Five years after it opened, Wellman’s Pub and Rooftop remains a hot spot that regularly draws a full house of patrons who come to avail themselves of the smart, contemporary space and well-crafted menu.
The pub is actually the second Wellman’s. The first, located on Ingersoll Avenue, is an old hangout that’s looking a little weathered these days, which is to be expected since it’s been around for 30 years. It reminds me of my favorite jeans: broken in and comfortable. Legend has it that the original Wellman’s was Clint Eastwood’s favorite haunt while he filmed “The Bridges of Madison County” back in 1994.
Meanwhile, the second Wellman’s was built in 2010 and still feels new. It features an expansive, contemporary design that includes a raftered ceiling, polished concrete floors, and on one wall, a giant mural of the original location. There is also an awning-covered patio with a waterfall and the broad open-air rooftop lounge touted in the restaurant’s title. While these features alone are interesting, I think it is the well-crafted food that really sets Wellman’s apart.
The strength of the menu is that it hits the sweet spot between tried-and-true and new-with-a-twist. Dishes are familiar yet intriguing.
For instance, the pub’s basic burger is the all-American, which comes with American cheese, pickle, lettuce and onion on a beef patty and bun. Any pub worth its salt will have staples like this on the menu, but then the kitchen riffs on this with a series of variations creative yet conservative enough, for the most part, that they won’t overwhelm the average diner.
The Woodbury is a pleasant everyday burger with a heady combo of cheddar, applewood smoked bacon, onion rings and barbecue sauce. Another winner is similarly constructed: the Waterbury Blue skips the barbecue sauce and uses Maytag blue cheese instead of cheddar. It’s easy to go overboard with blue cheese and funkify a dish too much, but Wellman’s shows appropriate restraint and the burger is more delicious for it.
Other burgers feature grilled onions, fried eggs or guacamole, but the farthest afield from tradition is a uniquely constructed spectacle that I actually enjoyed.
It’s the beer-battered burger, magnificent in its audacity because it features a patty that has been dipped in batter and fried until golden brown a la fish-and-chips. The result is marvelously crispy and flavorful but a bit greasy. It’s best enjoyed with a brisk craft beer, which you’ll find no shortage of at Wellman’s.
There are also hearty sandwiches, including nice renditions of Iowa’s classic pork tenderloin sandwich and Philadelphia’s famously meaty Philly sub. The Philly is distinguished with the addition of roasted red peppers that mingle nicely with the shaved prime beef.
But if you’re really hungry, tuck into the rib-eye steak sandwich. It’s really just an excuse to eat an 8-ounce steak for lunch, but it’s a good excuse as the dripping-ladden Texas toast underneath and mess of onion rings on top round out the flavors nicely. Sweet potato fries or the housemade chips are good choices for a side.
To round out the menu, there are wraps, savory salads, mac and cheese casseroles and pizzas, as well as plenty of classic appetizers (wings and nachos and such). The best starter might be the flatbread, which is essentially a snackier, four-slice version of the regular pizza.
For dessert, I suggest indulging in the cast-iron cookie. I know, I know, it’s been done a million times, but with good reason. A just-baked giant chocolate chip cookie, smothered with vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce, is pure comfort-food bliss and never gets old.
Wellman’s also serves brunch on weekends. I’ve not gone yet but it’s certainly intriguing. Huevos rancheros rib eye, crepes, chorizo biscuits and gravy; throw in a bloody mary and the transition from Friday night revelry to Saturday morning hangover could be both seamless and delicious.
A word on service: Wellman’s has it down pat. Not only are the wait staff efficient and prompt but the kitchen is on its game, too. The food is consistently good and quickly prepared.
Wellman’s is more than a chip off the old block. I’d call it a Wellman’s 2.0 that old and new patrons — even Clint, I’ll wager — can appreciate and enjoy.
CARLOS ACEVEDO is a food editor with Grey Dog Media and a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in New York.
Overall: 4 out of 5
Cost: $ ($5-10)
Address: 597 Market Street, West Des Moines
Hours: Monday to Friday 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.; Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. to 2 a.m.