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. 

Located at the corner of 2nd and Market, just a baseball’s throw away from where the Triple-A Iowa Cubs play, the High Life Lounge has a rather appropriate if unassuming entrance.  It shares part of a city block with its sister dive bar, El Bait Shop.  If you want a combination of craft beer heaven and killer taco joint with a dive bar on steroids atmosphere, go to El Bait Shop.  If you want an atmosphere more like your grandpa’s favorite watering hole/restaurant, continue into the High Life Lounge. 

Step up to the bar, and you’ll notice – true to its name – Miller High Life on two taps, along with Miller Lite, Old Style and Pabst Blue Ribbon (I love the bowling pin-shaped PBR tap).  You’ll also see several well-stocked and deep liquor shelves, as well as plenty of stickers on the walls that help decorate and define the place.

Toward the left side of the bar area, you’ll find more taps dedicated to enough craft beers to make you realize the hipsters have invaded the place   I’d dock the place a few coolness points for having so many on hand, but the collection of old beer cans and mugs on the shelves partially make up for it.

You may also notice a large canister of Tang drink mix behind the bar.  That’s not just for nostalgia.  Tang happens to be the mixer in the bar’s signature shot, the Tangermeister.  Tang and Jagermeister?  Don’t knock it until you try it.

A couple of other noteworthy details about the High Life Lounge’s drink menu … you can experience the High Life in miniature by ordering the seven-ounce pony bottle, or the healthier side of the High Life by ordering a High Life Light.  Why you would want to do either escapes me, but the options are there. 

Also, keep in mind as you order that a few of the High Life’s contemporary brethren are available only in cans, including Hamm’s.  Upon seeing this, my faith in the place was fully restored and the presence of so many craft beers was immediately forgiven.   

All the choices are great, but this IS the High Life Lounge.  As if there was any doubt, this blurry photo taken by a blurry photographer shows I followed suit with my drink order and got the “Champagne of Beers” on my first visit.      

I wasn’t afraid to branch out on my second time in, however.  I figured since the bar offered Grain Belt on tap and in bottles, they must be onto something.  It didn’t take long to become a fan.  I loved its clean, thirst-quenching taste – something all decent “cheap” beers have in common.  I would compare it somewhat to Stag but with a slightly more wheat taste.

So, the High Life Lounge has the old man’s dive bar aspect down perfectly.  But what about the food? 

Does this weeknight crowd give you a hint?

The menu is full-on classic comfort food.  Entrees range from meatloaf to liver and onions, beef stroganoff and goulash.  A diverse burger sandwich list emphasizes old-school eats with items such as the breakfast burger, peanut butter and bacon burger, Italian grinder, BLT, Reuben, and the spam, egg and cheese.  They also offer some Mexican specialties from the El Bait Shop menu.

I kept it simple on my first visit and ordered the High Life cheeseburger basket.  The name made it seem like a natural choice; plus, what could be more appropriate tavern food than your classic quarter pound cheeseburger with pickles and onions.  I substituted cole slaw for the standard fries (super creamy!) and ordered deviled eggs for an appetizer, because how often do you get to order deviled eggs off the menu anyway?  And frankly, as satisfying as the burger was, the deviled eggs were probably the best part of this meal. 

The food specialty of the house, though, is the High Life Lounge’s broasted chicken.  If you saw the episode of “Man Vs. Food” taped here, you probably remember the broasted chicken and wished you could eat that.  I remembered, and on my second trip I brought a larger appetite with me to try it out. 

Frankly, the chicken is every bit as good as it looks on television, if not better.  I got the two-piece with breast and thigh with two sides, well worth the $9.99 price tag.  There’s something about their process that keeps the chicken extremely tender and juicy on the inside.  Once you bite through the skin, the meat almost melts in your mouth.  The baked beans proved to be a particularly good option for a side, as I detected a distinct and memorable bacon flavor to the dish. 

Dining and drinking at the High Life Lounge turned out to be a highlight of the time I spent working in Iowa.  The “champagne of bars” provides good food and good, affordable drinks in a comfortable, homey setting with a side of nostalgia.  To paraphrase that old commercial jingle one more time, if you’ve got the time when you’re in Des Moines, I’ve got the place for you to go. 

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