Home to the Iowa Caucus and what many say is the best state fair in the country (sorry, Texas and Minnesota), Des Moines is hardly a “flyover” city. A thriving hub of dining, arts, entertainment and outdoor recreation waits to be found, if you know where to look.
With just over 210,000 residents, Des Moines and the adjacent Dallas County is the fastest growing area in the Midwest, and the city consistently ranks as one of the best places to live in the U.S. For visitors, Des Moines offers plenty to do and see. It boasts an incredible number of restaurants and bars that embrace local food and a wide breadth of wines that often focus on smaller producers.
Though the city’s growth has been a boon to the food and drink culture, Sarah Pritchard, co-owner of Table 128, says it’s also caused a few growing pains. One such challenge, she says, is finding enough food and beverage professionals to keep pace.
“It’s hard to do what we do well without people who are passionate about it,” says Pritchard, who owns Table 128 with her husband, executive chef Lynn Pritchard. She says the community of food and beverage professionals in Des Moines, while small, is close and supportive of each other’s efforts.
Pritchard spends much of her time reaching out to wineries for new and exciting varieties to bring to the city.
“People are hungry for it, and the three-tier system makes it hard for wineries to break into the state and into this market,” she says in reference to the legal process that requires wines to go through importers and distributors before reaching consumers. By communicating with winemakers directly, she can advocate for her community without a middle man.
“People see a lot of the same wines around town because we use the same importer and distributor,” says Bienert. “[Working with winemakers] is a breath of fresh air. We can lead by example.”
Here’s your guide to find the best wine, cheese and charcuterie in Des Moines, and how to enjoy all that this bustling Midwestern city has to offer.
Vino209 Wine Bar & Bistro
If you end up in the Historic Valley Junction district in West Des Moines, this hip, sleek wine bar is hard to miss. From the outside, its enormous windows show off the bottle-lined walls and offer a clue of what to expect. Though Vino209 Wine Bar & Bistro also serves food, the wine selection is what draws visitors. Look for bottles like Dry Creek Vineyard Dry Chenin Blanc and Criss Cross Petite Sirah to sip alongside flatbreads and sliders. The bar also hosts live music each week as well as a free tasting of two wines on Wednesday nights.
Louie’s Wine Dive
Though the city’s restaurants tend to offer the widest selection of wines, there are a number of bars that offer both variety and a singularly Des Moines experience. Hunker down, order a bottle and watch the big game at Louie’s Wine Dive. The University Avenue location, close to nearby Drake University, puts a spin on your typical dive bar’s selection of cheap domestic beer with hearty pours of wines like Pazo Cilleiro Albariño from Rías Baixas, Spain, and Domaine de la Solitude Côtes-du-Rhône, France. The wine selection changes every week, so there’s always something new to taste.
If you want to sample a wide variety of wines at your own pace, check out self-service wine bar Della Viti in the Historic East Village neighborhood. Just swipe a card and select from three options: a 1½-ounce taste, a 2¾-ounce partial pour or a full five-ounce glass. The range of 40 wines span New World and Old World producers with continuously rotating selections like Vollereaux Cuvée Marguerite Millésime Brut to Bodega Catena Zapata High Mountain Vines Malbec, in addition to a sparkling wines, cider, beer and cocktails.
Featured wines rotate on a weekly basis, and if you fall in love with what you sip, you can purchase a bottle to take home. Don’t miss the wine bar’s selection of cheese, charcuterie and chocolate plates as well.
Restaurants with great wine lists
Opened in May 2013 in Clive, a suburb of West Des Moines, Table 128 is a standout in the city’s bustling restaurant scene. The menu of produce-driven “eclectic American food” changes 3–4 times per year, offering dishes like mussels with white wine and ramp butter or swordfish niçoise. It also features 120 New and Old World wines that start at $29.
“What really drives our wine list is the seasonality of food and a passion for smaller producers,” says Pritchard. “Our guests have grown along with us. People are definitely more wine curious than they used to be.”
Taking on the role of wine director, Pritchard has curated a list that includes by-the-glass options like a Poderi Luigi Einaudi Dolcetto di Dogliani as well as Cava for a sparkling option. Bottle options span the globe, from Napa Valley’s Ramey Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay to Armenia’s Yacoubian-Hobbs Sarpina Areni.
The restaurant also features a chef’s menu each Saturday where dishes are made with seasonal ingredients sourced from local purveyors and paired with wines. Don’t miss the delightful salted mini-chocolate chip cookies that arrive with your check, also available for purchase on the way out.
Inviting, open and flooded with natural light, Cheese Bar was opened on Ingersoll Avenue by the Bienerts and MaClavey in 2017. It evolved from their earlier concept, The Cheese Shop, which they opened eight years earlier. The Cheese Bar’s walls are lined with photos of the cheese makers, hog farmers and growers with whom they regularly work. It’s a testament to the value the restaurant places on organic produce and other local foods.
The menu boasts eight grilled cheese options, a three-cheese fondue made with wine and garlic, and hand-carved La Quercia prosciutto.
“Our hands-on selection process defines what we do,” says CJ, who often visits farms to select wheels of cheese himself. “Our goal with cheese, wine and everything else we serve is to take the esoteric out of it.”
