This is as good a time as any to take advantage of the hiatus between major restaurant closures and major restaurant openings to revisit a couple of old favorites, just to make sure they’re still on track. It’s also an opportunity to mention a couple of out-of-town eateries that make for a fun-filled road trip. Now reaching the end of a year-long exile in Bloomington, I realize that I’ve barely made mention of the handful of excellent restaurants down here that are worth the hour-long drive. More of these later.
One of the relative merits of being among the ranks of the (temporarily, at least) gainfully unemployed is that you have plenty of time for lunch. A civilized lunch with friends and business acquaintances gives a unique opportunity for reflection, discussion and, of course, eating. Did I forget to mention drinking? In the heady days of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, many of this nation’s best and most far-reaching ideas had their origins in the three-martini lunch. The suspension bridge, for example, the egg timer and the self-perpetuating oligarchy, all owe their origins to the Lunch That Knows Not Iced Tea. I’m not quite sufficiently advanced into old fartdom to remember those days of the fourth martini, but I do recall when lunch was luncheon, when the waiter would be accustomed to approaching the table with an earnest concern, without the hint of condescension, to inquire if my party was ready yet for its next bottle of wine. Today, there are sadly few places around town where you can eat lunch, drink a bottle of wine, have a cocktail or two or have any kind of good time at all without inviting disapproving glances from waitstaff and fellow diners alike. Subjected as we are to the constant audio and visual pollution of the sports networks, the art of lubricated lunchtime conversation has been eroded to a thin whisper of its former self. As if that weren’t bad enough, hordes of dreaded prohibitionists, neo-prohibitionists, teetotalers and assorted do-gooders sit at every other table in judgment of our most personal menu choices, surreptitiously popping diet pills into their mouths in between visits to the bathroom. So, where does one go for a real lunch these days, one that is to last for at least two hours? Two establishments spring to mind, one a popular hideout for captains of industry and the like, the other a fashionable transplant from Bloomington. First off, we have Dunaway’s (351 S. East St., 638-7663). Since the opening of this elegant and beautifully appointed space, I have eaten dinner at least a dozen times at Dunaway’s, but only recently found myself enjoying an impressive lunch. Much has been written about the magnificence of this restaurant’s design: I for one had seen nothing quite like it before when I first set foot in the door some five years ago. Whether you’re seated on the roof, with its splendid views of downtown, or in the beautifully appointed bar area or in the sumptuously paneled main floor dining room (my personal favorite), the sense of unpretentious elegance is all-pervasive. Lunch, while simpler than dinner, can be almost as much fun, with a substantial selection of appetizers (including the justly famous crab cake), some huge sandwiches and, of course, the obligatory banana cream pie. With sandwiches all under $10, it is possible to get out of Dunaway’s quite lightly, but this isn’t the sort of place for a quick bite on the fly. Still deserving of its rating, Dunaway’s is a great luncheon destination. My second choice is the more-recently established Scholars Inn (725 Massachusetts Ave., 536-0707). A favorite establishment in Bloomington for the past five years or so, the décor alone makes this place worth a visit. A recent lunch confirmed my initial impressions of the food: Everything is very sound, although I have heard grumblings from others that there are occasional inconsistencies in the kitchen. The open-faced sandwiches are exemplary, especially the chicken, brie and cranberry, which has become a part of my staple diet. Desserts are a must. The trio of crème brulées in particular is essential eating. In addition to offering excellent and relaxed lunches, Scholars Inn also features a great martini list. They are half price on Thursday if you can tolerate crowds. A taste of Bloomington Should your travels bring you this way over the summer, here are some suggestions for excellent dining at very reasonable prices. First up is an old favorite, Michael’s Uptown Café at 102 E. Kirkwood (812-339-0409), just off the square. Chef and owner Michael Cassady has been in front of the stove dishing up first-rate breakfast, lunch and dinner for over 27 years now. Although the theme is broadly Creole and Cajun, the menu is varied, with something for just about everyone. As this is Bloomington, there’s an excellent selection of vegetarian dishes. A first-rate wine list makes for some excellent, reasonable drinking. Although now available widely around the state, I strongly recommend trying the Upland Brewing Company’s award-winning wheat beer on its home turf. Like most Bloomington eateries, the Upland is entirely non-smoking, a blessing to some and a pain to others. The menu here has improved in recent weeks, but the beer is what it’s all about, with regular specials and great deals on pitchers. The Maibok is well worth seeking out. The Upland is at 350 W. 11th (812-336-BEER). For those in search of the ultimate hamburger, pulled pork barbecue sandwich or cheese and ham, look no further than Opie Taylor’s at 110 N. Walnut (812-333-7287). Owned by former Fletcher’s Chef Tad DeLay (who also owns the very upscale Limestone Grill), Opie’s consistently makes the best sandwiches around. What’s so special about them is hard to say, except that they’re fresh, and they’re great. Beer specials at weekends start at 99 cents for a 10-ounce glass. Finally, you can’t talk about Bloomington fine dining without mentioning Mikado (895 S. College Mall Road, 812-333-1950). The fish here is as fresh as anywhere in Indy, and the prices are quite reasonable. With easily the widest selection of Sake in the state, this unassuming little establishment provides an exceptional dining experience. It is not, incidentally, related to Mikado in Indianapolis. Hear each Friday morning at 9 on WXNT-AM, 1430.