We had the hardest time using a gift certificate to dine at Simon’s (aka J. Benjamin’s) , a cozy neighborhood joint on Des Moines’ north side. Our first mistake may have been trying on Saturday night. Both times we found a line outside the door (even in the rain). The first night, the small place was dominated by a large table full of prom kids — from far away Ames, no less. We eventually left.
The second night, there was another table of prom kids (this time from the Des Moines area) but we stuck it out and waited for a table, which was actually kind of fun. We chatted with other waiting diners crammed into a little area between the dining room and the front door. We had a drink at the bar and discovered that one of the servers was someone we knew as a kid when she was in elementary school.
When we finally were seated, we found the food unexceptional but serviceable/just fine. We decided it was the place to eat uncomplicated southern Italian staples — spaghetti with meatballs and red sauce; hearty lasagna with sausage from local favorite, Graziano’s, and oozing with ricotta and mozzarella.
But we can see why the place is popular. It has a “Cheers” kind of feel, where everyone would know your name if you told them your name. The small dining room was so packed that when people walked past our high-walled booth, they inevitably peeked in at us — looking like they hoped they’d spot friends. When they didn’t, they smiled. Some people might find this intrusive. We found it amusing — and endearing. Classic Des Moines.
Also, the service was warm, friendly and swift. The young owner, in casual garb, went out of his way to acknowledge that people were waiting and to update them on the wait and the options while waiting (like sitting at the bar). That’s the way to do it! And I’m assuming it was his idea to give us a free piece of delicious red velvet cake at the end of our meal. I gather from Yelp that complimentary cake is not unusual…although I can’t promise it.