Aug 27, 2018

Toasting the ‘champagne of bars’ in Des Moines, Iowa

When it’s time to relax in downtown Des Moines, Iowa, to paraphrase a classic commercial jingle, as far as I’m concerned one bar stands clear – the High Life Lounge.  Not only does it pay homage to the classic beer brand Miller High Life, the self-proclaimed “champagne of bars” has preserved a perfect combination of dive bar and 1960s supper club feel, complete with a full array of comfort food on the menu and old blue-collar beers to wash them down with. 

With a resume like this … and a little notoriety from sources like Esquire magazine and the Travel Channel … it’s no wonder the High Life Lounge was on my short list of places to seek out when I was working in Iowa not long ago.  The first trip was everything I hoped for, and I quickly became a repeat visitor. 

Aug 16, 2018

It’s always a holiday at New Orleans’ Snake and Jake’s Christmas Club Lounge

I’ve been debating whether I should blog about Snake and Jake’s Christmas Club Lounge since my first visit in March 2017, not because it wasn’t blogworthy.  On the contrary, Snake and Jake’s may be the best dive bar I’ve ever been to by the purest definition of the term.  Rather, Punky and I would hate for the place to get too crowded with tourists or lose any of its amazing dive bar charm. 

Yes, it’s that special.  Let me give you a peek into why.  

I don’t normally skip ahead to the end of our visit on these blog posts, but this dance outside of Snake and Jake’s shows you the euphoria Punky had after two hours at the place.  And no, we hadn’t been drinking on the lengthy streetcar ride down St. Charles Avenue and the four-block walk from Carrolton Avenue to get there.

Aug 13, 2018

Scenes from the world’s largest truck stop, Walcott, Iowa

In my humble opinion as a travelling commoner, one of the uniquely American travel experiences – and often an essential and memorable part of any long-mileage road trip – is a visit to a truck stop.   

The truck stop can be many things all in one convenient location along the interstate.  Gas station.  Convenience store.  Restaurant.  Rest area.  Tourist trap.  Roadside attraction.  All are fine for travelers, but the truck stop primarily caters to those who make a living delivering freight from Point A to Point B.  As such, the truck stop provides all who visit insight into life on the road for the nation’s semi drivers.   

Of course, depending on the location and size of the truck stop, your mileage may vary, but occasionally you find one that literally tries to be all things to truckers who stop there.  They’re proverbial cities for semi drivers.  And the biggest and best of them all may be the Iowa 80 Truckstop just outside of the otherwise unremarkable town of Walcott.

Aug 5, 2018

Loose meat sandwiches made right at Montgomery’s, Grinnell, Iowa

One of my favorite Midwest dining traditions is the loose meat sandwich.  You may have also heard them referred to as a tavern sandwich, a steamburger, or a Maid-Rite because of the franchise loosely based off them. 

What exactly constitutes a loose meat sandwich?  Think of finely crumbled hamburger piled – or perhaps more appropriately scooped – onto a bun.  Its texture resembles a Sloppy Joe without the slop.  Then you top it with your preferred traditional hamburger accompaniments –onions (often sautéed with the meat) and mustard are almost mandatory, but often you can get ketchup, pickles and cheese as well. 

As a part of Americana, the history of the loose meat sandwich can be traced back to the early 1920s.  On a more personal level, I still recall as a youth eating at one of the first Maid-Rite sandwich shops in existence in Macomb, Ill.  That diner, which was located just of the town’s historic square, is long gone, but another one of the “original” Maid-Rite is still successfully operating in downtown Springfield (and it’s been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1984!). 

So, while good loose meat sandwiches are harder to find than they used to be, they’re still out there and appear to be making a nostalgic resurgence.  And one of the finest representations I recently found, appropriately enough, was in a restaurant that has been cranking out classic burgers, sandwiches, shakes and other diner fare in Grinnell, Iowa, since the 1930s – Montgomery’s Sandwich Shop.

A commoner dines at Baumgartner’s Cheese Store and Tavern, Monroe, Wis.

I wasn’t sure a place existed that could be the perfect representation of Wisconsin life, but then I traveled through Monroe, Wis., one week...