Downtown Ames, Iowa
You know the phenomenon where you don’t notice things that are happening in your own backyard? The other day when I was in downtown Ames I suddenly noticed that the Main Street district had grown and flourished, and I wasn’t even aware of it. Changes have been taking place for several years, but this past year a real renaissance has occurred.
So yesterday I spent the day wandering from shop to shop, amazed at the shopping and dining possibilities I’d missed just 10 minutes from my house.
I started with Ames British Foods, “purveyors of fine foods, teas, beers, and gifts from Britain, Ireland, and around the world” according to their sign — and that seemed accurate to me. They have a great selection of imported beer (many sold by the individual bottle), cute teapots, European candy, and hard-to-find foods like lemon curd. They also carry fresh shortbread baked by a woman in Mount Vernon, Iowa.
Ames British Foods has been open in Ames for four years, but it just recently moved to its current (and much improved) location at 429 Douglas, in the former Octagon Shop space. I met Marcus Johnson, the owner, who came to Ames from southern England to work at Ames Lab. He served me a cup of hot tea (a benefit to all shoppers, he said) and told me about another British venture he recently opened in Ames: The Chip Shop, a fish and chips restaurant at Char’s at 3100 South Duff. I don’t eat fish, but the rest of my family does, and I wouldn’t mind some authentic chips, so I’ll have to try it out.
A couple doors down is the Octagon Shop (427 Douglas), the retail space affiliated with Ames’ Octagon Center for the Arts. The current space has expanded from the earlier location, and I found much to look at. The art is high-quality, approachable, and — best of all — local, featuring works from 125 area artists. I tend to gravitate to the practical pieces (scarves, jewelry, printed note cards) but the paintings, sculptures, and tiny hand-made animals also caught my eye. I will be back to shop for Christmas.
I thought about the holidays a lot while I was shopping in Ames yesterday. I feel like, given that this is the first weekend in November, we’re just on the cusp of the big Christmas-decorating-and-holiday-promotion season. It was nice to browse through the stores without all the shopping hubbub, but I look forward to going back with a list in my hand and holiday music (and cookies and hot apple cider?) in the shops.
From the Octagon Shop, I crossed Main Street to visit a store I’d never noticed before: The Artisan Peace Shops. There I met owner Jim Hennager, who told me the shop opened in June. It features a mix of local art, crafts, food, Iowa wine and honey, and photography by DMACC students. There’s also an international component, with products from 15 countries, focusing on the Philippines, the homeland of his wife. The shop is at 136 Main Street.
At that end of Main Street (between Douglas and Duff) you’ll also find two of Ames’ oldest and most beloved restaurants: The Grove (a local dive that’s serves the best breakfast in town) and Great Plains Sauce and Dough, home to thick-crust, cheese-laden, diet-busting pizza that is oh so delicious. There are also a number of bars on that block, including the recently renovated Whiskey River, at right.
In the next block, I discovered my new favorite clothing store: B. Belle, located at 207 Main. Ames has several very good women’s clothing stores and fun boutiques, but the vibe in B. Belle was absolutely delightful. The clothing was fabulous, the prices were not out of control, and the owner, Susan Hart, made me feel right at home. She said the shop, which opened in May in a portion of the former Antique Ames building, was named after her mother, Bonnie Belle — a photo of her mom at age 4 is displayed prominently in the store. I can’t wait to go back.
Next door, in the other part of the old Antique Ames building, is a design space occupied by Iowa State’s College of Design students.
On the other side of B. Belle’s is “It’s All About Me,” a boutique and spa featuring facial and body treatments, massage and reflexology, waxing, and makeup — but also cute scarves, baby items, and more. The shop, which has been at 209 Main for more than five years, is owned by Kathy Drevs.
Just down the street I discovered another store I hadn’t known existed — and it was a great find. The Tangerine Zebra, featuring antiques and vintage decor, is just next door to the venerable Emerhoff’s shoe store. I found lots of things to love about the Tangerine Zebra, owned by Robert Hague. The woman running the store yesterday said Hague offers custom light fixtures, restorations, and custom repairs and painting. It’s a real find for anyone who enjoys vintage furnishings.
This block of Main is just chock full of great shops, like Worldly Goods (a non-profit retail store filled with hand-crafted items from around the world) and Chocolaterie Stam (above), a chocolate-and-gelato shop that is alone worth a trip to downtown Ames.
