What is it, and which ones have it?
Restaurant critics used to employ the word ambiance, or ambience, as a factor in their ratings.
That’s not as common as it used to be, likely because the word is ambivalent. The Oxford Dictionary says use of the word exploded after World War II, peaked a dozen years ago and has been descending since then. Derived from the French for surroundings, it is usually defined as “the mood, atmosphere or character of a place.”
All those qualities are human characteristics. Critics, in essence, are personifying restaurants when
they talk about their moods or characters. That makes ambiance a bit dubious. Restaurants are not
human. It’s also hard to trust a word that has more than one spelling. Ambiance comes from an original French word. Ambience is an Anglicized version.
Ambiance is more common in design and art discussions. Ambience is the more popular spelling
elsewhere. But food critics sometimes give a place a rating, in stars or toques. What could possibly
That is the subject of this story — what restaurants in Des Moines possess that contributes to
their exceptional “character, mood or atmosphere.” We decided that superior ambiance comes from several sources: romance, trappings, views, furniture and table settings, history, exotic kitchens, and lighting. We considered adding music but discovered that music is inconsistent. The same place might play rap one day and jazz another time. I heard songs from Boy George and Slipknot back to back at a Des Moines café this year. Some places score points for their occasional live music, but we could not find a single place with a permanent singer, though Lucca has a grand piano. Is the piano bar dead in Des Moines restaurants? Not completely. Scott Smith and John Krantz still play at Chuck’s and Louie’s Wine Dive. The Hills and Greenbriar also have live music, but these are once-a-week occasions at best.
Let’s begin at the beginning. History plays a big role in this discussion. If a place has a good backstory, then it has context worth sharing with people. Some stories are obvious. Aposto at Café di Scala occupies a restored Victorian mansion in historic Sherman Hill. It was there when Hoyt Sherman, Ebenezer Ingersoll, Frederick Hubbell and the great swashbuckler Francis Marion Drake were building a solid new economy in the heartland after the Civil War.
Americana, Alba, Court Avenue Brewing Company, and the Valley Junction St. Kilda’s all occupy car dealerships from halcyon days when going out to see the latest models of Fords, Plymouths, Oldsmobiles, Packards and Mercurys was entertainment. That was back when there were Plymouths, Oldsmobiles, Packards and Mercurys. Malo is situated in the building that was the downtown Des Moines fire station. Centro and St. Kilda’s Café and Bakery are in the Beaux Arts style architectural gem that was the Masonic Temple of Des Moines, built in 1913. The building was saved from the wrecking ball by a group of investors put together by Harry and Pam Bookey.
The Steak and Chop House at 801 Grand has been ground zero for politics since it was built. R.W. Apple, the front page news analyst at the New York Times for more than two decades, held court there during caucus season (booth on northside). He was the most coveted interview for all other journalists. He was also the NYT’s “food editor at large.”
Court Avenue Brewing Company occupies the Saddlery Building, which was built in 1881 and thrived for 20 years. It then served as a shoe maker, a rubber company, a stove manufacturer, a glove company, the Krispy Kone Company, and the Kaplan Hat Company, which was also the name of a restaurant once located on the first floor. When Bruce Gerleman acquired the building from the Kaplans, he paid as much for their hat inventory as for the property. He organized a going-out-of-business sale for the hats, and this news was reported on network TV morning shows. Almost immediately, scores of hat shoppers showed up from all over America, from motorcyclists to drivers of 18-wheelers. Most all the huge inventory was sold in a few weeks. CABCO moved in three years after the flood of 1993 and became Des Moines’ first successful brew café in 50 years.
The downtown Fong’s Pizza occupies the former King Ying Low, which was one of the oldest and probably the longest lasting Chinese café in Des Moines. Fong’s maintained the spirit of the old place, creating a tiki bar with fusion pizza.
Graziano’s has been in its building for more than 100 years and finally began serving sandwiches a few years ago. Their Italian sausage is worth its weight in soft shell crabs in the continental barter market. B&B Grocery, Meat and Deli has been operated by the Brooks family since 1922. In other words, it’s been an anchor of Sevastopol since the days when locals knew what Sevastopol was — a township of Russian immigrants that was annexed by Des Moines in the late 19th century. The deli walls are covered with historic newspapers going back to World War I.
W-Tao Sushi is the last place operating out of restaurant space from the grand days of downtown hotels. Lawyers and businessmen made deals over breakfast 50 years ago. The place now serves top-notch sushi and sashimi to a younger, artier clientele. It has survived in the same Kirkwood Hotel building where four other places failed in a restaurant venue across the hallway.
