I’ve been planning trips to Iowa (and through Iowa) for years now. And there’s one thing I’m starting to see as a trend: Iowa doesn’t get the love it deserves for having amazing dining experiences. Time to set the record straight so you can plan your next road trip accordingly and visit some great Iowa restaurants.
I recruited some of my fellow travel writers to contribute their favorites to my list of the must-visit Iowa restaurants.
Note: A version of this post first appeared on ohmyomaha.com and is published here with permission.
Must-try Eastern Iowa restaurants
The Mississippi River runs along the eastern side of Iowa, and the terrain is more unique (in my opinion) than the rest of the state. After you’re done exploring the outdoors, you’ll want some restaurant suggestions. Here are some eastern Iowa recommendations.
1. Brazen Open Kitchen in Dubuque
Brazen Open Kitchen is a farm-to-table restaurant in Dubuque, with a focus on using locally sourced and seasonal ingredients.
From their craft cocktails to their no-freezer focused kitchen, Brazen headed by Kevin Scharpf hits all the points of a top restaurant in Iowa.
Leah and Jay from Gatronom Blog were pleased by everything they ate at the two meals we had there. They can’t tell you what to order, though, as the menu is constantly changing, but you won’t be unhappy with anything you order!
2. Breitbach’s Country Dining in Balltown
Cindy from Traveling Adventures of a Farm Girl said the German restaurant, Breitbach’s Country Dining, is memorable for many reasons, she noted, including, the location. The scenery offers views of the Mississippi River and the Great River Road. Perched high on a hill in Balltown, the view was breathtaking.
Said to be the oldest food and drinking establishment in Iowa, Breitbach was opened by Jacob Breitbach, the great-great-grandfather of the present owner. Jacob worked for the original owner and purchased the tavern in 1862.
3. Ox Yoke Inn in Amana
Of the three, Ox Yoke Inn was the standout for me for food and friendly service. You’ll want to get the fried chicken. I also recommend not passing on the homemade strawberry jam.
4. Luna Valley Farm in Decorah
Dining at Luna Valley Farm in Decorah was one of the most unique experiences I’ve had in Iowa. This is a working farm, but on the weekends in the summer, the owners serve up wood-fire pizza, beer and good times (in the form of live music). Many of the ingredients are grown or raised on the farm.
Tip: It’s off the beaten track, and you’ll make a trek from your car to the barn with the food, so wear comfortable shoes!
Central Iowa restaurants
Central Iowa is home to Iowa’s capital city, Des Moines, as well as quite a few excellent restaurants. If you travel north of Des Moines, though, hidden gems await.
5. Fong’s Pizza in Des Moines
If time allows, Des Moines is always a pit stop for us on any Iowa road trip because of the great restaurants…but one in particular. Fong’s Pizza. There are several locations, but I recommend the downtown Des Moines location for max kitschiness.
When there, I cannot emphasize enough that you need to order a crab rangoon pizza. And if you’re of age, get one of their fun tiki drinks.
Related post: 10 quirky bars and restaurants to try in Des Moines
6. The Machine Shed in Urbandale
A reader also reminded me of a restaurant near Des Moines that should be on the list (and I agree with him on this): The Machine Shed. It’s a popular stop for large groups as well as families.
We had dinner at this huge restaurant on our Great Iowa Road Trip, and the decor and huge servings were all memorable. Try, try try to save room for dessert.
Good luck with that!
7. Central Perk Coffee House in Estherville
Central Perk Coffee House is the kind of coffee shop you wished you had in your own town, according to Thrifty Jinxy. Not only do they have amazing coffee, but they also make hand-crafted smoothies, shakes, and Italian sodas.
What really stands out is their fabulous lunch menu with unique sandwiches and delicious salads. You can try both with their “pick two” option. (Try the Berry Salad – you won’t regret it!)
You can enjoy all this in their artfully decorated space with a heavy emphasis on wood and cozy spaces to enjoy your meal and/or chat with friends.
8. Northwestern Steakhouse in Mason City
When you are ready to try one of the best steaks of your life, Melody from Wherever I May Roam recommends to go to Northwestern Steakhouse and come hungry! Sink your teeth into a delicious Greek-style filet mignon, which is served swimming in its own natural juices.
Pair your perfect piece of meat with a side of Greek spaghetti, flavored by the steak juices, plenty of butter, olive oil, and Parmesan cheese. The menu is small and the inside is dated, but you’ll never have a better meal than from this 1920 Iowa institution.
9. Tequila’s Mexican Bar & Grill in Northwood
Located in a small town in northern Iowa, you’ll find one of the best Mexican restaurants in the whole state: Tequila’s Mexican Bar & Grill. And it’s locally-owned and -operated, to boot.
Mexican food in America is a finicky thing. Some people want TexMex while others want traditional Mexican food. Katy from Flint & Co. said Tequila’s has managed to find a happy balance.
Katy noted that the food is piping hot and fresh with large portions. She recommends going for the chicken nachos.
While the food is amazingly delicious, the service is just as good, she told me.
Must-try Western Iowa restaurants
Western Iowa is known for the trails through the beautiful Loess Hills and its connection to Lewis & Clark. And now, as you’ll learn, it’s known for some great restaurants, too!
10. Larsen’s Pub in Elk Horn
From the moment that you walk into Larsen’s Pub in Elk Horn, you know that this is the place to eat, Thena at HodgePodge Hippie tells me. With pork tenderloins the size of your head, there is no way that you’re going home hungry.
Their pork tenderloins huge, and they’ve also been voted “Best Tenderloin in Iowa,” as well. And if you’re a lover of sides, like Thena is, you don’t want to miss out on their fries and potato salad.
This ambiance in this pub is one that will have you coming back time and time again.
11. Archie’s Waeside in Le Mars
Located in Le Mars, Iowa—the self-proclaimed “Ice Cream Capital of the World” — Archie’s Waeside is a classic supper club and steakhouse with a cult-like following, according to Megan at Olio in Iowa.
Opened in 1949 by Archie Jackson, the supper club was once just a roadhouse with a carry-out window and two small booths. Today it is a full-service steakhouse complete with classic cocktails, an impressive relish tray, and melt-in-your-mouth steaks.
Be sure to arrive early! On any given weekend night, a crowd begins forming outside of Archie’s Waeside in anticipation of its 4:30 p.m. opening.
Archie’s Waeside isn’t just about comfort food. The restaurant has received some notable culinary honors. In 2015, Archie’s Waeside was awarded the James Beard Foundation’s American Classics Award.
12. Stanley’s Snack Shack in Honey Creek
Quite literally, Stanley’s is a shack in the middle of a field. And it’s worth a trip to visit!
Stanley’s opened after the success of the goat’s milk gelato the Honey Creek Creamery had been selling at farmer’s markets. Now you can go straight to the source for the gelato. While they sell burgers, I’ve only ever wanted the gelato.
When we visited, they had a few goats nearby to meet. We had quite an experience there – one of the employees came out to greet us and show us how to milk one of them.
Tip: The little goats that wander around the goat yoga mats at Honey Creek Creamery grow up to be the very goats you meet at Stanley’s.
Your turn: If you have a favorite restaurant in Iowa, leave a comment and let me know about it!