The High Life Lounge is a funky little 60's style bar/restaurant just south of downtown Des Moines that has been open since 2005. (see map) I've been in the place a couple times in the past to have a beer (or six), but I'd been told their food is pretty good. On a recent visit to the Des Moines area, I met up with a buddy who bought me lunch at High Life Lounge. When he offered, I couldn't say no!
There's somewhat of a family lineage that involves High Life Lounge, El Bait Shop connected to High Life Lounge, and the Buzzard Billy's restaurants. The story begins in 1993 when brothers Andy and Dan Massoth, along with business partners Chris Mayo and Tracy Maughan opened the first two Buzzard Billy's Cajun/American restaurants in Waco, TX and LaCrosse, WI operating as MSD Innovations, Inc. Looking for another Midwest location in 1999, the group decided upon a Des Moines location in the basement of a building at 100 Court Ave. in the heart of the Court Avenue District of entertainment and eating establishments.
Three of the workers at the Des Moines Buzzard Billy's - Jeff Bruning, Scott Alongi and Kent Middendorf - were lifelong friends from Carroll, IA graduating from Kuemper Catholic High School in 1988. Only Alongi was looking to get into the restaurant business after high school - he graduated from a culinary school in Alabama. Bruning and Middendorf had both graduated from college and had taken jobs in the private sector. When both were laid off from their jobs, they decided to join Alongi who was already working at the Buzzard Billy's location. Although both Bruning and Middendorf thought their time at Buzzard Billy's would be short, they ended up working nearly every position in the place - from cook to bartender to dishwasher to server. The four partners in MSD Innovations were impressed with the work ethic of the guys from Carroll and the group of seven had many discussions about different concepts for restaurants.
The group all agreed that a "beer-centric" concept would be the blueprint for any restaurant they'd develop in the future. In 2001, the four MSD Innovations partners added the three guys from Carroll and created a new company - Full Court Press - named after the Court Avenue district they were trying to bring back to life. The team opened the Royal Mile, a British-style pub, late in 2001; then other restaurants followed - the Hessen Haus, a German-style beer hall; the Red Monk, a Belgian-style bar above the Royal Mile; then the High Life Lounge, followed soon after by El Bait Shop. Full Court Press also owns Fong's Pizza, Sbrocco, Shorty's, and Mullet's. As more places opened, the seven partners in Full Court Press spun off other smaller ventures and added minority owners. Today, there are 21 majority and minority owners of Full Court Press and/or other corporations under the FCP umbrella.
The allure of the High Life Lounge is the 60's-tacky theme to the place. The bar floor is covered in a pseudo-shag carpet (although I have to say this looks newer than the carpet that was on the floor the last time I was in a couple three years ago). The wood-paneled walls gives you the feeling like you're walking back into a 60's-style lounge, right down to the old Zenith tube television hanging in the corner above the bar area. The vibe is retro and funky at the same time. I've always loved going into the place.
I beat my friend there and took a seat at the bar. He showed up shortly thereafter and sat beside me. We looked over the menu and my friend said, "The best thing on the menu is the meat loaf dinner." Indeed, the High Life Lounge had a number of down home, rib-sticking entrees to choose from. They had a pot roast plate, tuna casserole, chicken pot pie, liver and onions, goulash, and beef stroganoff to just name a few of the comfort food entrees they offered. One of their more popular items is the broasted chicken. You start off by choosing two sides, then build your broasted chicken dinner from there, adding dark or white meat pieces ala carte.
The menu features a number of interesting appetizers including the High Life Lounge's famous "Bacon-wrapped Tater Tots" - homemade tator tots that are wrapped with jalapeno slices and bacon, then deep fried and smothered with a cheddar-jack cheese sauce. Everyone I've talked to who has had that appetizer raves about it. They also have classic 60's-style appetizers such as fried chicken gizzards, deviled eggs and classic-style thin-sliced onion rings. For the health conscious, the High Life Lounge's menu also features a handful of salads and soups.
The High Life Lounge also offers nearly 20 sandwiches including a fried egg sandwich; a sloppy joe burger; a Spam, egg and cheese sandwich; and a sandwich called the "B.B.C" which has three slices of bacon, topped with three more strips of bacon, then topped with Swiss cheese and served on Texas toast. They have burger baskets, Italian sandwiches with sausage from Graziano Brothers, and something called "The High Life Man" - a quarter pound burger with an Italian sausage patty, topped with three strips of bacon, Swiss American and American cheese, grilled onions and jalapenos, mayonnaise and BBQ sauce and served on a sesame-seed bun.
Our bartender that day came over and told us the lunch special that day was the chicken fried steak. My friend said, "Ooo, that sounds good!"
She said, "It is good!"
My buddy said, "You know, I always seem to get the meat loaf every time I come here and I keep telling myself that I want to get something else. I think I'm going to do the chicken fried steak special."
I was torn between getting a pork tenderloin sandwich, the hot beef sandwich, or the meatloaf that my buddy had been raving about. If he had gotten the meat loaf, I probably would have followed suit. But when he ordered the chicken fried steak, I decided to go with the hot beef sandwich.
Not long after we ordered, our food came out. My hot beef sandwich had piece of Texas toast as the base, an ample amount of tender roast beef on top, then a generous scoop of mashed potatoes on top of that, and slathered in a tasty beef gravy. From the first taste, it was wonderful. Sometimes when I'm on the road, I need good, home-style comfort food to set my body back to normal. I enjoyed a beer with my hot beef sandwich, but a large cold glass of milk would have gone extremely well with the lunch.
My buddy's chicken fried steak came with the choice of two sides - he went with the corn and mashed potatoes - and the meal more than covered the plate. He declared the chicken fried steak as "great" and he was very happy that he got that instead of the meat loaf. He said, "Next time you come in here, whether you're with me or not, you really need to get the meat loaf. Gosh, that's just like heaven for me."
I was extremely happy with my hot beef. I couldn't imagine the meat loaf being that much better than the hot beef. It was truly one of the best hot beef sandwiches I've ever head.
After we finished up - what we could, that is - we got to talking to the bartender after the place. She told us that you can order food from El Bait Shop in the High Life Lounge. "We share the same kitchen, part of it is for us, the other part for El Bait Shop," she explained. "We get a lot of overflow from El Bait Shop at night and we let people order food over here who can't get a seat over there."
I do want to make it to El Bait Shop at some point, but I would be perfectly happy with ordering their food in the High Life Lounge. It's a fun and funky place to have a drink, and their food is certainly well-above average. I'm glad that my buddy gave me the invitation for lunch that day. It was about $25 bucks for the food and a couple beers each, I left the tip. I had no idea that the food at the High Life Lounge was that good. It may become my "go-to" bar when I'm in the Des Moines area. (Photo at left courtesy Iowa Foodie)