Dining in the ruins4/9/2014
American restaurant history spins many tales of blind luck. In 1929, Malcom Nichols, the prudish mayor of Boston, Mass., banned Eugene O’Neill’s infamous play. “Strange Interlude.” Promoters moved the five-hour show to downtown Quincy, across the street from a new restaurant built by ice-cream man Howard Johnson. Since the long play had a dinner break, Johnson’s restaurant became famous with visitors. He was encouraged to expand, but the Great Depression dried up Johnson’s line of credit. His solution was to invent the concept of selling restaurant franchises.
After fire transformed the venerable Younkers building into Dresden 1945 last week, I spent a couple days walking around the skywalks of downtown Des Moines looking for blind luck. Because Younkers had been the hub of the skywalk system, I feared that the destruction would divide above-ground traffic into two separate parts: west of Eighth Street and east of Seventh Street. Because lesser-known skywalk bridges have been built both north and south of the Younkers bridge, the effect was more like a short detour than an impasse, particularly as the first week moved along and people learned to navigate.
The most damaged restaurants were those forced to close down completely. The entire Locust Mall food court in the Greater Des Moines Partnership Building was closed because of smoke and water damage. That food court was connected to Younkers by an underground tunnel. No one could guess how long it would be shut down or even who was in charge of deciding. Even when allowed to reopen, it would surely be cut off from foot traffic much longer, particularly from the east. Coupled with the recent move of The Des Moines Register jobs, it appeared that the fire might be fatal to that food court.
Just north of the Locust Mall, Marriott Hotel restaurants were temporarily shut off from skywalk and street level entrances on the hotel’s south side. Signs warned sky-walkers from the east that the system was “for hotel guests only.” Still, managers said business was not put off too much, because hotel guests were the bulk of their clientele. In the 801 Grand skywalk, Basil Prosperi owner Andy Logsdon said his business was up from normal. Street level north of the hotel, Keller’s Bakery & Deli owner Cameron Keller said that his business was picking up as the week went on, with more late afternoon stragglers. He added that warmer weather always helps his business, which has a large outdoor patio. He said he asked to put a sign in the skywalk but was threatened with fines if he did.
On the east side of the Younker’s skywalk bridge, Bruegger’s Bagels was disabled until safety issues could be approved. Palmer’s Deli seemed to benefit from that. Cashiers and waitresses there said they were busier than ever. In the Kaleidoscope food court, cashiers said business was pretty normal. Further east, Something Italian reported no changes.
The Howard Johnson award for creative coping goes to Sarpino’s. That ground-level pizzeria on Seventh placed a sign in the skywalk advertising a “street view of Younkers.” Since the sidewalk outside had been cordoned off due to broken glass, insulation, steel shards and falling bricks, it could only be reached via a narrow passageway and an elevator. The little restaurant offered a large menu of pizza, salads, sandwiches, wings, pasta and calzone. A large slice of pie and a soft drink cost just $3.50.
I dined with a spectacular view of the devastation. Such schadenfreude must be rare in Des Moines. I dined alone and was told business was “way off.”
Side Dishes Coylie’s Bakery opened in the Merle Hay Mall… Arizona Diamondbacks welcomed baseball fans with 18-inch, $25 stuffed corn dogs. Vendors could not keep up with demand. CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.