A Complete, Ranked Caucus Guide to Des Moines’ Good Bars, for the Benefit of the Carpetbagging East Coast Media Elite
You’re cold, you’re tired, you’re confused, and you need a drink. Welcome to Des Moines, you beautiful bastards!
You’ve come a long way and it’s the middle of winter, after all. You’ve come, LGA, JFK or EWR; via ORD, MSP or maybe DTW; at last alighting in DSM for that short, carpeted walk through the terminal and to baggage claim and finally into what is, right now, the icy center of the political world. In the holy service of the Fourth Estate you’ve come, arrived in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S.A., God’s country, and ersatz national capital for the next couple weeks, thanks to the state’s First In The Nation Caucuses, and attendant outsize role in the presidential nomination campaign process. You’ve come to cover The Campaign which, eventually, in nine months or so, will have chewed up and spat out a new leader of the free world.
My Bayesian statistical training informs me that, if you’re reading this, dear member of the elite East Coast media, there is an 63 percent chance you live in Brooklyn, New York, or its analog. (Full disclosure: so do I, nowadays. If you don’t, please bear with me.) So, Brooklyn is bigger than Des Moines, no argument there. The borough has over 12 times as many people, and about 15 additional square miles. And Brooklyn has many Good Bars, no argument there either—Washington Commons, Soda Bar, 4th Avenue Pub, Sycamore, etc.
But Des Moines is like that last-legs boxer to Brooklyn’s hulking, reigning champ, relying on guile and a few closely held tricks up a fraying silk-robed sleeve, punching above its weight, as it were. There aren’t many tricks, not a whole lot of firepower in the Midwestern palooka’s arsenal, but what are there are trump cards — right bowers in an urban euchre game. Des Moines was curated before curation ever left the museum, its publican selection pruned to the sparse but long-enduring beauty of the bonsai.
I’m going to share these — the Good Bars of Des Moines — with you. Why am I rolling up my silk sleeves thus? Because we’re nice. There are exactly six; they are below.
1. Carl’s Place
Ave, Carl, morituri te salutant…is what you may find yourself uttering on a particularly brutal, late-January Iowa evening, when finger-feeling has drained, your Uber has driven out of sight, and you stand alone in this Sherman Hill neighborhood, wondering if the corn-silk-tan shoebox before you is really the best bar in town and wondering, maybe, what exactly the hell it is that you’re doing here. Worry not, chapped gladiator of the freedom of the press, you shall be spared. Indeed, you shall be saved.
Carl’s is reliable and great in the sort of nebulous, avuncular, timeless sense that one’s idea of home is reliable, and great, and unchanging; and it’s reliable and great in one very real sense that they’ve never failed, during my visits, to’ve laid out a spread of paper plates, plastic spoons, plastic-bagged buns, a pile of paper napkins, and a Crock-Pot® full of sloppy joe filling, all on a long, plastic folding table near the center of the bar. This is the sun around which the bar orbits. You don’t eat it — seriously, you never eat it, and I’m not sure anyone ever has — but you really do like that it’s there. Someone puts it there, without fail, every evening, and this puts your mind at great ease. It puts your mind at ease in the way the continued existence of earth’s gravitational force puts your mind at ease — often, you’re not aware of how at ease you really are, the counterfactual of the nonexistence of Carl’s (or, of course, of gravity) being too terrifying to actively consider. It’s all a lot like how the cookies and milk you put out on Christmas Eve get eaten and drunk, without fail, and you know it’s not actually Santa Claus or anything magical, but it makes you feel good all the same. The last time I was in Des Moines was for one week, for Christmas, and I found myself at Carl’s on four separate occasions. If you lived here, you’d run into someone you used to know. This is Carl’s — this is what is contained in this fiendishly drab shoebox on Woodland Avenue.
Upon arrival, beeline to the back room at your 1 o’ clock. There, you will find three electronic dart machines. Two of these will be broken. Well, one will be truly broken, and one will not accept dollar bills. (It’s $1 per person per game.) The machine that works, as of this writing, is the one on the right. If it’s not on one of the two back-room tables already, ask the bartender for the coffee can that holds the darts. Budget a minute or two of your night, if you’re not on deadline, to fish through the coffee can to find darts that (ideally) have the look as though they’ll fly true or (at least) have their tip intact. If you’re lucky, you’ll find at least three such darts, and off you’ll go. It doesn’t matter if you like darts, and it especially doesn’t matter if you’re any good at darts, because you’re at Carl’s, and at Carl’s you play darts, and afterwards, even if you didn’t like darts before, you may think to yourself, “You know what, I kinda liked that, I really should play more darts.” When you play darts at Carl’s you can also read the outstanding bar graffiti on the walls in this back room. It’s not the best bar graffiti in town — that title belongs to the Greenwood Lounge’s restroom — but it’s the densest and most abundant.
