DES MOINES — The bearded twentysomething in a baseball cap and T-shirt pulls up a stylishly retro Naugahyde barstool and orders a Trailer Trash — two beef patties in an artisan bun with chicken-fried bacon, fried pickle, and cheese curds.
It’s one of 23 burger choices as inventive as the undead-inspired décor at Zombie Burger + Drink Lab in this capital city’s East Village.
The neighborhood is crowded with cleverly inspired bars, chic shops, and locally owned restaurants like this one, and the young people who patronize them. “It’s really, really, really trendy,” says the diner (he asks that his name not be used because he works for the city), who gestures toward the new condos going up nearby in a flurry of construction. “It’s a big thing now when you’re in your twenties to move downtown.”
That’s a transformation from a time when many young Iowans wanted nothing more than to leave this state, more famous as it was for caucuses and corn than culture and cuisine — and when travelers saw little reason to visit in the first place.
But, along with many other cities of its size, “The Des” has gotten . . . hip.
Small cities have many of the amenities of their larger counterparts, but they’re friendlier, less crowded, and much, much less expensive, their boosters say. That has increasingly drawn young entrepreneurial types priced out of Boston, San Francisco, Denver, or New York, who create amenities that draw still more people like them in a sort of virtuous cycle. One close-to-home example: Portland, Maine, newly discovered by Bon Appetit, which named it restaurant city of the year.
“You get to have experimental restaurants, you get to have music venues that would struggle to pay rents in a place like Boston. So part of the story is the ability of these cities to support commercial venues that appeal to new residents and tourists,” said Japonica Brown-Saracino, a sociology professor at Boston University who studies cities.
Employers in places such as Des Moines also have invested in their communities to attract the workers that they need. That city’s new 1.5-mile Riverwalk, for instance, was a partnership with the Principal Financial Group, whose headquarters is here.
Yet, for travelers, the revival of the American small city has generally been a well-kept secret, said Chris Stone, head of the visitor bureau in Greenville, S.C., a onetime manufacturing center that has transformed its downtown with boutique hotels, a new performing arts center, more than 110 locally owned restaurants, and a baseball stadium modeled on Fenway Park where the Red Sox farm team the Greenville Drive plays. Cyclists drawn to the area for its flat terrain can rest up at the new Hotel Domestique, opened by 17-time Tour de France rider George Hincapie.
“That’s actually part of the delight,” Stone said. “You don’t know what to expect. Coming to cities like ours is a surprise, which makes for the adventure. Many of us as smaller places still have that for people who seek us out.”
Des Moines, for instance, boasts an unexpected sculpture park downtown that features a revolving collection of massive works by some of the world’s top artists. There’s abundant live music, pop-up galleries, and an innovative arts and entertainment venue in a renovated former art deco-style fire station.
Asheville, N.C., has no fewer than five new restaurants by James Beard award chefs, 33 microbreweries, a winery, rooftop bars, and a new art museum dedicated to the nearby, iconic Black Mountain College.
Wilmington, Del., has converted a former shipyard and abandoned warehouse district into a $1.5 billion riverfront development with restaurants, shops, and two new hotels under construction.
A former railroad station in Chattanooga’s Southside District has been remade into a collection of hotels, bars, restaurants, entertainment, and attractions, newly renovated and expanded (and called, inevitably, Chattanooga Choo Choo).
“Smaller places in the past might not have had much depth in terms of a visitor experience,” Stone said. Now, often after decades of redevelopment, many do — but at a pace that is a contrast to what tourists find in bigger cities.
“When you go to a big city for a weekend getaway you’re caught back up in this frenetic pace — lots of people, almost too many choices,” Stone said. “People want to escape the frenetic and go to places that are easier and lighter.”
After all, said Barry White, the president and CEO of the Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau, that’s what draws people to live in these cities, too.
“It’s beautiful scenery. There’s great restaurants. You might hear a local complain about downtown parking, but there’s not a parking problem. You can find something in that local shop that you’re not going to find on Amazon,” White said. “That’s what you’re going to find in smaller towns.”
When people go out to eat in such places, said Leah Wong Ashburn, president and CEO of Highland Brewery Company in East Asheville, “You’ll see the chef-slash-owner. When you come to the local brewery you will see our staff behind the bar. When you want that experience of authenticity and finding a niche and a little weirdness, that comes from the local restaurateur or a brewery or art gallery or a boutique.”
There’s something else unique to smaller cities that’s different from what visitors sometimes confront in bigger ones: a lack of pretentiousness.
“Most of us here still look back at the last 15 years and reflect that it’s pretty remarkable that it’s worked out as it has,” said Paul Rottenberg, a New Jersey native who now lives in Des Moines and co-owns Orchestrate Hospitality, which runs Zombie Burger and four other local restaurants.
“There’s some Midwestern humility. Some people like it to be a well-kept secret. I never run into people who say, ‘I wish everybody knew about Des Moines,’ ” said Chuck Current, executive director of the Des Moines Social Club, which provides a home for local artists and produces theater, live music, and other cultural events.
In fact, “This is the most laid-back city in America,” said Mike Draper, who moved back to his native Des Moines after selling T-shirts in Philadelphia and Boston and opened Raygun, a design store in the East Village that specializes in screen-printed clothing. “Des Moines: Let Us Exceed Your Already Low Expectations,” reads one of its T-shirts. Quips another: “Iowa: Wave the Next Time You Fly Over.”
“You’re able to slide right in here,” Draper said. “So it makes for a different experience as a tourist, that you’re not seeing things like a tourist.”
Jon Marcus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.