Wings and ambiance star at Gerri’s3/20/2013
The old fashioned bar and grill has become an endangered species in Iowa. After industrialized farming changed the state’s demographics (most Iowa counties peaked in population more than 100 years ago), towns became too small to support stand-alone restaurants. So taverns added flat-top grills, deep fryers and sometimes full kitchens to replace them. These became surrogate community centers until many towns eventually became too small to support even a bar and grill. Today one can generally gauge the vitality of an Iowa town by its per capita number of bar-and-grills. In cities, suburban sprawl and industrial restaurants threatened this genre with economies of scale. Full Court Press (a group of local bar/restaurant owners) revived the spirit of the bar and grill at High Life Lounge, Shorty’s Somewhat Fancy Bar and The University Library 2.0. In a more modern fashion, so did the Saint’s-Beaver Tap-Maverick’s crew. Otherwise, it’s a mostly East European genre in Des Moines with one big, geographic exception — the eastside.
Befitting a defiant part of town that proclaims “Lee Township against the world,” our eastside supports a large, happy number of bar and grills where time stands still, and folks from the ritzy suburbs fear to tread. As if oblivious to trends and health fads that mesmerize food fashionistas, East 14th Street Tavern, Kelly’s Little Nipper, Maingate, Norwood, Johnny Mac’s, Highland Park Country Club, Gill T’s and others have been providing hot meals and cold libations to loyal customers for decades. Some open as early as 6 a.m., a habit that honors the blue collar, triple-shift factories that have pretty much disappeared from other parts of the metro.
One of the most popular bar and grills in town, Gerri’s, fits its eastside neighborhoods like a biker’s glove. A pool table and walls proclaim the predominant cults and memes of its zip code — motorcycles, the tracks of NASCAR, Dale Junior and Clint Eastwood (from his “Man with No Name” period). Ken Zylla prints harkens a lost America of small towns. Literature on the bar provided news of things that matter here including the entire lineup for this year’s Hog Wild Rodeo and a list of biker-friendly bars, restaurants, insurance companies, gun and ammo dealers and tattoo parlors in Iowa. Whenever I’ve been in Gerri’s, the juke box remained loyal to another century with Rolling Stones, Tom Petty and Willie Nelson classics dominating. On a recent visit, several high-definition, large screen televisions were all tuned to Hawkeye basketball, even during a NASCAR race!
The menu features bar-and-grill all stars. Breaded cauliflower and gizzards joined more traditional deep fried appetizers such as onion rings, mushrooms, poppers and French fries. Onion rings were a cut above ubiquitous frozen products around town. So were burgers, tenderloins and grinders, all looking handmade and served on upscale buns. Gerri’s also offered daily lunch specials and Wednesday evening $10 steak dinners. These, though, were all diversions from the main mission that brings most folks to Gerri’s.
Its chicken wings are famous enough to start arguments and even fights in other parts of town. They were served in two versions, an eight-wing plate for $8.75 and a larger platter that included a pitcher of beer for $35. On a recent Saturday afternoon, almost every table in the joint had ordered the latter. Wings came with celery and cups of ranch dressing that had obviously been upgraded by adding sour cream. The chicken appeared to have been fried without breading and tossed in a mild version of wing sauce.
Side Dishes Hostess Brands sold its snack foods to two investment firms that announced that Twinkies could return from the dead by summer… Toad’s began offering a $2 biscuits and gravy with hash browns special every second Thursday… McDonald’s finally gave up trying to sell fruit and walnut salads to its customers. CV