Indianapolis has a constant craving for external validation. That hunger for legitimacy may help to explain the plethora of franchise restaurants here, as well as the city’s passion for its NFL team—arguably, the largest national franchise that ever came to town. When you get right down to it, the Colts are a lot like Applebee’s, only with fewer dessert shooters and more concussions.
Fortunately, more and more independent restaurants have popped up in recent years. You can now find Burmese on the south side, Peruvian on the west side, Moroccan on the north side, and a veritable motorcade of food trucks on seemingly every side. In fact, there are so many good places to eat here that limited column inches forbid my mentioning all of them. So I’ll just focus on my favorite cuisine: comfort food.
Comfort food has always been important to Indiana. Add enough deep-fried batter and white gravy to a meal, and you can forget pretty much any problem—be it an incapacitating neck injury, a 2 and 14 season, or a prohibitively shallow river bottom.
Nearly as important as the menu is the ambiance. Once you’ve added dim lighting and table service, you’ve got a stress-free dining experience that could only be more womb-like if the customers were bobbing in amniotic fluid. If you’ve got the venture capital for a few dozen floatation tanks and a deep fryer, you’ve got the makings of a top-drawer theme restaurant.
Readers may now pause to suggest a name for that restaurant in the comment section below, before proceeding onward into a short and wildly subjective account of Indianapolis’ three most comforting fooderies.
SITE #6: John’s Famous Stew
1146 Kentucky Avenue
I am sincerely, non-ironically proud that Indiana has a State Pie (Sugar Cream, if you’re asking). Inexplicably, we have no State Stew—an oversight I trust will be corrected, come the next legislative session. Until then, I’ll nominate John’s hot goulash—an intoxicatingly spicy old recipe created by a Macedonian grandmother with the picturesque name of “Mother Dapa Strangeff.”
SITE #7: Barringer’s Tavern
2535 South Meridian Street
One of the best reasons to eat at Barringer’s isn’t on the menu, but on the building: the business’s welcoming old neon sign, which was reportedly junked by a previous owner, rescued from a dumpster by a loyal customer, then reattached to the building by the current proprietor. Serving the city’s near South side for more than 125 years, Barringer’s is perhaps best-known for its breaded tenderloin sandwich (which, while not exclusive to Indiana, is certainly near and dear to the ventricles of the Hoosier heart).
SITE #8: The Whistle Stop
375 South Illinois Street
Two of downtown’s oldest bars are within a few blocks of each other. The older, the Slippery Noodle, has marketed itself to the Nth degree—putting its name on souvenirs ranging from branded underwear to cheap sunglasses, serving a full menu, and attracting such high-profile patrons as Liza Minnelli and Ernest Borgnine. Conversely, the Whistle Stop—just a short stagger away—is a thoroughly unmarketed tavern that probably hasn’t changed its décor since the Johnson administration (Andrew’s, not Lyndon’s), and may have the only downtown menu still offering chicken gizzards. To my tastes, the Whistle Stop is the more welcoming room of the two. If nothing else, I can drink there with some level of assurance that I’m not going to find Ernest Borgnine on the next stool, grousing about Ethel Merman and coveting my gizzard.
NEXT WEEK: Hip-thrusting bears, big blue rooms, and a near-total abandonment of thematic consistency.