Best Restaurants in Des Moines (For Everyone)
January 28, 2013 4 Comments
While Marcia and I were house hunting in Des Moines in the fall of 2011, our great realtor gave us a copy of the Register‘s annual “Top 100 Restaurants in Greater Des Moines” listing. It was useful as we began exploring our region’s dining out options in earnest after moving to Beaverdale in November 2011, as it gave us a check-off list of choices for those times when home cooking wasn’t on the menu.
As best I can recall and calculate, Marcia and I have eaten at about 75 restaurants together since we arrived in Des Moines. In some cases, we have agreed with the Register‘s voters about their highest ranked dining destinations. In other cases, though, we felt like yelling “the Emperor has no clothes!!” after we waited too long for substandard tables at packed restaurants near the top of the Register‘s rankings, then experienced marginal food, poor service, or both. These venues were clearly living on their prior accomplishments, not on their current achievements, and yet people were still flocking to them.
How do polls get to be so wrong this way, beyond an occasional off night, which can happen anywhere? To some extent, annual online contents like this are marred by selection bias and preconceived notions right from the get-go. In the case of the Register restaurant poll, for readers to cast their votes, they had to care enough to make an active effort to log in to the newspapers’ website, give away some of their personal information, and then have enough knowledge of the local market to pick ten top restaurants, none of which could be national chains. Who would most closely fit such a profile? People who work within the local food service industry, for starters, since placing high in this type of local food poll is essentially free advertising for the year ahead.
So of the ~3,000 votes cast, I am guessing that a very good chunk of them came directly or indirectly from folks who work for or with Des Moines’ restaurant industry, with many of them voting (a) for their own establishments, or (b) to maintain “buzz” about particular spaces or chefs promulgated through their own professional networks, or (c) in response to restaurants’ own active “Vote for Us!” campaigns, which have to come to pollute social media platforms in a particularly virulent fashion. These approaches to “getting out the vote” may not, however, actually produce a list of restaurants that most diners will appreciate, especially when chains are removed from the mix, and when votes may be based on year-old dining experiences that are better in memory than they would be in present reality.
To my mind, voters should be able to openly cast ballots for popular national chains if they want to, because if locally owned restaurants can’t compete for customer attention and favor with the big bland behemoths, then that’s a problem in and of itself. At bottom line, the Register‘s exclusionary, once-per-year, beg-for-votes approach to polling tends to create a self-reinforcing do-loop where the same people and places are pretty much guaranteed to stay near the top of the pile once they get there, barring a salmonella or hepatitis A outbreak, or some other such public relations disaster.
It occurred to me that one could get beyond this self-perpetuating exclusivism by aggregating votes from multiple restaurant rating services that represented not only hometown foodie or restauranteur opinions of the locally-owned venues, but also folks who eat at chains, travelers who visit Des Moines with little or no advance knowledge of the market, casual or infrequent diners who may view restaurant venues as part of a their larger social network activities, and folks who just love to get something tasty at their neighborhood joint, and don’t have a lot to compare it with. Blending a once per year spot poll (like the Register‘s) with rating services that evolve in real time could also provide a better sense of a constantly evolving marketplace.
And once this occurred to me, of course, I had to act on it and produce a database, because that’s what I do. So I spent an icy Sunday morning this weekend at the computer pulling Top 100 Restaurant Lists from five diverse sources and feeding them into a big pivoting spreadsheet. Here are the sources I picked, and why I chose them:
- Register/Metromix: Represents knowledgeable local opinion, though perhaps skewed toward people who work in the local restaurant industry, or are stuffing ballots on their behalf, which is easier to do when an annual poll has a set publication deadline known in advance.
- Tripadvisor: Serves primarily as a resource for people from out of town who are looking for places to eat when they’re on travel, so many of these user submitted reviews are going to be from people who don’t care about the hierarchies of local restauranteurs, chefs, facilities or genres of food. They allow national chains.
- Yelp: Has a strong social networking element, likely attracting a younger demographic of diners, who may be more limited in their financial ability to eat out often or at high end locations, while also likely favoring more social venues than intimate destinations. They allow national chains.
- Urbanspoon: Offers a moderated approach that combines user submissions with professionally developed reviews, favoring more recent reviews that may give a better sense of current situations, rather than allowing restaurants to coast on past glories. They allow national chains.
- Dine: Pretty much the opposite of Urbanspoon, proudly excluding any professionally prepared content for the most “let the people speak” approach to reviews. And, like everyone except the Register, they allow people to vote for whoever they want, regardless of who owns them or how many outlets they have.
So what do you get when you crush those numbers together into a single database to get a more broad-based view of the restaurant world hereabouts? I present the 50 top scoring restaurants from my aggregated model below, along with a percentage showing how their total scores compare, in relative terms, to the runaway winner of this exercise: Tursi’s Latin King.
