Whether at twilight on a penthouse patio overlooking the city skyline or under an umbrella shaded from a summer morning's first penetrating rays, nothing restores the primeval pleasures of human existence like eating a meal outside. From picnics and backyard barbecues to festivals and fairs where the food is conveniently served up on disposable sticks, noshing in the open air connects us to our heritage as hunter-gatherers. While we've evolved to the civilized rituals of clean dining rooms and climate-controlled restaurants out of the elements, there's something about the threat of ants or the buzz of the occasional bee about our sno-cones that reminds us of the earthly source of our sustenance and our privileged position on the food chain.
Here in the flatlands of the Midwest, we don't exactly have the benefit of seaside piers or mountaintop lodges to provide us with panoramic vistas to accompany our meals. But in a small city, we have plenty of relatively traffic-free streets and quiet neighborhoods where restaurateurs can roll out a few tables and wave the customers in. We also have a limited alfresco dining season, which makes us doubly appreciative of those nights warm enough to lounge out under the stars for a four-course dinner. Certainly, the lingering winter weather this year has made a patio luncheon all the more enticing. Thankfully, the options are fairly limitless in Indianapolis for catching some rays while curbing your hunger pangs. Here are just a few of the highlights - depending on just how close to nature you feel like getting this summer. Don't forget your sunscreen!
Nothing makes a favorite haunt more inviting than being able to sit outside in the sun and get the same good food and service you've enjoyed all winter. Free from smoke and the din of patrons' chatter, sidewalk tables instantly make a place even more comfortable and welcoming. Perhaps one of the most fertile patches of sidewalk for outdoor dining around the noon hour is the stretch of College Avenue just south of 52nd that includes Taste Café and Marketplace (5164 N. College Ave., 925-2233), Oasis Restaurant (5166 N. College Ave., 283-0000) and Rob 'n' Jay's Chippy (5168 N. College Ave., 927-1995). Street-side tables with canvas umbrellas make this a cheery little spot on a hot summer day where you're bound to run into a friend - or make one. Not to mention all of the culinary possibilities at this trio of eateries.
You could start at Taste for one of their delicious salads or spreads or perhaps a delicious breakfast pastry. Then you could head to Oasis for some creamy hummus, fragrant fatoosh or rich lamb hose. Follow that up with a big basket of fish and chips or a shepherd's pie from Rob 'n' Jay's, and you'd need a few hours in the sun before you could even get up to walk back to your car. By then you'd be hungry enough for a slice of Taste's bread pudding, starting the whole hedonistic cycle over again.
For sheer variety at lunchtime, nothing beats downtown's historic City Market (222 E. Market St., 634-9266) for people-watching and international eats. With perhaps the largest farmers' market in the city on Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and the Market After Hours concert series starting June 8 at 5 p.m., this 1886 landmark spanning the block along brick-paved Market Street is almost always bustling in the summer months. Offering everything from Chinese takeout and sushi to Middle Eastern treats and smoky, down-home barbecue, even the most finicky of diners will find something here. Try an overstuffed potato at Potatoes 'n' More or get a 100 percent Angus beef hotdog at Jumbo's. Newcomer Barking Dog Café, serving up New England specialties such as Nantucket clam chowder and lobster rolls, recently celebrated its one-year anniversary in the market. Don't miss their pickles!
