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The 18 Hottest Restaurants in Des Moines, According to 2020 Campaign Operatives

Where to eavesdrop on caucus strategies and spot your favorite news anchor over fried pork loin sandwiches, Aussie brunch food, and steaming bowls of pho

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Des Moines, Iowa, is a culinary anomaly in America’s heartland. With its 210,000 residents, the city does not quite crack the top 100 largest cities in the United States by population (it’s No. 105), yet it has one of the highest per capita restaurant densities in the country: 28.2 per 10,000 people, according to the Iowa Restaurant Association, which puts it ahead of every major American city except San Francisco. And it’s not just corn dogs and fried pork tenderloin shops, either (though there are many, many of these) — in Des Moines today, you’ll find an airy Australian cafe, several restaurants of the local/ingredient-driven/sustainable/farm-to-table variety, and a solid homegrown vegan burger. Why the dining surplus? It probably has something to do with the presidential election.

Every four years, the spotlight of America’s political theater shines on Des Moines. The Iowa Caucuses, which will take place once again in February 2020, serve as the first nominating contest for the U.S. presidential election. For Democrats in particular, Iowa has often been a game changer — a win in the 2008 caucuses pushed a first-term Illinois senator named Barack Obama to the front of the pack, while a 2004 loss (and a rather ill-timed scream) torpedoed then-Vermont Governor Howard Dean, widely considered the favorite before the contest. This year, 24 Democrats are vying for the nomination, and each of them — along with gaggles of campaign operatives and handlers — put boots on the ground up to a year in advance to fight for every vote, followed closely by a voracious pack of national media consisting of writers, photographers, and television crews documenting every moment.

The business bump from the increased traffic can be substantial. In previous caucus years local favorite Zombie Burger — located in the booming East Village neighborhood — has seen sales increase 15 percent to 20 percent, according to chef Tom McKern. “I anticipate that being a little bit higher this year because of the number of online orders,” he adds. Even newcomer St. Kilda Cafe & Bakery has seen a 25 percent increase in sales so far in 2019. Other area restaurants report similar increases, and are even making operational decisions around the election cycle. According to Des Moines Register food and dining reporter Brian Taylor Carlson, restaurants like Baru 66 and Al Punto in West Des Moines are relocating closer to downtown in the fall to take full advantage of the caucus period.

I recently joined the caucus crowd to dive fork first into the bipartisan food scene, polling the power players and eating my way through the city’s most talked-about hot spots. So, if you’re looking to eavesdrop on a campaign strategy conversation, run into your favorite news anchor, or recharge after a long day knocking on doors for votes, we have you covered. Check out the following 18 essential Des Moines restaurants, a diverse selection recommended to me by locals, journalists, and political operatives.

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Note: Restaurants on this map are listed geographically.

1. Maid-Rite

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1551 Valley W Dr
West Des Moines, IA 50266
(515) 309-5495
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Started in 1926 by butcher Fred Angell, Maid-Rite serves the iconic Iowa “loose meat sandwich,” consisting of seasoned ground beef topped with onions and pickles and served in a hamburger bun — basically a sloppy Joe minus the tomato sauce. The fast-casual chain has 70 locations scattered across the region, mostly in small cities. The downtown location closed recently, so you’ll have to hike to the Valley West Mall or the Merle Hay Mall out in Urbandale for a taste of this almost century-old small-town institution.

The loose meat sandwich at Maid-Rite

2. Waveland Cafe

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4708 University Ave
Des Moines, IA 50311
(515) 279-4341
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As one guest told me, Waveland’s food is meant to fill up hungry people, not to put on Instagram. Nevertheless, this diner is the go-to stop for politicians in Des Moines — one wall is covered with signatures of presidential hopefuls.

The casual dining room at Waveland
Waveland Cafe

3. Eatery A

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2932 Ingersoll Ave
Des Moines, IA 50312
(515) 282-8085
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“Ingersoll Avenue is what we call restaurant row,” says Brian Taylor Carlson, food and dining reporter at the Des Moines Register. “You pretty much stand in one place, close your eyes, and point.” Anchoring this cluster of restaurants is Eatery A, located inside a former Blockbuster Video turned Obama 2012 Iowa campaign headquarters. Bask in that leftover positive energy (especially the movie rental afterglow) while munching on Mediterranean food, or take advantage of probably the best happy hour pricing in town: half-off pizzas, wine, and beer from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. every day.