Johnny’s Hall of Fame is the last survivor of the seedy days of the Court Avenue area between Fourth and Third. While Bruce Gerleman was buying the real estate and cleaning it up, JHOF moved to another part of the hood and cleaned itself up.
Rice Bowl is the oldest Chinese café in town and the last from the classic days of Chinese American cuisine, when egg foo young and chop suey reigned. G Mig’s 5th Street Pub occupies the venue that long served as the West Des Moines American Legion club.
Splash took over the former Martin Hotel, a place that saw good days and something quite different before it was transformed into a lavish shrine honoring the miracle of overnight air express. Seafood and fish from both Hawaii and the Caribbean are featured in its main dining room. It also inspired the first oyster bar in Des Moines.
Eatery A occupies the space that once served as the Barack Obama’s campaign headquarters.
Anchors for inspiration
Lucca and Miyabi 9 are perhaps the two best examples of the restoration work of the late Kirk Blunck, without whom much more of East Village would have been demolished for newer, less interesting real estate. They make a good launch pad to discuss a different aspect of history within Des Moines’ restaurants — anchors, or places that trailblazed new neighborhoods by moving there before much else had been built.
Just as Blunck’s buildings and low rents attracted other small businesses to East Village, it’s hard to imagine the growth of Johnston before Paul Trostel moved there and opened his Greenbriar in 1987. At the time, the Greenbriar was on the far edge of development.
The revitalization of East Grand, particularly around the marvelous La Plaza development, is difficult to envision without Los Laureles, the first new restaurant in town serving the cuisines of Jalisco and Michoacan. Those cuisines are now the most popular in Des Moines Mexican cafes while all XXX movie houses are gone from East Grand.
The Drake Diner was the first visible example of the revitalization of the Drake neighborhood. Spearheaded by Drake President Michael Ferrari and businessman Bill Knapp, the movement began with DD, a nostalgia-driven diner modeled after Knapp’s favorite San Francisco diner, Fog City.
Noah’s has anchored Ingersoll’s food scene since the early 1950s, when restaurants were all independents. It lasted through a time when most restaurants were fast food franchisees and till today, when indies outnumber fast food joints again. It’s also probably the original place in town to offer pizza. Chuck’s has been the anchor of Highland Park almost as long as Noah’s has been around. The southside Baratta’s, the Valley Junction Tavern, The Hilltop on Hubbell, Christopher’s in Beaverdale, and Skip’s on Fleur all have anchored neighborhoods that saw several cycles of booming and busting times.
Definitions of romance usually go either toward love between humans, and how to pursue it, or toward love of mystery or the unknown, as in romance of God. The first pursuit has become a cliché of flowers, chocolates, prix fixe Valentine menus, white tablecloths, gypsy minstrels and linen napkins. Since we have declared that we don’t intend to personify restaurants in this story, we propose a different definition. A cafe that can transport a visitor to a very different time or place is romantic. This definition fits in with the word’s origin — romans. Those were the vernacular tales of the Middle Ages, of chivalry, usually. Because they were not written in Latin, they were not subjected to religious scrutiny. That’s important because they became popular
in the days of the Spanish Inquisition.
My father introduced me to this definition as a child. We sought out places that reminded him of nothing he was familiar with — the old German restaurants of Milwaukee and Chicago, the Jewish delis of New York City, Greek Towns in Detroit and Chicago, chowder houses in Boston, and the Czech dinner clubs of Nebraska.
What places in Des Moines can take us somewhere very different from the world outside the restaurant walls? It’s important that such romance be unique. PF Chang’s and Joe’s Crab House have duplicated their décor so many times that they have become ersatz. The gang of friends who comprise Full Court Press eschewed the temptation to duplicate their marvelous themed restaurants, at least until their Fong’s Pizza became an irresistible seductress.
Their unique successes began with Hessen Haus, a virtual German beer hall in an old depot for what was once the Rock Island Line. The place keeps the faith with beers on tap from all parts of Germany and some German-style beers from American crafts brewers, beer boots, polka and other German folk bands, and a kitchen that serves an extensive menu of German classics from wiener schnitzel and schweinshaxe to sauerbraten and rouladen.
The merry men of FCP moved on to open Royal Mile, an English pub, Red Monk, a Belgian pub, and High Life Lounge, which celebrates the wind-grieved days of American supper clubs. Every one of those places has the romance we are looking for in this story. I wish my father had lived long enough to enjoy them.
