When I moved to Des Moines in 1975, there weren’t a lot of lunch places downtown beyond the three established dining clubs. 

Each club had a niche. 

The Des Moines Club, organized in the late 1800s, was the oldest and most prestigious. When I arrived, it had just moved from its longtime location at Eighth and Locust streets to the top of the new Ruan Center. Members included the city’s oldest and most powerful families. 

The Embassy Club, founded in 1933, had also recently moved from the Hotel Fort Des Moines to the top of the then-new Financial Center. Its members were top-level managers and professionals interested in more venturesome cuisine.

The Bohemian Club was created in 1951 by middle managers and small-business owners. It had just moved from the Hotel Savery into the former Embassy Club space at the Fort Des Moines. 

Today, there is only one, the Embassy Club, which operates from the Ruan Center and a suburban location near Jordan Creek mall. 

Forty-five years ago, if you weren’t a club member and didn’t eat at the Younkers Tea Room or Babe’s, your lunch choices were places like Moran’s basement cafeteria, the Coney Island and Kwong Tung, a Chinese restaurant across from the EMC Insurance headquarters. You could also join the line at the EMC cafeteria by paying a nonemployee cover charge. 

Today, downtown lunch selections are much wider and include deli and bar food along with fine dining and a range of options for pasta, sushi, Mexican, Indian and Chinese.

To get here, downtown went through several evolutions, said dining expert Paul Rottenberg, who arrived in Des Moines in 1986 to run City Grille, a tony restaurant at the east end of the Kaleidoscope. 

Unfortunately, City Grille was ahead of its time and flopped, although several of the people involved found success in other ventures, including Rottenberg, whose Orchestrate group now manages 12 area restaurants, a grocery store and two hotels.

The problem during the 1980s, Rottenberg said, was that high real estate values and a lack of nightlife kept downtown Des Moines from enjoying dining trends popular in Denver, Dallas and similar cities. 

From the 1980s until well into the 2000s, much of the restaurant development that occurred in downtown was on the skywalk level, Rottenberg said.

The Locust Mall food court at Seventh and Locust was a big hit when it opened in 1981, as was the Kaleidoscope food court in 1985.  

Stella’s Blue Sky Diner on the skywalk level at Capital Square opened in 1988 with a 1950s diner theme, complete with Elvis on the jukebox, comfort foods like chicken-fried steak and meatloaf on the menu, and a soda fountain that dispensed Green Rivers and Cherry Cokes.

But, Rottenberg said, because of the skywalks, “we couldn’t get people down to the street level for lunch.”  

Eventually, two things changed. 

One was people’s tastes. “People started traveling and experiencing different cuisines, and even if they didn’t travel, they had the Food Channel providing new experiences,” Rottenberg said.

The other change was downtown real estate. 

By the early 2000s, the Des Moines Vision Plan created by New York architect Mario Gandelsonas had begun making a difference, Rottenberg said. 

It provided a backbone for downtown development that ran from Gray’s Lake and the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park to the Court Avenue market district, Principal Riverwalk and East Village.

“Mario’s vision encouraged real estate people to start doing deals, which allowed us to explore new ideas for restaurants,” he said. 

Trendy places like Splash, Centro, Alba, Lucca and Proof emerged using local produce and seasonal ingredients, along with brewpubs, delis, bakeries, coffeehouses, and now even food trucks.