Downtown Indianapolis dining is, as we all know only too well, for the most part limited to chains and chain wannabes. This is great for the visitor who feels the need for something familiar and predictable, but offers little by way of local character. Fortunately for residents and visitors alike, the inner city areas immediately outside of downtown are liberally studded with locally-owned and -operated eateries, many of which have a history dating back several decades. Recently, at the suggestion of various friends and correspondents, I've been visiting some of the more hallowed institutions.
John's Famous Stews at 1146 Kentucky Ave. (636-6212) lies just a spit and a Honda ride from the RCA Dome, towards Lilly's Kentucky Avenue plant. An "Indianapolis Tradition since 1911," John's offers a short but enticing selection of burgers, sandwiches and salads, but specializes in the aforementioned stews.
Unprepossessing outside, John's is scrupulously clean and inviting within. The service is friendly and efficient, and the food is quite excellent. On a recent visit, a friend and I enjoyed a very agreeable deluxe pork tenderloin sandwich ($7.40 with a side of fries) and a large, steaming bowl of stew ($6.45). The sandwich, more like a butterfried pork chop, really, was large, tender and well-prepared. The stew, from an old Macedonian recipe, was chock full of large chunks of meltingly tender beef, generous amounts of potatoes, onion and green pepper, all cooked in a rich, thick tomato- and beef-based broth. In addition, just in case this wasn't enough, we also ordered a very fine pulled pork BBQ sandwich ($4.95) which was obviously freshly-made in-house.
Overall, we were very impressed by the general level of freshness and quality of ingredients at this fine establishment. Try to visit this little gem next time you're downtown.
A few blocks west, at 234 N. Belmont (just north of Washington Street, past the zoo), is The Working Man's Friend (636-2067), a staunch favorite with locals and downtown workers alike. From the outside, the building resembles the machine shops that populate this industrial corner of town. Inside, the decor seems to have remained largely unchanged since 1949, including the room-length formica bar with red high-backed stools, cracked tile floor and saggy drop ceiling.
The food here is what matters, though, and the burgers and tenderloin sandwiches are as good as anywhere in town, at about half the price. A recent lunch for two, including two beers apiece and two sandwiches, came to just $20. If you can stand the five-minute drive from downtown, think about a visit to this venerable establishment before you decide to drop $50 at the latest fancy burger joint.