By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 1996 Gourmet Magazine
We venture off the road this month for the first in an occasional series of city guides. Our goal is to direct you to restaurants plain or fancy, famous or little-known, that provide a memorable taste of America’s good-eating towns.
Urban renewal has outfitted downtown Indianapolis with a wonderland of fast-food courts and sleek hotel restaurants. In the Circle Centre mall alone, you can sample facsimiles of Italian pasta, Greek gyros, Chinese fried rice, California salads, Cajun seafood, Philadelphia cheesesteaks, and 1950s hamburgers. One thing such generic eateries do not offer, however, is Hoosier food, which is too down-to-earth to fit a mall or chain-hotel dining room. If you want to savor true heartland character as durable (and as well-seasoned) as a cherished iron skillet, you’ll have to dine around town at some of the following extraordinary places.
In the middle of the city, and in the thick of all this renovation, ST. ELMO STEAKHOUSE recalls the clubby beef palaces, frequented by local bigwigs and visiting dignitaries, that every big Midwestern city once had. Its barroom wall is lined with hundreds of photos signed by such diverse guests as Keith Richards, Jane Pauley, Ed Asner, and a wrestler identified as “the original French Angel.” Up front is a case filled with raw steaks; adjacent to it is an open kitchen scarcely bigger than that of a railroad dining car. Here meat is grilled and plated by dexterous veteran chefs, then whisked to tables by tuxedoed waiters.
“May we suggest before dinner… a Martini made with extra-dry vermouth?” asks the menu. The glacial stiffener provides a splendid companion to the house starter, six plump pink shrimp smothered with explosively hot horseradish cocktail sauce. Cuts of beef range from mighty porter-houses to filets mignons capped with mushrooms. The sirloin, labeled “Our favorite!” on the menu, arrives on a thick plate without so much as a garnish. It is a substantial strip of meat, glistening with juice, dense and full of flavor. On the side, you get a baked potato or rough-hewn French fries. Ketchup is automatically brought to the table with the meal.
Just the other end of the railroad underpass from the new malls, JOHNNY B’s is a contemporary sports bar in shades of burgundy and green. A sports bar may seem an improbable place to get a true taste of any city, but Indianapolis is crazy about its athletes; and Johnny B’s does serve exemplary fan food—massive nachos grandes, piquant deep fried jalapenos (“shark eggs”), fried flowered onions—as well as one regional specialty crucial to any honest eating tour of the central Midwest and listed on the menu as The Tenderloin.
“Tenderloins”—fried pork cutlet sandwiches—stir passions from Indianapolis to Omaha. Aficionados like to measure them: the bigger the better. Johnny B’s is eight inches, so broad that it becomes a logistical issue as to whether your fingers are long enough to actually pick up the sandwich by its bun. The curvaceous cutlet has a hard, fine-grained crust; and within this golden envelope is a ribbon of sweet, melt-in-the-mouth pork. It is a pleasure to crunch through while surrounded by the tavern’s personality-plus decor, which includes Colts mementos and an impressive display of commemorative whiskey decanters in the shape of Elvis, John Wayne, and the Pope.
At SHAPIRO’S DELICATESSEN the food is genuinely Jewish. By “genuine,” we mean that the corned beef sandwich is superb. And we don’t mean superb for Indianapolis but by lofty Lower East Side of New York City standards. Cushioned in rugged-cut rye, a mountain of hot corned beef is thick-sliced but not cloddish, is unctuous without seeming fatty, and has a mouth-watering equilibrium of peppery spice and melting tenderness. Breakfasts include bagels and lox and mighty good corned beef hash. One morning the server in the cafeteria line suggests turkey hash instead. “It smells soooo good,” she says with a looping southern Indiana twang. “By gol, I like it better ‘n corned beef!” It is indeed delicious, with big shreds of turkey among drifts of potato laced with onions, alternately crusty and moist. Another notable breakfast is eggs and matzo, a.k.a. matzo brei. Bite-size scraps of matzo are sheathed in scrambled egg like a kind of jumbled French toast but with a distinctive unleavened munchiness: home cooking, in a broad bowl.
The classic Indianapolis meal is panfried chicken with mashed potatoes, gravy, vegetables, biscuits, and ice cream (preferably peppermint-flavored) for dessert. Families in their Sunday best go north to HOLLYHOCK HILL (since 1929) or west to THE IRON SKILLET (since 1956) for just such banquets at which the chicken is slow-cooked and crisp-crusted and the ambiance is grandmotherly proper. But east of the city, on Main Street in Morristown, is the oldest of the fried-chicken citadels, the KOPPER KETTLE INN, a hostelry and tavern since the 1860s and in the family dinner business since the 1920s.
The Kopper Kettle is rapturously feminine. Pink voile curtains shimmer at the windows, candelabra grace the larger tables, and among the antiques and bric-a-brac are objects d’art with the female form as subject: a bas relief nude above the fireplace, a statuette of Aphrodite. Waitresses echo the artistic images, dressed in outfits that might be called Early American Milkmaid, with mobcaps and short skirts over thick petticoats.
