Welcome to Iowa, WORLD headquarters for pressdog.com. People are always saying to me, "Des Moines is like New York City surrouned by CORN! It's amazing!"
No. People never say that. Mostly it's "GOD, we have to go to Des Moines? What's there? Tractors on the streets and hogs running loose in the city?" Hardly. While you're here to view the IndyCar/Truck-like Vehicle Race at Speedway on July 12 or the Nationwide race on Aug. 2, allow me suggest some fine dining, entertainment and motel options.
First of all, let's give Newton its due. It's not just a gas station and corn silo, after all. They got some schwerve over there, and Iowa Speedway seems to be encouraging its customers to drive south over Interstate 80 and check it out. Learn more about Newton HERE.
Court Avenue RULES!
Downtown Des Moines is located about 30-ish minutes dead west of Iowa Speedway. Downtown Des Moines always takes people by surprise, because it's pretty lively at night. In fact, people are building and selling condos right down town like crazy in this town.
So I always recommend Court Avenue district smack in the center of downtown Des Moines. It stretchs from 5th Avenue on the west to the Des Moines River on the east and is about four blocks long. View it HERE. It's the oldest part of Des Moines and has undergone redevelopment into the hipster entertainment area with bars, restaurants, live music, etc. all within easy walking distance of each other.
One of my personal favorites in the Court Avenue area is the German-themed Hessen Haus (built in a converted railroad warehouse right next to an active railroad track). Discount Jagger shots every time a train goes by (seriously)! I keep wanting to take my second-generation German father here, but I'm afraid he'll lose his mind, get hammered and start talking about the Kaiser or something. The Hessen Haus is next door to the relatively new Science Center of Iowa, fabulous for the whole family. It includes an IMAX theater.
Also, Court Avenue Brewery for fresh beer and pretty tasty food. El Bait Shop has a zillion micro brews on tap, including all (or at least most) the Rogue beers. Plus a lot of my favorite locally brewed beer from Confluence Brewery is on tap there. Confluence's Des Moines IPA makes me weep tears of gratitude. El Bait Shop also has killer nachos. El Bait Shop is pretty much my fav bar in the area, so you should consider it.
Right next door to El Bait Shop (they are actually literally in the same building and owned by the same people) is the High Life Lounge, which is an Ultra Lounged out 1970s throwback that only serves beer that was around in the 70s, including Miller High Life, of course. Hamburgers, cheeseburgers, stuff that comes in those little, red plastic molded baskets.
Also good in the downtown Court Avenue area (and within about 50 feet of each other) along Fourth Street are Fongs Pizza Chinese Italian Lounge, Java Joes coffeehouse if you want to get WIRED and, of course, the Royal Mile, a British-themed pub where Shane Rogers, International Superstar, and I had a lovely dinner in 2009. There should be some kind of plaque up that says "The International Superstar Ate Here."
Just down the street from the Royal Mile is the LiFT. If you're into martinis, set course for the LiFT. It declairs itself "Bohemian" so translate that into "dimly lit" and opens at "5-ish." Usually have interesting local art on the wall that's for sale. Also on Fourth is a place called "Whiskey Dick's" which I have never been too but include here just because of the name.
Another intersting place is called "Pints" on the corner of 4th and Court that features a cool outdoor seating area. Most bars and restaurants on Court Avenue have outdoor seating areas.
Also in the area (although not technically in the Court Avenue district) is the Raccoon River Brewery. Mmmmm. Fresh Beer and a good menu in an intersting old building. Court Avenue Brewery and Raccoon River Brewery see a lot of the pdog, as you can imagine.
Eat Fresh from the Farm Stuff!
Every Saturday morning from 7 until noon the Des Moines Downtown Farmers' Market kicks it right down on Court Avenue. It's the mother of all farmers' markets, a Festival of Local Produce and other nichy products. Read all about it here. There's another, smaller farmers' market in Valley Junction on Thursday, 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. There's also always a band playing during the market hours. Location and details.
A bit east of Court Avenue is another gentrified area of downtown called East Village. It's "east" because it's east of the Des Moines River which runs through downtown, and in the shadow of the Iowa Capitol. East Village is a more upscalified with many "bistro"-esques options. Check the many options here. Among the awesome eating establishments in the East Village(ish) area is the relatively new Zombie Burger and Drink Lab. It's all kinds of burgers, from the big beef to the seriously bizarre, and a hipster atmosphere. Get the details here. Pretty much everyone who goes to Zombie Burger raves about it.
