What is the essence of Hoosier cuisine? Farm-inspired heartiness, free of mystery? That describes the menu at The Iron Skillet, where they've been dishing out family-style dinners since 1953. Time to put this retro Indy standby to the tastebud test. Is the Skillet's longevity earned?
Owned since 1996 by Ronald Torr, the Skillet was originally the hilltop home of Mr. August Wacker, a civic leader in turn-of-the-century Indianapolis. The house's picture windows offer patrician views of the Highland Country Club. On the Sunday before Christmas, the Skillet was dripping with candles, wreaths and swags. We half-expected Bing Crosby to slide in and belt out a carol.
The menus come glued to school slates, and the white china's emblazoned with the restaurant's name in a medieval/colonial font. The table was already set with a dish of sweet pickled beet balls, high-fat cottage cheese, and apple butter. Soon after arrived a whole head of iceberg lettuce, cleft into chunky sixths, dusted with paprika and dressed with sugar water. This humble salad turned out to be the most distinctive dish of the meal.
Next course: chilled juice (cider, tomato juice) or soup. The onion soup is served in a darling pewter mini-crock, and made with chicken stock, onion tendrils, and buttery croutons (but no cheese). Pleasant enough.
Side dishes had us crestfallen: pasteboard mashed potatoes, flavorless gravy, and corn niblets more chewy than crunchy: victims of overcooking. The green beans fared a little better, spiked with specks of bacon, but still overdone. This is what repetition tastes like.
Entrees were done with much more energy and care. Dad's Combination Dinner ($22.95) included a piece of chicken, a few shrimp, and a 4-oz. beef tenderloin. He pronounced the chicken "not as juicy as Church's." Husband's 10-oz. Black Angus Sirloin Steak ($23.25) got better marks. Enhanced with salt and pepper only, this was a choice slab of meat well handled on the grill. My own fried Walleyed Pike from Canada ($20.95) was a skin-on filet battered thinly for a delicate feel. The star of my meal.
Throughout, I'd been biding my time for baking powder biscuits, hoping for a soul-saving experience (see sidebar). 'Twas not to be. More quick-bread than dough-based, these biscuits were just vehicles for the apple butter, which I caught Husband eating like soup. At that point, we needed the warm, damp scented towels doled out before the last course—always a classy touch.
The meal ended with scoops of gummy ice cream, served with a quartet of gloppy toppings. The pink peppermint ice cream was pretty, though. Afterward, the hefty bill and my food coma stalled plans for Christmas shopping.
A bright light: the service. One bow-tied fellow did nothing but refill drinks. A waitress hovered like a sweet old aunt. The owner himself sashayed by at least three times. It's nice to feel cared for. And with a meal this protracted, we never felt rushed.
So goat cheese-garlic mashed potatoes will never penetrate the walls of The Iron Skillet. So another generation of Hoosiers will learn to think of salad as barely green. We love our Hoosier grandmas, but many of them don't care much for cooking. And their food tastes much like the Iron Skillet's. Judging by the large number of families in festive sweaters, the Skillet's food, or at least the tradition it represents, is some kind of comfort.