Today I can think of many good reasons to relocate to Indianapolis. Back in 1987 when I first came to town, there were only three: family, love or Eli Lilly. I was here for one of those, moving from Edinburgh, Scotland, that jewel on the sea, and my home for the previous seven years, for Carmel, Indiana, a one-horse town at the edge of a fly-over city. When I left Britain, the independent restaurant scene had already taken root. The revolution had started and lousy English food was becoming a thing of the past.
In purely gastronomic terms, the transition was far from easy. My first foray into a grocery store was in search of some sausages and bread. I was dismayed when the man behind the meat counter pointed to some skinny, lonely looking links, which might as well have originated in the knacker's yard, and informed me that these were the only ones they had. The demand for such things, he explained, was slow. This was inconceivable to a man raised on plump juicy bangers and fatty black pudding. The experience in the bread department was no better. Crustless spongy white matter, with barely a concession to the grain, was all I could find. It was an inauspicious start.
As I began to explore the city's restaurants, however, the outlook began to improve slightly. Downtown Indy boasted some decent albeit traditional food: King Cole offered old-fashioned tableside service with Chateaubriand for two, or monster chocolate soufflés that you had to order at the start of the meal. It was food as theatre, a concept now long since departed from our dining experience. The Majestic Oyster Bar, an expense-account stalwart in one of the city's most beautiful spaces, served acceptable and occasionally good seafood at a time when such a thing was scarce in these parts. St. Elmo's, Indy's flagship, was going strong but had yet to enter its renaissance. I finally found good sausage at Klemm's smokehouse on South Street.
By the late 1980s, fine dining had begun to take a turn away from long-established traditions and cocktail-heavy drink lists and, inspired by pioneers like Alice Waters, local chefs were learning to respond to the seasons and to use quality, often unusual ingredients. Locally-sourced produce was starting to make its way into restaurant kitchens. Fine wine, much of it Californian, was edging out cocktails as the dinner drink of choice. Originality and creativity in the kitchen were rapidly supplanting the tried and true: Fletcher's on South Penn offered imaginative and upscale modern American dining, while Peter George was trying single handedly to revitalize Fountain Square with his eponymous, detail-oriented establishment. Up north, Dieter Puska, already well entrenched, had been serving elegant, highly accomplished French-influenced cuisine to an adoring clientele for over a decade at The Glass Chimney, something he would continue to do until 2008, a truly impressive display of longevity in this brutal business. In Zionsville, J.P. Laurent ran the relaxed but consistently solid, French-themed Z'Bistro, and for a few glorious moments he operated the outstanding Café de la Place on Rangeline road in Carmel. It didn't last long. All the while, against the background of a slowly evolving fine dining scene, Greg Shaffer had been serving fondue at 62nd and Keystone, accompanied by bargain-priced gems from the best wine cellar in the city, since the mid 1970s.
As downtown was beginning to wake from its long slumber, Benvenuti, a formidably rigorous establishment, arrived on Pennsylvania Street. The food was brilliant but expensive and at times obtuse, but the restaurant managed to get by until 1994. A young alumnus was Steven Oakley, who left to join Something Different, a modern, somewhat experimental establishment which had for several years been quietly pushing boundaries under its original owners Drew and Susan Goss. In 1997 the restaurant, under new ownership, attracted a true star of the scene, Tony Hanslits, as executive chef. Tony had already made his mark at Peter's, and would later go on to establish Tavola Di Tosa, easily the best Italian restaurant this town has ever seen, before starting the Chef's Academy in 2009. A pivotal character in the history of this city's fine dining, Tony Hanlits has spawned numerous chefs who have gone on to run successful restaurants of their own.
Another graduate of Peter's, Richard Cottance, who had moved to America for love in the early 1980s, started his own microscopic restaurant, Panache, in 1992. A unique, ferociously talented and tireless double amputee, he raised the bar over the next seven years for those diners fortunate enough to visit the tiny cottage in Zionsville.
By the early 2000s, prospects seemed to be looking up for the independents, bolstered by the arrival of such luminaries-to-be as Greg Hardesty, Regina Mehallick, Micah Frank and Neal Brown. Restaurants were opening and closing just as fast: things were in flux, but in a good way it seemed. It was a time of promise and increased optimism, spurred on by development downtown and a healthy economy. By 2003, however, the chains were moving in, gobbling up disposable dining dollars wherever they settled. For unrelated reasons but in quick succession, three of the top independent restaurants in town closed their doors forever. Astonishingly, though, the independents fought a rearguard action over the next decade and took back a fair share of fine dining dollars as the move towards sustainability, good local beer and farm-to-fork principles gained traction with an increasingly well-informed, younger crowd.
For all its ups and downs, openings and closings, the Indianapolis dining scene is healthier now than it has ever been. It has achieved critical mass crucial to its survival. Success does not come overnight, however, and it is important to remember the pioneering restaurateurs of previous decades who had the temerity to raise their heads above the parapet at a time when it seemed there was really no market for their services. And healthy as the scene is right now, it is still in its infancy: There are still many voids to be filled. I look forward to the next twenty-five years. If, as they say back in Scotland, I'm spared.
Neil Charles covered fine dining for NUVO. You can read his dining reviews in Sophisticated Living.