He’s found a lot of success with South African wines, like the Brew Cru Pinot Noir and Benguela Cove Cabernet Sauvignon. In addition to occasional wine dinners, Cheese Bar also hosts cheese pairing classes with winemakers. A Bubbles & Bites happy hour is offered Tuesday through Friday from 2–5 pm. Enjoy $5 glasses sparkling wine as well as $5 bites.
Just down the street from Cheese Bar, Harbinger is as lovely and unassuming on the outside as on the inside. It serves small plates that focus on seasonal vegetables, with shareable dishes and a rotating menu that keeps options fresh. Expect dishes like English pea potstickers and sweet-and-sour crispy sweetbreads. There are also items you may keep all to yourself, like braised Berkshire pork shank and chicken karaage (deep-fried chicken).
It’s these creative and unusual dishes that earned Co-owner/Chef Joe Tripp two James Beard nominations for Best Chef Midwest in 2018 and 2019. There’s plenty of great wine to pair with Tripp’s dishes, from Sancerre to Malbec.
Where to buy wine
Ingersoll Wine & Spirits
After more than three decades in business, Ingersoll Wine & Spirits has become an institution in Des Moines. With two locations, one on Ingersoll Avenue and the other, Ingersoll Wine Merchants, in West Des Moines, these shops are your best bet to score unexpected finds among hundreds of labels. A range of New World and Old World bottlings include wines like Argyle Nuthouse Riesling and Selbach-Oster Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Spätlese Riesling Mosel.
Feel like keeping it hyper-local? Ingersoll also offers a selection of wines made by some of the 100 commercially licensed Iowa wineries.
Where to experience wine
Nestled between downtown Des Moines and Racoon River, Jasper Winery is not only conveniently located, but also well worth the visit. Founded in 2003, Jasper makes more than a dozen wines that are all produced with Iowa-grown grapes, which even includes an Edelweiss.
Try to visit during the winery’s free Summer Concert Series, or schedule a wine-pairing experience with chocolate or cheese. Be sure to try the wines in Jasper’s Vineyard Select Series, largely made from hybrid grape varieties like Noiret and Seyval Blanc that have become increasingly common throughout the Midwest.
Tassel Ridge Winery
Want to experience wine in the countryside? Head to Leighton, Iowa, home to the scenic Tassel Ridge Winery, located an hour from downtown Des Moines. Take a tour of the vineyards in its Grapemobile (yes, really), where you will learn the ins and outs of Iowa wine production and how to grow grapes in a colder Midwestern climate.
Enjoy a pour from Tassel Ridge’s line of dry, semi-sweet, sweet, fruit-based or dessert wines. Make sure to sample the Iowa White Blossom, a dry, tropical fruit-flavored white wine. If you’re feeling adventurous, try the Finalé Iowa Red, made from grapes grown in Iowa’s Mahaska County.
Winefest Des Moines
If you happen to visit Des Moines in late spring, you’re in luck. For the past 17 years, the city has hosted a weeklong wine festival, Winefest Des Moines, which has expanded in scope every year and features local restaurants, chefs and bars. It hosts a range of events that include a sommelier competition, workshops and, for the first time in 2019, an East Village progressive dinner.
The event also helps fund annual donations to arts organization Bravo Greater Des Moines. Winefest also offers scholarships to second-year students at the Iowa Culinary Institute at Des Moines Area Community College, and also helps to cover costs for professionals who seek certification with the Court of Master Sommeliers. In addition to the annual eight-day bash, Winefest also hosts satellite events throughout the year. See the schedule here.
Things to do around Des Moines
Des Moines’s outdoor spaces are a testament to its regard for arts, culture and nature. Bike lanes cover many of the city’s main thoroughfares, along with 800 miles of surrounding trails. Pedal your cruiser to a performance of Shakespeare on the Lawn, or to the Pappajohn Sculpture Garden for quiet contemplation of works by renowned artists like Louise Bourgeois.
At the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden, enjoy the morning as you wander through the tropics and desert before you explore the extensive grounds. Des Moines is also home to the Better Homes & Gardens Test Garden, where visitors can see the latest in perennials and annuals, but keep in mind the limited hours. From the first Friday in May until the first Friday in October, the general public is invited to visit on Fridays from noon to 2 pm.
Ready to do a bit more drinking and dining? Check out Splash Seafood Oyster Bar & Grill, a seafood joint that flies in daily fresh catches from both coasts and also hosts a monthly wine education series.
For cocktails downtown, Hello, Marjorie serves refreshing creations and a daily Old Fashioned happy hour. Meanwhile, Bellhop in the Historic East Village is the place to go for new and classic tiki drinks. Beer lovers have more than a dozen breweries to choose from, and the Brew Moines app makes navigation easy and offers coupons. And whiskey geeks can find solace at Foundry Distilling Company, opened in 2016 by Scott Bush, who previously founded Templeton Rye.
When the dessert craving hits, two can’t-miss spots are Black Cat Ice Cream and Bauder Pharmacy, an Ingersoll Avenue gem with a lunch counter, an old-timey soda machine and housemade peppermint ice cream bars beloved by locals.