Even though that seems to be the start to a really good joke, there is no punch line. Do not be dismayed because the High Life Lounge in Des Moines was one very good time. How could we not enjoy ourselves when the two men were actually handing out free bacon-wrapped Lil’ Smokies? With one man holding a big bucket in one hand and tongs in the other, the smoky delights soon filled paper bowls held by his helper and passed on to patrons screaming and waving their arms for a free serving.
Laura and I found the High Life Lounge just off the revitalized downtown of Des Moines and just a few home run balls away from the city’s Triple-A ballpark. The concrete block building gave no clue to the fun we would find inside. Face it, there are not too many places that use “Lounge” in their name anymore.
Lounges became popular as the late 60’s gave way to the 70’s. The idea was to class up a tavern and make it more appealing to the female crowd. The actual bar took on shapely curves. Rich slabs of worn wood that were a trademark of old-time watering holes became covered in Formica. Tables and booths gave way to rounded couches where men and women could mix and mix it up. Scattered around, tall garish modern-art tables allowed for free flow from table to table. Ceilings were low and the lighting took on a very mellow glow. Will Ferrell captured the feeling of the time when he played Jackie Moon in Semi-Pro.
Eventually, that look faded away, but the High Life Lounge remains. The funny thing is that while we were in Des Moines for the NCAA Track & Field Championship a lot of things seemed stuck in the 70s, especially the music played in every store and restaurant we entered. That was fine with me. The music of the early 70’s is what I grew up on and still treasure, so why turn your back on your roots.
Thankfully, the Lounge, lovingly created in 2005, remains firmly rooted in its 60s heritage. The lounge’s name comes from Miller High Life beer – the Champagne of Bottled Beer. The artistic flow of a clear Miller bottle screamed high-class long before drinkers began to argue whether Miller Light tasted better or was less filling. Not a Miller fan? How about Hamm’s – from the Land of Sky Blue Waters? Schlitz – the Beer That Made Milwaukee Famous? Or Pabst – the Blue Ribbon Beer?
Granted, I know all those catch phrases from my youth, but in case I forgot, the walls of the Lounge showcased every possible 60’s lighted beer sign imaginable. That and bowling pictures. Yes, old bowling pictures. The bowling alley was the beer drinking sports’ choice years before slo-pitch softball teams brought new meaning to the idea of “beer leagues.” The High Life Lounge celebrated those old keglers in aged photos, including one showing a man with the largest “man boobs” ever seen.
You might believe I had found a spot where the crowd was even older than me as I continue to drag my younger wife rapidly into old age. You are wrong, and that is why we loved the Lounge so much. There were a few couples that made me look young, but the Lounge’s crowd leaned heavily towards a much younger group in their mid-20s to early 30s, all thoroughly enjoying themselves.
Still, we came for the food. The Lounge receives glowing reviews for its wide-ranging menu and deep home comfort taste. Laura’s spaghetti and meatballs, for example, had a rich sauce that still had a bit of classic Chef Boyardee taste. You can get wings and burgers, but how about beef stroganoff, goulash, liver and onions and Mom’s pot roast? We arrived late and passed on their two signature treats – bacon-wrapped tater tots with a jalapeno slice inside, an appetizer with a kick, and the broasted chicken. Cooked intensively in a giant commercial pressure cooker, this method creates super moist chicken infused with rich flavors.
We also passed on the insanity that is The High Life Man. For only $8.95 you can belly up to the bar to tackle a quarter pound burger topped with an Italian sausage patty, three strips of bacon, Swiss and American cheese, grilled onions, jalapenos, mayonnaise and BBQ sauce on a sesame bun. Good thing there was a classic 12-inch black and white television propped up behind the bar. It might take nine innings of a baseball game to get through that monstrosity. There were other high-def televisions for viewing, but for a trip back in time, the flickering black and white image truly was out of this world.
With our trip ending the next day, we sipped on our beers and discussed our stay. Yes, the barbecue at the well-known Jethro’s had been great. The dollar tacos at Tacos Mariana’s were delicious, even though we needed an English sub-titled menu and feared our KU mini-van might never be seen again. The perfectly cooked pizza from Paul Revere’s was just what we needed during a break from the track.
However, nothing was as much fun as taking a step back in time at the High Life Lounge. The time had come to depart. We started to slide out from behind our table on the slick vinyl that covered our wrap-around bench. That is when the door near us kicked open and in walked two of the owners with their big bucket of bacon-wrapped Lil’ Smokies. How could we pass that up? Two more Miller’s, please. Time for some more High Life.