The 16 Most Essential Restaurants in Indianapolis
Indianapolis is known as the “Crossroads of America,” and the restaurant landscape reflects that ethos of variety. Essential eating in Indy is a mix of greasy spoons, small farm purveyors, and boundary-pushing high-end dining. No matter where you choose, you’ll feel the warmth of Hoosier hospitality, which, more than any restaurant, is what the city is best known for.
Housed in a converted garage, this cute shop sells farm-fresh produce and whole roasted hogs alike. They’re also Broad Ripple’s exclusive purveyor of high-end kitchenware and accessories. The best reason to visit is for a warm piece of perfectly bruleed sugar cream pie, better known as the state pie of Indiana. Think an extra-sweet creme brulee tucked into a flakey crust.
Chef Greg Hardesty was the original mastermind of the Indy food scene that is making itself famous today. He’s known for serving some of the best new American cuisine and sushi around. You don’t have to spend a lot to enjoy his genius anymore, thanks to a new a la carte menu. He continues to set the standard for high end dining in the city, over a decade after he first made his name here.
The Steer-In represents everything that is good about throwback dining. The menu is a mile long, and features everything from breakfast to pizza and taco salads. There’s only one thing you shouldn’t go without, and that’s the signature pork tenderloin sandwich, with a paddle of meat big enough to make a competitive eater blanch. Relish the ancient interior and the greasy spoon appeal.
The beauty of choice, embodied in one humble steamed bagel sandwich shop. You can make your own customized Frankenstein of a sandwich, as they’ll put any combination of ingredients together that you could possibly imagine, from lox to apple slices. Surrounding the encyclopedic menu on the wall is a collection of lifelong customers’ personal recipes if you need some ideas. They also make a great biscuits and gravy if you’re looking for breakfast (or even “not breakfast”).
Hollyhock Hill is like dining at your grandma’s house... if your grandma also happened to make fried chicken better than the Colonel himself ever could. Every meal comes with coursed, old-school appetizers like iceberg salad, cottage cheese, and pickled beets. If you want to know what Sunday supper in the country is like, wear your church clothes and head to Meridian Hills.
For those who self-identify as “foodies,” Fletcher Place is going to take priority over any other dining neighborhood. Bluebeard has grabbed plenty of national and regional attention for Chef Abbi Merriss’s seafood wizardry in a landlocked city. They’re consistently a local favorite, and you can often find Colts QB Andrew Luck hanging out in their private dining room.
Chef Jonathan Brooks was chosen as one of Bon Appetit’s Best New Chefs for 2015, and was the only chef to ever win for a brunch restaurant. Excellent coffee and bar programs compliment Brooks’ experimental, progressive menu, and the airy white interior of the converted car garage makes the breakfast joint feel like something from a dream. The waits are painfully long on the weekends, so the best bet is to have lunch or breakfast during the week.
Naptowners love their Cajun food, either because of our long winters or cornfed palates, and nothing says creole to us like Yats. It’s cheap, it’s spicy, and they always have a few options for vegetarian diners as well as meat, not to mention that Yats has magic hangover curing properties. While the College Ave location only takes cash, they’ll gladly write you up an IOU for your ticket. And yes, they do expect you to pay it back promptly.
It’s a relic, but it’s still around for a reason. There’s a kind of majesty in spending an evening in the old-school steakhouse’s dining room. The real draw for locals isn’t the beef, but the fresh-grated, nose-burning cocktail sauce served with their shrimp cocktail. Grab a martini and an order of shrimp at the bar, but head north for the best beef in Indianapolis.
Sure, Bonge’s is in the northern suburb of Noblesville. Nonetheless, the drive is absolutely worth the quality of meat that they serve, perfectly cooked every time. The restaurant doesn’t have a liquor license, and everyone observes the tradition of tailgating in the parking lot before their meal in the dressed-down dining room.
When you want to get married, you should go find a judge. When you’re ready to fall in love, you should go find The Judge. There’s a catch though: the Judge only opens the restaurant for exactly five hours a week every Friday, with a decadent lunch buffet available for two of those hours. Otherwise, you can only get the judge as a private caterer anymore.
Going to Goose is a pretty easy way to hit all the high points of great artisan food coming out of Indiana. Build your own craft beer six pack downstairs, then get a sandwich piled with Smoking Goose meats and some dry-aged beef, lamb bacon, quail eggs, or grass-fed milk. You can also get an espresso or a scoop of gelato to go with your organic local produce, too. Here’s the recipe for great success: get a Batali sandwich for now, some cheese and beer for later.
Off the beaten path, Long’s is the great equalizer among the masses. Everyone from judges to construction workers line up out the door for these cheap, cash-only, perfect little clouds of donuts. These inexpensive pastries are dangerous to diabetics and the recently dumped alike.
Behold Jockamo Upper Crust Pizza, the undisputed king of local pizza joints. I would not be surprised if more people in the 465 loop had been stabbed defending the honor of Jockamo’s than their significant others. The toppings go all the way to the edge, and the crust is a perfect balance of fluffy bread and chewy, crunchy edges.
The smash-style burger achieves total consciousness at Workingman’s Friend, in all of its crispy glory on their super-hot griddle. Out of towners often compare them to Steak ‘n Shake burgers, but on a completely different level. You can get a double and fries for less than $10, and similar to Long’s, it has one of the most diverse lunch crowds in the city.
Named for a mug of ice-cold root beer and a bun filled with something drive-in greasy, Mug n Bun is synonymous with Speedway. There’s nothing better in May than grabbing a cold soda and munching on corn dogs while you listen to the cars fly around the track. Keep it Indy and dine in your car for the full effect.
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Sarah Murrell is a freelance contributor at Thrillist as well as an Indianapolis-based food writer an editor for NUVO Newsweekly. If you sit at Milktooth’s biggest table and say “French 75” three times, she will appear in a plume of pink smoke and tell you to try the Modbar espresso. Follow her on Twitter: @likesquirrel317