A list so nice, we had to make it twice. We’ve got a brand-new roundup of the Best Hidden Gems in Greater Des Moines, as voted by locals. From restaurants and bars to parks and attractions, you’ll be over the moon for these under the radar spots. Feel free to shout about them, because in Des Moines, only the S’s are silent!
This hole in the wall pizza joint in picturesque Indianola quietly slings some of the best pizza pies in Greater Des Moines, with a focus on fresh ingredients, unique offerings, and service with a smile. They’ve got C’s in spades: charm, character, cheese, and oh my, that thin crust. Traditional is all well and good, but those who know opt for specialties like The Rogalla (pepperoni and cream cheese) or The Jontie (Canadian bacon, green pepper, and onion, topped with lettuce and creamy Italian dressing).
As a staple of the underrated Hiland Park neighborhood since 1946, this bake shop consistently rises to the occasion with their cakes, cookies, donuts, and pastries. They make specialty cakes and made-to-order desserts, but we’re in line every day for their cinnamon rolls, bear claws, and famous champagne donuts, which Food & Wine Magazine called the best donuts in the state.
Talk about the ultimate paper clip challenge. What started out as a food cart in Beaverdale eventually became a food truck and then upgraded to a brick-and-mortar location in 2019. A year later they were named Best New Restaurant, thanks to globally inspired dishes like the Jamaican Jerk Chicken Sandwich, Cubano Sandwich, and Muy Thai Pizza. The PB&J Fries are a foodie fave – crispy golden fries topped with Thai peanut sauce and raspberry chipotle jelly. Don't ask questions, just trust your gut on this one.
Any discussion of a nice night out in the burbs usually starts and ends with Trostel’s Greenbriar in Johnston, and for good reason. This is reliably great, white tablecloth dining, where you aren’t out of place whether you're dressed in Hugo Boss or Carhart. They’ve got slow roasted prime rib and pan seared sea scallops for the former crowd and beef sliders and Graziano sausage pizzas for the latter. If a well-curated wine list and a wedge salad are some of the little things that bring you joy, Trostel’s Greenbriar will be your happy place.
Located in an unassuming strip mall in Clive (with a location in Ankeny coming soon), Club Car may be adorned with retro railroad memorabilia, but the food here is anything but kitschy. This flavor train makes stops for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and is the type of place as equally adept at date nights as it is nights out with the whole family. Expect seafoods, pastas, and steaks – their pan-fried walleye and signature Coal Car ribeye earn raves. And plan to be back once you’ve given it a try.
Ever since it opened on Des Moines’ south side earlier in the year, this Mediterranean spot has been the buzz of the 80K strong “Des Moines Food Lovers” Facebook group, which has serves as the default foodie sounding board for the metro. Reviewers rave about the generous portions, tender gyro meat, spicy potatoes, vegan options, and addictive green jalapeño sauce that comes with each platter. We’ve long said Mediterranean food needs to be talked about (and eaten) more, and Green Olive seems positioned to be the talk of the town.
Rube’s in Waukee foregoes the well done, if not well-worn steakhouse cliches and provides an experience that’s decidedly more rare. Once you select your steak (when in Iowa, ribeye), you’ll be taken to a spot at a giant communal grill where you’ll have seasonings and melted butter and everything you need to grill your own steak to your liking. All dinners include salad, Texas toast, baked beans, and skillet-fried potatoes. There’s also shrimp, pork, and chicken options, plenty of add-on sides and to-die-for desserts. It’s the perfect place to take a group for a taste of Iowa.
Home Slice Pies
Head up to Bondurant for a little slice of heaven at Home Slice Pies. Started by Laura Lacina out of her home, her pies grew a cult following when she began posting photos of them on social media. (Case in point: her Facebook page.) Flavors like Dutch Letter, Salted Honey, and Mocha Cream rotate seasonally, and the smart money is on the pie flights – a selection of four five-inch pies, so that finding your favorite flavor is easy as, well, you know.
Bars and Coffee Shops
Referred to affectionately as “the vampire bar,” Black Sheep is more properly categorized as a tequila and vinyl bar in the Historic East Village. With sexy red lighting and decidedly gothic décor, this basement bar has got atmosphere and mood to spare. You’ll feel like you stepped out of the Matrix or into a Tarantino movie, so make sure to have a mezcal cocktail to reset yourself.
Kelly’s Little Nipper
If townie dive bars with character (and characters) are more your jam, pull up a stool at Kelly’s Little Nipper, where burger baskets and Bloody Mary’s are the order of the day. Kelly’s building has been around since 1908, originally as a general store, then a brothel and speakeasy, before settling on its current incarnation as well, the Cheers of Des Moines.
Speaking (in hushed tones) of speakeasys, the latest Prohibition-era addition to the Des Moines cocktail scene has our lips flapping about how cool it is. Tucked away in the basement of the historic Hotel Fort Des Moines – enter through the bookcase at the northern end of the lobby coffee shop, Hob Knob – In Confidence will have you feeling like you stepped into the pages of The Great Gatsby or Alice in Wonderland, with velvet booths and curtains, high-backed chairs and eclectic furnishing galore. Any speakeasy is only as good as its cocktails, and here you’ll find plenty worth shouting about, including the Millionaire – Four Rose’s single barrel, Grand Marnier, Ricard, house Grenadine, egg white, lemon juice, and nutmeg. It tastes like a million bucks.