Carl’s has one of those Internet-enabled jukeboxes now, allowing the musical selection to vary widely, which it does. Quickly ping-ponging from post-punk to Bublé to vintage Biggie to Beyoncé and back again. It’s best, and sanest, to just let it happen to you.
What to order: Coors Banquet tallboy
2. The Greenwood Lounge
For me this year, the most interesting race — not to detract in any way from what I’m sure will be a fascinating caucus — is the one between Carl’s and the Greenwood Lounge for top spot on this list. Last election cycle, Greenwood would have been No. 1 in a walk. But I was younger then — less appreciative of the subtler and calmer good things in life.
Carl’s Place’s main achievement is constancy — unblinkingly warm constancy in the face of The Global War On Terror and Mass Shootings and Ebola and Mass Deportations &c. The Greenwood Lounge’s main achievement, on the other hand, is identity—truly felt identity in the Age Of Twitter And Snapchat. Regular patronage of the Greenwood is a blazon, a badge. “Greenwood” — a meaningful name in Des Moines, eponymous to this tavern, a major city park, an historic cemetery, my elementary school — is a kind of metonymy. That is, to feel at home at the Greenwood Lounge is to feel at home in Des Moines. And its a badge that must be earned, be won.
It’s not exactly an easy bar to visit the first time: its front door that looks like one of those doors that’s always locked, its absence from any single-digit-numbered page of results for a Google search of “best bars des moines,” the phalanx of surly-looking smokers guarding the rear parking lot entrance in winter like barely thawed gargoyles. (Lovely people, actually, the lot of ‘em, but still.) But for your bravery, or at least your intrepidity, you are rewarded.
And second only to the Des Moines Art Center (which is great in its own right) the Greenwood is the artistic beating heart of the city. The bar’s main room is flanked by dog murals — dog murals in general being arguably the highest expression of the mural form, and the Greenwood’s dog murals in particular being arguably the highest expression of the dog-mural form — which give the otherwise staid space (the Greenwood is considerably smaller and darker than Carl’s) an important and necessary sense of movement. The dogs are dancing and drinking and playing cards and just generally having fun all around everybody. They stir up an otherwise settling pot, as it were. And the restrooms (I’ve only been in the men’s, but have heard promising descriptions of the women’s) have the most incisive and memorable bar graffiti in town. And not only that, but there is a communal sense of respect for it — it endures, never erased or whitewashed or scrawled over. Year after year, restroom visit after restroom visit, you see the same cartoons, the same “For a good time call” phone numbers, the same one-liners, the past imprints of fellow badge-wearers, as you remember from when you were 19, sheepishly camped out in the corner, hoping (not that you actually had anything to worry about) to elude the barman’s scrutiny.
While you can’t smoke in the Greenwood anymore — a statewide Smokefree Air Act was passed in 2008, and Des Moines bars barred it much earlier— if you insufflate juuust right, you can catch a whiff that’ll transport yourself back to a more dignified age, salad days when $3 packs of Parliaments were extinguished one-by-one in bar-top ashtrays and on bathroom floors and Gephardt edged out Simon and Dukakis.
At Carl’s, you play darts; but at the Greenwood, you play pool (Eight-ball or Knockout, depending on how many in your party). I’m not exactly sure why — there is a boring architectural partial explanation, but still — those are just the rules, a sort of no-white-after-Labor-Day kind of thing. In terms of other parlor amusement, there is also a table-top trivia arcade game back in the pool room that I once played for a very long time, after the rest of our friends had gone home, with a girl, closely huddled next to me on the dangerously lumpy booth bench, whom I was in love with at the time and eventually we landed our combined initials on top of the high score list. I doubt they’re still there, though.
What to order: Pitcher of Bud Light
3. Royal Mile/Red Monk
Sometimes, as the song goes, “you’re downtown.” When you’re downtown in Des Moines — or in its abutting Court Avenue district — the place to go is the Royal Mile or its upstairs cousin the Red Monk. This is very important — most of the other places downtown or in the Court Avenue district are very, very bad and scary.
