Obviously, it's been a hard year for restaurants. But despite the mournful musings people make in the street, there's still no black magic to making local restaurants successful, and no reason their kind should be more cursed in this city than any other.
I've learned this little by little in my new full-time job as editor of an online trade publication for the pizza industry (for man cannot live on alt-weekly pay alone). It's my job to demystify everything about the restaurant industry for its insider-owners, from location choice to menu to price point to marketing. Bottom line: If an owner does his due diligence in choosing a location, both in terms of demographics and rent space; hires a great chef with uncompromising ideals (and also a bit of operations savvy); engages in the best marketing his budget can buy, even if that means it's free; and makes himself visible and accountable at his restaurant every day, he has a better chance than most of succeeding. There's still a chance for failure. But the most passionate owners and chefs keep throwing the dice until they hit Yahtzee. Look at Neal Brown and his new Pizzology, or Greg Hardesty's in-progress Recess project.
I'm standing on my soap box because some people have mistaken a rough year that's been especially unkind to restaurants as proof that Indianapolis diners are especially un-savvy. We have something akin to the most chain restaurants per capita, the logic goes, and when good, original restaurants like Elements or L'explorateur shut down, how could the fault not be with local palates?
But restaurants cannot survive on good food alone. A lot of the other aforementioned operational components matter as well. If the location is mismatched, if the price point is too high, if the margins aren't just right - all of this can mean disaster. And if you're Pikk's Tavern or Old Town Ale House, well, from the names alone we see a trend. Overpriced, unpalatable pub food is always bound to crash and burn eventually.
Luckily, many restaurateurs are building new temples from this year's razed rubble, taking advantage of consumers' downshifting and cheap rent in trendy, gentrifying areas, and making economically creative strides. Hardesty's Recess again comes to mind, at the still-beautifying 49th and College area. Upland's tasting room first christened that intersection, choosing to place an outpost location there over a billboard for the same price; as long as they keep the lights on, a source tells me, they're coming out even on advertising costs. This is the sort of innovation and positioning that will sustain new restaurants in the new year. If we've been lazy to do anything as diners and chefs, it's to think outside the box.
But no more. By the end of this year, we've seen a lot of promise. Quality craft beer purveyors have done well. What beer-gutted guzzler didn't eat - or drink - up the solid Saison de Taffy or Oktoberfest brews from newcomer Sun King, which was rewarded for its aggressive infiltration of the savvy local craft beer scene and events? And Barley Island has had a steady stream of non-stop dinner action at its new location in Broad Ripple, no doubt helped by word of recent wins at the Great American Beer Festival.
In '10, such assets will be further unveiled and unfurling. If you didn't know by our formidable farmers markets' summer showings, and the inner-city Winter Farmers Market popularized at the beginning of the year, we're actually home to the fastest-growing farmers market scene in the nation. That freshness will be on display for the nation during the upcoming Taste of Indiana, which will feature the state's best chefs assembling dishes from our land's farm-fresh ingredients.
The acceleration of authentic, natural food is buttressed by the promise of Café Patachou's new Neapolitan pizzeria, which was made possible by the rally and support of interested Indy diners.
Another back-to-beginnings outfit I'm especially looking forward to is the Ball and Biscuit, slated to open at the bottom of some new west-end condos at Mass Ave. My favorite local mixologist, Zach Wilks, is involved in this new venture that will bring the most serious pre-prohibition cocktails this city has ever seen to 333 Mass Ave. Stay tuned.
So fret not, savvy Indy diners. Don't stay awake at night wondering whether your favorite local dive will still be there in six months, or if you're in culinary purgatory. It's much more productive to vote with your pocket books - and mouths.