NUVO at 25: It's all about the food 

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I still miss Renee's.

A lot of restaurants have come and gone in the 25 years since NUVO launched in 1990, but the one I miss most was a little French restaurant and deli at 839 Westfield Blvd. in Broad Ripple. It was cozy and kitschy, with mismatched chairs and uneven floors, located in an old building with plumbing problems and accessibility issues, but I loved it.

That was my favorite restaurant for a long time and one I went to regularly; it worked for date night as well as for lunch with a friend. But you know what was different about Renee's even back in the day? It was non-smoking at a time when diners were routinely asked, "Smoking, non or first available?"

The restaurant smoking ban is one of the best changes I can think of in the 25 years that I've been covering Indianapolis.

Although, to be fair, I wasn't writing all that much about restaurants 25 years ago. I was an associate editor at Indianapolis Monthly at the time, and editor-in-chief Deborah Paul had handled the restaurant reviews. I was lucky enough to get to tag along occasionally, though, which was much appreciated, since the city's top restaurants were well out of my price range. That's how I got to try Fletcher's American Grille & Café, which chef Fletcher Boyd had opened downtown in 1985. Unfortunately, I never did get to Peter's Restaurant, which had opened in Fountain Square in 1985, or Something Different, which had opened at 65th and Keystone in 1989.

I think of those as the first wave in the evolution of Indy's current dining scene, independent, chef-driven restaurants that were ahead of their time, where many of our current top chefs, somms and servers got their start.

The places I was going 25 years ago were more along the lines of Café Espresso in Broad Ripple (now Old Pro's Table). Or maybe we'd be drinking weak margaritas at El Matador at 921 Broad Ripple Ave., which has housed so many restaurants since then, but which has always been a great place to sit outside.

Downtown? Twenty-five years ago, there were still restaurants in Union Station, and Circle Centre mall didn't exist yet. Mass Ave was much more of a gallery district than it is now, although Bazbeaux was already there as were a handful of other bars and restaurants — including a café called Mugwumps, where bands would play in the basement at 608 Massachusetts Ave., a familiar address for Pizzology and Libertine fans.

Fountain Square? There wasn't much restaurant action there, although Peter George had certainly seen its potential when he opened Peter's there in the space that now houses Siam Square.

By the mid-'90s, I was reviewing for NUVO, and I went to a lot of ethnic restaurants like Russia House, Café Europa and various ristorantes that all seemed pretty similar.

While the mid- to late-'90s weren't very memorable for local restaurants, that's when our farmers' markets started, and those have definitely made a difference. In fact, market vendors like Ross Faris helped make it possible for the next wave of chef-driven restaurants to offer locally raised produce.

And by 2000, that next wave of chefs began to open their own restaurants. Tony Hanslits with Tavola di Tosa and Greg Hardesty with H2O Sushi in 2000. Regina Mehallick with R bistro in 2001. Steven Oakley with Oakleys Bistro in 2002. Hardesty again with Elements in 2003. Marc Urwand and Deidra Henry with Taste Café & Marketplace in 2004. Brewer Ted Miller and partners with Brugge Brasserie in 2005. And, after Tavola closed in 2004, Neal Brown with L'explorateur in the same location in 2006.

And then something happened — or maybe it just kept happening. Because even though Brown closed L'explorateur in early 2009, by November of that same year he opened his first Pizzology.

From there, it seems, things just took off. In 2010 Hardesty opened Recess, and in 2011, another wave hit, and we saw Room Four open and Black Market and Late Harvest Kitchen and The Libertine Liquor Bar and The Local Eatery & Pub.

And then Bluebeard happened, and Rook and Milktooth. And George reappeared on the scene with Tinker Street. And now here we are, anticipating an expansion of Rook, tacos from Brown, another concept from George — and you'd better keep an eye on the talent at Cerulean too.

This next wave is going to be good.

Jolene Ketzenberger covers local food at Follow her on Twitter @JKetzenberger.

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