The goodness of the Royal Mile, unlike the two bars above, requires little unpacking. The bar hits its own very particular nail on the head. It’s a British pub, unapologetically and unironically. There’s a fireplace which is either real or such a convincing fake that I can’t remember it being fake. During the holidays, stockings are hung. The whiskey selection is extensive. The food is more than edible. Even the bromides on its website — “Des Moines’ living room” — actually ring true. It is exactly what it is and it is good.
N0 one knows, including Des Moines lifers, or at least no one can ever remember, when the Red Monk (Royal Mile’s upstairs annex) is actually open. But you should ask the barmaid, because it’s a treat when it is: The ale selection is top-notch, the pub trivia (on Wednesdays, I think?) is fair and fun, and the ambience cozy.
What to order: Fuller’s ESB downstairs; fancy Belgian shit upstairs
4. High Life Lounge/El Bait Shop
The best theme for a bar — to the extent that that’s not an oxymoronic premise — is beer. And so it is at the High Life Lounge, on Des Moines’ riverside, named for the familiar 4.6-percent-alcohol-by-volume American Adjunct Lager. The bar is meant to be a sort of time machine to the 1970s — the carpets shag, the televisions cathode ray tubed, the vintage advertisements vaguely sexist — but it doesn’t really work that way. It’s too on-the-nose, and the bar has been a local fixture for too long, that the trick doesn’t work anymore, if it ever did. But that’s OK.
The real effect of the High Life Lounge is one of focusing: we are here to drink beer. And that’s OK. At the very least it’s expeditious, and at the very most it’s transcendent. The conceptual artist Tom Marioni has a work with a title that should be the official motto of High Life Lounge: “The Act of Drinking Beer With Friends Is the Highest Form of Art.”
And if your palate is obnoxiously “refined” enough to turn up its little palate-nose at the thought of High Life (the beer), drag your unsympathetic self to the immediately adjoining El Bait Shop bar (you needn’t even step outside to get there) where I’m sure you can find that chipotle and cherry porter you’ve been craving since your plane landed.
What to order: Pitcher of High Life
5. The Lift
I’ve only ever been to The Lift two times that I can recall with any clarity, but the most recent of these was the time my oldest friend Sam wanted “something with whiskey” and my friend Sam never wants to drink whiskey so of course I went along and we had one of those long talks that you only ever have when your oldest friend who doesn’t drink whiskey drinks whiskey and it was the best, and that’s what I would like for you, dear reader. It’s Caucus Season: the time to tell people how you really feel.
It’s also just a hop and a skip from the aforementioned Royal Mile—an excellent Downtown/Court Avenue Plan B or change of scenery.
What to order: A Manhattan (ironically enough)
Yes, the barcade hath cometh to the City of Monks. Up-Down — sure, its bartenders are friendly enough, its street parking ample enough, its giant Jenga game not quite giant enough to cause any serious tendinous injury upon inevitable collapse to unlucky bystanders, its Mario Kart 64 free to play and projected on a 10-foot screen— is a Good Bar for precisely one reason, and that reason is “Tapper.”
“Tapper” is an arcade game that was produced by Bally/Midway, the now-defunct video game company, originally in 1983, in association with Budweiser, the beer company. In the game, you are a bartender, whom you control with a joystick in one hand and a Budweiser keg tap handle in the other. You’ve got a number of responsibilities — move your barkeep from bar to bar (there are four) with your joystick hand, pour all the customers a beer with your tapping hand before it’s too late, grab their mugs before they slide off the ends of the bars, and collect your tips, all while the customers become more numerous and impatient. There’s much more to it than that, of course, but the getting of good at “Tapper” is an experience that every DSM carpetbagger needs to have for him or herself. (As a benchmark, any Iowan worth his or her January deicing salt will be capable of a score of 40,000 points or more at least once in an evening.) COMPUTE!’s Gazette, in 1985, called “Tapper” “one of the most addictive games we’ve seen lately.” It remains so and is, in fact, probably the single most exciting activity in Des Moines’ “blossoming” so-called East Village, in which Up-Down is located.
Free story idea for those who miss out on a Trump scoop or whatever: a few thousand words on what it actually means, in 2016, to pay to serve beers digitally while at the same time paying to be served beers actually, and so on.
What to order: Bell’s Two Hearted, or whatever you want really, I don’t care
[Guilt-Induced Honorable Mentions]
Hessen Haus, Exile, Alpine Tap Room and The Continental.
So, cin cin, you East Coast Media Elite. And Merry Caucus, you beautiful bastards.