The offerings at Eatery A

4. Cheese Bar

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2925 Ingersoll Ave
Des Moines, IA 50312
(515) 277-7828
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There are more cattle in Iowa than people, and more than 200,000 of them are milk cows — about as many as there are Des Moines residents. The cows don’t get to vote, but their byproducts are a big thing around here. Swallow a fistful of Lactaid and head on down for some fondue, raclette, mac and cheese, grilled cheese, or just a platter full of cheese and meat produced locally and abroad. Also check out sibling establishment the Cheese Shop for take-home goodies.

A grilled cheese and gooey macaroni at Cheese Bar

5. Harbinger

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2724 Ingersoll Ave
Des Moines, IA 50312
(515) 244-1314
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Four-time James Beard semifinalist Joe Tripp opened Harbinger two years ago, after a six-year stint at the much-lauded Alba in the East Village. Now he’s slinging New American dishes infused with Asian flavors and focusing primarily on fresh local vegetables; his goal is “to get everyone trying something new. We don’t have hamburgers or steaks or anything like that.” To that end, the restaurant serves mostly small plates a la carte so guests can mix and match, though the correct move is to opt for the five-course chef’s tasting menu.

Harbinger’s modern pan-Asian plates

6. A Dong Restaurant

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1511 High St
Des Moines, IA 50309
(515) 284-5632
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You likely didn’t come to Des Moines expecting pho this good. The ever-popular Vietnamese restaurant A Dong has been run by the Ngu family since 1991 and strikes a balance between high-quality food and proximity to downtown, in a space that can easily fit several dozen campaign operatives at a time.

Pho and spring rolls at A Dong

7. Smitty's Tenderloin Shop

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1401 Army Post Rd
Des Moines, IA 50315
(515) 287-4742
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The Des Moines version of LA’s Sepulveda Boulevard In-N-Out: Take a quick left on Army Post Road after you exit the airport and visit this family-owned sandwich shop that’s been operating since 1967. Its staple menu item is the King Loin, which is recognized as the best sandwich in Iowa. It’s a lot of pork to handle — the ones I ate and photographed measured 9 inches long by 7 inches wide. Shop owner Ben Smith says that they were put on the map by New York Times national correspondent Jonathan Martin a decade ago, when his laptop ran out of power and he had to file a story from Smitty’s while charging up. Martin began sending his media buddies over, and several favorable articles and TV hits later, Smitty’s is now a must-visit restaurant.

The massive King Loin sandwich at Smitty’s
The massive King Loin sandwich at Smitty’s

8. Django

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1420 Locust St
Des Moines, IA 50309
(515) 288-0268
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Consider this a nod for both Django and Bubba, the younger siblings of Centro that feature French and Southern cuisine, respectively, but have enough safety menu items like burgers and salads to keep everyone happy. Both are a great choice for people-watching come general election time, when celebrities come to Des Moines to stump for their candidate. They will no doubt be lured by these restaurants’ themed decor and surprisingly tight executions of cuisines from other regions.

Copper pots hang on the wall inside the dining room at Django
The dining room at Django

9. Centro

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1003 Locust St
Des Moines, IA 50309
(515) 248-1780
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When it opened in 2002, Centro was the crown jewel of downtown, and pretty much the only game in town. Seventeen years later, it’s still packed every night, serving mostly Italian dishes with a couple of safety items thrown in, like the cheeseburger and Greek salad, a common practice with menus around the city (another restaurant charmingly refers to them as “global comfort eats”). Its coal-fired oven puts out excellent pizzas, like George’s Favorite (named after chef-partner George Formaro), which features Italian sausage produced by Graziano Brothers, a local Italian grocery. The New Yorker, topped with meatballs, mushrooms, and roasted red peppers, is also a best-seller.

A pizza at Centro

10. 801 Chophouse

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801 Grand Ave #200
Des Moines, IA 50309
(515) 288-6000
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If you want to eavesdrop on big network anchors and deep-pocketed power players, look no further than this steakhouse located in the tallest building in Des Moines, where a New York strip starts at $47.

