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The Des Moines Coffee Scene

Young Professionals Connection Coffee Scene

July 22, 2014

I consider myself a serious coffee drinker. I like black coffee, espresso and lattes. I make my own coffee at home, usually in a French press, but I really favor stopping into one of my favorite local coffee shops to feed my habit.

Greater Des Moines (DSM) is home to quite a few new and old local coffee shops, in addition to a hefty share of chains. Personally, I prefer a local coffee shop. I love supporting local community and getting to know the people behind the counter. Also? There is nothing better than popping into your favorite shop and they already know your order by heart.

Making the Grade — Best Coffee Shops in Des Moines

There are three things I grade a coffee shop on: coffee (duh!), creativity and community. I find each of these things is equally important in creating the perfect coffee shop vibe.

In order of frequency of visits, this is a list of my top five coffee shops in Des Moines with a 5-scale rating on coffee, creativity and community as well as some little known facts!

Ritual Café

The Ritual (as it is affectionately called), located at 13th Street and Locust Street, is my home spot. For the past 3 years I’ve lived within walking distance of the shop and pick up my coffee from there at least 3x a week. Linda and Denise, owners, bring a lot of spunk and funk to the coffee scene. They have rotating art installations, drum circles, live music, poetry readings and the best (and only) Horchata Latte in town. Their coffee is specially roasted at Zanzibar and has a rich, drinkable flavor. My go-to drink is a hot Horchata Latte with soy milk, or an iced Café Miel with almond milk. They have a full vegan menu – my two favorite items being the Grateful Oats (chai!) and The Jess (a 4 cheese and pepper sandwich melt that will blow your mind). I often see the mayor frequenting the shop as well as many commuters, stay at homers and students. It is a great mix of people and has a comfortable ambience that is perfect for curling up with a book or chatting with a friend.

Coffee: 4 (specific options not available anywhere else)

Creativity: 5+ (fun and funky decorations, rotating art wall)

Community: 5 (the location alone makes it a perfect meeting spot for community leaders, not to mention just hanging out with friends)

Downside? During festival season (Des Moines Art Fest & 80/35) they are only accessible on foot as the streets around are blocked off.

Best not so-secret secret? Double shot Monday (free!) and Double Punch Tuesday- get you some!

Mars Café

Mars Café, near Drake University, holds a special place in my heart. I have lots of friends that work there and not too long ago when it was for sale, I seriously considered selling all my possessions and becoming a business owner. Someday! Mars is located in the heart of the Drake neighborhood and is often brimming with students busy at work. They also have rotating art installations and occasionally host live music events. What sets Mars apart from other coffee shops in Des Moines is their extensive brewing options: Chemex, pour over, drip…they have it all. Mars is a great place to meet and conduct business- it’s bright, airy and has a crisp, modern feel. My go-to drink there is the Sputnik, or whatever the light roast is for the day. Their brewed coffee never disappoints and if you order a latte, you will enjoy some beautiful foam art by the talented barrister, Daniel. Bonus item- the owners of Mars are a group of locals with ties to the community, most notably numerous members of the Des Moines Music Coalition.  

Coffee: 5 (all the brewing options!)

Creativity: 4 (local art, ties to local music scene)

Community: 4 (good for conducting business)

Downside? It can get pretty busy during the school season and snagging a table can prove difficult.

Best not so secret secret? They have Thelma’s ice cream sandwiches for sale. YUM.

Smokey Row

Smokey Row, in Cottage Grove, is probably the most popular local coffee shop in Des Moines. Located just off the interstate, with a convenient drive thru and plenty of space for those wanting to hang out, it meets the needs of just about anyone. Smokey Row has a rotating staff of mostly college students who are fun, friendly and always remember me (even when I can’t remember their names). They have a daily regular coffee and a daily flavor coffee. When I was writing my novel for NaNoWriMo I drank numerous cups of coffee and probably cleared the entire jar of shortbread carmellas prominently displayed on the front counter. In my opinion, they have the perfect amount of light, noise and comfort to make it my favorite writing spot. Also, Smokey Row has tons of options: lattes, teas, coffee, shakes, smoothies AND a full menu. My go-to is black coffee (usually the flavor option) and a honey bran muffin. And if I really want to treat myself? Cinnamon roll. Just do it.

