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 restaurant experiences. Time to set the record straight so you can plan your next road trip accordingly and visit a great restaurant.
I recruited some of my fellow travel bloggers to contribute their favorites to my list of the must-visit Iowa restaurants.
If you have a favorite restaurant in Iowa, leave a comment and let me know about it!
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.
Brazen Open Kitchen
Why you should go: Brazen Open Kitchen is a farm-to-table restaurant, with a constantly changing menu and 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!
Why you should go: Cindy from Traveling Adventures of a Farm Girl discovered the amazing Brietbach restaurant when visiting the National Farm Toy Show.
The restaurant is memorable for many reasons, she noted, including, the location. The scenery offers views of the Mississippi River and the Great River Road.
Breitbach’s is a German restaurant and is said to be the oldest food and drinking establishment in Iowa. Perched high on a hill in Balltown, the view was breathtaking.
The Breitbach restaurant 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. Ever since this has been a family business and the current owners are the sixth generation.
The original building has suffered from two devastating fires, but the Breitbach family rebuilt both times and although not the original building, it is built on the foundation and the building is filled with old country charm and is decorated in turn of the century furniture.
Breitbach’s makes everything fresh from scratch. They are the winner of Iowa Pork Producers’ best breaded Pork Tenderloin 2012. Cindy loved the food and the view and said she celebrated her birthday in style (which ended with an amazing snicker pie)!
Where: Iowa City
Why you should go: Dumpling Darling is a woman-owned restaurant in Iowa City. They started as a stall at the farmers market, and now they have a standalone restaurant in downtown.
It’s a casual, order-at-the-counter type place with indoor & outdoor seating. Great for people-watching in the summer, according to Cadry at Cadry’s Kitchen.
Over half of their menu is vegan or vegetarian. They’re always introducing new creative vegan specials like buffalo cauliflower dumplings or peach pie dessert dumplings.
On their regular menu, don’t miss the miso soup dumplings, chipotle tofu dumplings, roasted ramen salad, and fried Brussels sprouts in Korean BBQ sauce.
Luna Valley Farm
Why you should go: Dining at Luna Valley Farm 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 pizza, beer and good times (in the form of live music).
I went with my sister and friend, and together we delicious wood-fire pizza alongside some local beer. You can’t go wrong with any of the toppings – a lot of the ingredients are grown or raised on the farm.
Even with a bit of rain, the atmosphere and crowd attitude was joyful. How could you not be with lights strung up and a band playing?
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!
Ox Yoke Inn
Why you should go: Amana is the largest town in the famous Amana Colonies and its home to the “Big 3” of popular Amana restaurants. Each is known for large, hearty family-style meals.
Of the three, Ox Yoke Inn was the standout for me for food and service. You’ll want to get the fried chicken. I also recommend not passing on the homemade strawberry jam.
Northern Iowa restaurants
Northern Iowa is home to remarkable small towns and beautiful great lakes. And, lucky you, there are also some great north Iowa restaurants.
Central Perk Coffee House
Why you should go: 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.
Where: Mason City
Why you should go: When you are ready to try one of the best steaks of your life, Melody from Wherever I May Roam recommends to go to Mason City, Iowa, 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!
Tequila’s Mexican Bar & Grill
Why you should go: 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.
Central Iowa restaurants
Central Iowa is home to Iowa’s capital city, Des Moines, as well as quite a few excellent restaurants.
Where: Des Moines
Why you should go: If time allows, Des Moines is always a pit stop for us on any Iowa road trip, and Fong’s Pizza is where we head. 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.
Honorable mention for Des Moines: If I don’t feel like eating pizza in Des Moines, my next go-to is Zombie Burger. It’s another favorite of mine.
The decor alone would be reason enough to visit (especially the east end location). The food, though, is superb and creative.
Where: Urbandale (there’s also a location in Davenport)
Why you should go: A reader also reminded me of a restaurant near Des Moines that should be on the list (and I agree with him on this): Machine Shed.
We had dinner at this huge restaurant one 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!
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!
Where: Le Mars
Why you should go: 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.
Where: Elk Horn
Why you should go: From the moment that you walk into Larsen’s Pub, 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.
Related post: On the hunt for the best pork tenderloin in Iowa.
Stanley’s Snack Shack
Where: Honey Creek
Why you should go: 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. The creamery is a stop on the Pottawattamie County trail called What In The World?: On the Trail For Stranger Things.
If this post made you hungry enough to explore the whole state, start planning a trip! Get inspired for some fun between restaurants stops with this post sharing 101 Things To Do In Iowa.
Monday 17th of February 2020
If you are a burger lover, skip Zombie Burger. It's all gimmick and there are better burgers to be had elsewhere. A completely mediocre burger
Tuesday 18th of February 2020
I do like a good cheeseburger. Where in Iowa do you recommend for a better one than Zombie Burger?
Wednesday 12th of February 2020
How is Breitbach a German restaurant? Lol Some of these I definitely agree with. Some I don't but that's all a matter of personal taste and our own experiences at each named location. By far the most overhyped and over priced is Zombie Burger followed by the Machine Shed. Northwest Steakhouse is amazing. I'll be trying the ones I haven't been to for sure. Good article.
Wednesday 12th of February 2020
Thanks, Brian. Yep, it's definitely a matter of taste. I'm partial to Zombie Burger. :)
Wednesday 5th of February 2020
Tequilas in Northwood definitely is and always will be the best Authentic Mexican Restaurant in Iowa.The owners Shawna and Manuel go above and beyond to please their patrons.After your delicious meal,make sure to try one of their delicious desserts.
Thursday 5th of December 2019
I really enjoyed reading about the options in Iowa. Thanks for including my shout out to Dumpling Darling! I also liked seeing the Zombie Burger mention. I'm a big fan of theirs too. They make a vegan burger (the Negan) that's one of the best in Iowa. If people are in Iowa City, Trumpet Blossom is also lovely.
By the way, Iowa City & the Amanas are considered Eastern Iowa, not Central Iowa.
Thursday 5th of December 2019
Thanks for contributing! And I appreciate the correction - my geography skills are questionable. :) I'll move those two cities to the other category.
Val - Corn, Beans, Pigs & Kids
Wednesday 4th of December 2019
Yes! All great Iowa restaurants and now I've all of a sudden got really hungry!
Wednesday 4th of December 2019
Mission accomplished! Where would you head to first?