Indianapolis struggles with its chain restaurant reputation, but beneath the hazy cloud of neon, there’s an expanding list of independently owned restaurants that can compete nationally, a growing cocktail scene, and a slew of Indy’s signature mammoth-sized breaded pork tenderloin sandwiches. But also, there’s a LOT of fast food underneath that neon, so, to help you navigate the maze, these are the locals' favorite spots to eat and drink in Indy.
Mass Ave Why you're here: Gastropub fare, a communal table, and excellent cocktails What you're getting: The daily pickle plate and the Black Market burger are always solid, although Chef/owner Micah Frank’s salads are good enough to tempt any carnivore. If you spot a pork chop on the dinner menu, go for it -- although we might be swayed by the rabbit and dumplings. Dessert? Don’t pass up the salted chocolate brickle.
Fletcher Place Why you’re here: Brunch and booze in the buzz-worthy Fletcher Place neighborhood What you’re getting: We love Milktooth for its atypical brunch. Get a toasted house-made bialy and sorghum-glazed bacon. Or a Dutch baby cornmeal pancake with peach-amaro jam. Or maybe sweet-tea fried chicken or beef tartare with steak frites.
Downtown Why you’re here: For a business lunch or a date-worthy dinner What you’re getting: A bento box lunch with a main and three sides, like, oh, say, wild salmon with asparagus, chorizo potato salad, and squash bisque. For dinner? Gorgeous and delicious food with a modernist influence. And don’t skip dessert. Really. Just don't.
Fletcher Place Why you’re here: Come for the creative menu and cool vibe. Stay because you get the literary reference to Indy native Kurt Vonnegut. What you’re getting: Bread, olives, and oysters from the snacks menu or a few items to share from the small-, medium-, and large-plates list. Maybe radish crudo, chicken liver pate, and a papardelle beef Bolognese. And about that bread: they're Italian-style hearth-baked loaves made at the adjacent Amelia’s bakery.
Downtown, Meridian-Kessler, Keystone at the Crossing, Carmel, and the airport Why you’re here: For everything from business meetings to breakfast or a Bloody Mary-laden brunch What you’re getting: Breakfast stars here with omelets made with locally sourced ingredients (try the Hippie with a Benz), killer cinnamon toast, broken-yolk sandwiches, and salads -- and lots of coffee. Or maybe prosecco. Or locally brewed Sun King beer.
Mass Ave Why you’re here: For creatively topped pizzas from the wood-fired pizza oven before bar-hopping on Mass Ave, which starts downstairs at the Libertine Liquor Bar What you’re getting: Can’t decide between the homemade sausage pizza and the Taleggio & fig pie? Get them both; you won’t be the only two-top with two pizzas. If you don’t want to cart around a carry-out box, flip a coin on the pies and share the mussels or the grilled octopus starter as well. Or head downstairs to the Libertine (like Pizzology, also from James Beard semifinalist Chef/owner Neal Brown) for cocktails and a bar menu.
Northside Why you’re here: For date night or to share starters with friends in the restaurant’s Kitchen Nook What you’re getting: Whether it’s meatloaf, shrimp with wild boar, or duck confit, food from James Beard semifinalist Chef Steven Oakley is going to be delicious and beautifully presented. And whatever you’re having, add on the butternut squash soup and the mac & goat cheese pesto side. Too pricey? The Kitchen Nook menu offers plenty of shareable small plates.
SoBro Why you’re here: To experience Chef/owner Greg Hardesty’s food in his “culinary playground” What you’re getting: Whatever the James Beard semifinalist chef is serving: it’s a four-course, prix fixe menu in the $60-per-person range, and the only options might be a choice between the beef or the lamb and whether you want the wine pairing. (You do.) For a few less pricey a la carte options, head next door for tacos or a burger at Hardesty’s adjacent Room Four.
Downtown Why you’re here: Beer, brats, and food that channels Indy’s German heritage in the 19th century Athenaeum building What you’re getting: Go to the beer garden for live music and brats when the weather is warm. In the dining room, go ahead and try the hot wurst platte -- and consider yourself warned about the spicy mustard. Or get the schnitzel just so you can understand the Old World heritage of Indy’s classic breaded pork tenderloin sandwich.
Fountain Square Why you’re here: To hang out at a bar with a rockabilly heritage in the bustling Fountain Square neighborhood What you’re getting: A classic Negroni, a Sazerac, maybe a riff on a Tiki drink -- or just ask one of Thunderbird’s award-wining bartenders to make you something. Thunderbird's food's worth a trip, too: try a few things to share from the Southern-inspired menu, like shrimp and grits, pickle-brined fried chicken, or Carolina BBQ sliders.
