Just past the shadows of downtown Des Moines’ bustling Court Avenue is a discrete yet equally crowded restaurant called El Bait Shop. The sound of the train horns blowing and the sight of construction all around indicate that the hidden gem is close by.
“You gotta want to be here to find it,” manager Tim Wilcoxson says.
The walls are as full as the leather cushioned diner-style seats often are. But don’t be intimidated by the crowds of regulars, this vintage hole-in-the-wall is sure to make customers feel at home.
The 222 beers on tap are enough to perk up the ears of beer-lovers across the nation, and enough to win El Bait Shop the title of the “world’s largest selection of American craft beers.” Customers can try out a new brew or they can choose a familiar one that they might pull from their fridge at home, wherever home may be.
On a visit to Iowa, one proud Minnesotan picked one of his northern favorites, Moose Drool. He sprinkled a little salt on top and sat back in his chair, feeling as if he were just relaxing in his boat on the lake.
“Beercations are a thing now,” Wilcoxson said. “People will seriously take a month and start at one end of the country and drive and hit every brewery they can on the way through…. We end up on that list a lot.”
Aside from the Bud Light constant (for those who aren’t into the craft beer trend), many of the beers lining the wall change weekly. Server Chris Essig said if 20 beers change in a week, that’s a slow week. No matter the changes, there are plenty of options on the eight-page beer list.
Serving Up Character
The beers aren’t the only things served with a taste of home. Crowds may be drawn in with the brews, but they’ll stay for the good company. One server likes to add a touch of character to the restaurant, though it’s already thriving in that area.
A server named Eve serves the food on plates she’s found at thrift stores. The plates are decorated with intricate old-timey designs, each one a different personality-filled dish. “Mom’s Pot Roast” might be delivered to the table on one of Eve’s plates, with rose-colored flowers lining the rim.
While enjoying home-cooked-style meals, customers may look around at the décor covering the restaurant, like playing a game of I Spy. A break from all the vintage beer signs and hanging bikes is a large mural along one wall. A fiery green monster rides a racecar over the tables. Across the restaurant, customers may make eye contact with one of the many pictures of wrestlers framed on the wall, under the words “To be the man, you got to beat the man.” The green monster and the wrestlers seem to be in a perpetual face-off. The assertive motto above the wrestlers can be applied to finding seating among the crowds. To get a seat, you got to beat someone else to it. There are no hosts or wait lists, so customers find whatever is open.
Essig said the servers can spot people with “that lost look in their eyes” so they’ll try to explain the lay of the land. Customers can choose to dine at the bar or any of the tables.
With no luck on the El Bait Shop side, or for a slightly different scene, customers can step through the door at the back and enter The High Life Lounge. The lounge, self-advertised as “the champagne of bars”, has more of a sophisticated mood. A fan favorite order of bacon-wrapped tater tots, however, can be ordered on either side. The menus were once divided like the dining rooms, but the menus merged to create something for everyone.
“We understand that we’re not pushing the culinary bounds you know, it’s a familiar menu,” Wilcoxson says.
Burger baskets, wings, goulash, nachos and even spam egg and cheese sandwiches are among the most popular on the menu.
“Not a whole lot of people come to El Bait Shop in a bad mood, and usually if you are in a bad mood, a wall of beer is more than enough to make you happy,” Essig says.