Divine Des Moines

Sometimes you have to leave something to fully appreciate it.

In my case, I packed up my apartment on Des Moines, Iowa’s lovely Grand Avenue 23 years ago and headed south to Kansas City. For 10 years I worked at publishing giant Meredith Corporation in a city that was wonderful and had some attractive amenities, but lacked excitement for a single person. Des Moines, I thought, was suitable for a family, but not for me.

That was then, this is now.

Des Moines has grown into one of the Heartland’s great, citified treasures with plenty of panache and pizzazz for everyone, including visitors. The area is awash in the arts, nationally acclaimed restaurants and cutting-edge chefs, boutique shopping, gentrified neighborhoods, more than 300 miles of scenic bike trails in the Greater Des Moines and Central Iowa Trail System, a vibrant Downtown Farmers’ Market and concerts, music, live theatre and festivals.

Used to be the Iowa caucus was the major spotlight shone on Des Moines every four years, during the bleak month of January when dutiful Iowans gathered to pull the trigger on the starting pistol of the political season. It was a giddy time when the national media and the political camps descended on Iowa’s capital city and you were almost guaranteed to bump into candidates in the produce aisle at the local Dahl’s on Ingersoll Ave., or rub elbows with Dan Rather and Walter Cronkite listening to the great Irene Myles deliver her jazz renderings at the historic Savery Hotel’s cocktail lounge.

But today’s Des Moines doesn’t rely on the every-four-year political spectacle to heat up the city. It has enough sex appeal and edginess on its own to melt even the lifelike sculpted butter cow that makes its appearance every year at a top-rated, you’d-better-not-miss event: the Iowa State Fair.

So earlier this summer when I zipped up the road for a long weekend, just three short hours from Kansas City, the city I found was almost unrecognizable in my memory. It was an energized place glowing with confidence, personality and a sit-and-stay-awhile attitude. Des Moines had its party dress on and was anxious to take me out on the town. And since my mother raised me with manners, I graciously obliged.

Des Moines Art Center Des Moines, Iowa: Ready for its close-up. The Des Moines area is chock-full of
scenic and pastoral bike trails.

Arts Ahoy

The Des Moines Art Center is, as its slogan suggests, entirely unexpected. Perched on a hilltop along one of the city’s best-known streets, Grand Avenue, the building represents a spirited collaboration of three of the 20th century’s most revered architects: Eliel Saarinen, I. M. Pei and Richard Meier. Saarinen’s original Lannon stone building, which was constructed in 1948, was elected to the National Register of Historic Places in 2004. Pei’s bushhammered concrete addition followed in 1968 and Meier’s three-part clad porcelain and granite addition was completed in 1985. The Permanent Collections include 20th- and 21st-century works of modern and contemporary art. Exhibitions this fall include “The Whole World Was Watching,” Civil Rights-era photographs from the Menil Collection; and Iowa Artists 2012: Print. Lunch in the Art Center Restaurant is a must — the setting is stunning and the food is top-notch.

Down the road from the Art Center, situated on the west edge of downtown, is the 4.4-acre Pappajohn Sculpture Park. Des Moines arts philanthropists John and Mary Pappajohn donated 27 sculptures, which represent 21 of the world’s most celebrated artists including Willem de Kooning and Jaume Plensa, to the Art Center for this unique public display. The delightful pedestrian-friendly green space, situated in a crossroads of Des Moines’ urban grid, opened in 2009 and is a popular spot for intimate picnics, leisurely strolls and plenty of picturesque photo ops.


Downtown Farmers’ Market

Des Moines is surrounded by some of the country’s richest farmland and fully embraces its locavore roots. Open each Saturday through the end of October in the historic Court District, the Downtown Farmers’

Downtown Farmers’ Market in Des Moines’ historic Court District.

Market is a vibrant melting pot of produce and artisan products representing 51 Iowa counties. Visit vendors who produce Iowa-raised meat such as beef, chicken, lamb, buffalo and of course pork; three local wineries; farmers who cart in eggs, veggies and herbs; and producers of boutique products such as goat cheese, honey and Amish baked goods and ethnic foods as diverse as Laotian, Salvadoran and Afghan.


