “Iowa style.”
Chicken livers are so popular that they are on both the appetizer and entrée menus. Cavatelli are a daily special. Grinders and sausage toppings are house-made from scratch. Italian chicken is fried here; most other places broil that menu item. Daily specials are generous. So is Jones, who leads Highland Park efforts to feed needy mouths every Thanksgiving.
Other Highland Park neighborhood cafés of tradition include El Salvador del Mundo, where one praises the Lord as well as the pacayo blossoms, pupusas, yucca and plantain; and Chicago Speakeasy, where the prime rib and fried chicken excel and the heirloom salad bar is ice cooled.

Joe and Red Giudicessi opened Christopher’s in 1963. The bar, one of the first after liquor by the drink became legal, carried the place while the food fare found its way to the top of the town. Joe told us once that, in the early days, the bar was three deep in standing room. “And that was the day of the two-fisted drinker.”
This has always been a hospitality-first place. Joe also believed that “a bad dish is forgiven, and it can be fixed. There are no second chances after bad service.”
It’s still in the family with Rene and Ron now hosting and running the bar. The pan-fried chicken is so famous that its frying pans were the first thing the family saved from a fire. So are the prime rib and the manicotti Florentine.
Flying Mango is as much a lifestyle choice as it is a restaurant. Owner Mike Wedeking is the pitmaster of Polk County, the only guy I know of who smokes exclusively with hard woods. People line up well before the doors open many nights. Extraordinary national musicians play the Mango simply because of the laid-back, Margaritaville mood and Wedeking. Customers come from all over America because Mango has been a frequent subject of Food Channel’s popular “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.” One can order “What Guy Had” to duplicate host Guy Fieri’s TV fare.

Simon’s owner Simon Goheen is himself embedded in Des Moines restaurant traditions. He grew up eating out almost every night because his parents’ business was Italian bread and their clients were the city’s restaurants.
That was in the day when courtesy bread baskets were de rigeur, and Simon’s holds to tradition. Often dessert is complimentary. Long lines wait for the door to open before 5 p.m. There is live jazz Wednesdays and Fridays.
Simon’s is many locals’ favorite steakhouse. Prices are reasonable (most all steaks include options less than $30) and steak dinners include a vegetable of the day, a potato choice, and either a salad or soup. Lamb chops are still made here.
The artichoke dip is made with just artichokes and Parmesan, no spinach. DeBurgos are of the Talerico school, no cream. Sandwiches, including fries or onion rings, are all less than $10. Onion ring orders start at just $5.
The main attraction, though, is Goheen, the quintessential front-of-the-house guy who greets every table and thanks each guest on the way out.

Valley Junction
Paula’s is a jewel that is only open for lunch. That is a lost tradition itself. Its “Made Right” sandwiches are more generous with meat than their more famous competitors.
It’s also a cash-only business. You read that right. When I forget to bring cash, my credit is good. “Anyone who wants a Made Right gets a Made Right,” is the policy according to one chef.
Paula’s seasonal daily specials are a draw and perspire with traditions of the past: tomato soup with grilled cheese, hot beef sandwiches with mashed potatoes and gravy, beef stew, sausage Made Rights, meat loaf and chicken fried steak.
Other traditions in Valley Junction include G Mig’s Fifth Street Pub, which is not as old as others in this story but its tradition includes taking over a revered VFW outpost and changing little. It’s arguably Des Moines’ best example of a bar and grill, partially because of its tiny kitchen. The burgers (made with ground prime rib), sliders, pastrami and soups hang out way above their pay grades. Daily and lunch specials are traditions.
Also in VJ: The original Chuck Celsi’s Tavern offers famous thin crust pizza, calzones and pasta. Lunch brings five pasta dishes for less than $10, with meatballs only $1 each. El Rey Burrito has been in the area for more than 25 years and introduced the late-night burrito fix. Maxie’s opened in 1963 and still hangs its hat in mid 20th century style. Maxieburgers, onion rings and ice cream drinks like pink squirrels and brandy Alexanders are de facto proprietary icons of the restaurant.

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