- Tursi’s Latin King (100%)
- Flying Mango (87%)
- Centro (86%)
- Django (81%)
- 801 Chop (81%)
- Miyabi 9 (80%)
- Lucca (80%)
- Court Avenue Brewing (76%)
- Fong’s Pizza (72%)
- Alba (71%)
- Jethro’s BBQ (69%)
- A Dong (65%)
- Skip’s (65%)
- Waterfront (62%)
- La Mie (62%)
- Proof (60%)
- Splash (59%)
- Baratta’s (58%)
- Tasty Tacos (57%)
- Palmer’s (55%)
- Christopher’s (55%)
- Zombie Burger (55%)
- Jesse’s Embers (54%)
- Americana (53%)
- Chef’s Kitchen (53%)
- J Benjamin’s (52%)
- Cosi Cucina (52%)
- Café di Scala (50%)
- Chicago Speakeasy (48%)
- Wasabi Chi (46%)
- Thai Flavors (46%)
- Tumea and Sons (44%)
- Smokey D’s BBQ (44%)
- Machine Shed (43%)
- Gino’s (42%)
- El Aguila Real (41%)
- Hickory Park (40%)
- Drake Diner (40%)
- Iowa Beef (39%)
- Hessen Haus (39%)
- Ohana (39%)
- Bistro Montage (39%)
- Olympic Flame (38%)
- Royal Mile (36%)
- Gusto Pizza (35%)
- Trostel’s Greenbrier (35%)
- Chuck’s (35%)
- Café Fuzion (34%)
- Nick’s (34%)
- Francie’s (33%)
Notes and observations on these results:
- There were a total of 273 restaurants that received at least one vote in one of the five Top 100 lists surveyed.
- It is interesting to note that the very top of the list does not change that much from the Register poll to my model, with Latin King, Centro, Django and Flying Mango clearly and consistently emerging as the “Big Four” in terms of diner satisfaction within the local market.
- This consolidated Top 50 listing includes six restaurants — mostly lower priced operations — that didn’t even make the Register‘s Top 100: Wasabi Chi, El Aguila Real, Iowa Beef Steakhouse, Olympic Flame, Hessen Haus and Cafe Fuzion.
- Beyond those six who didn’t make the Register‘s cut, the six biggest gainers in terms of their ranked position in my consolidated model vs their original Register ranking are Zombie Burger (+51 spots), Francie’s (+44), Royal Mile (+43), A Dong (+40), Jesse’s Embers (+35) and Chef’s Kitchen (+31).
- Goldie’s Ice Cream Shop and Sam & Gabe’s were Top Ten finishers in the Register poll, but they didn’t even make my consolidated Top 50. Possible ballot stuffing in the Register poll here? Or just the vagaries of geography for outlying restaurants like these two?
- Even though four of the five rankings consolidated in this model allowed national chain restaurants to receive votes, no such restaurants ended up in the Top 50 of the consolidated rankings. Maybe the Register should trust its readers’ judgment and discernment a little more and let them vote for what they want to, rather than assuming that they can’t handle the responsibility.
In some ways, this whole discussion of ranking restaurants is just another iteration of the point I made in my prior post about trying to separate “what’s good” from “what’s popular.” I think the multi-source model I used here for restaurants provides a good balance between these poles, allowing hearty, satisfying fare from small neighborhood restaurants to compete fairly against the more trendy and high-brow places that are going to get all of the attention in the local food-related media outlets. My list looks and feels a lot more egalitarian than the Register‘s does, accordingly, and I find that satisfying, because it means that everybody‘s opinions matter, and not just the opinions of food snobs and the restaurants who cater to them.
In closing, I would also note that this ranking structure is completely free from my own subjective assessment of the local dining market, with some of my personal favorite restaurants not making the cut, either in the Register‘s pages or in my own model, though I like many of the ones cited above, too. So just for the record, below I list our family’s current default “go to” restaurants, in case you’d like to see us out on the town some evening. Please say “hello” if you do. I’m friendlier than I look.
- Favorite place for a special night out: Alba.
- Favorite place to eat small plates at the bar: The Continental and Sbrocco (A tie, which means we often do both locations on the same night, since they’re close to each other).
- Favorite place to eat small plates in a booth: Trostel’s Dish.
- Favorite Sushi Bar and Asian Restaurant: Wasabi Chi.
- Favorite Breakfast Joint: Cozy Cafe (Douglas Avenue location).
- Favorite Wine Bar: Louie’s Wine Dive (Also another place we like to eat small plates at the bar; Louie’s was too new to make many of the lists surveyed, though I suspect it will feature very high on all of them soon).
- Favorite South Asian Restaurant: India Star.
- Favorite Barbecue: Woody’s Smoke Shack.
- Favorite Pizza: Christopher’s (We always order and eat it at the bar, not in the main restaurant, if you’re detecting a theme here).
- Favorite Lunch Spot: Flarah’s (Beaver Avenue location).
- Favorite Sports Bar Pub Grub: Saints (Urbandale Avenue location).
Happy eating, everybody!