Diners have long been the haven of late-night cravers. Where else can you satisfy an urge for a short stack or a steaming platter of biscuits and gravy at 2 a.m.? Here in Naptown, where the “nap” isn’t merely a moniker for our city name, it’s a point of pride that not all restaurants roll up their doormats at 10 o’clock. Those of us unafraid of the effects of midnight munching have eagerly awaited the opening of Indy’s latest 24-hour eatery. And now that Red Eye Café has been thrust into the national eye by none other than Hoosier native son David Letterman, there’s a lot of buzz about this newest Meridian Street eatery. Honeymooning co-owner Matt Haughey recently found himself offering complimentary burgers and pancakes to curious customers after Dave and his crew caught Haughey in the crowd at a taping and threw together a humorous “commercial” for his new restaurant that promised free meals. Talk about a funny break! But Red Eye seems reluctant to commit to an identity. It’s not even really red. Earthy burgundy walls and hunter green tablecloths mute the atmosphere. TV screens play cable movies or glow blue, momentarily forgotten. Strands of rope lights hang from Scotch tape on the windows. This is hardly the lively place that would keep you up on an all-nighter. Where’s the jukebox? The straight-talking waitresses? The chrome barstools? This place offers neither the canned exuberance of most family chains or the homey charm of your neighborhood greasy spoon. It does, however, offer a short list of bottled and draft beers and three wines, making it unclear whether this is the place for staving off a hangover or working on one. Starters at Red Eye make good use of the restaurant’s deep fryer. Chili cheese fries ($6.99) sounded like the best antidote for munchies in the bunch. And while the waffle fries were crisp and golden, the “Red Eye” chili was oddly chunky with rough hunks of ground beef in a thin broth. The cheese rivaled what you’d find on your ballpark nachos: gluey and crayon yellow. Beyond the cacophony of textures, this dish lacked a more essential element: flavor. The baked potato soup bordered on science project. The same radioactive cheese that had plagued our chili fries sat in an intractable mass in a shallow bowl; a few flecks of baked spuds offered little textural contrast. We all had to have a spoonful, as if on a dare, but then we pushed it aside. Our waitress, sensing our distaste, suggested that the cooks in the back weren’t thinning the concentrated soup base with water. But what could water have added? Main dishes fared only a bit better. The club melt ($7.99) ranked perhaps highest with a generous pile of turkey and ham and expertly crunchy bacon. A side of beer-battered onion rings made for the highlight of the meal. Fat slabs of sweet onions shrouded in a rich coating offered the one moment of guilty, gut-busting pleasure we’d hoped for. A patty melt ($7.99) — the litmus test of blue-plate cuisine — seemed all wrong. The “patty” was a labored, outsize affair that started off well with black angus beef but was a bit manhandled in the back with too many added flavorings. This made the texture too solid, like dense meatloaf, and a slight raw onion tang distracted from other elements. Thick-cut bread kept the whole “melt” from coming together, and Swiss and American cheeses added little to the mix. As restaurants can fail one night and impress the next, we returned to sink our forks into the impressive breakfast platters we had seen at adjacent tables. But Red Eye did no better on the makeup exam. An unadorned waffle ($5.99) sat on the plate without so much as a dollop of Country Crock or a shake of powdered sugar to cover its immodesty. This still might have worked if it hadn’t been cold. French toast ($5.99) was made from bread dipped so lightly in egg and passed so swiftly across the griddle that the only texture came from its tough crust. It, too, was tepid. Sausage and bacon were standard, basted eggs competent and nicely runny, and a side of hash browns limp. Only grits ($1.99) rose to the occasion — creamy, slightly toothy and, most importantly, warm. Despite the mention on network TV — and the ensuing flurry of business — the same lone waitress covered the entire dining room. Her affable spirit seemed nearly depleted by her workload. One can only hope that after a few weeks of bloodshot media attention the clarity of business as usual can help this place reexamine its mission — and its kitchen offerings. Downtown needs a place like Red Eye, it just needs it to do a better job.
Red Eye Café 250 S. Meridian 577-9570 Open 24 hours Food: 2 stars Atmosphere: 2 1/2 stars Service: 3 stars