Like the majority of Des Moines’ bars, there’s nothing extraordinary about Fourth Down. But on our recent visit, we were surprised to see that everyone’s treated like a regular, including the out-of-towners.
8:05 p.m. We arrive at Fourth Down, a bar on Fourth Street in the Court Avenue District that sits below ground level. As we make our way down the stairs, we pass two middle-aged men chatting and smoking. “I used to show horses,” one says to the other. We walk through the door and find a boisterous crowd of seven perched at the bar. “She was purring,” says one patron excitedly. “She was purrrrrring!” Simultaneously, the bartender is greeting us: “ ’Sup, ’sup, ’sup, ’sup?” If the oral onslaught is an indication of how this night will go, this should be interesting.
8:06 p.m. We sit next to the rowdy crew at the bar. The bartender, juggling aluminum tumblers and tossing them in the air and catching them a la Tom Cruise in “Cocktail” (albeit a version of the character Brian Flanagan with a shaved head and soul patch) asks what we’d like to drink. I order a draw of the Sam Adams seasonal, and my drinking partner opts for a bottle of Coors Light.
8:08 p.m. A sign behind the bar tells us there are 285 days until St. Patrick’s Day. Though Fourth Down is a sports bar and not an Irish bar, apparently the appeal of the Irish drinking holiday is universal. Another sign boasts the happy hour specials. From 4 to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday, domestic draws are $1.75, bottles are $2, and Captain Morgan and Long Island Iced Teas are $3.
8:14 p.m. Justin Bieber’s “Girlfriend” comes on. The five girls at the end of the bar, in town from Iowa City and celebrating one’s 21st birthday, are giggling uncontrollably as they flirt with Flanagan, who is again trying to impress with flying aluminum tumblers. Two fall to the floor, and we silently hope they end up in the sink.
8:21 p.m. Signs behind the bar indicate that both Iowa State and University of Iowa fans gather here. We suspect this is only half true, but it’s too early to tell.
8:35 p.m. A new group of middle-aged people enter the bar. Flanagan, ever the entertainer, greets them. “Come on in,” he shouts. “Let’s get drunk.” They sit in an adjacent room housing a pool table and a small, elevated stage illuminated by track lights. Flanagan leaves his post behind the bar to take their drink orders.
8:37 p.m. More people enter. Same Flanagan greeting. “Come on in. Let’s get drunk.”
9:06 p.m. A gentleman over 40 arrives and orders a glass of water. “Did you just get out of jail or what?” asks the Door Guy. “Yeah, how’d you know?” he replies. This interaction flabbergasts us. We’re surprised he has the gall to ask, and even more surprised he pegged this thirsty patron as a jailbird.
9:10 p.m. Flanagan is reliving the angst of his teenage years with two patrons he knows from his high school. Flanagan is complaining about girls who wouldn’t give him the time of day.
9:24 p.m. We overhear a 20something seated next to us. “I can’t wait until I can play basketball against my kids,” he says. “I’m gonna dominate them. I’m gonna show no mercy.” We wonder silently if this will be the first and only time.
9:25 p.m. Flanagan’s high school buddies are getting up to leave. “Hey Scott,” one says. “We’re going to go give some girls wet willies. Then we’re going to go home.” We fear that these ladies’ ears may actually be on the receiving end of a spit-ladled finger.
9:35 p.m. A man comes in off the street. He’s been looking for a place to watch the UFC fights. Despite the fact that “fourth down” is a football term, perhaps leading him to believe it’s a sports bar, the TVs are instead tuned to “Ridiculousness,” a television show depicting Internet videos of people inadvertently hurting themselves during amateur stunts. He stays anyway.
9:44 p.m. I mention my Iowa State roots. Flanagan confirms my earlier suspicion. “You know we’re Hawkeye fans down here,” he says. “The ISU sign is just for show.”
9:51 p.m. I embark on a quest to find the women’s restroom. I take a few steps up into the pool table room, take a left and find myself in a small, dim room with a couch and a few chairs. I cross that room and enter a door to the left, take a few steps down, and finally locate it. Opening the door, I’m stunned to see that I have to walk up three more steps to an elevated toilet. I’m also confused by the gigantic mirror placed across from it. I’m not sure I’ve ever been forced to watch myself pee before, nor have I ever had to work so hard to do it.
9:56 p.m. Flanagan pulls out the aluminum cups again, this time ending with two of them pressed against his pecs, creating cones that would make Madonna blush.
10:03 p.m. Flanagan, once again up to his crazy antics, changes the words to Notorious BIG’s “Big Poppa.” “Throw your hands in the air, if you’re a true bald man,” he sings.
10:17 p.m. The secondary bartender rings a gigantic bell behind the bar. “Big tip,” he says enthusiastically. That’s what she said, says our inner frat boy.
10:25 p.m. We head out into the night, fully aware that the appeal of Fourth Down is not the décor, nor its underwhelming selection of beer, but the company it keeps.
Find it: 215 Fourth St.
Hours: 4:30 p.m.-2 a.m. Monday through Friday, noon-2 a.m. Saturday and Sunday