By Susan Guyett
As Indianapolis has grown over the last 20 years into a thriving Midwestern sports, entertainment and cultural center, so has the depth and variety of our food scene. While Downtown's vitality is the prime example, our ethnic, independent and entrepreneurial progress can be found throughout the city.
As offerings from restaurants and food markets broadened, the traditional steak-and-potato tastes of Hoosiers have matured to match many of the new options.
Make no mistake: Our acceptance of and demand for more dining and grocery choices has been gradual. We're not folks to be yanked into the future on any front, culinary or otherwise. Getting on the front end of a trend just isn't our style. The foodies among us admire culinary daredevils, but it takes more than those obsessives to keep quality independent restaurants and food vendors alive.
Let's consider some of the progress the city's food scene has made since NUVO critiqued its first restaurant 20 years ago. We've watched a few great restaurants fail while less worthy operations thrived. Some eateries expanded too fast. Some lost financial backing. Others coped with internal drama worthy of a movie-of-the-week script.
Restaurants, you see, are like any other business. Everything has to mesh to keep the gears moving. Owners must have vision and energy. Chefs have to be creative. Customers must be happy and able to buy. Staff must be paid well and on time.
We can thank two Midwesterners for opening our eyes to the food world around us. Iowa-bred Drew Appleby and Kansan John Baldwin are the major forces behind Indy Ethnic Food, a website that keeps track of the restaurants, markets, bakeries and festivals that involve cuisine from around the world. (www.indyethnicfood.com.)
Their not-for-profit initiative, now nearly seven years old, remains a labor of love. Appleby is the director of undergraduate studies in psychology at IUPUI and Baldwin is the director of Information Technology for the Riley Children's Foundation. Along with an advisory board and website members, they keep the rest of us current on the ethnic food scene.
When word got out that Appleby shared his list of authentic ethnic eateries with like-minded diners, Baldwin got on the mailing list and offered to design a website. The all-volunteer enterprise hasn't looked back since. The website is the "go-to" spot to find those hidden gems that you might be afraid to visit on your own.
The listings of nearly 800 eateries prove how our international options have expanded. It used to be you had to head to Pendleton Pike to visit longtime restaurants Bando or MaMa's for a Korean food fix; today you'll find Cafe Korea or EMiracle in Fishers. Likewise, you have a choice for finding Turkish treats at Bosphorus Cafe downtown or at the Istanbul Cafe on the northside. (The website managers keep the listings as up to date as possible but it's always best to call ahead since restaurants rarely announce they are closing.)
Independent vs. Chain restaurants
Oh, how we love to hate chain restaurants.
But let's get real. Chain restaurants are a lot like bad television or a dreadful movie. Just because they exist doesn't mean you have to watch.
A closer examination of where our food dollars go might show we turn to corporate food operations to save time, utilize a drive-through or grab a bargain more often than we thought.
Supporting locally owned and operated restaurants is one of the best ways to improve the local dining scene. Our patronage, opinions and purchases usually mean something to these owners. Suggestions made to a local restaurateur will probably carry more weight than a note to the CEO at Olive Garden.
Success has helped some independent operators expand into, yes, you might call them local chains. Consider Martha Hoover's Patachou empire and the additional locations of Joe Vuskovich's restaurant, Yats. Both of these owners knew when to cut their losses when it became clear that a new location wasn't the right fit. Does anyone remember Hoover's restaurant at Saks?
But before we reject chains just for the sake of rejecting them, consider the case of Chef Ryan Nelson, the treasure who came to our town with the opening of Oceanaire Seafood Room. He's been a fixture in the gang of young chefs in our town who are community-minded and award-winning talents.
Special Occasion Dining
Chef Tony Hanslitts of The Chef's Academy has seen the restaurant business from all sides and knows a restaurant can't survive just on special occasions. While some folks dine out every weekend, most of the world has to pick and choose when they are going to drop $70 to $100 per person for a meal.
Couples who spring for big dinners on their birthdays and anniversaries and have six favorite restaurants will be reserving a table at your restaurant every two years, Hanslitts mused recently. You need to get customers in the door more often than that to stay in business.
Many newer restaurant owners are crafting their business plans to fit their special niche. Brad and Nancy Royal opened City Café in 2000 at 433 N. Pennsylvania, focused on serving high-quality fresh ingredients and creative dishes at breakfast and lunch. Movable Feast owners Peter Courtney and Kathleen Tracy opened their tiny restaurant at 5741 E. 71 St. off Binford Boulevard 13 years ago, doing the same thing.
Taste Café & Marketplace owners Marc Urwand and Deidra Henry are another good example of success. Taste opened in 2004 serving breakfast and lunch, expanded a few years later and they now serve dinner on Wednesday and Thursday nights to a devoted clientele. They've been encouraged to open other outlets outside Meridian Kessler, but Urwand said that while they have dream plans for the future, opening Taste twins in Geist or Carmel are not in the cards.
Successful independent restaurant owners know they need to be present to maintain their success. Urwand and Henry live around the corner from their business at 5164 N. College Ave. and at least one of them is always on site during operating hours, Urwand said.
R Bistro on Massachusetts Ave. continues to thrive on owner Regina Mehallick's own terms, serving creative dishes containing only the freshest ingredients. The same goes for Chef Steven Oakley, whose bistro at 86th and Ditch remains top notch since opening day in 2002.
The more educated we get as consumers, the better the food selections will be, Hanslitts said. We've seen the proliferation of farmers markets and the arrival of retail gems such as Goose the Market, that sell those items we need to make our own great meals at home. Even though Hanslitts and his wife, Rosa, aren't in the restaurant business anymore, they provide fresh pastas and other treasures at their retail shop, Nicole-Taylor's Pasta & Market, 1134 E. 54th St. in that trendy retail hub near Zest Exciting Food Creations and Mama Carrolla's. Zest is now serving dinner and Mama's has recently opened Good Morning Mama's next door to serve the breakfast/lunch crowd.
Local success stories prove that with talent and customer support, independent restaurants can thrive and encourage other young chefs to get in the game.
Rest in Peace
It's hard to look at the city's restaurant scene over the last 20 years without a short montage of eateries that are no longer with us. They include Fletcher Boyd's downtown gem, Fletcher's, and Fletcher's of Atlanta; Peter George's restaurant, Peter's; Something Different; the classic French Chanteclair, with its strolling violinist, and Ethiopian gem, Queen of Sheba. Becky and David Hostetter proved vegetarians like dining out, too, with their pioneering Essential Edibles. Others doors that closed were at Elements (though the co-owner Greg Hardesty is hard at work at his new place, Recess); L'Explorateur (though Neal Brown is running Pizzology and looking for a spot for his new eatery, Brown & Co.).
Then there was the transformation of venerable Dodd's Townhouse into Meridian, with Chef Dan Dunville at the helm.