Two consignment shops are located in this block: The Loft and Duck Worth Wearing. Duck Worth Wearing is a children’s and maternity consignment shop that in April moved from its longtime location on the northeast corner of Kellogg and Main across the street to a more spacious location. Owned by Eric and Amy Abrams, the shop (the busiest of all the places I visited yesterday in downtown Ames) is filled with consignment clothing, toys, and a selection of new items as well. The Loft, formerly located above Duck Worth Wearing, has moved downstairs to Duck’s vacated space. Both stores are now considerably larger. The Loft, also owned by Amy Abrams, features women’s consignment clothing and shoes.
Last, but not least, on this block is Cafe Diem, one of my favorite places in Ames. I love coming to this cozy coffee shop in the winter, for hot drinks, soup, and grilled-cheese sandwiches. It makes me warm just thinking about it.
Heading west, the 300 block of Main is also filled with shops and restaurants, including the popular Olde Main Brewing Co., Downtown Deli, The Pumpkin Patch toy store, American Country interiors, Evert’s Flowers and Gifts, Great Stuff Ltd. (a furniture and home consignment shop), Teal and Tenacious women’s clothing store, Gallery 319, Skunk River Cycles, and more. Relatively new to this block is Ames Cupcake Emporium, located at the corner of Main and Kellogg. The Cupcake Emporium obviously sells cupcakes (above), but it also serves lunch in a fun space filled with vintage decor.
I frequently visit two other shops on this block: Cook’s Emporium (above) at 313 Main — a great shop for all things for the kitchen and dining room — and Photosynthesis, next door at 317 Main.
Photosynthesis took over the former Walden Photo shop, and while I grieved the loss of Walden’s, I have grown to love Photosynthesis. Not only do they do the best photo processing and printing around, they have expanded to offer photo books, photo gifts, jewelry, photos printed on slate and metal, and lots of other fun things. Most importantly, I trust them with my pictures.
Another fun store in this block is Anything But New, located at 309 Main in the former Temptations store. It’s a fun antiques store with lots of men’s and women’s vintage clothing and hats, Christmas items, books, kitchen items and dishes, jewelry, toys, and more.
I was hoping to visit Della Viti, billed as Iowa’s first and only self-serve wine bar, serving 48 varieties of wine, plus a full-service bar and craft beers. Wine comes in three sizes: a taste, a half glass, or a full 5-oz. pour. The shop opens at 2 p.m. daily, and I just got there too early. I’ll definitely come back.
The last block of Main Street, between Burnett and Clark, features two of Ames’ best restaurants: The Spice Thai restaurant, and Lucullan’s Italian Grill. It also features one of Ames’ best boutiques: Lyla’s. Located at 404 Main, Lyla’s has a slightly younger vibe than B. Belle’s but is certainly in the same league in terms of quality, trendy, fun clothing, handbags, and jewelry. The black-and-white checkered floor and ample use of hot pink decor always makes me smile.
I’ve left out dozens more businesses: shoe stores, men’s clothing, jewelry, art galleries, a ceramics studio, pet shop, bookstores, hobby stores, hair salons, service providers, and even a violin shop. Another wonderful consignment clothing shop, Miss Meyer’s, is located just north of Main Street on Clark Ave. Just to the west are Aunt Maude’s (arguably the nicest restaurant in Ames) and Wheatsfield food cooperative. I really can’t believe how much downtown Ames has to offer.
The thing I like best about shopping in downtown Ames is that, with very few exceptions, all of the shops and restaurants are locally owned and one-of-a-kind. During my tour yesterday, I was greeted by the owners of most of the shops. I would easily put Ames’ downtown district up against Des Moines’ East Village and Valley Junction for shopping, dining, and nightlife.
If you come to Ames to shop and eat, don’t forget that the Campustown area just south of Iowa State (mostly along Lincoln Way and Welch Avenue) offers more interesting food, taverns, a few funky shops, and wonderful coffee shops. My favorite places in Campustown are Stomping Grounds (for coffee, lunch, outdoor dining, and summer concerts), Lorry’s Coffee, Es Tas (for the tacos), Cafe Beaudelaire, Pizza Pit, Thai Kitchen, and Welch Ave. Station. Good stuff.
I also have to give a shout-out to another locally owned restaurant: Indian Delights. Located at 127 Dotson Drive, this place is practically invisible in the shadow of West Ames Hy-Vee, but it’s so worth the extra effort to find it. The food is authentic and consistently some of the best food Ames has to offer.