If you're looking for a super-hip Iowa souvenir, check into RayGun, a store at 400 East Locust in the East Village. HIP. Check the merchandise online here.
Just south of Court Avenue is Principal Park, home of the Iowa Cubs Triple A baseball team. Sometimes they have a home stand during Iowa Speedway race weekends. Go HERE for info. You can usually just walk up and buy good seats. Tickets are just $8 for general admission and $11 to $13 for a reserved seats. Save a $1 per if you buy in advance. Check the seating situation HERE. The Iowa Cubs are the pinnacle of family-friendly in Des Moines. PLUS, they have awesome beer and above average stadium food selections.
My first interview with Woman of pressdog® Kenzie Ruston was in a skybox at the Iowa Cubs game. Should be a plaque there as well.
Near the Iowa Cubs stadium is Mullets, food and beverage establishment which offers a festival of outdoor seating that overlooks the confluence of the Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers. "Mullet" refers to the hair style and a kind of fish caught in the adjacent waterways.
Super Fresh BEER
Pretty much every place I'm talking about here serves beer and other alcoholic concoctions. You can also go right to the source for super-fresh, locally brewed beer at Confluence Brewing Company not far from the Iowa Cubs stadium in Gray's Lake Park. Confluence has a tap room in their brewery where I have spent many hours. Confluence doesn't serve any food, but you can bring your own food in (they encourage it), or you can order anything delivered there. They have delivery food menus available. Sometimes a third-party vendor will be cooking up some food at Confluence as well.
Many bars in Des Moines serve Confluence beer, so ask for some. Again, Des Moines IPA (Confluence's largest seller) makes me weep openly.
If you're digging live music, there's several venues in the metro. Actually LOTS of venues. Des Moines has worked pretty hard on fostering its local music schwerve. Vaudeville Mews, is a small live music venue in the Court Avenue area. A similar small venue is Woolly's in the East Village, address and schedule here. A bit west of Court Avenue is another live music venue, the Gas Lamp. Nightfall on the River is a concert series held at the outdoor Simon Estes Amphitheater along the mighty Des Moines River smack dab downtown.
Wells Fargo Arena, home of the Iowa Energy NBA D League team, Iowa Barnstormers Arena League Football team and now the Iowa Wild, an American Hockey League farm team for the Minnesota Wild. The Well also hosts all the Bieber/Swift-level concerts. Check the arena's schedule here.
A bit west of the Well is the super-historic Hoyt Sherman Place with its ornate theater which hosts all kinds of events. Check the offerings here. If you're more into da club music, check out the also historic Val-Air Ballroom on the east edge of West Des Moines. Think Wiz Khalifa.
But wait, there's more. There's also the Civic Center which is right downtown where you can find music AND theater. Let's not forget the House of Bricks near the East Village (see below). The Temple for the Performing Arts is another historic building renovated for small theater and concerts. Bonus -- it's right above Starbucks and South Union Bread Cafe where I once interviewed Ed Carpenter. No plaque there either.
Also, Prairie Meadows is the local land-based hotel, casino and horse racing track that also hosts concerts. Prairie Meadows is way on the east edge of Des Moines' metro blob and only about 20-30 minutes from Newton. It's fun to sit outside with a refreshing beverage and watch the horses run, even if you don't wager. More info below.
Juno & Ancient Forest (foreground) by Deborah Butterfield are my personal favorites in the Papajohn Sculpture park. Click for larger image. Photo: Bill Zahren, pressdog.com.
Des Moines has a really really unique public sculpture park called the Papajohn Sculpture Park. It's at 1330 Grand Avenue, which is almost dead center downtown Des Moines, and 4+ acers of sculptures, all donated by John and Mary Papajohn. You can wander around the park, right up to the sculptures. Some are made to be touched and sat on, etc. The park is monitored by security people, so don't get carried away. Check out some of the work and hear some audio about each piece HERE.
The Des Moines Art Center is also pretty known for it's contemporary art collection. Check into it here.