Kopper Kettle fried chicken is succulent, and the fried chicken livers are acutely plush. Porky green beans cooked the country way—until nearly disintegrating—are delicious. Regrettably, the mashed potatoes taste just like the ones in other Indianapolis fried-chicken establishments—as if they’re from a mix.
We cannot say why bad spuds happen to good meals, but we do promise that one place you can be sure of getting freshly mashed potatoes is a LAUGHNER’S cafeteria. The Laughner family pioneered self-service restaurants back in the 1880s, and their six spacious Indianapolis cafeterias still serve heavenly square meals to thousands of loyal customers daily. The chicken is as good as any in town, expertly skillet-fried, but who can resist the big pink ham with lustrous glazed sweet potatoes on the side or the steam-ship round of beef displayed for the serving line, glowing pink and moist, ready to be lopped into juice-laden slices? Mashed potatoes are perfection, stout and veined with butter; and there are some two dozen other vegetables prepared every day, from farm-simple cooked carrots to green beans that are classic Americana—combined with mushroom soup, slivered almonds, and fried onions. The dessert display includes cobblers and dumplings, custards and puddings, ambrosias, jiggly meringue pies and humble sugar-creams. Aside from the spectacle of bounteous food, Laughner’s most long-standing appeal is civility. The dining rooms suggest Old World prosperity, some appointed with coats of arms and oil paintings of eighteenth-century European sea captains and saucy wenches in tasteful dishabille.
For an entirely different cafeteria experience but one that is Hoosier to its core, adventurous eaters should explore GILLIN’S FAMILY LINE. One of the two dining rooms in this storefront shop has been partitioned into a “lounge” with a six-stool bar and a television loud enough to serenade everybody. Get your food along a short buffet line, where the daily choices include such “of-the-people” meals as ham and beans with cornbread and baked chicken with dressing. These are real blue-plate specials, not gussied up, meaning your sweet-and-sour pork chops will require sawing with a knife and your scalloped potatoes with ham—orange as a school bus—will stick to your ribs all day. On the other hand, the fried catfish is elegant and the hot dinner rolls are made by a master. The real culinary lure of Gillin’s Family Line is state-fair—level pie. What ecstasy it is to ease a fork into coconut macaroon filling perched atop a hand-formed crust! Gillin’s sells whole pies and cobblers to go; give a day’s notice, and they’ll make whatever kind you want.
Beyond iron skillets, the best of Indianapolis’s upscale dining rooms is BENVENUTI, a handsome establishment high in an office tower with views of the city and a staff that delivers rolls with tongs and dinners under golden domes. To explain the day’s specials the waiter brings examples to the table, all plated. A nice idea but it doesn’t always work, because some meals lose their luster when used as demos: Rare Muscovy duck breast resembles corned beef; grilled tuna looks dry. But why quibble? The food comes hot from the kitchen, and it is wonderful to look at and to eat. A thick fillet of walleyed pike is mounted on a rosemary-perfumed potato cake; the pike itself is seared and peppery, falling into pearly flakes. One day’s shellfish special is a medley of mussels, sea scallops, and big pieces of lobster simmered with vegetables in a coulis tingling with ginger. These are serious meals, but there is one bit of whimsy at the finish. The check reads, “Your contribution to our success today is $__.”
In this city, where tradition has long set the culinary tone, there is one good spot to taste trends. Actually, it is two spots: SNAX and its adjoining sister restaurant, SOMETHING DIFFERENT, both of which serve bold modern meals that reflect the seasons. Something Different is more formal, with handsome white-clothed tables and a monthly menu featuring such multicultural main courses as pan-seared salmon with smoked-trout sushi rolls and Nicaraguan-style lamb chops with polenta and banana pepper relish.
Snax shares Something Different’s kitchen but has a style all its own. It is a pert place with a bar separated from the dining room by a chain link fence and with a staff wearing T-shirts that say JUST EAT IT. Each bare table is set with a pile of ten small empty plates; from a menu of some twenty dishes you choose such items as bread salad or bruschetta, spicy shrimp, frittata, or barbecued salmon. As they arrive at the table, a few at a time, you portion them out and everybody eats their way through the series of courses. The repertoire always includes lusty vegetarian dishes, such as autumn root-vegetable salad and spring-vegetable risotto cakes. Last fall, we relished shrimp and scallop gratin with pumpkin gnocchi, vegetable strudel in roasted red pepper oil, and Southwestern pizza with chunks of sweet-sauced beef and a chewy cloak of Asiago cheese.
Snax’s sequential courses make the place as much fun as a Chinese restaurant, giving everyone a chance to sample this and that. The food is a far cry from the farmhouse chicken dinners by which the Hoosier kitchen is known, but all the sharing and passing of plates has a familiar feel. As we handed serving dishes around, we realized that Snax simply has fashioned its own version of the kind of meal Indianapolis does best—family-style dining.
Benvenuti (permanently closed)
1 North Pennsylvania Street
Gillin’s Family Line (permanently closed)
2639 East Michigan Street
The Iron Skillet
Johnny B’s (permanently closed)
373 South Illinois Street
Kopper Kettle Inn
Laughner’s (permanently closed)
Washington Street East, at 1-465
Snax (permanently closed)
2413 East 65th Street
Something Different (permanently closed)
2411 East 65th Street