Coffee: 3 (it’s basic)

Creativity: 3.5 (they don’t really display local art but have a lot of fun kitschy decorations)

Community: 5 (great meeting spot!)

Downside? They close at 10. As a writer, I’d love a place with Wi-Fi that is open till midnight and this would be a perfect location. And? I wish they had almond milk.

Best not so secret secret? FREE REFILLS on black coffee. Every. Day.\

Zanzibar Coffee

I hadn’t spent a lot of time in Zanzibar Coffee on Ingersoll Avenue until a couple summers ago. Then, I began meeting a few friends there for breakfast and coffee. Sue’s Special, a piece of locally baked bread (your choice on flavor) topped with cream cheese, melted cheese and green onion, is a favorite! They also make their eggs with the espresso machine, giving them a light fluffy texture. The real star of Zanzibar? The coffee!! They have so many options and they roast their own beans in house. They usually have 2-3 flavors each day and up to 20 different roasts available for purchase. In the summer, try the Sweet Cream Coffee. One thing I love about Zanzibar is they do not have Wi-Fi. They purposely don’t have it so you have to TALK to people face to face. This makes Zanzibar the perfect location for catching up with an old friend or just enjoying a break from technology with a phenomenal cup of coffee.

Coffee: 5+ (best in town)

Creativity: 4 (they don’t have a LOT of decoration but support local artist in a rotating display)

Community: 5 (it’s the best place to spend quality face time with people)

Downside? It’s tiny which means it can be hard to find a place to sit if you want to stay awhile.

Best not so secret secret? Their bread comes from Keller’s, a downtown Des Moines institution. Try the potato rosemary with Sue’s special- you won’t be disappointed!

Java Joes

Definitely one of the oldest coffee shops in Des Moines, Java Joes is located at 4th Street and Court Avenue in the heart of Downtown Des Moines (DSM). They also roast their own beans in house and have a pretty extensive menu with lunch items, snacks and ice cream. They are a popular stand at the Farmers' Market and sell some of the largest, most delicious cinnamon rolls I’ve ever seen. I’ve spent time there writing or chatting with friends. My favorite way to visit Java Joe’s is to pick up a hot cocoa on the walk home from a wintry dinner on Court. Also, they stay open till 11 PM!

Coffee: 3.5 (I usually get a latte so I can’t speak to the black coffee there, but they roast in house)

Creativity: 4 (I really love the old marquee letters and creaky wood floors)

Community: 3 (I don’t see a lot of people meeting in there, mostly just stopping in)

Downside? Their wi-fi can be pretty sketchy if you are trying to get something done.

Best not so secret secret? Their mocha is made with chocolate milk instead of syrup. Game changer.

Honorable Mention

Capes Café in the Des Moines Social Club has become a recent favorite of mine, mostly due to proximity to where I spend time. Nestled inside the lobby of the Des Moines Social Club, the café is comic book themed- the décor, the names of the drinks and they even have comic books for sale. I’m a big fan of the iced Ghost Mocha (comes in sugar free!) and like the convenience of the location. I’ve not spent a lot of time in the café yet, but it is proving to be a smart move on behalf of the DMSC.

Coffee: 3 (I’ve only had a latte)

Creativity: 5 (The comic book theme is awesome and entertaining for all ages)

Community: 5 (The location inside the DMSC is a fantastic location for community members walking through to take a class or see a show.)

Downside? Being part of the lobby doesn’t make it really conducive to a hang out type of place.

Best not so secret secret? No extra charge on specialty milk. BOOM.

As you can see from this list, Des Moines has many options for coffee-lovers of all levels. As a coffee and community lover, I hope someday to add my own shop to this list!

Nicole Winebrenner
evenme-nicmarie17.blogspot.com