"A family-friendly taste of the wild at Loon Lake Lodge
Being a hotshot restaurant critic has its ups and downs, especially when entertaining out-of-town guests. Most of the time I can wow friends and relatives with the culinary wonders of this Midwestern city. They love the drama that the possibility of being found out as a reviewer adds to the meal. But now and then, one of my sisters shows up with her kids, and finding someplace that’s both interesting enough from a culinary standpoint and that will satisfy the tastes of finicky children makes choosing a restaurant a pretty sticky business.
Indy has no shortage of family-friendly restaurants although, sadly, most of them are chains. We don’t lack in impressive one-of-a-kind cuisine either, with several restaurants that visitors from just about any other city would find top-notch. But do any of our local eateries accomplish both feats at once? Does any restaurant in America? What parents would be naïve enough to drag the family out to the French Laundry or the Spotted Pig? Legendary restaurant critic Ruth Reichl writes eloquently of taking her son Nick to New York’s Tavern on the Green, but her late-’90s review of the landmark tourist trap was none too kind.
In the category of “Best Restaurant to Bridge the Generation Gap,” I’d like to nominate Loon Lake Lodge, which, after eating there with my nieces Lena and Rachel last week, restored in me an appreciation for a restaurant that, on first try, seemed a little gimmicky and cartoonish. When it opened around eight years ago, with its signature 152 Cessna diving into the traffic on I-69 and its rustic log and stone façade, I suspected this was another concept-heavy franchise muscling into Castleton to dupe highway-weary travelers. That it was owned by the Laughner family, long famous for their Hoosier cafeterias, and that it was serving up such wild fare as elk and bison, drew me in for a visit sooner than later.
Loon Lake Lodge is definitely a place to be seen. The spacious foyer doubles as aquarium and gift shop, with a huge tank of lake fish and all manner of furry creatures for sale. High-pitched ceilings with wooden rafters soar above the 13,000-square-foot restaurant, which includes the starlit Boathouse Bar (definitely not for the kiddies) and “Disney quality” animatronic raccoons, owls and bears occasionally coming to “life” to startle a bee hive into buzzing activity or hoot a warning across your otherwise quiet meal.
Leave it to a child to topple cynicism and restore mealtime joy. With Rachel and Lena in tow, what was goofy on that first visit made the meal exciting and vibrant. How many times did they tromp into the entryway, often with Uncle Terry, to gaze at fish bigger than them or to squeeze a fuzzy songbird to hear it chirp? Beyond the atmospheric stimuli, Loon Lake Lodge has one of the largest kids’ menus at any restaurant in town, including a “scout’s burger,” ribs, pasta and such big kid drinks as a Sprecher’s root beer float and an alcohol-free strawberry daiquiri. Our extraordinarily patient waiter also helped to accommodate every need, meeting every request and letting us take our time over our meal.
While the menu here has a lot of familiar items like babyback ribs, rotisserie chicken and roast pork loin, this is the place to take a few risks and try something you’re not likely to get at other area restaurants. For an appetizer, we chose spicy rattlesnake bites ($9.95), little breaded balls of real rattlesnake meat with rice and two sauces: honey mustard and an “oriental” red. While tasty, so much seasoning didn’t exactly let the innate flavor of the rattlesnake come through. Still, the girls will long tell of the night they ate rattlesnake, even if they only had a nibble. A cup of rich, also somewhat spicy, chili ($2.95) hit the spot on a blustery November evening.
Among entrées you won’t find elsewhere, a full half of a roasted pheasant ($27.95) offers a great alternative to more typical fowl. Smoky and tender with a light red-pepper cream sauce, Loon Lake’s pheasant falls somewhere between chicken and duck, though the meat is a little hard to saw off the bone. I took a cue from my nieces and used my fingers. Somewhat standard “smashed” potatoes and a fresh, if unexciting vegetable blend accompanied. Jambalaya ($10.95 for a lite portion) is one of the more involved and richer versions in town — a thick, slightly fiery mélange of andouille sausage, crawfish, shrimp and plenty of Cajun butter.
Loon Lake probably offers more freshwater fish than just about any other place in town, with over a dozen preparations. The shore dinner ($18.95) is a lighter approach to a typical Hoosier fish fry meal, with walleye in a quite light breading, homey skillet potatoes and tasty sweet corn fritters. All in all, the adults were as satisfied as the kids, who got to watch the wilderness close in around them as they devoured their scoop of ice cream, listening hard for the hoot of an owl or the chirp of crickets.
Loon Lake Lodge
6880 E. 82nd St.
Monday-Thursday: 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Friday-Saturday: 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Sunday: 10 a.m.-9 p.m. (brunch 10 a.m.-3 p.m.)
Food : Three and a half stars
Atmosphere : Four and a half stars
Service : Four stars