For years, I’d been guilty of one of dining’s laziest, most baseless prejudices: I was totally judging Simon’s by its location and window-dressing.
The allure elsewhere in the Des Moines metro’s robust food scene — downtown’s ambiance and quality, the East Village’s niche eateries, Ingersoll Avenue’s volume variety — made a standalone shop nestled between a gas station and a parking lot on the city’s west side eminently avoidable.
Silly, right? It’s what’s on the inside, and on the plate, that counts. And in that respect, the dinner-only restaurant formerly known as J. Benjamin’s offers a simple elegance that should put any aesthetic nonsense out of mind.
I thought I’d gone in the back door when I opened the only entrance I could find. I must have looked out of sorts in seeking a table, because at least four members of an eager wait staff asked me if I needed a drink at the small bar in a 10-minute wait for a booth and for my date.
Once settled in one of the 10 or so cozy, straight-backed booths that flank a handful of central tables, two more employees made sure our dinner moved briskly. I wanted a classic dish that honored Simon’s reputation of homestyle Italian cuisine, and the lasagna ($16.95) was just the ticket. The Graziano’s sausage and plentiful basil stuck out from first bite to last, and the tangy yet sweet house marinara sauce maintained proper heat from the first bite to last.
My date was looking for something filling and settled on the baked pasta option ($11.95 plus extras, pending what you throw in) with a little tomato and onion. Cooked to a golden brown on top, the boat of noodles proved more than satisfying (and worthy of a successful leftover reheat!)
The accoutrements among the main course were pleasant, too. My salad with house Italian dressing was properly sized — too many establishments go overboard on the greens — and the zest of my Malbec glass of wine paired perfectly with the safer approach taken by the marinara.
I was so unaware of Simon’s charm that I was caught off-guard when our dessert arrived without request. We didn’t get to split the red velvet cake that is a Des Moines staple, but our carrot cake was a delightful, moist finish to the night.
About the only feature missing from the Simon’s experience was a brief visit to our table from proprietor Simon Goheen himself, which I had heard was a regular occurrence. But it would have been a herculean achievement to hit every booth by 6 p.m. on a Saturday night at a venue packed to its aquarium-stocked gills.
Making up for lost years, I even headed back myself the following week to try the non-pasta fare. I’ll be tempted often by the scrumptious chicken Florentine ($15.95), and I still haven't had a chance to try the pizza.
What I won’t be tempted to do is sleep on a slice of local culinary tradition again (and I want that red velvet). Simon’s simply cut through my presuppositions, inside and out.
Find it: 5800 Franklin Avenue, Des Moines
Hours: 5-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 5-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday
About the author
Producer Danny Lawhon has been at the Register since 2012, working in a variety of sports and news capacities. He’s a professional pianist and church organist, and he’s learning to run off all the calories Des Moines’ dozens of great restaurants have to offer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @DannyLawhon.