A modern painting hangs on the wall at 801 Chophouse
801 Chophouse

11. Fong's Pizza

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223 4th St
Des Moines, IA 50309
(515) 323-3333
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The best Chinese restaurant in Des Moines is a pizzeria. The gang’s all here: General Tso, kung pao, and even orange chicken are delivered via slice and pie. Late-night crowds stumble out of downtown’s bars and queue up outside Fong’s to gorge on the best-selling crab rangoon pizza. Wash it all down with a Tiki cocktail or two.

The line outside Fong’s Pizza

12. St. Kilda

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300 SW 5th St
Des Moines, IA 50309
(515) 369-7854
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This Australian cafe is the hottest restaurant to open in Des Moines since the 2016 election, and comes highly recommended by every local restaurateur and journalist I spoke with. It’s a bit off from the main downtown corridor, but people will go out of their way to pay New York City prices for extremely well-executed flat whites, grain bowls, and its best-selling item — yes, the avocado toast. The restaurant has been so successful since opening just two years ago that there is now a branch in the heart of downtown in a former Starbucks, and an all-day concept called St. Kilda Surf and Turf right across the river in the East Village. All three are worth a visit, but the original has an incomparable energy — and, perhaps more importantly, an elevated perch where you can ever-so-creepily watch sleep-deprived campaign operatives and hungover journalists come in for their morning fix.

Aussie-style breakfast at St. Kilda

13. El Bait Shop

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200 SW 2nd St
Des Moines, IA 50309
(515) 284-1970
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El Bait Shop claims to have the world’s largest selection of American craft beers on tap. With 262 lines running, it’s difficult to argue with them, though their sister establishment The High Life Lounge is just next door if the Champagne of beers is more your speed. The elevated bar menu has quite a few gems on it, but the bacon wrapped tater tots, spam egg and cheese sandwich, and nachos are must-haves. Swing by late at night and you’ll see it crawling with photojournalists and campaign staff decompressing after a town hall or rally.

Nachos at El Bait Shop

14. Zombie Burger + Drink Lab

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300 E Grand Ave
Des Moines, IA 50309
(515) 244-9292
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An undead-themed burger joint that is frequented by campaign staff and celebrities on the stump, especially late at night, after a long day on the phone bank, when the full-service bar, coupled with comfort food, comes in handy. “It’s where locals take their friends from out of town,” noted one Des Moines area reporter. The most popular menu item is the Walking Ched, which consists of beef patties, bacon, onions, and cheddar cheese-smothered macaroni in between two deep-fried macaroni and cheese buns.

The “more is more” favorite at Zombie Burger, the Walking Ched

15. Scenic Route Bakery

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350 E Locust St #104
Des Moines, IA 50309
(515) 288-0004
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If fully stocked pastry cases get you excited, go to Scenic Route, a 2016 election cycle staple in a neighborhood that has since exploded with development. “You cannot go in there without running into campaign staff,” says Jason Noble, an Iowa native who now runs statewide communications for the Warren campaign. “It’s not uncommon for principals to go there also.” If you find yourself on the west side instead, go to La Mie Bakery, another campaign operative favorite for laptops over coffee and pastries.

Coffee and pastries from Scenic Route Bakery

16. Lucca

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420 E Locust St
Des Moines, IA 50309
(515) 243-1115
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This was the top recommendation from Jonathan Martin of the New York Times during a recent run-in, and who am I to argue with the guy who put Smitty’s Tenderloin Shop on the map? Lucca’s four-course dinner tasting menu is a choose-your-own-adventure to the beat of a standard Italian-American dinner: appetizers, pastas, mains, and dessert. But the time to go is during lunch, when you can get a la carte sandwiches and plates of pasta for $10. Recent guests include Ivanka Trump and Jill Biden. Both sides can agree on one thing: Carbs make America great again.

