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Food Dude

Drake Diner anchors a neighborhood


Drake Diner
1111 25th St., Des Moines
Opens daily at 7 a.m., till 9 p.m. Wednesday and Sunday; till 10 p.m. Thursday – Saturday; and till 3 p.m. Monday – Tuesday.

Readers have alerted us about the avalanche of media interest in “the next new thing.” That is something that came with social media. Everyone with a smart phone is a restaurant critic, often posting while dining out. People camp overnight to be first to eat at a new Chick-fil-A or Krispy Kreme. 

Not too long ago, media refused to publish a review before a new place was six months or even a year old. When The Des Moines Register still published critical food reviews, they might have done a “preliminary visit” but never a full feature before six months. Today, the entire media races to the next new place, even reviewing soft openings. Mediocre new joints get more ink and camera time than superior older places in the same genre.

The National Restaurant Association reminds us that 30% of new places die in their first year. After 5 years, 80% fail. So why are the food beat media obsessed with the new guys? We take the point, and this column will focus more on local stalwarts that have passed the test of several good years. 

We begin this new direction at Drake Diner (DD), a place that rejuvenated a stressed-out neighborhood and withstood a major tragedy that would have destroyed most restaurants. The diner opened in 1987, 100 years after namesake Francis Marion Drake — a swashbuckling Civil War general, explorer and rail baron — extended the boundaries of a young city to a university on the outskirts of town. Bill Knapp, a real estate visionary, opened DD to raise the bar for, and the property values of, its neighborhood. He modeled the place after San Francisco’s Fog City Diner, a legendary place that has been featured in VISA TV ads. 

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DD looked remarkably like Fog City and emulated its mission of “upgraded comfort food in a casual setting.” Five years after the diner opened, a 17-year-old man-child walked in with the most powerful handgun in the world and shot two employees instantly dead. He would steal $500 from the cash register so he could host a party in a downtown hotel. He was caught in less than a week because his gun was one of only 500 in the world. 

Belgian waffle at Drake Diner

Knapp determined to keep DD operating, and the diner became a symbol of an indomitable spirit in the neighborhood. It’s the good food that endowed that spirit. This is blue plate territory. The diner serves homemade meat loaf, turkey and roast beef specials with mashed potatoes and gravy. All have exceptional gravies. The mashed potatoes are skin-on, and DD was the first place in Des Moines where I remember finding that touch. 

They were also one of the first local places I found spinach salads and sweet potato fries. Innovation is not just for fine dining. 

DD remains affordable. It’s way less expensive than Fog City. All sandwiches come with a choice of fries, sweet potato fries, home-breaded onion rings or salad. Dinners add hashed browns, potato cakes and steamed vegetables to the choices. Orders of onion rings start at just $5.

Breakfast is served at all hours. Chicken and waffles, corned beef hash, pumpkin pancakes and chicken-fried steak with eggs join the more traditional morning dishes. Cakes are served with real butter and real maple syrup. The waffle dogs on a stick are a favorite of my grandkids. The four-scoop malts and shakes, homemade pies and homemade cinnamon rolls are rites of passage for two-legged Bulldogs. 

And the diner anchors an entire neighborhood that now thrives around it. ♦

Jim Duncan is a food writer who has been covering the central Iowa scene for more than five decades.

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