Long a business hub for the insurance and publishing industries, Iowa’s capital city has been increasingly finding ways to cater to its creative communities, and that growth often starts with a good cocktail bar. “There are a lot of young professionals in Des Moines, and I think we’re giving them something that they were previously moving to a bigger city for,” says Nick Tillinghast, a Des Moines native and partner in hospitality group DMDT Hospitality & Lifestyle.
Des Moines is home to a young but quickly growing cocktail scene, which is why it landed on our Imbibe 75 Destinations list for 2020. Boosted by bars like Hello, Marjorie, Bellhop (both from DMDT, which stands for “Des Moines Does Things”) and The Bartender’s Handshake, there’s plenty to explore and enjoy. “I think I speak for all of us when I say that we want to get to a level of consistency where Des Moines is looked at as a great place to cocktail hop,” Tillinghast says. Here, he shares his own perfectly mapped-out bar crawl in his hometown.
For Tillinghast, the day starts with a cold brew from Horizon Line Coffee in the Western Gateway neighborhood. “It doesn’t matter the season; it could be below zero [degrees outside] and I would still order their cold brew,” he says. Horizon Line opened in 2017, founded by two friends, Brad Penna and Nam Ho, both from Southern California, who sought to create delicious coffee and an inclusive community at the spacious and immaculate shop. They serve all the coffee shop standards as well as creative seasonal menus, says Tillinghast, adding that if you can’t squeeze in a visit, you can still try their Cold-Brew Cider at home.
Tillinghast has two breakfast favorites, “so I’m going to pretend my appetite would be big enough for both,” he says. The first stop is La Mie Elevate, the downtown location of the well-established bakery. “La Mie Elevate’s breakfast scramble is fantastic: sometimes the veggie scramble is the go-to, sometimes the meat scramble is the go-to. Both are winners,” he concedes. “I also could easily find myself at St. Kilda’s OG location on 5th St. enjoying The Saint: fried egg, housemade ginger sausage, bacon, avocado, red onion, red arugula and tomato jam on a housemade sesame seed bun.” An Australian-style coffee shop, St. Kilda, which serves Counter Culture coffee and Australian wines, has grown to include two café locations, with a restaurant downtown and a second opening this spring. “Much like Horizon Line, the aesthetic is on-point and delivers a full guest experience,” Tillinghast says.
At noon, Tillinghast heads back into the heart of downtown Des Moines, which requires a stop at El Bait Shop. The beloved bar features a whopping 260+ beers on tap including those of neighboring brewers like Barn Town and Cedar Rapids’ Lion Bridge Brewing Company, plus a menu of food with everything from fish tacos to the Spam, egg, and cheese sandwich on grilled Texas toast.
It’s lunchtime, and Tillinghast deliberates between Hagar’s Manhattan Deli, South Union Bread Cafe, Lucca, and the family-owned and -operated B&B Grocery, Meat & Deli in business since 1922. “However, on this day, I think I would have to go with the blackened chicken and bacon wrap at Bubba, which includes a healthy amount of pimento cheese. I would get a side of pasta salad, of course, because there’s pasta salad and then there’s Bubba pasta salad,” says Tillinghast. “I would wash it down with a pour of Weller Special Reserve.”
Dinner in the Burbs
“It takes a lot for me to head to the suburbs just based on the convenience of living downtown, but Cosi Cucina Italian Grill in Clive is something I’ll travel to at least once a week,” Tillinghast says. “This is the best Italian food you’re going to have. The restaurant has been around since 1993, but it became a juggernaut three years ago when the current owner took over and implemented his style and family recipes. ‘Diana’ is the restaurant’s house red sauce, and it is perfection. There’s no wrong order: pizza, pasta, steak—all great. I’m feeling the Ziti Cucina pizza on this night, with signature spicy sausage sauce, double-ground sausage, banana peppers, mozzarella cheese and Diana sauce on top—with a Manhattan on the rocks.”
Honorable Mention: Clyde’s Fine Diner in the East Village. “Sit at the bar, get the burger, rock a dealer’s choice cocktail from C.J., leave happy.”
Honorable, Honorable Mention: The High Life Lounge. “Buffalo Chicken Egg Rolls and a [Miller] High Life.”
“First stop would be The Bartender’s Handshake on Ingersoll [Avenue],” Tillinghast says of this newcomer from bartender David Murrin-von Ebers. “The owner is one the most talented bartenders in our city and has put together a really great staff around him. It’s a very intimate space, and it can be any experience that you want it to be, from a domestic beer to a beautifully done cocktail.” Their menu offers a treasure trove of thoughtfully made cocktails like the Sinaloan Milk Snake, with milk-washed mezcal, spiced pear liqueur, yellow Chartreuse and lemon. “I love doing a dealer’s choice here.”
A quick stop at Proof, a top-notch restaurant that boasts a great drinks program.
If the evening calls for beers, Tillinghast heads to Ernie’s Boondock. This easy-going venue is “a cool corner neighborhood bar in the East Village that is reminiscent of something you’d see in Chicago—just hang out and have a good time,” he says. “Ernie’s is actually Bellhop’s next-door neighbor and saved me from a lot of stressful nights the weeks before opening. In the warm months, they have a burger truck on the patio that produces a no BS, delicious cheeseburger.” If cocktails are more a match for the mood, that means dropping into Juniper Moon on Ingersoll where original drinks like the It’s Always Sunny in Des Moines (chamomile-infused rye, aquavit, Suze, honey and lemon) and the Old Man & The C (tea-infused scotch, Byrrh, coconut, fig, bay leaf and lime) bring unexpected flavor combos to town. “They use a lot of unique ingredients and are able to create flavor profiles that are weird but remarkable.”
Okay, Seriously, Last Call
Before officially calling it a night, Tillinghast ducks into Up-Down, an arcade bar in the East Village, where he orders Toppling Goliath Brewing’s Pseudo Sue, a single-hop pale perfect for washing down a slice of cheese pizza.
Did you enjoy this article? Get more of the best of liquid culture when you sign up for a print or digital subscription to Imbibe Magazine. Click here for special savings!