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Food Dude

801 Chop House — still the one

7/3/2024

801 prime

A few years back, I was taking a food writers tour of Kansas City with a score of writers, most of them from Texas. My Dallas friends ran into restaurant buddies from home who were in town for a Rangers-Royals series. The Texas friends were raving about “the best steakhouse ever.” When they revealed that they were talking about 801 Chophouse, I smiled proudly.

801 Chophouse began in downtown Des Moines in 1993 just after construction of the state’s tallest building was finished. It was the brainchild of Jimmy Lynch, arguably both the most visionary and the most notorious restaurateur in our town. 

Jimmy also opened 8th Street Seafood, Jimmy’s American Café, Pain, Pane, and Cabo San Lucas. All were ahead of their time. Jimmy lost all his restaurants except 801 in a sexual harassment lawsuit of TMZ-level notoriety. Then he expanded 801 to Omaha, Kansas City, Leawood, Minneapolis, Denver, St. Louis and Tysons Corner.

R.W. Apple transformed 801 into legend. Apple, himself a legend, wrote most every front page “news analysis” in the New York Times over four decades. When he died, his frontpage obit in the Times wrote: “With his Dickensian byline, Churchillian brio and Falstaffian appetites, Mr. Apple, who was known as Johnny, was a singular presence at The Times almost from the moment he joined the metropolitan staff in 1963. He remained a colorful figure as new generations of journalists around him grew more pallid, and his encyclopedic knowledge, grace of expression — and above all his expense account — were the envy of his competitors, imitators, and peers.”

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Johnny, who informed Bobby Kennedy that MLK had been shot, was the undisputed king of the Iowa caucuses. He paid deep attention to them and to the relatively unknown Jimmy Carter in 1972. Everyone in international media deferred to his wisdom, particularly when it came to restaurants. He proclaimed 801 one of America’s best, and everyone listened. 

Jimmy reserved a booth for Johnny every day during caucus season, and Apple would release it if he was somewhere else. To keep Apple on the election beat, the Times gave him a new title — food correspondent at large. He abused it and its expense account. 

Greater Des Moines is suddenly awash in high-end steak houses. 801 is still the one the others must use as measure. It exudes Lynch’s genius for detail. The art work, mostly of bulls, is by Pablo Picasso, Frederic Remington, Bud Snidow, Keith Nelson and Frank Champion Murphy. It depicts bovine splendor, from the Iowa State Fair’s grand champion cow of 1902 to a giant bronze bull in the center of the dining room. Leather, wood, glass and bronze exude the aroma of power. 

The menu looks much the same as it did in 1993, except for prices. Top chef Brian Dennis has manned the kitchen for a quarter-century as things like lobster mac and cheese, roasted marrow bones, strawberry salad and Kurobuta pork chops have been added to stalwart legacies — lamb chops, red king crab legs, Chilean sea bass, seafood towers and foie gras. To my memory, only veal has been retired. 

Steaks, still all USDA prime, have become more specific. Wet aging, dry aging and A5 wagyu from Japan are options. They can be prepared with bone marrow butter, black truffle butter, red king crab Oscar and cognac cream. 

801 is one of a few places where experience is impervious to prices. It can be quite expensive; everything is a la carte including sides, salads and steak preparations. As with the Texans in Kansas City, experience is remembered, not cost.

Super bargains are available, too. Marvelous sour dough from La Brea Bakery in Los Angelese is complimentary. (Its starter is from 1989 with yeast from organic grape skins.) Happy hour offers $10 martinis or Manhattans, $7 filet sliders, $2 oysters on the half shell, and $4 jumbo shrimp cocktails among other things. Sunday Supper brings three courses with two sides, and a filet, prime rib or salmon for $62. 

Service is class. On my recent visit, the general manager was bussing tables in suit and tie. That exemplifies 801’s expression of Iowa style.

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

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