503 Cocktail Lab + Tasting Room
Here’s a bar that’s much easier to find. In fact, its address (503 East Locust) is right there in the name. Started by chef Lynn Pritchard, renowned for his work at former foodie fave Table 128, 503 focuses on creative cocktails (and mocktails) like Goodness Knows – vodka, cardamom, orange, and sparkling wine – paired with carefully curated small plates like brussels sprouts salad and mini chocolate chip cookies. In other words, you can get your recommended daily dose of fruit, vegetables, and chocolate chips.
Chain & Spoke Coffee
We all know cycling culture and beer go together like peanut butter and jelly, but bikes and coffee? Stands to reason, as you need some pre-ride caffeine to get you to post-ride brews. The brainchild of a former pro bike racer, Chain & Spoke combines high end coffee with high end specialty bikes from manufacturers like Orbea and Allied Cycle works. No matter if you’re in the market for new wheels or not, the uniquely refurbished space (built in 1925 to house a lithographic business) is the perfect place to saddle up with a maple cinnamon latte and enjoy the ride.
You don’t have to look very hard to find a bar on Ingersoll Avenue in Des Moines, but you might have to squint to see Dugan’s Hideaway, which is tucked away behind the popular sports bar The Station. This quintessential dive bar has two separate lounge areas to relax, with an old-style couch and recliner chairs or booths by the window. And come December, it transforms into Miracle on Ingersoll, the jolliest Christmas speakeasy this side of the North Pole.
Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge
Prairie City is home to where the buffalo roam. About 57 of them to be exact, along with around 20 large elk. More specifically, they can be found within Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge, which protects over 6,000 acres of wildlife habitat, including tallgrass prairie, which used to cover 85% of Iowa, and now makes up less than 0.1%. The bison are easy to spot (behind the safety of a fence) for photo ops, and there’s also five miles of walking trails, along with a Visitors’ Center and store. It’s the perfect escape from the city to reconnect with nature (and a great excuse to grab a tenderloin at the nearby Norman Rockwell-esque Goldie’s Ice Cream Shoppe).
This 140-acre park with a little something for everyone is tucked behind the Des Moines Art Center, whose artistic vibes carry over into many touchpoints throughout the park. Take the Rose Garden, filled with hundreds of varieties of roses; Greenwood Pond, with its combination of wetland, art, and boardwalk surrounding the pond; even the splashpad foregoes your typical brightly colored commercial look for natural “spraying rocks” and fossils. Make no mistake, there’s nothing abstract about this park; it’s tangibly awesome.
There are many ways to explore the region, but perhaps none are as unique and magical as Rail Explorers in Boone. Choose your “explorer” – either a tandem or quad railbike with electric assist (so no worries if you have kids who are pedaling adverse) and take a 12.5-mile round trip with beautiful views of the Des Moines River Valley and the showstopping trek across the 156-foot-high Bass Point Creek High Trestle bridge. And the whole thing is hands free, leaving you plenty of opportunities to capture photos and videos and give your friends a major case of FOMO.
These days, it’s not necessarily unique for a movie theater to offer prepared foods along with its popcorn and Milk Duds. But to have one of the best microbreweries in the region on-site? Now you have our attention. Pair a Luna Rosa Wit with the most underrated cheeseburger in town and now we’re talking blockbuster. Best supporting actor goes to the customized pre-show, which has a curated selection of old-school commercials, trailers, and movie clips relevant to the movie you’re watching. You had me at “cheeseburger.”
Des Moines Art Center
Des Moines has cultivated a reputation as being an underrated art town (the annual Des Moines Art Festival has won a Silver Grand Pinnacle Award reflecting the “best festival in the world”). But before there was the Pappajohn Sculpture Park downtown, there was (and is) the Des Moines Art Center, a modern and contemporary art museum nestled among the beautiful historic homes along Grand Avenue west of downtown. This free attraction houses major works by artists of the 19th and 20th centuries including Georgia O’Keeffe and Francis Bacon.
Valley Junction Farmers Market
While its downtown cousin may get a lot of the pub (rightfully so), the Valley Junction Farmers Market in West Des Moines is certifiably fresh in its own right. On Thursday evenings (4 – 8 p.m.) from May through September, the 100 – 300 blocks of 5th Street in Valley Junction turn into a cornucopia of fresh produce, prepared treats, live music, arts and crafts, and cute pups. And not only do you have the Farmers Market, but you also have all the great shops and restaurants on the Valley Junction strip right there at your fingertips (or green thumbs).
Des Moines Metro Opera
You may think Iowa is more country than classical, but people who know sing the praises of the Des Moines Metro Opera, a true hidden gem located a half hour south of the city in Indianola. This major American Summer Opera Festival produces more than 100 performances around the region annually, with the highlight during Summer Festival Season from May through July, with numerous productions taking place at the beautiful and intimate 467-seat Pote Theater at Blank Center for the Performing Arts. There are even shuttles that go from both Des Moines and Ames to Indianola and on-site gourmet dinners available pre-show in the Performing Arts Center.
Equal parts farm, event space, experiential flower shoppe, and Instagrammable photo op, this charming flower farm in Norwalk is the perfect place to take in a workshop (think candle making, watercolors, and brunch boards), buy a beautiful bouquet of flowers, or come holiday season, find the perfect locally sourced gifts and décor. Our favorite thing might be the idyllic Farm-to-Table outdoor dinner they do on Fridays throughout the summer and fall season, which validates the whole “Is this heaven? No, it's Iowa.” thing.