The year in ag — versus dining 

click to enlarge Cerulean - MICHELLE CRAIG
  • Cerulean
  • Michelle Craig

Gone out to dinner lately?

In Indianapolis, the chance that your answer is “yes,” is better than ever. The city is undergoing a renaissance when it comes to dining options.

It hasn’t always been this way.

For generations, Indianapolis cuisine could be characterized by overcooked vegetables and charred meat. With just a few exceptions, chain restaurants were the eateries of choice, and ethnic options tended to emphasize predictability and go easy on the spices.

The history of how all this came to change is a rich subject, worthy of more attention than I can give it here. Different people are bound to offer a variety of sound opinions about when the city’s culinary tide turned. For the sake of brevity, and without meaning to slight any of the pioneers who paved the way, I’ll offer May 2001 as the point where it seemed to me that something tilted.

That’s when Chef Regina Mehallick opened R Bistro on Mass Ave. With its emphasis on seasonal menus and quality Midwestern ingredients, R Bistro was the first restaurant to make a virtue of its locale. Before R Bistro, the vast majority of local restaurants seemed bent on trying to make diners feel as if they were someplace else — Europe, say, or California.
This was fine, as far as it went; still is. But it also betrayed a lack of local character, an inability to come to terms with what was memorable about Indianapolis. Regina began the process of setting that record straight.

click to enlarge Regina Mehalick - FILE PHOTO
  • Regina Mehalick
  • File photo

One can argue — and I will — that the movement favoring independent restaurants featuring locally sourced ingredients has affected a lot more than the appetites of Indianapolis foodies. The current vitality of the city’s downtown is impossible to imagine without it. The food scene, and the energy (as well as the jobs) it brings with it, has asserted an originality and confidence that has helped to make downtown an attractive destination for visitors and residents alike.

The stadia, the cultural venues, the hotels — all of those, in various stages, were already present. The independent food scene added a sizzle that drew them all together. People from around the country would not be half as impressed with what they experience in downtown Indianapolis if, as once would have likely been the case, they were dining at an upscale chain with exactly the same menu found in 25 other cities.

The timing of all this could not have been better. Indy’s food movement coincided with large-scale national trends. It seems people are more interested than ever in where their food comes from, how it is grown, and who does the growing. They want food that is fresh, and as free of chemical additives and industrial processing as possible.

More and more of us want food that doesn’t just taste good, but is raised in ways that don’t abuse the land, and that supports our local economy. As the Indianapolis experience attests, grabbing hold of this momentum can be transformative.

You’d think all of Indiana would want a piece of this. It’s not as if our national profile couldn’t use a boost. What’s more, people here are doing some pretty amazing things. Farmers like Greg Gunthorp and Dave Fischer are raising world- class poultry, pork and beef. Artisans like Judy Schad, in New Albany, or Tim Burton in Medora, are producing exquisite goat cheeses and maple syrups. In Starlight, Ted Huber distills prize-winning brandy.

These creative folks aren’t outliers. They are part of a movement that could redefine and rebrand Indiana in the same way that Indianapolis restaurateurs helped Indianapolis regain its groove.

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David Hoppe

David Hoppe

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