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.
The 16 Most Essential Restaurants in Indianapolis
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.
SoBro (& other locations)
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.
Fall Creek Place
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.
Irvington (& other locations)
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
1. Locally Grown Gardens1050 E 54th St, Indianapolis
2. Recess4907 N College Ave, Indianapolis
3. Steer-In5130 E 10th St, Indianapolis
4. Ripple Bagel & Deli850 Broad Ripple Ave, Indianapolis
5. Hollyhock Hill Restaurant8110 N College Ave, Indianapolis
6. Bluebeard653 Virginia Ave, Indianapolis
7. Milktooth534 Virginia Ave, Indianapolis
8. Yats5365 College Ave, Indianapolis
9. St. Elmo Steak House127 S Illinois St, Indianapolis
10. Bonge's Tavern9830 W 280 N, Anderson
11. Judge's BBQ & Juice Garden Smoothie Bar2104 W Michigan St, Indianapolis
12. Goose The Market2503 N Delaware St, Indianapolis
13. Long's Bakery1453 N Tremont St, Indianapolis
14. Jockamo Upper Crust Pizza401 Market Plz, Greenwood
15. Workingman's Friend234 N Belmont Ave, Indianapolis
16. Mug 'N Bun5211 W 10th St, Speedway
This small garage packs a farm-fresh punch with produce, whole-roasted hogs, and extra-sweet crème brûlée.
Recess is chef/owner Greg Hardesty’s “culinary playground," which means you're getting the James Beard semifinalist chef's four-course, prix-fixe menu in the $60-per-person range, even if the only options might be a choice between the beef or the lamb.
An Indianapolis institution, the Steer-In boasts a lengthy menu with a variety of options. If you're overwhelmed, go with the gargantuan pork tenderloin sandwich.
Ripple's Bagel and Deli is a casual dining spot offering endless topping options and varieties of bagels like apple, banana nut, jalapeño, and garlic. The huge menu of combinations might leave you a little overwhelmed with choices, all of which are steamed to hot, melty perfection upon ordering. Whether you're craving a pizza bagel with fruit jam, or an apple cinnamon bagel topped with ham, you're in good hands.
This quaint restaurant, open since 1928, serves “famous, Hoosier, pan-fried chicken.”
Bluebeard's creative menu features everything from radish crudo to chicken liver pate and papardelle beef Bolognese, all served with Italian-style, hearth-baked loaves made at the adjacent Amelia’s bakery.
A toasted house bialy and sorghum-glazed bacon or a Dutch baby cornmeal pancake with peach-amaro jam? Not your typical brunch, but that’s why we like it.
This affordable, laid-back (cash-only) spot serves generous portions of Cajun cuisine, such as jambalaya, gumbo, and chili cheese etouffee with crawfish.
St. Elmo's has been offering great steaks since 1902, making this place is an Indianapolis icon. The walls are decorated with photographs of celebrities that have stopped in over the years in search of a good piece of meat, including just about every sports figure or rock star that ever passed through town. From the 8oz filet, which goes great with a shrimp cocktail, to the 28oz porterhouse, there’s no shortage of great cuts.
At this casual American outpost in Perkinsville, Indiana, guests observe the tradition of tailgating in the parking lot before partaking in a hearty meat-centric meal inside. The rollicking two-story roadhouse could be easily mistaken for a combination barn/bowling alley, but it's neither. Bonge's Tavern is more accurately described as a scene with a steakhouse attached. The tables that everyone waits for are first come, first serve, and all end up with lavish spreads fit for a stadium parking lot, plus beer, wine, champagne, and whatever else it takes to keep one's spirits high through four-hour waits under the Hoosier sun.
This place caters primarily to, well, catering, but they're open every Friday to serve the public piles of pulled pork, brisket and wings, among other meats. They also double as a juice bar which makes for a unique combination bridging the gap between healthy and "I just ate my body weight in smoked meat."
Goose the Market is the retail arm of Indiana’s best artisan meat producer, Smoking Goose Meatery, serving hands-down the best Italian-style sandwiches in the city. If you’re a self-identified foodie, you should also peruse the meat case; it's packed with the same handmade charcuterie and meats that come on the killer sandwiches. This full-service shop also has fresh produce, artisan bread, soups, gelato, preservatives, and craft beers and wines.
Once you get a taste of their glazed yeast donuts, or the blueberry cake, or that apple one, you won’t mind the lines. And with donuts being under just barely over half a dollar, you won’t mind the cash-only policy either.
Start off ordering their breadsticks... they will not disappoint. It's the go-to pizza shop and they know how to pack on the toppings and cheese that keeps patrons coming back.
Workingman's Friend serves as a lunch haunt for local politicos and journalists, and their cheeseburger is legendary (its crispy edges make it one of the best in the city). Add a side of onion rings and a beer and you're set. Just don't make dinner plans here: it closes by late afternoon on most weekdays and Saturdays, proving that not all dive bars thrive on late nights.