Intriguing Ingersoll Avenue
Head just a bit to the west from Court Avenue and the sculpture park and hit Ingersoll Avenue, one of my favorite streets in all of Des Moines. From Martin Luther King Blvd. west you'll see a ton of restaurants and shops. Star Bar is one where the hipsters gather. Wellman's Pub is a landmark. Also Ingersoll Wine and Spirits, the best place to buy beer in all of greater Des Moines and one of the official suppliers of pressdog® Beers of the Race, is on this road.
Antiques/Chic Shops/Strange Stuff
If you go down Ingersoll, cut over to Grand Avenue and keep going West you'll hit Valley Junction, which is the oldest and therefore original part West Des Moines. Many many speciality shops including lots of antiquing. Here's more deets. Valley Junction used to be a stand-alone town way back when that was known for ... wait for it ... its train stop. Hence Valley JUNCTION.
Iowa's early history is all about riverboats on the Missouri and Mississippi and then trains criss-crossing the state, bringing settlers who kicked off the Ag Empire. Many of Iowa's towns are named after loooonnnnng dead railroad people. As Des Moines grew out ot the west and butted up against Valley Junction, the town was renamed West Des Moines. If you want to see history preserved, the Jordan House in Valley Junction is a great example. Once owned by a big land owner (named Jordon!), it was also a station on the Underground Railroad. BOOM. No charge for the history lesson!
Festival of Suburban Stuff and the Mother Mall
If you're looking for the more suburban mall-esque stuff, roll to West Glenn and the Jordan Creek Mall in West Des Moines. West Des Moines is a contiguous suburb. Take I-80 or I-235 east into the metro, then hit I-35 south. Exit at George Mills Civic Parkway, head west. Welcome to my hood. Big Super Target kicks things off. Target anchors the West Glen Town Center, there's bars and even the Funny Bone Comedy Club. Full West Glenn lineup here.
Keep going west on Mills Civic Parkway and you'll run the gauntlet of traditional suburban stuff -- many and sundry chain restaurants, Wal-mart, Starbucks, Kohl's, etc. Mills Civic Parkway takes you to the Jordan Creek Mall, the metro's big dog of malls. Lots of great restaurants around there -- Bravo (upscale Italian), PF Chang, Cheesecake Factory, On the Border (Mexican), Flemings (home of the $30 steak). View all the offerings here.
Big, Brown, Iowa Ethnic Food
There are many fine steak places throughout Des Moines, but if you want IOWA food, the ethnic food of Iowa, "brown food" as I call it (because it is all brown), massive pork chops, steak, etc. etc., what my sister calls "sod food," eaten among the natives, the Iowa Machine Shed can fix you up. It's in Urbandale (another contiguous suburb) and RIGHT off I-80. Buckle up for pork chops so huge they bring them to your table in a skid loader. Seriously massive food with an unapologetic old-school farm theme thrown in.
Finally, if you want the high-dollar, steak and chops that will make you pee yourself, money-is-no-concern experience, then 801 Grand Steak & Chop House downtown is the place. 801 Grand is also the location of the tallest building in Des Moines. (The restaurant is in the base of the building.)
And no post on what to do in Des Moines would be complete with out an extended shout out Knoxville Raceway, just about 40 minutes south of Iowa Speedway. At the track is the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame and Museum. OMG. Check it. Knoxville is also the home of Peace Tree Brewering, which has a tap room, for their most excellent beer. Details here.
If you have never seen winged sprint cars on dirt at Knoxville (or a similar track), you have to go. Here's some color on the track atmosphere. Here's dirt track driver Erin Crocker describing the mayhem. Check for info and tickets here.
On the south edge of Knoxville is Slideways Karting Center, which is the place to go if you want serious (or not so serious) go-karting. Details here.
Kid-friendly entertainments also include the Blank Park Zoo (the patron's last name was "Blank." Seriously.) Info here. Also, Adventureland, a very well done amusement park in Altoona, which is an extreme eastern suburb of the metro and therefore closer to Newton. Info here. You can also flash back to see how Iowa rolled 100 years or more ago at Living History Farms, (adjacent to the aforementioned Iowa Machine Shed) which features a 1950s farm and a 19th Century Iowa town. It's a festival of hands-on activities for all ages.
