Iowa restaurants and farmers markets take advantage of the state’s rich agricultural resources
A crossroads for centuries, Iowa blends the new ideas of visitors with the practical Midwest spirit of its residents. The result is distinct contributions in the fields of art, education, technology and—most deliciously—food. An unprecedented interest in locally sourced ingredients and seasonal menus has resulted in an explosion of farm-to-table restaurants throughout the nation, and Iowa’s rich agricultural tradition has fueled the growth in hyper-local culinary opportunities throughout the state. These restaurants and markets provide a unique window into Iowa’s farms and culinary culture.
Groups seeking a behind-the-scenes glimpse of an operating dairy farm and an accompanying meal should consider the family-owned Cinnamon Ridge in Donahue, where over 200 Jersey cows graze freely. Educational tours allow visitors to touch baby animals, learn about the farm’s state-of-the art milking technology and ride on a tractor for an up-close look at corn harvesting. Tours conclude at the Country Cupboard, the farm’s adjoining store that features cheese samples aged on site, hormone-free bacon and cheese curds awarded the top prize at the Iowa State Fair.
For a thorough agritourism experience, stay for Cinnamon Ridge’s Farm to Table event, an evening of food, drink and education provided by the friendly Cinnamon Ridge farmers. Groups will dine on white tablecloths outside the farmhouse and can sample local produce, ride farm equipment and chat with local growers in between courses.
Living History Farms in Urbandale, a 500-acre outdoor museum that chronicles Iowa’s development since 1700, recreates entire villages populated with historic reenactors and authentic farming equipment. Several villages also host multi-course meals where guests dine with period-accurate utensils and chefs use 19th century technology. After an afternoon of touring the museum campus, stroll along the lamp-lit boardwalks of Walnut Hill to the 1875 Tangen House. Here you’ll sip spiced punch beside the fireplace before indulging in a meal of stuffed ham roast, locally grown vegetables and rolls with churned butter. For a Victorian dining experience, consider the Flynn Mansion Dinner, where your group will be waited on by servants in proper 1870s clothing and learn proper high-dining etiquette. For a lighter meal, the mansion also hosts Victorian Tea, where ladies and gentlemen can experience tea service with sandwiches and cakes. For a more rustic farm-to-table experience, choose Living History’s 1900 Farm Dinner. A horse-drawn wagon carries visitors to a farmhouse where they can read the Montgomery Ward Catalog, play parlor games and embark on a lantern-lit tour of the historic barn. The locally sourced meal resembles what Iowa prairie families ate in the late 1800s, with courses that include roasted chicken, Flemish carrots and homemade apple pie.
Decades before the farm-to-table trend emerged, the Machine Shed endeavored to provide American comfort food from locally sourced ingredients. Since opening its first location in Urbandale in 1978, the restaurant has expanded to six locations throughout the Midwest, and use local dairy, meat and produce to provide delicious food with low environmental impact. A waitstaff dressed in overalls will serve your group salads with Iowa Maytag Blue Cheese, classic fried chicken and roast pork loin that won the Great Iowa Pork Off.
In Kalona, home to Iowa’s largest Amish colony, enjoy a hearty meal for groups of 10 or more. Served family-style in a Conservative Mennonite home, the spread includes Amish staples like chicken or roast beef, dressing or noodles, mashed potatoes and gravy, salad, vegetables, tapioca pudding and home-baked bread with apple butter or Amish-style peanut butter. Save room for angel food cake with fruit topping or peanut butter pie. The meal can be combined with a full-day tour of Amish Country for an in-depth exploration of the Mennonite and Amish lifestyles.
Let your group wander and savor Des Moines’ Downtown Farmers’ Market, held every Saturday morning from May through October. Producers from 51 Iowa counties sell everything from herbs, flowers and fresh picked fruits and vegetables to cheeses, wines and baked goods. Recognized as one of America’s best farmers’ markets, it spans nine city blocks in the Historic Court District and attracts an average of 20,000 visitors and more than 200 vendors.
Home to the University of Iowa’s innovative agricultural program, Iowa City is a hotbed for organic cuisine and farm-to-fork experiences. To admire the city’s historic downtown and taste the full spectrum of its restaurant scene, come in August for the annual Farm-to-Street Dinner. Entire sections of downtown are blocked off for this showcase for local chefs and growers. A coordinated effort by the Iowa City Farmers Market, Downtown Distract and local restaurants, the event consists of six courses that integrate local corn, pork and lettuce.
For a farm-fresh (and indoor) tapas experience, head to Devotay in Iowa City. A diverse array of small-plate options emphasizes sustainable cuisine and features grass-fed meats, locally made tofu and vegetarian options with Spanish flair. Groups can enjoy Iowa lamb meatballs, roasted parsnips and braised pork shank. The area’s other innovative dining experience is Farmer’s Table, the brainchild of local chefs Chris and DeeAnn Grebner. A rotating lineup of hosts welcomes groups to dine on the property and enjoy a prix fixe menu customized by a local chef or farmer. Guests are encouraged to ask questions and will learn how produce arrives on their plate from the field.
Hosted by Bloomsbury Farm near Cedar Rapids, the Cuisine in the Corn event invites groups to dine directly in the fields. After a cocktail and hors d’ oeuvres hour in the Party Barn, guests are transported by hayrack to the heart of Bloomsbury’s cornfields for a candlelit sunset dinner. The four-course meal includes a fresh green salad, cold corn chowder, pork chops and cupcakes. Chefs and farmers are on-hand throughout the evening to explain techniques, and live piano music accompanies the meal. If your group is unable to attend this August event, Bloomsbury also hosts bonfires and wine tastings throughout the warm-weather months.