"Local produce, daily specials draw loyal customers to City Café
When I first moved to town, before I’d found any restaurants where I’d want to be a “regular,” a friend took me to one of his favorite haunts, the Petite Grill, downtown on Pennsylvania Street, where he ate as often as once a week. Other than thinking the place was pretty cramped — and smoky — my one memory is of a brash waiter insisting I get the chicken salad. “It’s the best you’ll ever eat,” he said, unabashedly. How could I not take that challenge? While it definitely wasn’t the “best” I’d eaten, it was a respectable chicken salad of the sort with grapes and celery served on a croissant. Somehow, it didn’t convince me to become the frequent diner at Petite Grill my friend was.
Over a decade later, a lot of things have changed. I’ve found plenty of restaurants I’d love to eat at every week, if I could, and I’ve eaten a lot of chicken salad — most of it, thankfully, without grapes. Petite Grill is now City Café, and while it’s no bigger than before, it’s a much brighter, more inviting space, without clouds of smoke or the telltale smell of a deep fryer. Colorful works by local artists decorate the walls, and a framed oval pass-through to the kitchen makes a perfect trompe-l’oeil — you’re sure it’s a mirror, but it’s not.
Most striking is how husband and wife owners Brad and Nancy Royal have turned the kitchen and menu around, offering up healthy, clearly fresh dishes made from as many local ingredients as they can get, such as tomatoes and squash from Amish farmer Levi Fisher of Montezuma, in far-western Indiana. You wouldn’t have found fresh seafood specials or big hearty salads on the old menu. But in nearly seven years of business, the Royals have maintained a steady band of loyalists, and the place bustles both for breakfast and lunch with folks from nearby offices and locals with the good taste to drive downtown for an omelet or a hot bowl of “yesterday’s” soup (because it’s better the next day).
As before, however, this place seems the kind of joint where you find your favorite dishes and stick with them, albeit with a few lunch specials thrown in for variety. You can’t go wrong, for instance, with the piled-high beef tenderloin sandwich or the French toast with both a cinnamon-honey batter and a crushed cornflake crust. I had the tenderloin sandwich — a far cry from the Hoosier pork tenderloin of the old days — shortly after the Royals took over and knew the place was definitely earning its new name.
But it wasn’t until I went back both for breakfast and lunch over the last week that I could really get a sense of what this place is still doing, so many years after the switch. Service is definitely a hallmark. The waitresses here get to know you and are ready with recommendations and a good knowledge of what the kitchen staff is putting on your plate. Given how small the place is, it’s a good thing everyone gets along so well.
Experimentation and the sense that this is real food made by real people are additional assets at a time when downtown Indianapolis is more and more held in the stranglehold of franchises. Sometimes new recipes work, but sometimes they could use some tweaking. For lunch, a cup of corn soup ($2.25) with lima beans and butternut squash pushed up the Scoville scale for heat but desperately needed salt. And while the broth was utterly pristine, the butternut squash disintegrated into a soup almost too thin. A sandwich piled with coffee-rubbed, pulled barbecued chicken ($10) was a tad watery though quite tasty — also made spicy with pickled jalapeños. But a side of ditalini pasta salad with broccolini and acorn squash tossed in an olive-pistachio pesto offered a funky flavor combo that didn’t quite hit the mark. By contrast, a warm lentil salad ($5.50) with feta, sun-dried tomatoes and a beautiful lemony vinaigrette was a lunch we’d be happy with just about any day.
At breakfast, the “perfect” eggs Benedict ($6.75) did have perfectly runny, poached, local, free-range eggs. But a heavy Hollandaise and thick English muffins that could have been toasted longer made this a little leaden. On the other hand, granola pancakes ($7.25) had a wonderful crunch of toasted oatmeal and dried fruits. The luscious fresh berries on top and real maple syrup made this dish the most likely to turn us into regulars at one of this city’s friendliest cafés.
443 N. Pennsylvania St.
Monday-Friday: 7 a.m.-2 p.m.
Saturday: 8 a.m.-1 p.m.
Food: Three stars
Atmosphere: Three and a half stars
Service: Four and a half stars
Recommended dishes: French toast, granola pancakes, tenderloin sandwich, lentil salad