Other notable spots for outdoor dining include the rustic backyard patio at Café @ Ray (946 S. Meridian St., 636-2233), where you can get one of Chef Richard Cottance's famous soups or salads and enjoy one of BJ Davis' expert coffee drinks. Stop in for dinner and live jazz on Tuesday nights. Amici's (601 E. New York St., 634-0440) is a historic Lockerbie haunt with plenty of Italian kitsch, some funky twists on Mediterranean standards and a lovely garden deck on the side for romantic evening dinners in fair weather. If you prefer a bit of cover from the elements, Malibu on Maryland (14 W. Maryland St., 635-4334) offers a nicely subdued dinner ambiance on its covered patio. You'll hardly notice the shoppers at Circle Centre Mall. Now that legendary chef Tony Hanslits, late of Tavola di Tosa, is in the kitchen, there's even more reason to try out one of downtown's most elegant, innovative fine-dining restaurants. Recently remodeled and reopened, Mikado (148 S. Illinois St., 972-4180) is a perfect place to enjoy some of the freshest, most expertly prepared sushi and Japanese specialties on a cozy sidewalk patio strung with paper lanterns. Their refreshing "sake-tini" is a great way to cool off on a hot summer night.
One of the great pleasures of summertime is the good ol' American right to knock back a beer under the open sky. Just make sure you're within the legal boundaries of your favorite pub or beer garden. For an after-work brew with the office crew or even a late-night drink with a date, few watering holes can top the Old Point (401 Massachusetts Ave., 634-8943) for its awe-inspiring skyscraper views and neighborhood charm. Look for the neon signs lighting up this triangulated tavern on Massachusetts Avenue. With some of the tastiest - and spiciest - vegetarian chili in town, as well as some great sandwiches and salads, this is a low-key, relaxing spot you might just want to make your summer haunt.
You won't go wrong at the biergarten at The Rathskeller nearby, especially with a pint of caramel-dark Spaten Optmator and the beer-swigging antics of local postmodern oompah band Polka Boy under colorful pennants and the looming skyline. For pub grub, try the barbecued pork loin sandwich, a bratwurst from Klemm's or their famous frikadelle - a hamburger that's closer to what they might serve in Hamburg. Southsiders longing for a Munich-style beer garden of their own have to look only to the Oaken Barrel Brewing Co. (50 Airport Pkwy. #L, Greenwood, 887-2287). Here, you can have such cleverly named ales and lagers as the Snake-Pit Porter and the Gnaw Bone Pale Ale in a spacious outdoor garden. With a plate of cowboy caviar or mesquite-smoked ribs, this place is evidence that beer culture can turn up just about anywhere folks are thirsty.
Broad Ripple offers its share of open-air tables for summer beverage quaffing. Along the Monon Trail, Plump's Last Shot (6416 Cornell Ave., 257-5867) provides plenty of Hoosier nostalgia and '50s basketball memorabilia, as well as one of the largest decks in the area for sipping beer and marveling at joggers and bikers working off their winter tonnage. For authentic Mexican food and a crisp beer with a lime wedge stuck in its neck, La Piedad (6524 Cornell Ave., 475-0988) won't do you wrong. The food is straightforward Mexican - and plenty of it - and the jumbo margaritas will last you a whole afternoon. For space alone, the Jazz Cooker (925 E. Westfield Blvd., 253-2883) is the place for eating your crawfish étoufée and jambalaya under the stars. Wrought-iron fences and whitewashed siding recall New Orleans neighborhoods, and live jazz and blues from the Monkey's Tale bar completes this little homage to Bourbon Street.
If coffee or tea is your vice, the city has no shortage of coffeehouses with open air options.
Vic's Coffee Café (627 N. East St., 951-0335) just off of Massachusetts Avenue is a great place to meet friends or set up camp with a laptop and a latte. Salads, soups and baked goods will help nourish you through the dog days. If an eclectic crowd is what you're after or maybe a place to check your e-mail, Corner Coffee (51 E. 11th St., 916-9805) couldn't be a more casual, conversation friendly meet-up for downtown hipsters and hangers-on. The chatter almost always spills out onto the street. Good coffees and a nice selection of smoothies, juices and even DVDs to rent. This place marries "grass-roots" with "coffee culture" to make a truly original and well-caffeinated neighborhood haunt.
