Twenty-five years ago, this publication began subjecting readers to the reflections of an alcoholic who had recently quit drinking. I thought that gave me an alternative point of view, and editors agreed. At that time, this paper was named Skywalker, showing pride in the ambitious system that was dramatically transforming downtown life.
Winston’s was on its way to elevating the restaurant bar in town. Mike LaValle (Embassy Club) was running the place then, and George Formaro (a James Beard Awards top 20 restaurateurs in America recipient) was a baker and chef. Locust Mall Food Court was packed with vendors tempting downtown workers to ditch their brown bags and go out for a hot meal. The best of those restaurants was called Eat at Joe’s — the first café for Joe Carey who would later own some of the finest places in Colorado resort country. Steve (Lucca) and Joe (La Mie) Logsdon also started retailing in that food court. In Capitol Square, Stella’s Blue Sky Diner had become an instant tourist attraction as the teens of March Madness skywalked a wistful downtown experience that included prom dresses and malts poured on their heads.
On a recent rainy week, I revisited the skywalk to take stock of a quarter-century of temperature-controlled changes. From the outside, Winston’s looked the same, even though it’s been closed nearly three years now. Nearby I passed the first of many buskers I would see in the skywalk (one who offered cupcakes as well as songs). Junko Japanese Café, which closed a year ago to remodel, then reopened with higher prices, looked closed again. It could be the first casualty of Walnut Street’s predicted revival — state-of-the-art Wasabi Tao is only one block and one flight of stairs away.
Stella’s old space now houses Amigo’s, the second Mexican café to follow it. I found a sensibly condensed version of the menu format that works well at places like El Rodeo and Monterey. Lunches of entrée, beans and rice sold quickly for $5 – $10. Pablo’s, a long-term skywalk veteran, was still turning out more interesting Mexican food across from an empty venue that had seen a number of good restaurants (from Coney Island to Indian Grill) come and go. Several bays were vacant in the Kaleidoscope Food Court (KFC). I found an excellent yellow curry chicken at JJ Jasmine there, rich in curry paste and coconut milk. Huge crowds nearby at Palmer’s and Bruegger’s might explain the vacancies in the KFC.
Back where it began, in the Locust Mall, Flarah’s looked closed. Longtime veterans Golden Chicken, Gazali’s, Taste Spuds and Panda still starred at the Locust Mall’s food court. The newcomer there is Las Americas, where I enjoyed a $5 lunch that included excellent fresh salsa, chips, beans, rice and chile rellenos stuffed with the ubiquitous “Mexican cheese whiz” that oozes saltiness.
Because he was a prime driver for building the skywalk system, I asked former mayor Dick Olson what were the best and worst things about it. “Biggest mistake was not building downtown housing sooner. Best thing was that we kept Bankers Life (now Principal Financial Group) in Des Moines. They had other plans at the time,” he admitted.
Coincidentally I found my best skywalk lunch experience in The Principal’s headquarters. It came with a food pedigree. Basil Prosperi’s is owned by Andy Logsdon, a nephew of Steve and Joe Logsdon. An efficient service line delivered my orders to a table set with fresh flowers. Family specialties included fresh baked La Mie breads, homemade salad dressings with good greens, and pasta sauces that featured good cheeses and deep marinara. Fresh stock soups (roasted red pepper, jalapeno cream, etc.) were as good as any in town. Buttery cookies were irresistible.
Side Dishes Flarah’s announced it was closing both its stores… Fleming’s $37 Mother’s Day brunch includes a $25 gift card for moms… Lisa LaValle is leaving the Des Moines Art Center to manage the Botanical Center café. CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.