A pile of pasta at Lucca

17. Dirt Burger

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407 E 5th St
Des Moines, IA 50309

Iowa is the pork capital of the United States, so vegan options are not exactly top of mind. Enter Tony Pille, who spent the last three years sourcing vegetables from local producers, including his personal farm, to develop a vegan burger. It’s not meant to be an alternative to the Impossible Burger or Beyond Meat, because the patty is composed of, says Pille, “ingredients that you can pronounce.” Beets, sweet potatoes, carrots, spinach, buckwheat, and mushrooms are among the burger’s 19 ingredients, most of them from nearby farms. Try it with a side of Dirt Balls, the restaurant’s take on croquettes.

The signature burger and Dirt Balls at Dirt Burger

18. B&B Grocery, Meat & Deli

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2001 SE 6th St
Des Moines, IA 50315
(515) 243-7607
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Italian-American heritage runs strong in Iowa, and you can take it all in at this family-run grocery store cum delicatessen on the south side that’s been around for almost a century and has the newspaper clippings on the wall to show for it. Hundreds of people line up every day for B&B’s Killer Burgers, Grilled Killers, and Dads Killer (yikes), but the thing to order here is the pork tenderloin sandwich, which Clinton 2016 Iowa Caucus director Michael Halle considers the best in the city. Smitty’s would like a word, sir.

The ordering window at B&B Grocery, Meat & Deli
B&B Grocery, Meat & Deli

1. Maid-Rite

1551 Valley W Dr, West Des Moines, IA 50266
The loose meat sandwich at Maid-Rite

Started in 1926 by butcher Fred Angell, Maid-Rite serves the iconic Iowa “loose meat sandwich,” consisting of seasoned ground beef topped with onions and pickles and served in a hamburger bun — basically a sloppy Joe minus the tomato sauce. The fast-casual chain has 70 locations scattered across the region, mostly in small cities. The downtown location closed recently, so you’ll have to hike to the Valley West Mall or the Merle Hay Mall out in Urbandale for a taste of this almost century-old small-town institution.

1551 Valley W Dr
West Des Moines, IA 50266

2. Waveland Cafe

4708 University Ave, Des Moines, IA 50311
The casual dining room at Waveland
Waveland Cafe

As one guest told me, Waveland’s food is meant to fill up hungry people, not to put on Instagram. Nevertheless, this diner is the go-to stop for politicians in Des Moines — one wall is covered with signatures of presidential hopefuls.

4708 University Ave
Des Moines, IA 50311

3. Eatery A

2932 Ingersoll Ave, Des Moines, IA 50312
The offerings at Eatery A

“Ingersoll Avenue is what we call restaurant row,” says Brian Taylor Carlson, food and dining reporter at the Des Moines Register. “You pretty much stand in one place, close your eyes, and point.” Anchoring this cluster of restaurants is Eatery A, located inside a former Blockbuster Video turned Obama 2012 Iowa campaign headquarters. Bask in that leftover positive energy (especially the movie rental afterglow) while munching on Mediterranean food, or take advantage of probably the best happy hour pricing in town: half-off pizzas, wine, and beer from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. every day.

2932 Ingersoll Ave
Des Moines, IA 50312

4. Cheese Bar

2925 Ingersoll Ave, Des Moines, IA 50312
A grilled cheese and gooey macaroni at Cheese Bar

There are more cattle in Iowa than people, and more than 200,000 of them are milk cows — about as many as there are Des Moines residents. The cows don’t get to vote, but their byproducts are a big thing around here. Swallow a fistful of Lactaid and head on down for some fondue, raclette, mac and cheese, grilled cheese, or just a platter full of cheese and meat produced locally and abroad. Also check out sibling establishment the Cheese Shop for take-home goodies.

2925 Ingersoll Ave
Des Moines, IA 50312

5. Harbinger

2724 Ingersoll Ave, Des Moines, IA 50312
Harbinger’s modern pan-Asian plates

Four-time James Beard semifinalist Joe Tripp opened Harbinger two years ago, after a six-year stint at the much-lauded Alba in the East Village. Now he’s slinging New American dishes infused with Asian flavors and focusing primarily on fresh local vegetables; his goal is “to get everyone trying something new. We don’t have hamburgers or steaks or anything like that.” To that end, the restaurant serves mostly small plates a la carte so guests can mix and match, though the correct move is to opt for the five-course chef’s tasting menu.

