When it's cold in Des Moines, some places stay lit
Snow is expected tonight, and temperatures are expected to fall throughout the weekend. The Des Moines Register
It wasn’t one of country music Hall-of-Famer Tom T. Hall’s best-known songs, but it sure resonated this weekend.
In “It Sure Can Get Cold in Des Moines,” Hall sings of coming to the city “for a radio show” on a day when “the Iowa weather was 13 below.” Finding all the restaurants closed and the temperature still dropping, he takes refuge in his hotel’s still-open lounge, where "in place of my food I had two double gins.”
The song goes on to describe Hall’s dismay that no one tries to comfort an obviously heartbroken woman huddled in a booth “in the smoky half-dark” and quietly sobbing — "the silent-type crying that tears out your heart."
The song is from his 1971 album “In Search of a Story.” Almost half a century later, Des Moines shivered through a weekend that brought nearly 6 feet of snow to the metro Friday, blowing snow downtown with a blizzard to the north Saturday and frigid temperatures to follow.
As workers fled for home, we set out in search of a story about whether there were a few watering holes that hadn’t frozen over.
What we found were plenty of places to take shelter from the storm.
Among them was downtown's popular Hello Marjorie cocktail bar, which said on Facebook that it had given its servers the day off, but was offering bar service — a boon for lonely travelers from nearby hotels looking for a place to pass the time.
As cars slid sideways along icy streets and snow buried parking lots, other establishments were also using their Facebook pages to declare they would stay open no matter what Mother Nature threw at them — and even to have a little fun with the snowpocalypse.
"The snow doesn’t slow us down," said the page for Wellman's Pub, with locations on Des Moines' Ingersoll strip and in West Des Moines, promising those who "make the trek through the snow" a "fantastic lunch!" East Side Eddie's urged patrons to "bundle up, come see us!" And the Highland Park Country Club bar offered a tongue-in-cheek "Winter Storm Warning": "Be careful who you take home tonight. You could be stuck with them all weekend."
At Sully’s Irish Pub in West Des Moines, server Cathy Conlan boasted defiantly, "We're open 365 days. This is nothing for us." And in Sherman Hill, venerable self-described "dive bar" Carl's Place also was open — as it always seems to be.
“We don’t close. We haven’t closed a day in over 20 years,” said someone who answered the phone and would give his name only as Troy.
At Blazing Saddle in the East Village, owner Bob Eikelberry was holding court with some of his regulars at a corner of the bar in the early afternoon, though some of his neighbors had shut down for the day.
"I'm open 365," Eickelberry said. "I've never closed down for anything" — even a devastating flood in 1993. "I brought in a generator and had potable water and we kept it going."
He said he feels it's his duty to be there no matter what "because this is the rock of the community" — Des Moines' gay community and the East Village neighborhood, both of which his bar has served for 36 years.
His only disappointment Friday, he said, was that former Vice President Joe Biden, who had planned a visit to the bar as he campaigns for president ahead of the Iowa caucuses, had canceled because he couldn't get a flight.
Around the corner, Scott Buhr, who was tending bar with Paige Masimore at the Locust Tap, said he was there because "the regulars are here rain or shine."
"As far as I know, we've never closed for the weather, and we stay open till 2 a.m.," he said.
At Kelly's Little Nipper in Capitol East, owner Jeff Stark joked, "When the post office is open, we're open."
Some are open even when the post office isn't. The Angry Goldfish Pub & Eatery several blocks south of the Raccoon River is a perennial go-to for a beer and burger any day of the year, including Christmas and Thanksgiving. On Friday afternoon, it was filling up with customers even though its hillside location was barely navigable.
Monte Jamison was serving a table full of regulars who had been given a snow day at work. At the bar were a pair of snowplow drivers on break.
"We try to give people a place to go," Jamison said. "We like to be the South Side's favorite pub."
He said he likes spending holidays and snow days with the people he's gotten to know there.
"If I wasn't here I'd be stuck at home watching Netflix right now, and that's no fun," he said. "It's days like this when you really connect with people."
At the Alpine Taproom on Ingersoll, Jimmy Baedaro seemed decidedly unwilling to connect with a reporter who tracked in some of the snow he'd just spend 45 minutes shoveling off the sidewalk. But he quickly turned from scolding the offender to offering him a Coke.
Baedero said the Alpine, owned by his brother, tries to be open every day.
"Sometimes snow brings a crowd in. Sometimes it doesn't," he said as his first few customers drifted in and took seats at the bar. "You just open the door, turn the key and see what happens."
The Alpine claims to be the city's third-oldest bar. Up the street, one its newest ones, The Bartender's Handshake, was already drawing a lively crowd. Owner David Murrin-von Ebers said he strives to be on hand from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. daily, no matter what, "so somebody who goes to all the trouble of getting here isn't disappointed."
Back in East Village, Matt James expressed a similar sentiment as he tended bar at the Beechwood Lounge. He said he started hanging out there two years ago, when he moved to Des Moines from Detroit, "and I just never left."
That may be because the place almost never closes. No matter what the weather, James said, "the Beechwood always fills up."
"Everyone ends up here," he said.
Sometimes, as in Hall's song, the crowd will include someone who's obviously having a bad day, he said. But despite the scene Hall described of the lonely woman in the booth who cried while "nobody asked her what caused her such pain," James — who counts himself as a big fan of Hall — said he's never seen anyone in obvious distress go unheeded at the Beechwood.
"If anyone needs a hand, it kind of turns into a whole-bar effort," he said. "By the time they leave, they're doing alright."
Maybe it isn't so cold in Des Moines, after all.