Local Eats

Thanks to a booming restaurant culture and chefs who take innovation and run with it, Des Moines is a diner’s paradise. Chef/owner Jason Simon’s Alba, in the charming East Village, is one of the city’s current faves and for good reason. The restaurant’s 1950s Art Moderne exterior and the moody interior that features wood-panel doors suspended from the ceiling are the amuse-bouche but the food is the star. Simon — often spotted at the Downtown Farmers’ Market picking through the stalls à la Seattle chefs in Pike Place Market — and his team cook up a storm of contemporary American cuisine in an open kitchen that is a tasty side dish in itself. Nominated in 2010 for a James Beard Restaurant Award and voted “Best Restaurant” by the Des Moines Register in 2010 and 2011, Alba is an experiential cuisine encounter not to be missed.
Sbrocco, which means “old village winery” in Italian, is located in the historic Court Avenue district. The buzz-worthy, chef-inspired restaurant/wine bar is typical of the hip and affable Des Moines food scene. Sit at the bar and enjoy chef Andrew Meek’s social plates and see why he’s considered one of the city’s top five culinarians.

Gusto Pizza Co., located at the corner of Ingersoll Ave. and Martin Luther King Pkwy., serves tempting from-scratch pies, gourmet sandwiches and salads and reasonably priced wine and Iowa craft beers. Try the knockout Vegan Mozzarella (gluten-free crust available on all pizzas) or the Spartacus that features glorious chunks of Des Moines-made Graziano’s sausage. A trio of friends — Josh Holderness, Joe McConville and Tony Lemmo — has made imaginative pizza since opening the doors of this pizza joint in 2011.

Restaurateur and chef George Formaro is often considered the granddaddy of Des Moines’ food reawakening, and Django, his flagship French brasserie-style place in downtown, illustrates why. Comfortable, vibey and scene-making, Django features classic French dishes such as steak frites and duck cassoulet. The creative interactive station in the middle of the space lets diners order jet-fresh seafood and artisanal cheese and meat plates. Great wine (never a corkage fee) and cocktails enhance this unique dining experience.

Out in the ‘burbs, in West Des Moines (Clive), is Tartine, another great contribution to the city’s surprising French repertoire. Locally owned and operated, this bistro serves breakfast, lunch and casual dinner, along with a selection of fresh-baked pastries, croquet-madame and monsieur sandwiches, crepes, truffled mac and cheese and Iowa microbrews.


East Village

Once a tired and abandoned mishmash of rundown buildings, the Historic East Village rose from the rubble and disarray in the 21st century. Sandwiched between the magnificent Iowa State Capitol and the city center, this eclectic mix of boutiques (The Velvet Coat), a well-curated kitchen store (Kitchen Collage) and scads of restaurants, bars, bakeries and coffee shops (City Bakery, The Continental, Zombie Burger) the East Village brims with boho big-city boldness.


Big Wheels

Iowa is a progressive state when it comes to biking (think the popular annual trek across the state, RAGBRAI) and Des Moines leads the charge. Be sure to throw your two wheels on the car when you head out from Kansas City for some cycling adventures. There is an extensive trail system around the city and its outlying areas, including Gray’s Lake in the heart of the city, the High Trestle Trail between Ankeny and Woodward, a 26-mile multi-use trail around Saylorville Lake and more. If you want to amble out of the city on your wheels, check out the 91-mile Central Iowa Bike Route that connects Big Creek State Park, Ledges State Park and Springbrook State Park, winding bikers through the scenic valley of the Des Moines and Racoon Rivers.


Room Service

One of the great pleasures of a luxurious weekend away from home is finding accommodations that are pampering and off-the-beaten path. Certainly the historic Renaissance Des Moines Savery Hotel in downtown is located on a bustling street (and just steps away from the Court District, Downtown Farmers’ Market, the East Village and all sorts of great food), but once inside, it feels like a private hideaway.

Recently refreshed, the boutique hotel features a welcoming lounge with live music and well-appointed rooms. The elegant architectural landmark is linked by skywalk to the Iowa Events Center, which includes Wells Fargo Arena and the convention center and Hy-Vee Hall and the Civic Center of Greater Des Moines. Built in 1887 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Savery has hosted presidents such as Lyndon B. Johnson and Harry S. Truman.

Bed-and-breakfast aficionados will swoon over the Butler House on Grand, a Midwest Living-acclaimed getaway and one of America’s Most Romantic Inns (American Historic Inns, 2006). The 6,100-square-foot 1923 Tudor home, located on Grand Ave., directly across from the Des Moines Art Center and Greenwood Park, boasts seven gorgeous rooms, each with private baths. Award-winning proprietors and innkeepers

Clark and Laura Kernan Smith are gracious hosts … a night or two in their home will prompt you to make return reservations before checking out.

For more information, visit seedesmoines.com.

photos: The Greater Des Moines Convention & Visitors Bureau