In Search of Red Barns and Fine Dining in Des Moines

Keep Your Friends Close and Your Farmers Closer

We headed to Des Moines in search of red barns and fine dining this past October. With Iowa being 92 percent farmland, finding barns to photograph and farm-to-table food wasn’t difficult.

Iowa barn
Red barns dotted I-35N in route to Des Moines.

Day #1: Plants, Sculptures, and Fine Dining

As soon as arrived, we went to the Des Moines Botanical Garden to grab lunch at its Trellis Cafe and tour the indoor and outdoor gardens. Sharing a squash soup, sandwich, Perrier and a glass of Chardonney, gave us the fuel to enjoy two hours in the gardens. Operated by chef Lisa LaValle, Trellis Café serves a locally sourced, plant-based menu that changes monthly.  Tom and I loved the French vibe and views of the outdoor gardens from where we sat.

When you go, make sure to have at least two to three hours or you’ll miss interesting plants and the history behind them. For instance, Des Moines Botanical Garden has at 55-year-old bonzais (Cuban Laurel) and a 40-year-old traveler’s tree from Madagscar. The traveler’s tree was one the first plants the garden acquired back in 1970s.

The garden has three collections and a waterfall and cactus garden.

(1) Bonsai Collection

(2) Coleus and Plectranthus – a sample of  650 diverse plant species rotate through the garden quarterly

(3) Orchid Collection – showcasing at least 15 different orchid types


Trellis Cafe
Farm-to-table, plant-based cafe operated by Chef Lisa LaValle.

Our next  stop was to The John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park downtown, which sits on four acres of land and features 31 amazing sculptures. It’s unlike any other sculpture park in the US.

The park is located near the west entrance of downtown at 1330 Grand Avenue. It’s open from sunrise to sunset. Self-guided tours are available with the use of your mobile phone.  With the temperature at 41 and windchill making it feel like 21, I didn’t want to remove my gloves to operate my phone. The chill reminded us of touring drafty castles and frigid graveyards in Ireland.

One of Robert Indiana’s Love Sculptures was added to the downtown park in 2019. The sculpture park, operated by the Des Moines Art Center, ranks right up there with the famous shuttlecock at Donald J. Hall Sculpture Park in Kansas City.

des moines art
Source: flickr

After driving three hours and spending three hours on our feet at the Botanical and sculpture garden, it was time for a drink. Thanks to guidance from Catch Des Moines, the Greater Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau, we headed to The Royal Mile and Red Monk.

The Royal Mile, a premier English pub with ample scotch and whiskeys, wrapped its arms around us like an Irish lover. We ordered a Guinness and shot of Powers to celebrate the day.  Irish culture is full of British features, including tea, driving on the left, and plenty of great whiskeys.

Day #2:  Bridges, Red Barns, and the Iowa Capitol

Our second day in Des Moines began with great coffee and pastries at Smokey Row Coffee, a college kid favorite with Drake University being blocks away. Though the pastry fix didn’t qualify as fine dining, it was exactly what I needed.

I give Des Moines residents a huge compliment for distancing and masking in farm-to-market cafes and restaurants. We felt very safe whenever indoors.

Smokey Row
The outside of Smokey Row looks like a fine arts theatre.
smokey row
I couldn’t resist this Halloween cookie at Smokey Row covered in an inch thick orange icing.

After java and sweets, we took a scenic 40-minute drive to see the famed High Trestle Trail Bridge. OMG, worth the drive and half-mile walk to the bridge.

iowa bridge
Stunning views, architecture, and experience.

The High Trestle Trail Bridge is half a mile long and 130 feet high, and is said to be among the largest trail bridges in the world.  It was originally built in 1970 to carry rail traffic. Whether you’re biking, walking, or just there for a selfie, dress warm. Heavy winds and windchill off the water will have you dancing like I did to stay warm.

We saw a handful of hard-core bike riders in October. Because of the chill in the air, we were glad we left our bikes at home this trip. We’ll come back to Des Moines next July with our Cannondales, helmets, and appetite to eat and drink at the Flat Tire Lounge.

Our Des Moines Pub Crawl and Red Drinks

After exploring the bridge and capitol, we needed a nap. We had walked more than five miles between hiking to the High Trestle Trail Bridge and exploring the 330,000 square feet of the Iowa State Capitol.

Post nap, we headed to Ernie’s Boondock for a greyhound and beer. I have a dive bar fetish so we used Ernie’s as our starting point for the evening. I was a little disappointed that Ernie’s Boondock was a dive bar in a box (aka a creation of a developer with the budget to fill a newer bar with vintage decor).  However, the greyhound cocktail they served me was tall and cheap. Plus, the bufffalo head above the fireplace and 1972 Winnebago food truck were fun touches.

drinks at Ernies
Ernie’s Boondock served us generous pours.

After visiting Ernie’s, we popped into a tiki bar called the Bellhop for a photo and then over to Nightengale for cosmos. Nightengale probably was a little young for us. Two nice women thought we were “so cute” being on date night (at our age).

They tipped us off that we must go to Fresco dinnr and to sample its mussels and kale.  We’re so glad we did. Everything about the ambiance and food was fresh, which is what Fresko means in XXX.

Fresko menu confirmed that it was dedicated to serving farm-to-market fare whenever possible and creating seasonal menus made from locally sourced ingredients. I could taste the love and care the chefs put in our meals, which much of came from a local Iowa farms.

The kale that came with my half chicken tasted better than buttery pasta certainly not like the bland kale I make. I don’t know how they prepared it, but go and taste for yourself. Hat tip to Fresko’s Executive Chef Erick Brown

We learned that Fresko had only been open for six-weeks yet was already up for numerous awards, including (1) best gluten-free restaurant (2) best new restaurant (3) best wine list (4) best happy hour and (5) best whiskey menu.

Before heading back to Kansas City, we ate breakfast at Eggs and Jam. The jam in the restaurant’s name ties to the hip-hop music they play and the homemade jam they serve. The servings were as large as the restaurant’s following. I had the Chorizo omelet shown below. Much to my surprise and delight, they offered several vegan and gluten-free entrees. And even more to my surprise, I really enjoyed listening to the Beastie Boys and Snoop Dog over breakfast.


Eggs and Jam
Tom had scrambled eggs, bacon, and potatoes. I had an omelet with chorizo the size of Nebraska.

If you can’t tell by this post, we fell in love with Des Moines. We’re definitely going back in the spring or summer of 2021 with our bikes for more fun, drink, and to eat at Clyde’s Fine Diner, which is another farm-to-table restaurant we didn’t make it to this trip.

Clyde’s Chef Chris Hoffman says not to expect a greasy spoon. He takes comfort food and infuses them with farm-fresh ingredients. Instead of collard greens, Hoffmann will serve creamed kimchi collard greens. And instead of hush puppies, the dish will have scallion beignets.

fun things to do in des moines
One of the most fun things to do in Des Moines is kiss.

All in all, we only spent $475 during our weekend in Des Moines. As you know, we preach the value of traveling to beautiful, culturally vibrant communities right here in the heartland. Here is an itemized budget breakout of our receipts from the trip.

We hope sharing these numbers inspire you to pack up the car and go somewhere close, safe, and fun in the Midwest.

packing for Des Moines
We visited 20 prime attractions, and will return to next year to find 40 more fun things to do in Des Moines.

Subscribe to our site to follow along to learn more fun things to do in Des Moines and other Midwest cities.

vacation cost

Follow me

Browse Our Blog