Since Iowa is part of the agricultural heartland, it only makes sense that the state has some of the best food in the Midwest. Culinary adventures abound in Iowa, with activities showing attendees the freshest food from the farm all the way to their table.
The capital city of Des Moines offers plenty of culinary adventures for groups, according to Greg Edwards, president and CEO of the Greater Des Moines CVB.
“We have lots of options for cooking classes and demonstrations,” he said. “Chefs can accommodate groups in the restaurants and/or classes can be given at numerous sites, depending on the size of the group. The Des Moines Social Club is a renovated Art Deco firehouse that now serves as a culinary studio, performing arts venue and coffee shop. The classes offered range from homemade Mexican dishes to how you can create the perfect cocktail.”
He added that the Downtown Des Moines Farmers’ Market is also popular, especially with guests who enjoy the farm-to-table movement. Featuring everything from fresh produce to baked goods, the market includes approximately 300 vendors, and Shape magazine deemed it one of the best farmers markets in the country. Last summer, the market was required shopping for a cooking class at the Des Moines Social Club, a hot spot for culinary teambuilding activities. Participants purchased all their ingredients at the farmers market and then returned to the class and made their fresh purchases into a meal on the spot.
When a group simply wants to enjoy the meal without the work, the city also offers a multitude of options, Edwards said.
“We have so many great restaurants that source their produce and meat locally, which results in seasonal menus and true farm-to-table dishes,” he said. “We are the No. 1 pork producer in the state, so you will find dishes such as the pork tenderloin or a stuffed pork chop with prosciutto, apple caponata and more.”
Edwards added that a few iconic Des Moines dishes include crab rangoon pizza from Fong’s Pizza, chicken spedini from Latin King and beef brisket from Flying Mango.
“Le Jardin is a French bistro that offers a seasonal menu with dishes featuring locally sourced goods. Groups can pick from a reasonably priced two-, three- or five-course tasting experience with Chef Tag [Grandgeorge],” he said. “Another great spot is Jethro’s BBQ. With six metro locations, this restaurant is known for serving up delicious BBQ and generous serving sizes. Jethro’s has been featured on Man v. Food, the Today Show, Fox & Friends and Food Paradise.”
Along the Mississippi River, Iowa’s Quad Cities also have attendees’ taste buds in mind.
“The sales team at the QCCVB has created receptions and dinners for meeting delegates to enjoy a ‘Taste of the Quad Cities’ with local flavors in tasting portions,” said Lynn Hunt, vice president of sales for the Quad Cities CVB. “The casual hors d’oeuvres setting allows for awesome networking and conversations about the unique food items.”
Groups can also tour Cinnamon Ridge Farms, a working farm with a robotic milking operation, plus livestock such as cattle, pigs and chickens.
The farm also arranges on-site dinners using locally grown food. At Quad Cities Food Hub, planners can arrange cooking classes, including farm-to-table events, which make excellent teambuilding exercises, Hunt said.
The best complement to great food is a great drink, and the Mississippi River Distilling Company produces small-batch spirits with local products, including gin, vodka, bourbon and rye. Planners can arrange private tours, tastings and events for up to 50 people. Another top spot is the Blue Cat Brew Pub, a microbrewery offering 40 different beer recipes; instead of just a taste, they craft a special multicourse beer “dinner” for groups.
Culture and food combine with a meal at Figge Art Museum; planners can arrange something casual in the cafe, or choose a full dinner or reception in the gallery spaces. At Chocolate Manor, attendees are hands-on in a different way. The facility offers tastings of chocolate confections while guests learn about the history of the ingredient, and afterward they learn how to craft a tulip-shaped bowl made from chocolate.
Dubuque also combines history and appetite via the Historic Progressive Lunch and Dinner, with guests moving from one place to the next for the appetizer, main course and dessert.
“The Progressive Lunch is something unique to us,” said Julie Kronlage, vice president of sales for Travel Dubuque.
The lunch includes a famed local specialty, a Cremer’s turkey and dressing sandwich, and dessert from Bettie Jane Candies.
“If it’s fall, we’ll do the caramel apples at Bettie Jane, which everyone loves,” Kronlage said.
Progressive dinners can include up to five courses, but the three-course dinners can include places like the historic Mathias Ham House, the Mandolin Inn or the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium.
Cedar Rapids has taken a new approach to satiating attendee appetites. The Cedar Rapids Ale Trail grew from an upshift in new restaurants and breweries, according to Taylor McGurk, director of destination development for GO Cedar Rapids.
“We brought together all nine area breweries, and all the restaurants that have local beers on tap,” he said. “Each restaurant and brewery came up with a signature experience, so each stop on the Ale Trail is unique.”
Member perks along the Ale Trail include discounts, games and signature cocktails, and the perks change occasionally. Setting up the Ale Trail will become easy for planners this summer, when GO Cedar Rapids launches its customizable mobile passport apps for conventions, which include the Ale Trail.
“These custom apps will provide attendees with a perk-filled guide to the best places not only to eat and drink in the area but also the best places to shop, be entertained and experience local culture,” McGurk said. “Attendees will be able to take in the Ale Trail on their free time or GO Cedar Rapids may create group-building experiences like local beer Olympics or urban scavenger hunts.”
For attendees staying at the DoubleTree by Hilton Cedar Rapids Convention Complex, several of the Ale Trail stops are within a few minutes walking distance.
Between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City is Cedar Ridge Winery and Distillery, which offers tastings and tours, and within Iowa City are more adventures, according to Laurie Haman, vice president for communications and marketing for the Iowa City/Coralville Area CVB.
Planners can arrange a cooking class at Harvest Oil & Vinegar, a visit to Kroul Farms or Wilson’s Orchard, a progressive dinner downtown or a mixology class, Haman noted.
In Waterloo, planners can customize the “Dig Farm to Table” itinerary, with local agri-tours at Hawkeye Farm, Lanehaven Farms or Hansen’s Farm Fresh Dairy, then lunch at Factory City Gastropub. Tours of the John Deere Tractor & Engine Museum can also be added.
Several wineries and an orchard visit make a perfect fall culinary combination in Council Bluffs, and planners can arrange events at Prairie Hawk Vineyards or Loess Hills Vineyard & Winery, then top it off with apples from Pioneer Trail Orchard.
The area also features the only sheep and goat dairy farm at Doe’s & Diva’s Dairy, a small artisan farm which also sells cheese. The Santa Maria Vineyard & Winery in downtown Carroll offers wood-fired pizza, more than 30 beers and wines, plus a full menu. The pairings are so good, Midwest Living magazine named it one of the “Top 10 Places to Eat in the Midwest.”