I’m fresh from a five-year stint living in Des Moines, Iowa, so needless to say, my attention was piqued by a recent travel article in the New York Times extolling the capital city’s new downtown boom, just in time for the Jan. 3 Iowa presidential caucuses. “There was a time when being told that I would be spending New Year’s Eve in Des Moines would have, well, sobered me up in a New York minute,” wrote Adam Nagourney, chief political correspondent for the Times. “…I’m not sure I would go so far as to say that Des Moines has become a vacation destination. But it has most certainly become cool.”
Now, I don’t need someone from New York (especially not a political junkie) telling me my former home is suddenly hip, but I was intrigued to hear his rendition of what I’ve been trying to convince my new East Coast friends since moving to D.C.
And to Nagourney’s credit, he hits many of the highlights of this so-called new, tony Des Moines, from renowned British architect David Chipperfield’s copper mesh and grass-roofed Central Library to upscale 801 Steak and Chop House (“a classic Iowa steakhouse with New York prices”).
Even so, he missed a few killer spots, so if you find yourself in Des Moines—whether it’s for the caucuses or not—be sure to try out a couple of my favorite downtown experiences that just might convince you that the rumors are true: Des Moines is on its way to becoming a real city.
SHOPPING: Back in 2006, Traveler reported on the East Village, a small shopping district that stretches west from the gold-domed Capitol building, and the neighborhood has only grown since. Hopscotch through its independent shops for EPs by local bands at ZZZ Records, hilarious and trendy Iowa pride T-shirts at Smash, handcrafted arty décor at Sticks, and funky clothes by homegrown talent at Aimee (432 E. Locust St., +1 515 243 0045). Re-fuel with a spicy Bloody Mary and tasty bruschetta at The Continental (428 E. Locust St., +1 515 244 5845), or recline with a steaming pot of oolong loose-leaf tea in the cushy backroom at tranquil Gong Fu Tea.
- NIGHTLIFE: Belly up to the curved bar and choose from the 107 beers on tap staring back at you—including more than a dozen Iowa brews—at El Bait Shop (200 SW 2nd St., +1 515 284 1970). The spot defies the term eclectic, featuring a “Where the Wild Things Are”-inspired wall mural as well as a working shower, just for kicks. Sharing the building (and owners), High Life Lounge (+1 515 280 1965) offers retro-nostalgia 25-cent spritzes of Old Spice and a shot called the Tangermeister (you guessed it, Tang and Jägermeister). Or, for a quieter evening with a smidge more class, slip into a wooden booth at The Lift and sip an S&M martini (tip: two martinis for $6 on Wednesday nights). Duck in to neighboring music bar Vaudeville Mews, a cavernous indie rock showcase frequented by Iowa’s biggest band since Slipknot, The Envy Corps.
- EATING: Though I'll confess I haven't tried all of downtown's most hyped dining spots, like Azalea (with upscale farm-grown dishes), a few blocks northwest of downtown sits its sister restaurant, Star Bar, a popular spot for lunch, dinner, drinks, and brunch. Or, a hallmark of Des Moines power lunches, Centro serves coal-fired brick oven pizza, sandwiches on artisan fresh-baked bread, and other Italian nosh. And Iowa doesn't have a Whole Foods, but even better is Gateway Market, which opened last spring on the northwestern edge of downtown with fresh, foodie lunches and shelves lined with artisanal goods. Or, for tasty pub fare and micro-brews, downtown standby breweries Court Avenue and Raccoon River won't disappoint.
- CULTURE: Des Moines' surprisingly good (and free!) Art Center opened a downtown branch almost five years ago, and the museum's 20s and 30s group, Art Noir, sporadically hosts events like last year's avant-garde costume contest, the "Warhol Ball." In June, downtown transforms into an incredible outdoor art gallery for the juried Des Moines Arts Festival. Get your theater fix downtown at the restored Temple for Performing Arts or at the new, indie venue Fourth Street Theatre.
What are the up-and-coming neighborhoods where you live?
Photo: above, Suwandi Chandra; below, courtesy of Smash.