What is a café?

Des Moines is loaded however you define it

By Jim Duncan

In many European countries, the words used to describe types of restaurants are precisely defined, sometimes even
codified. For instance, in Italy a trattoria is less formal than a ristorante but more formal than an osteria. Usually
printed menus are only found in ristorantes and wine is only sold by the bottle, rather than the decanter, in a
ristorante. Trattorias and osterias often sell takeout food. In fact, the root of the word trattoria comes from the French word traiteur, which means one who sells take out.

In America, there are few rules about using words to describe restaurants. Consider the café. The word derives from words meaning “coffee,” and most dictionaries describe a café as an informal establishment that serves refreshments such as coffee. A secondary definition is “cabaret” or “nightclub.” Google “cafés in Des Moines,” and most of the popular answers will list coffeehouses.

But Des Moines has only had coffeehouses for the last few decades. Before that, cafés were rife here and meant
something quite different, or many different things. The word could mean tea room, diner, greasy spoon or bar.
Some bars, in fact, took an official name that included “café” or “coffeehouse” so that patrons could pay with checks and their wives would not know they had been drinking. The Highland Park Country Club and the Waveland Bar have such traditions. In Europe, one is likely to find bars that have espresso and cafés that have booze. Not so much in America, and hardly ever in the Middle East, where alcohol is banned by most sects of Islam.

Rustic favorites like Home Plate’s chicken fried steak are big at old style cafés.

Coffee was discovered in Ethiopia, and the first coffeehouses were in Yemen and Arabia. Coffee was first delivered to Europe by Arab traders but only in roasted form in order to preserve the Arab monopoly on the coffee plant. The first famous coffeehouses of Europe were in Vienna, where tradition says that coffee beans were left behind by the Turks after Suleiman the Magnificent gave up his siege of the city.

Des Moines cafés that are coffeehouses in the European sense have distinct reputations today. La Mie (three area locations) is known for its French bakery that turns out laminated pastries, plus full breakfasts and lunches. St. Kilda (300 Fifth St.) is an Australian take on the bakery-coffeehouse that extends its meal service to dinner hours. Scenic Route Bakery (350 E. Locust St.) fits the same mode but adds a beer and wine service. Grounds for Celebration (three area locations) claims to be the first area coffeehouse with an in-store bakery. They also make their own gelato and own their own coffee plantation in Panama.

Ritual Café (13th Street between Grand and Locust) does not include its own bakery, but they do have an extensive vegan and vegetarian menu. Hemp seed smoothies are popular here. They also have monthly art shows and some live music. Java Joes (three area locations and another in Dubuque) is Des Moines’ original microroaster. They introduced downtown to the aroma of beans roasting in 1992. They have also hosted a number of national music acts and poetry slams. Zanzibar’s Coffee Adventure (2723 Ingersoll Ave.) has a limited pastry menu but has expanded into root, rooibo and tea drinks more than other coffeehouses. They also host monthly art shows. Mars Café (2318 University Ave.) offers a full breakfast and lunch menu and hosts many art shows and forums. They also have a beer and wine menu. Smokey Row (four central Iowa locations) has probably the most extensive food menu of coffeehouse cafés that roast their own beans. They add burgers and cheeseburger soup to their fare. Des Moines Brew (300 MLK Blvd.) adds nitro coffee, a cold-brewed coffee infused with nitrogen to their lineup. They also have a superb line of gelatos.

Cafe at the Meadows’ burger won the CITYVIEW Ultimate Burger challenge.

That adds up to a lot of coffee culture for a city that didn’t really know what an espresso machine looked like before 1992. There are also numerous outlet stores here for national chain coffeehouses like Starbucks, Caribou and Bruegger’s. Perkup Café (2700 University, West Des Moines) spans different types of cafés.

They are a full espresso style coffeehouse but they also resemble an old-fashioned Iowa diner. That means they serve popular rustic favorites like beef stew, ham and beans, chicken pot pies and strawberry shortcake. They also serve huge breakfasts with homemade biscuits and gravy being a trademark item.

Cozy Café (three area stores) is a similar place — without the espresso but with dinner to complement besides lunch
and breakfast. They have downsized their number of shops but not their menus. Home Plate (304 E. 30th St. and 3900 E. 14th St.) is another three-meals-a-day café with fried chicken, chicken fried steak and big breakfasts. The Waveland Café and Highland Park CC also offer big breakfasts that pack fans in.

Some cafés elevate diner food considerably. Gateway Café sits in a market with South Union Bread Bakery. They
serve three meals a day including some of the most meticulously researched recipes in town for lard fried chicken (regular or Nashville), four kinds of ramen, New England clam chowder with heavy cream, lobster rolls, brined rotisserie chickens and British Fish Fryers approved fish and chips. Chef’s Kitchen (1903 Beaver Ave.) is basically a steakhouse that opens for big breakfasts on weekends. The menu offers rare things like breakfast de Burgo and
creamed chipped beef. Drake Diner (1111 25th St.) was modeled after San Francisco’s Fog City Diner. Its menu includes famous pot roast, pumpkin pancakes, chicken with waffles and waffle dogs.

Butler Cafe’s loose meat sandwich is a huge treat.

Butler Café (111 Brick St., Bondurant) is another café in a supermarket with its own bakery. Their loose meat sandwiches and breaded pork tenderloins have won contests. Café at the Meadows (1 Prairie Meadows Drive, Altoona) is a full-service casino café that won CITYVIEW’s Ultimate Burger Challenge.

Several Asian cafés use the word in their name but have little to do with coffeehouses or breakfast.

If there is a rule about the proper use of the word café, it seems to be that the place is open for breakfast, which is when most people like coffee. ♦

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