Places to Stay
Newton itself is adding motel rooms at a pretty good clip (from what I can observe), so give it a try. Probably sold out this close to the race, but you never know. Then search for hotels in Grinnell. That's EAST of the track on I-80 (opposite direction from Des Moines) so it gets overlooked, but it's probably closer than Des Moines motels.
Grinnell, Iowa is only about 20 minutes due EAST of Iowa Speedway on I-80 and often overlooked as a motel option. It's also home of Grinnell College, the most expensive college in all of Iowa. Kind of trendy little town. Check out its schwerve here.
Pella, Iowa, is south of the track and about the same distance (time-wise) from Newton as Des Moines. It's home of Central College.
Knoxville, 40 min. due south of Iowa Speedway. There are a few motels there, including a big Super 8, in the lobby of which I once interviewed Erin Crocker. Should be a plaque there too.
Marshalltown which is located 45 minutes north and a little east of Newton. I know a guy who comes to Iowa Speedway to cover evens who stays in Marshalltown every time. Check what's up at Marshalltown here.
Motels in the Des Moines metro: Search in the eastern suburbs of Pleasant Hill and Altoona. Both are just about 20(ish) minutes from the track. Altoona is home of Prairie Meadows, a big casino. For reasonably cheap hotels in Des Moines, I always recommend the Merle Hay Road area. Partial listing here.
Merle Hay Road comes right off I-80 (which goes right by Iowa Speedway) and leads to Merle Hay Mall. Many many restaurants along this road as well. There are also a ton of motels out by the airport on Fluer Drive, which is probably 40-ish minutes from the track. There's also Ankeny, a town north of the metro blob, but probably about the same distance, time wise, from the track as most of Des Moines. Ankeny to Newton is an easy, all-Interstate drive as well.
The pdog does not camp, but you campers know who you are, and you're a hardy lot. So here's the skinny on camping from my homey Jane. "If anyone who wants camping feedback/or assistance they can contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org" says Jane.
Wallashuck at Lake Red Rock. This is Jane's personal recommendation! $16 per night. Right of Highway 14 and straight shot to Iowa Speedway. Quiet, right by lake and easy in and out. 20 min drive from track, 30 if you take long scenic route. Info here. More skinny on Lake Red Rock itself HERE.
Newton KOA. Jane says: We have not stayed her but friends have that have a KOA membership and it’s pretty nice for kids. Kid friendly and fills up fast race weekends. Quiet hours are strictly enforced. http://koa.com/campgrounds/newton/
Iowa Speedway offers race weekend camping. Probably sold out for this year's race, but there's always next year. Jane says: $175 for race weekends or $550 for season (check pricing for the latest numbers). NO Hookups Just what a camper calls dry camping..place to park your RV. It’s a hilly area and bring lots of leveling wood! Fire Rings not allowed but can have fire ”structures.” Pets allowed but must be on leash all times. First come first serve for non-reserved sites. Almost always can get a site race weekend with no reservations but will be a hilly area or at bottom of hill in muck if it rains site… highly recommend to reserve in advance. However even reserving does not guarantee a good site- just guarantee’s a spot. If you choose to camp here the earliest you can bring it out is Thursday afternoon- night of the race weekend. That is HIGHLY recommended especially if you camp with friends. Gotta line up behind each other and “orchestrate” the dance to the slot..believe me.. it’s fun to watch! :P Info here.
Rock Creek State Park, Kellogg, Iowa. Jane says: Roughly a 20-30 min drive depends on traffic.. and if you know the back road shortcuts.. there’s several.Have not stayed here but been told its very nice state park. All state parks you carry out your own trash. Reservations are done by reserve america also (go here, registration required.) Email for info: Rock_Creek@dnr.iowa.gov. Info on Rock Creek area here.
Iowa’s Best Burger Café Campgrounds, Kellogg, Iowa. Info HERE. I think this is the place burger aficionado Curt Cavin of the Indy Star declared has to-die-for burgers. Info on Iowa Speedway weekends there is here. Jane says: Good Sam Club. Have not stayed here.. however have had their burgers… J
Super shout out and props to my friend Jane for her most excellent camping advice.
Dude. You cannot say the pdog is not there for ya if you're planning a visit to Iowa. If I put any more info in here people will think I'm running for governor. Come on out. Get your Iowa Speedway tickets are HERE and I'll see ya at the track.