Hailing from Des Moines, IA, Evan Olson is the writer behind Say Hello to the City, a blog which shares interviews with local creatives and proudly documents his city’s cultural offerings. “I’ve lived in Iowa my whole life,” he explains, “but it’s only been the last three years that I’ve really grown to love it.” Thanks to some traveling (i.e. perspective), and his commitment to being more of a tourist in his own town, over the years, Evan has come to appreciate Des Moines for how accessible, innovative, and welcoming it is to new ideas. “A couple of years ago, the quality of life here needed to be explained,” he begins, “When someone talked about Des Moines (or even Iowa, in general) you were forgiven for instantly thinking of cornfields, caucuses, or Kevin Costner building a baseball park. But times have changed, and most of those stereotypes have fallen to the wayside.”
Take, for instance, this past January when Politico praised the city’s cultural renaissance, saying, “Lots of cities come up with grand plans. Very few actually complete them. Almost none do so with virtually no opposition and, in the end, widespread approval. Des Moines did.” And the praise doesn’t stop there! Des Moines’ acclaim has been steadily documented by myriad publications including Forbes and the New York Times. Today Evan is joining us to share his favorite places to frequent, “as well as the places I show off to friends when they visit!” —Sabrina
Photography by Liz Brown
8 am: La Mie Bakery
If you want to go where the locals are (and why else would you be reading this guide?), go to La Mie. This place has been around forever and I think of it as being a Des Moines institution. The bread and pastries are all made downstairs, so you can bet that everything is fresh and tasty. Obviously, going early is ideal if you want the best selection. What are my favorite menu items? It’s a toss-up between the veggie sandwich and the eggs with quinoa and black beans.
10 am: the Des Moines Art Center
Next I would suggest heading down to the Des Moines Art Center. It’s home to beautiful architecture and is a great place to spend a rainy afternoon. Admission is completely free and there’s even a restaurant attached.
11 am: Historic East Village
At one point, this borough was set to be demolished, but local advocacy kept that from happening. In my mind, this area is a symbol of what happens when locals take ownership of their community.
Grab a cup of coffee at Mars Coffee Bar. They have the best coffee in town and at this location specifically, some of the friendliest baristas, too. Every time I’m here, they’re either helping visitors figure out where to go next or letting locals know what’s going on that night. I always go for their signature drink; a honey and cinnamon latte called the Sputnik (get it?).
With your coffee in hand, I suggest your first stop be Domestica. Owner and curator, Chrissy Garbsen, sells a wide assortment of stationery, print materials, and Midwest trinkets. Chrissy and her store are both gems. Based on the number of people I see coming through her doors – to make purchases or just to say hello – she’s well loved by the community.
Located a few steps down from Domestica is Eden. This place feels like a neighborhood shop one would expect to find in New York or Paris, but we have it here. And we hope it never leaves. It’s a beautiful mixture of the old and the new. (P.S. their IG account is one of the best in the city @edeniowa.)
On occasion, I also like to stop in at Preservation. The store sells vintage clothes, old Levi jackets, and even a few records. They also host a variety of events throughout the year.
12:30 pm: Malo
Around lunchtime, you’ll be surprised by the options available to you for a good local meal. Personally, one of my favorite places to go for lunch is Malo. I always order the Al Pastor with a flour tortilla and their killer guacamole.
Malo’s atmosphere is stellar because the bones of the building are still intact (the entire building was once a fire station and the restaurant’s located in the old engine bay. Cool, right?)
One of the best deals in town is their happy hour (Monday thru Friday from 4-6 pm) where tacos and appetizers are half-off.
1:30 pm the Des Moines Social Club
Nowhere is Des Moines’ innovation more apparent than at Des Moines Social Club. The Club has been around for a decade, but has only been at its current location the past two years. Event organizer, Mickey Davis, describes the club as being an “arts-based community city.” I think you have to see it to understand what’s being accomplished here.
Malo and the Club are both situated in the same building and due to the historical nature of the building, all of its architectural features are still intact. If you have enough advanced notice before visiting, request a tour or if you’re in town for a while, I’d suggest signing up for one of their many classes. This place is cool, interesting, unexpected, and inclusive.
2:30 pm: the Pappajohn Sculpture Garden
When I first began exploring Des Moines, I often went down to this park because it’s located in the heart of the city. I think it has some of the best views of our skyline. If you’re lucky, there may be food trucks nearby such as this one.
3:30 pm: Eatery A
This place doesn’t serve the best pizza in the world (I hate when people say that about pizza because it’s all so relative), but they do serve some of the most delicious pizzas that I’ve ever had here in Des Moines.
The restaurant’s housed within an old Blockbuster video store, which somehow makes the whole dining experience much more enjoyable because you get to wonder what type of movies they once had in your seating area.
Eatery A offers a spectacular happy hour from 3-6pm (Tuesday through Sunday). Pizzas are half-off, as well as glasses and bottles of wine. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone here and spent less than 10 dollars. Make reservations and come early because parking can be a headache.
I usually park in the lot right off Robert D. Ray Drive and walk across the bridge from that direction. This place also has really good views of our city and (bonus for families with kids) there’s a little park on the west side. On cooler nights in the summer, I enjoy taking a walk across it with my family.
6:30 pm: Up/Down
Do you want to feel like you’re back in your cool friend’s basement playing video games? Look no further, folks. Situated beneath the East Village, Up/Down is an arcade that’s home to Jenga towers, pinball machines, and even a photo booth. All games are a quarter, so the nostalgia isn’t expensive. My favorite area is little nook that resembles a living room (complete with an old couch and a Super Nintendo).
8 pm: Wooly’s
Next door is my favorite concert venue in the city. I’ve seen a ton of great artists perform here (Washed Out, Johnnyswim, and Bleacher), and each show was less than $30. Great deal! Check to see if anyone you like is performing while you’re in town.
9 pm: Reed’s Hollow
When it comes to the culinary arts, chef Zach Gutweiler is a force of nature. People were heartbroken when his beloved kitchen closed up shop earlier this year, but it wasn’t long before he was back at it again at a new location in Beaverdale. Zach’s food is, well, an adventure for the senses. I’ve never had a bad meal and I think his food is a spectacular mix of familiarity and artistic exploration.
A few more suggestions:
Two doors down from La Mie is this little gem called the Cheese Shop. Their staff is some of the most hospitable in the entire city. Go and order a grilled cheese with shallots.
Are you in the mood for some southern comfort food? Head over to Patton’s. They’re known for their red velvet waffles, but I always order the fried chicken or catfish. I grew up on this kind of food and it never fails to comfort.
Dessert and cocktails at Crème Cupcake are always a good idea. They’re franchising soon, but this will always be the original.
RoCA is another good place for drinks. They have a couple of different seating areas, so each visit has the potential to be different than the last. I think my favorite drink is probably the Adelaide (a refreshing mixture of gin, cucumber, mint, and lime).
There are also a ton of creative communities active throughout the city. If you’re a creative lady, you’d be wise to check out DSM Girl Gang. They’re always planning something hip and crafty.
Also, if you’re interested in what the next generation is up to here in the city, I’d suggest RUNDSM. They often hosts poetry slams down at the Club and it’s always a good time.
And before I forget: on the first Friday of every month in the summer, the Village stays open late and hosts the beloved First Fridays.
Eden is serving up cocktails and appetizers and if you’re lucky, Preservation’s Nichole may be taking portraits in her studio. On those nights, Des Moines’ potential feels endless.