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In praise of Thunderbird, a nearly perfect bar 

click to enlarge Joke about Jamaica, a Thunderbird original. - MARK A. LEE
  • Joke about Jamaica, a Thunderbird original.
  • Mark A. Lee

This is my kind of bar and I absolutely love it. I could just leave it right there, but then there would be a gaping hole in the middle of this page, and you know how nature and editors both abhor a vacuum. So here's why.

When I lived on the near Southside in the nineties, I wistfully believed that Fountain Square was on the verge of becoming something. The next Broad Ripple, perhaps. After all, there was the great Peter's restaurant, the precursor to much of what is best in the Indianapolis dining scene today.

Way ahead of its time for the neighborhood, Peter's finally relocated up north, and for a couple of decades various ambitious projects alighted and evaporated like culinary soap bubbles until, eventually, a critical mass of bars and restaurants coalesced, and something approaching a scene took shape. All that it needed was a keystone to cement the whole thing together.

Thunderbird is that keystone: it's the right place at the right time, a bar which brings with it a seriousness of intent and a level of accomplishment which will almost certainly confirm Fountain Square as a destination.

click to enlarge Thunderbird resident mixologist Joshua Gonzales struts his stuff. - MARK A. LEE
  • Thunderbird resident mixologist Joshua Gonzales struts his stuff.
  • Mark A. Lee

Thunderbird's concept is by no means new, but the execution is nothing short of brilliant. Taking a formerly dilapidated building many of us must have driven by a thousand times, partners Joshua Gonzales, Jon Altman and Ed Rudisell have contrived to reveal its considerable, and for decades forgotten, inner beauty, creating an interior that is both understated yet almost viscerally resonant.

All exposed bricks and beams, lovingly restored and seamlessly updated, this perfectly-proportioned space is devoid of knowing homages and hipster irony. The enormous island bar looks as if it could have stood for the past century; the furniture is rock solid and will doubtless develop a lustrous patina over the next few decades if fashion allows.

It's the kind of place that makes you want to belly up for a couple of beers from the intelligent draft list, then wolf down a plate of biscuits with duck neck gravy and a fried egg before getting stuck into the hugely entertaining cocktail menu.

click to enlarge Kipp Normand's installation takes pride of place at Thunderbird. - MARK A. LEE
  • Kipp Normand's installation takes pride of place at Thunderbird.
  • Mark A. Lee

Gonzales' reputation as master barman at Ball and Biscuit and Libertine clearly precedes him; here the cocktails exude the wit and imagination his fans have come to expect, as well as an alcoholic strength and concentration of flavor that almost demands that you order something from the starch-heavy menu to mop up the booze.

The menu is short and southern in influence, with prices in the ten dollar range for portions which are satisfyingly robust and expertly prepared. Here the food is unashamedly a vehicle for alcohol, but is sufficiently removed from and elevated above the average pub fare that it becomes an essential part of the experience.

Scoring highly on all fronts, Thunderbird offers way more than simply the sum of its parts. It's hard to put a finger on precisely why it works so well, but it does.

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