2724 Ingersoll Ave
Des Moines, IA 50312

6. A Dong Restaurant

1511 High St, Des Moines, IA 50309
Pho and spring rolls at A Dong

You likely didn’t come to Des Moines expecting pho this good. The ever-popular Vietnamese restaurant A Dong has been run by the Ngu family since 1991 and strikes a balance between high-quality food and proximity to downtown, in a space that can easily fit several dozen campaign operatives at a time.

1511 High St
Des Moines, IA 50309

7. Smitty's Tenderloin Shop

1401 Army Post Rd, Des Moines, IA 50315
The massive King Loin sandwich at Smitty’s
The massive King Loin sandwich at Smitty’s

The Des Moines version of LA’s Sepulveda Boulevard In-N-Out: Take a quick left on Army Post Road after you exit the airport and visit this family-owned sandwich shop that’s been operating since 1967. Its staple menu item is the King Loin, which is recognized as the best sandwich in Iowa. It’s a lot of pork to handle — the ones I ate and photographed measured 9 inches long by 7 inches wide. Shop owner Ben Smith says that they were put on the map by New York Times national correspondent Jonathan Martin a decade ago, when his laptop ran out of power and he had to file a story from Smitty’s while charging up. Martin began sending his media buddies over, and several favorable articles and TV hits later, Smitty’s is now a must-visit restaurant.

1401 Army Post Rd
Des Moines, IA 50315

8. Django

1420 Locust St, Des Moines, IA 50309
Copper pots hang on the wall inside the dining room at Django
The dining room at Django

Consider this a nod for both Django and Bubba, the younger siblings of Centro that feature French and Southern cuisine, respectively, but have enough safety menu items like burgers and salads to keep everyone happy. Both are a great choice for people-watching come general election time, when celebrities come to Des Moines to stump for their candidate. They will no doubt be lured by these restaurants’ themed decor and surprisingly tight executions of cuisines from other regions.

1420 Locust St
Des Moines, IA 50309

9. Centro

1003 Locust St, Des Moines, IA 50309
A pizza at Centro

When it opened in 2002, Centro was the crown jewel of downtown, and pretty much the only game in town. Seventeen years later, it’s still packed every night, serving mostly Italian dishes with a couple of safety items thrown in, like the cheeseburger and Greek salad, a common practice with menus around the city (another restaurant charmingly refers to them as “global comfort eats”). Its coal-fired oven puts out excellent pizzas, like George’s Favorite (named after chef-partner George Formaro), which features Italian sausage produced by Graziano Brothers, a local Italian grocery. The New Yorker, topped with meatballs, mushrooms, and roasted red peppers, is also a best-seller.

1003 Locust St
Des Moines, IA 50309

10. 801 Chophouse

801 Grand Ave #200, Des Moines, IA 50309
A modern painting hangs on the wall at 801 Chophouse
801 Chophouse

If you want to eavesdrop on big network anchors and deep-pocketed power players, look no further than this steakhouse located in the tallest building in Des Moines, where a New York strip starts at $47.

801 Grand Ave #200
Des Moines, IA 50309

11. Fong's Pizza

223 4th St, Des Moines, IA 50309
The line outside Fong’s Pizza

The best Chinese restaurant in Des Moines is a pizzeria. The gang’s all here: General Tso, kung pao, and even orange chicken are delivered via slice and pie. Late-night crowds stumble out of downtown’s bars and queue up outside Fong’s to gorge on the best-selling crab rangoon pizza. Wash it all down with a Tiki cocktail or two.

223 4th St
Des Moines, IA 50309

12. St. Kilda

300 SW 5th St, Des Moines, IA 50309
Aussie-style breakfast at St. Kilda

This Australian cafe is the hottest restaurant to open in Des Moines since the 2016 election, and comes highly recommended by every local restaurateur and journalist I spoke with. It’s a bit off from the main downtown corridor, but people will go out of their way to pay New York City prices for extremely well-executed flat whites, grain bowls, and its best-selling item — yes, the avocado toast. The restaurant has been so successful since opening just two years ago that there is now a branch in the heart of downtown in a former Starbucks, and an all-day concept called St. Kilda Surf and Turf right across the river in the East Village. All three are worth a visit, but the original has an incomparable energy — and, perhaps more importantly, an elevated perch where you can ever-so-creepily watch sleep-deprived campaign operatives and hungover journalists come in for their morning fix.