Sup, up and way
For those daring diners for whom a little fresh air isn't enough, a few restaurant owners have taken their dining rooms to the sky, outfitting their eateries with rooftop patios offering some of the most breathtaking views around. Two of the most notable can be found southeast of downtown near Fountain Square. Dunaway's Palazzo Ossigeno (351 S. East St., 638-7663) has one of the city's swankiest restaurant interiors, drawing on the heritage of its location as the onetime home of the Indiana Oxygen Company. The restaurant has six interior dining spaces, but in fair weather, a seventh opens on the roof that's so close to downtown you can almost feel as though you're touching a skyscraper. Hold tight to your crab cakes!
Just a little farther down the street is a quirky bistro-style joint that, in keeping with the eclectic, funky nature of the neighborhood, serves up a quirky, diverse menu of delicious pizzas, salads, sandwiches and cocktails in a cozy, colorful storefront. Come Memorial Day, however, Shelbi Street Café (1105 Shelby St., 687-4857) more than doubles in size when it opens the rooftop garden atop the historic Fountain Square Theatre with a dead-on view of the city skyline up diagonal Virginia Avenue. But don't worry. Just because the patio is four floors up from the kitchen, your food won't get cold. Try the Gingham Salad with blackberries, toasted pecans and bleu cheese - a perfectly light dish for a warm summer's evening.
After close to two decades in a, well, "rustic" little Broad Ripple house (it once was home to a city gravedigger), local pizza institution Bazbeaux Pizza (811 E. Westfield Blvd., 255-5711) finally got some more elbow room. While the new location across the street added plenty of square footage and some vibrant colors, thanks to artistic team Deb Delbecq and Paul Harris, a lot of the space was the result of going vertical. Sitting under an umbrella on the new rooftop patio, you can spy on nearby rooftops and watch shoppers strolling between neighborhood businesses. On a warm spring day, that's the icing on the cake - or maybe the cheese on the pie? - at a place famous for its loaded pizzas like the quattro formaggio or the Napoli for diners who don't hold the anchovies.
The land of (organic) milk and honey (wine)
Sometimes when you're hungry you have to think outside the restaurant. You might just run into some of the treasures of Hoosier farmstands and local culinary artisans. Indiana is a surprisingly fertile neck of the woods, and we're pretty clever at converting the harvest into some world-class potables and comestibles. A Hoosier cheese was even named the best cheese in America at the 2005 United States Championship Cheese Contest. But even if you can't make it up to Fair Oaks in Northwest Indiana to try Randy Krahenbuhl's prize-winning emmantaler, you can still find plenty of regional specialties a little closer to home.
A good selection of those products can be had at the summer green market at Trader's Point Creamery (9101 Moore Road, Zionsville, 733-1700). Besides the creamery's delicious and healthy milk and yogurt, local farmers will be offering anything from mushrooms to organic cereals to pasture-raised lamb every Friday night from 4 to 7 p.m. from May to October. For a mere $15, diners can also have an innovative and fresh alfresco dinner prepared from all local ingredients by chef Neda Mroueh.
Wine lovers can enjoy a variety of wines made from Indiana grapes at downtown's Easley Winery (205 N. College Ave., 636-4516). Winners of the Double Gold Medal at the Mystic, Connecticut International Wine Competition for their barrel white semi-sweet wine, Mark and Meredith Easley and their crew of oenologists are happy to welcome wine enthusiasts and even wine amateurs to their outdoor wine garden for live music on Tuesdays and Saturdays, as well as special events such as the Taste of Downtown, scheduled for Aug. 13 from noon to 5 p.m. Already slated for the event are local bands Bigger than Elvis and Dog Talk, as well as tasty treats from such downtown eateries as El Sol de Tala, The Villa, Judge's BBQ and Yats.
Still not sated with open-air eateries for summertime dining? Here's just a sampling of a few more places you won't want to miss to make the most of the season's alfresco eats.
