At the heart of a traveler is the need to see new things, try new experiences. Often we (at least I) assume that ‘new’ has to come from far away. The more miles between home and the new place the better, and that sometimes means we overlook places close to home. Which is silly, really – close to home is relative after all, since every place is far from somewhere else.
I bristle whenever I hear about flyover country – my home of Louisville is smack in the heart of what east and west coasters think is just the space they have to cross to get from one good part of the country to another – so I should be a little more open minded. But maybe because of my fondness for my hometown, it turns out I’ve been harboring a bit of the same snobbery that those fliers do – toward a northern neighbor. A northern neighbor that just so happens to attract hundreds of people each year from my hometown.
In my defense, Indianapolis never really crossed my mind. It’s a place I drive through sometimes on the way to Michigan, a place to avoid during rush hour, and to curse for their orange barrels. I knew they had a big car race there, one I don’t watch, and that, well – actually – that’s about what I knew. And it wasn’t far enough away to warrant any further exploration.
But when the VisitIndy office invited my husband and me to spend a weekend during a college basketball tournament it seemed like a good opportunity to expand my horizons – to watch a sport I don’t follow, and explore a town I don’t know. So I packed up and we drove the 115 miles north to Indy. “This is more entertaining than I expected,” I Facebooked that night. I meant the basketball game, but by the end of the weekend, it could have been Indianapolis I was talking about.
They had me at savory(!) macarons. With the Louisville food scene my bread and butter as it were (I cover the culinary front here for several publications) I admit to a certain my-town-is-better-than-your-town attitude when it comes to this part of the country. So when I sat down to duck pastrami on rye-flavored macarons at Cerulean I had to acknowledge that Louisville isn’t the only city that’s been upping its game. The Indiana bourbon cocktail I enjoyed upstairs in the mod Plat 99 was made with love, and by the time I made my belated way to the game, it was clear I shouldn’t have been ignoring Indianapolis all these years.
Up too early after a late night at the game, we made it to Patachou – billed as a student union for adults – just in time before the throngs descended. When the server mentioned that they’re known for their cinnamon toast I instituted a new policy to never disregard those words. And when I bit into the the buttery, crunchy-sweet toast I had to wonder why I ever stopped eating this manna. It was food to feel good about too; the Patachou Mission provides nutritious after school food to local at-risk kids. Fortified with multiple cups of their good, strong coffee, we headed for E. 10th Street, which Indianapolis Monthly magazine said was home to some cool salvage and thrift shops.
And was it ever! Next time we’re up there I’m taking a truck to plunder the treasures at Tim & Julie’s Another Fine Mess, and Audrey’s Place down the street. We scored some old frames, a mirror, a wooden chair that somehow we wedged into our compact car, and a battered old wooden stepladder, all for well under a hundred bucks. Countless other goodies tempted as we picked our way through these wonderlands, from fireplace mantels and barber chairs to old Hardy Boys books and wrought iron fencing.
We took a spin through Sun King Brewery next, where Clay Robinson gave us the mile-a-minute tour of the rapidly growing craft brewery he co-founded five years ago. My favorite? The special room where used whiskey barrels are quietly – and with amazing aroma – aging beers. When Sun King branches out into distilling whiskey, this project is sure to become even more interesting. You can’t buy their beer at a grocery store, let alone outside Indiana so we bought a four-pack of Cream Ale, then took Clay’s recommendation for lunch – a packed little spot north of downtown called Goose the Market.
Wishing I’d brought not only a truck but a cooler when I saw their serious charcuterie display starring treats from Smoking Goose Meatery , I limited myself to a Goose sandwich – fresh mozzarella and some luscious prosciutto on a fine baguette – and chatted it up with some Italian guys downstairs in the enoteca who were digging into their second serving of a cheese and meat board. (Refreshingly, they had no idea what basketball game I was talking about.)
The best was still to come, though, with dinner at Recess. An entirely new menu every day, decided that day at the whim of the chef, sounded like a potential recipe for disaster (I can barely figure out what to cook for dinner for two most night) but Greg Hardesty has pulled off the culinary playground for five-plus years now. Stripping pretension away from fine dining, the waiters wear jeans and sneakers, the concrete floors bear the painted footprints of the chef’s kids, and the menu is missing the fluffed up strings of adjectives that tend to waste so much ink elsewhere. Short rib ragout, squid ink spaghetti, crème fraiche anyone? So few words, so much flavor – we intended to share the optional rib supplement to the four-course menu but fell on it with such voracious appetite that we – somewhat sheepishly – ordered a second portion, and went on to clean all our plates, earning a sincere “you guys are champs” from the waiter.
Somehow we still managed to wake up hungry the next morning, so we made for a classic greasy spoon we’d spotted the day before in the Fountain Square neighborhood, an area we’re told is “finally” transitioning. Twenty-four-hour Peppy Grill is the kind of place where a lone guy might give up his table for a hungry group; where ladies in furs and men in fedoras squeeze in next to a woman wearing a self-proclaimed Hangover Shirt and a styling fellow we saw at Recess the night before (no joke!); and a tattooed man might pop in at any moment to swear at the busy cook, in an exchange that ended with “f*** off,” and “love you too, fat-a$$.” (“That’s my brother,” the cook explained to the suddenly silent diner when her sibling made his dramatic departure.)
I was going to tell you about the Ansel Adams exhibit we took in at the Eiteljorg Museum museum, but I’d rather go out on the Peppy note. Echoing a sign above a building down the street, some graffiti scrawled in the tiny lady’s room (you angle in sideways) read “You’re beautiful.” Indianapolis, you’re not so bad yourself. I’m sorry it took me so long to give you a chance.