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Belly Up To...

Johnny’s Hall of Fame, a Court District champion


Bartender Cate Elliott pours a tall glass of Guinness for a happy hour patron.

Bartender Cate Elliott pours a tall glass of Guinness for a happy hour patron.

One of the best things about Court District carousing — aside from the scenery, and we’re not talking about the pretty lights — is the history. The old architecture of the buildings and the stories that come with each brick and bar stool are likely lost on the 20-something crowds that most often frequent the bar scene there, but that’s why there’s something for everyone at Des Moines’ most diverse nightlife district.

Regular Court Avenue bar-hoppers find their favorites quickly, but one corner tap stands out as a premier place to belly up even among one-time visitors to Des Moines — Johnny’s Hall of Fame.

“Everybody’s comfortable at a sports bar,” offered a bombshell bartender named Cate Elliott, who looks like Disney’s Ariel with legs. “You know what you’re getting with a sports bar. Whenever people are in town for a sports event, they almost always come here. It’s just comfortable.”

And why not? Johnny’s offers a spacious dining area of booths and high-top tables, an eclectic menu of affordable foods, featuring the fatty fried favorites, burgers and pizza as well as the healthy options, and the bar offers almost every known whiskey, vodka and tequila variety in addition to some local touts on the beer and wine menu. The active socialites have their hoops, pool and shuffle board in back, where their beer-spilling celebrations won’t encroach on patrons who are dining, and, as every sports bar should, there are TVs everywhere you look. Literally. You cannot look at any spot on the wall without at least glimpsing a game, highlights or commentators offering the latest sports updates.

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“I’ve never worked at a sports bar before,” admitted Elliott, whose resume includes Court Avenue Brewing Company, The Exchange and others. “I really like it. The crowds here are comfortable and easy-going.”

And when she says “crowds,” she means hordes of people who shuffle in nightly, especially on the weekends, as is true with many of Johnny’s neighboring bars. But most Court Avenue regulars will agree, Johnny’s is one of the most happening of them all, and it has been for longer than most of its patrons have been alive.

As stated, every building, every brick and every tile has a story. At what’s considered to be Des Moines’ first sports bar, Johnny’s story includes devastating floods — the first in 1989 and then again in 1993 — that tragically destroyed a lifetime collection of Hall-of-Famer sports photos. But the owners who carry on founders’ John and Fran Ulrich’s 50-year tradition refuse to say die. The collection is rebuilding along the brick walls in the building aside team jerseys ranging from local high schools to those known around the world, all hanging from the ceiling and walls as equals.

Johnny’s Hall of Fame is not just a tribute to sports teams and heroes but to the fans as well. With its history in Des Moines, it’s a championed survivor itself.                

LAST CALL: The Iowa Cubs are hosting its last home game of the season on Thursday, Aug. 29 against Omaha (6:35 p.m.). Johnny’s Hall of Fame offers a buy-one-get-one drink special to all post-game patrons who bring in their I-Cubs ticket stubs. CV

Johnny’s Hall of Fame
302 Court Ave.
280-6679 /
HOURS: 11 a.m.-2 a.m. daily (opens at 9 a.m. for farmers market)
HAPPY HOUR: 3-7 p.m. Mon.-Fri.
KITCHEN: 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
CAPACITY: 275 plus patio


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