No place in Des Moines has ever transported me to France like La Mie. This exquisite bakery is French to the core, from their thorough lamination to their sandwiches and pastries.
Similarly, the Drake Diner can make one feel as if he has been taken to the America of 50 or 60 years ago, when Ozzie and Harriet ruled the air waves and malts, milk shakes and ice cream sodas were made with real ice cream. Chicago Speakeasy has a similar nostalgic calling, with a salad bar cooled with real ice, daily specials with prices from yesteryear, and a full Italian steakhouse menu that fits Des Moines like an old glove. Tursi’s Latin King has a similar vibe, though it’s physically three restaurants in one. The oldest was built in the 1950s, and others were add-ons from more contemporary times. The menu includes dishes the original owners introduced to Des Moines from Little Italy in New York.
Pho 515 is Des Moines’ most cosmopolitan café. It reminds me more of the San Francisco Bay area than Iowa. Menus are written in multiple languages with some only in Vietnamese. Brave diners just point to a description and are almost always rewarded with new flavors. This place is set within Iowa’s most cosmopolitan supermarket (think Ranch 99 of California) with sections of African, Latino and pan Asian foods. Ducks are roasted in front of your eyes in the deli, and foods as exotic as cow penis are stocked. Only Le’s Chinese BBQ seems as wonderfully displaced from Asia or Asian California.
Irina’s belongs more to Sochi than to Iowa. Though the menu includes a majority of Iowan-preferred items, it’s the only place in town that specializes in Russian dishes like chicken Kiev and stroganoff. They have Russian nights that sell out, and they do outrageous Russian things like barbecuing entire crocodiles. Their vodka flights have introduced Des Moines to a world of spirits
one can barely find west of Chicago and east of Denver.
Closer to the Valentine’s Day version romance is Splash. This ode to fresh fish and seafood has furniture that no other place in the area can match. Huge chairs are upholstered in red ostrich hide. Seafood murals by Saley Nong transform a basement into such an optical illusion that one newspaper critic complained about the lack of windows, underground windows.
Restaurants with great views are disappearing in America. The number of rooftop restaurants in San Francisco has gone from the high teens to just four. Top-floor real estate is worth more to high-tech companies now than to restaurateurs. Des Moines is moving in the other direction.
The 10th anniversary of the Pappajohn Sculpture Park reminds us that the gift to the city has many manifestations. It has increased the real estate values of adjoining properties by a factor of 10. Much of that is because of the marvelous views it creates. Restaurants have been the main
beneficiaries. Americana, Bistro Nomad, Proof and Django all provide tables with a fabulous view of the park. So do Jimmy John’s and Smoky D’s.
Also in the last decade, new construction in East Village provided some new vistas for restaurants. The Republic stands out in this category but look for others soon. North of East Village, Captain Roy’s provides river views with live music and good, simple food.
Older places with extraordinary views include: The Cub Club, a power breakfast oasis in Principal Park; Café Baratta’s in the Iowa State Historical Building; Prairie Meadows’ fourth floor club; the Holiday Inn Mercy Center; the Riverwalk Hub; and the riverfront Embassy Suites. Other great views involve more up-close vistas. Trellis is situated in the Greater Des Moines Botanical Gardens. It has river views, as well as botanical ones. Tangerine at the Des Moines Art Center is on the main floor off both the prime gallery room and the reflecting pool, which includes the magnificent sculpture “Man and Pegasus” by Carl Milles, plus other treasures. It is part of the Richard Meier building and has a view of the I.M. Pei wing and adjoins the Eliel Saarinen wing.
Lighting and table settings
Exceptional lighting can imbue a place with a certain magic. People I talked with praised the general lighting at Aposto at Café di Scala, AJ’s at Prairie Meadows, 801 Steak and Chop House, Eatery A and Centro. Specifically for “winter cave glow,” they recommended Skip’s, Christopher’s, Jesse’s Embers, Noah’s and Urban Grille. For afternoon lighting, Proof, Trellis, and Tangerine at the Des Moines Art Center drew praise.
Similarly, superior table settings can elevate ambiance. 801 Steak and Chop House, Lucca, Wasabi, Table 128, Fleming’s, Greenbriar, Alba, Harbinger and Django provide extraordinary style in this category. Django even uses a silver absinthe fountain — a gorgeous machine that drips water and absinthe (minus wormwood) over a sugar cube in a sterling silver ferry spoon to “louge” your once-banned liquor green. ♦