300 SW 5th St
Des Moines, IA 50309

13. El Bait Shop

200 SW 2nd St, Des Moines, IA 50309
Nachos at El Bait Shop

El Bait Shop claims to have the world’s largest selection of American craft beers on tap. With 262 lines running, it’s difficult to argue with them, though their sister establishment The High Life Lounge is just next door if the Champagne of beers is more your speed. The elevated bar menu has quite a few gems on it, but the bacon wrapped tater tots, spam egg and cheese sandwich, and nachos are must-haves. Swing by late at night and you’ll see it crawling with photojournalists and campaign staff decompressing after a town hall or rally.

200 SW 2nd St
Des Moines, IA 50309

14. Zombie Burger + Drink Lab

300 E Grand Ave, Des Moines, IA 50309
The “more is more” favorite at Zombie Burger, the Walking Ched

An undead-themed burger joint that is frequented by campaign staff and celebrities on the stump, especially late at night, after a long day on the phone bank, when the full-service bar, coupled with comfort food, comes in handy. “It’s where locals take their friends from out of town,” noted one Des Moines area reporter. The most popular menu item is the Walking Ched, which consists of beef patties, bacon, onions, and cheddar cheese-smothered macaroni in between two deep-fried macaroni and cheese buns.

300 E Grand Ave
Des Moines, IA 50309

15. Scenic Route Bakery

350 E Locust St #104, Des Moines, IA 50309
Coffee and pastries from Scenic Route Bakery

If fully stocked pastry cases get you excited, go to Scenic Route, a 2016 election cycle staple in a neighborhood that has since exploded with development. “You cannot go in there without running into campaign staff,” says Jason Noble, an Iowa native who now runs statewide communications for the Warren campaign. “It’s not uncommon for principals to go there also.” If you find yourself on the west side instead, go to La Mie Bakery, another campaign operative favorite for laptops over coffee and pastries.

350 E Locust St #104
Des Moines, IA 50309

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16. Lucca

420 E Locust St, Des Moines, IA 50309
A pile of pasta at Lucca

This was the top recommendation from Jonathan Martin of the New York Times during a recent run-in, and who am I to argue with the guy who put Smitty’s Tenderloin Shop on the map? Lucca’s four-course dinner tasting menu is a choose-your-own-adventure to the beat of a standard Italian-American dinner: appetizers, pastas, mains, and dessert. But the time to go is during lunch, when you can get a la carte sandwiches and plates of pasta for $10. Recent guests include Ivanka Trump and Jill Biden. Both sides can agree on one thing: Carbs make America great again.

420 E Locust St
Des Moines, IA 50309

17. Dirt Burger

407 E 5th St, Des Moines, IA 50309
The signature burger and Dirt Balls at Dirt Burger

Iowa is the pork capital of the United States, so vegan options are not exactly top of mind. Enter Tony Pille, who spent the last three years sourcing vegetables from local producers, including his personal farm, to develop a vegan burger. It’s not meant to be an alternative to the Impossible Burger or Beyond Meat, because the patty is composed of, says Pille, “ingredients that you can pronounce.” Beets, sweet potatoes, carrots, spinach, buckwheat, and mushrooms are among the burger’s 19 ingredients, most of them from nearby farms. Try it with a side of Dirt Balls, the restaurant’s take on croquettes.

407 E 5th St
Des Moines, IA 50309

18. B&B Grocery, Meat & Deli

2001 SE 6th St, Des Moines, IA 50315
The ordering window at B&B Grocery, Meat & Deli
B&B Grocery, Meat & Deli

Italian-American heritage runs strong in Iowa, and you can take it all in at this family-run grocery store cum delicatessen on the south side that’s been around for almost a century and has the newspaper clippings on the wall to show for it. Hundreds of people line up every day for B&B’s Killer Burgers, Grilled Killers, and Dads Killer (yikes), but the thing to order here is the pork tenderloin sandwich, which Clinton 2016 Iowa Caucus director Michael Halle considers the best in the city. Smitty’s would like a word, sir.

2001 SE 6th St
Des Moines, IA 50315

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