Downtown Why you’re here: An all-Indiana beer list What you’re getting: It’s a good bet you’ll find a Sun King or a 3 Floyds brew among the 16 Indiana taps, but check out smaller local breweries as well, such as Scarlet Lane, Two Deep, or Chilly Water. For food, order bacon fat frites, mac and cheese, or beer can chicken nachos from Circle City Soups, located just downstairs in the City Market.
SoBro Why you’re here: It's a neighborhood bar that was a setting in the coming-of-age book and movie Going All the Way What you’re getting: Go ahead and have a Stroh’s -- no one will disapprove in this old-school tavern. There’s also locally brewed Sun King too, which goes nicely with a burger and potato salad. But be sure to bring cash (or hit up the handy ATM) and mind your manners. Longtime owner Russ Settle, who passed away in 2010, had a few house rules that are still in effect. So keep your feet off the chairs and be sure to hang up your coat. And if you see Going All the Way author Dan Wakefield, say hello.
Haughville Why you’re here: If you want to mingle over a beer lunch with politicos, biz types, and the journos who cover them, this is your spot. What you’re getting: A cheeseburger -- the best in the state. A thin, crisp-edged burger smashed and fried on a well-seasoned griddle and served with lettuce, tomato, and pickles. And you’re gonna want the onion rings. And go ahead and have a beer, but beware of the joint’s famous 32oz mug if you’ve still got an afternoon of work ahead of you.
Downtown Why you’re here: Live blues seven nights a week in Indiana’s oldest bar What you’re getting: Classic pub fare, plus steaks, pasta, soups, and sandwiches, as well as a late-night menu in an allegedly haunted building that has been, among other things, a stop on the Underground Railroad, a bordello, and a hangout for gangs during Prohibition. You’re also getting live music every damn night.
Mass Ave. Why you’re here: Some of the best cocktails in Indianapolis What you’re getting: The classics are always spot-on, but so are cocktails made with mezcal, moonshine, and elixirs from locally based Wilks & Wilson. To accompany that cocktail, try the cheese plate, local charcuterie, or even an Indy original King David hot dog.
Keystone & 54th Why you’re here: Play the jukebox in this neighborhood bar with some solid pub food What you’re getting: A fine example of a classic Hoosier breaded pork tenderloin sandwich that’s a little on the thicker side with a breading that stays crisp. And if, for some very weird reason, you’re not into deep-fried pork, have the vegetarian Water Buffalo sandwich and feel all sprouty and healthy. Just promise you’ll get the tenderloin next time.
SoBro Why you’re here: Family-friendly dining not far from the beer-heavy Broad Ripple strip What you’re getting: The tenderloin sandwich, one of the specialties at this family-friendly neighborhood restaurant, has tender, flavorful pork. It's not too thin, not too thick, and it's bigger than the bun but not so big that it seems silly. So, basically, it's just right. But get it with pickles and mayo.
Carmel Why you’re here: Sometimes, you need a tenderloin sandwich after shopping in Carmel’s Arts & Design District What you’re getting: A basic breaded tenderloin and fries. This tenderloin is a little on the thin side, but not too crisp. Straightforward. No bells and whistles. A well-seasoned sandwich served in a down-to-earth pub -- in the middle of this high-end Hamilton County city.
Broad Ripple Why you’re here: Indy takes its high school basketball seriously, and Bobby Plump of the Milan Miracle of 1954 is the owner here What you're getting: The tenderloin is a classic, just like the movie Hoosiers and owner Bobby Plump, who made the famous 14ft shot that won the state championship for tiny Milan High against powerhouse Muncie Central.
Carmel Why you’re here: For beers such as Dragonfly IPA, Champagne Velvet, or Bad Elmer’s Porter from one of Indiana’s largest breweries What you’re getting: You want the Hoosier classic pork tenderloin sandwich, but, if you want a second choice, go whole hog and get the Three Lil’ Pigs, which tops the classic breaded tenderloin with bacon and Fischer Farms barbecued pulled pork. And vegans have a pretenderloin option with Upland’s vegan seitan version.
Mass Ave. Why you’re here: You can watch English Premier League, Champions League, World Cup, or European Championships matches. Live. At 8am. And you won’t be the only one there to cheer on Chelsea. What you’re getting: Okay, so maybe you’re not having the garlic tenderloin at 8am, but it’s a well-seasoned option for later in the day. Or have it for breakfast. We won’t judge.
Greenfield Why you’re here: Farm-to-fork food at a classic drive-in What you’re getting: It’s a 20-minute highway drive to the Hancock County seat, but the farm-to-fork drive-in food, like the thick breaded tenderloin made from locally raised, pastured pork, is worth the effort. A carhop will actually come take your order -- although these days carhops type on iPads. And don’t wear roller skates.