Seafood Shack (823 E. Westfield Blvd., 253-7898)
Make no pretense, this truly is in a "shack," though a spiffy one at that. But where else could you enjoy daily seafood specials of lobster and crab on a quaint outdoor patio right in the thick of Broad Ripple? Try the seafood nachos, the fried conch (pronounce it like "conk"), or the breaded alligator tail. Great for dinner at dusk overlooking the canal.
Bourbon Street Distillery
361 Indiana Ave., 636-3316
The latest iteration of this landmark tri-corner building downtown, you'll get some of the best views of the skyline from the inside or the sidewalk seats. A second floor patio is also a great summertime spot for chilling with friends and having a barbecue po' boy sandwich or one of several decidedly spicy Cajun specialties.
921 Broad Ripple Ave., 253-5252
One of Broad Ripple Avenue's most popular spots for a beer and chips and salsa on a summer afternoon or evening. A fresh approach to Mexican cuisine with a few Tex-Mex twists, this is a great place to go when you're tired of chains and want something lighter than your neighborhood taqueria.
927 Broad Ripple Ave., 255-9300
You may see that half moon above your table when you sit outside at this Broad Ripple favorite, long an innovator in Mediterranean tapas and antipasti dishes, all quite reasonably priced. A friendly, knowledgeable wait staff make this a consummate dining experience in fair or inclement weather, but you'll love the sights and sounds of the neighborhood come summer.
5902 N. College Ave., 722-8888
A nice alternative to the Broad Ripple eateries just to the north, this new member of the Indy dining scene on North College is a sleek spot for kicked-up American cuisine. Now with a covered patio to allow for a few more seats in this popular neighborhood spot. Try the pizzas or the surprisingly large salads, and don't miss the sesame tuna appetizer with cucumber slaw.
635 Massachusetts Ave., 488-0359
You won't easily miss the vibrantly lit heated patio on this casual Italian eatery in the heart of the Massachusetts Avenue arts district. A menu of Mediterranean standards with some hearty pastas is nicely rounded out with a good wine list and expert desserts. A great spot for cocktails after a concert - and always good for people watching downtown.
Corner Wine Bar
6331 Guilford Ave., 255.5159
One of Broad Ripple's oldest and more sophisticated bars and eateries, this is a perfect place for a romantic early evening dinner or after theatre drinks on their elegant covered patio. True to its name, their list of potables includes over 150 wines and champagnes, perfect with a bowl of their tomato-orange soup, a cheese plates, or pâté.
Cheeseburger in Paradise
4670 Southport Crossings Dr., 883-4386
This Jimmy Buffet-inspired restaurant has an "outdoor" feel about it year round, but it's especially festive when you can have your What's Shakin' bacon burger or your "carnivorous habits" platter outdoors. With plenty of music and fun for the whole family, this need be your only destination for dinner and your evening's entertainment on a balm Hoosier evening. Don't miss the chocolate nachos!
815 E. Westfield Blvd., 253-1141
Long one of the culinary gems of Broad Ripple, this place always keeps diners on their toes while never straying too far from what makes it a neighborhood favorite. With outdoor dining along the canal, this is an especially inviting place, perfect on nights when Dave Epler plays live jazz piano. Don't miss the famous tomato dill soup or any of their expert pastas, steaks, or chops.
4939 E. 82nd St., 570-0831
This Northside newcomer features Mediterranean dishes with Turkish influences in an elegant location with a funky bar next door and a surprisingly comfortable patio of outdoor dining, despite its strip-mall location. Lamb and seafood headline the menu with a good braised lamb shank and one of the best seafood soups in town. Definitely a change from the ordinary with a staff that aims to please.
28 S. Pennsylvania St., 917-1191
Whether you're on the way to the game, coming from the game, or just want to be close to the game, this tavern with plenty of screens to catch the game is just a few steps from downtown's Conseco Fieldhouse. Live music and outdoor seating on Pennsylvania Street make this a lively spot in the thick of things. The straightforward bar menu has a few twists like ahi tuna.