Indy's new supper clubs offer diners more than a meal
In the post-disco era, the term "club" connotes not the stuffy, elite social clubs of our parents' or grandparents' day, but the glitzy, throbbing nightspots where you're lucky to hear yourself think over the din created by the DJ. In these sweaty dens, showing off a svelte physique is more important than nourishing one. Don't look for a club sandwich here unless, perhaps, you get lucky on the dance floor. But before techno, before bump-and-grind dance maneuvers no longer raised eyebrows and a youth culture became more likely to head out for the evening's entertainment long past the dinner hour, there was a kind of "club" - the supper club - that combined more genteel activities like a good meal with some more celebratory elements, such as dancing and drinks - even a floorshow. Think Darren and Samantha, out on the town without Tabitha. Think themed restaurants like Trader Vic's - or even the Tropicana Club of I Love Lucy fame and Ricky working the crowd into a frenzy with bongo-heavy hits like "Under the Bamboo Tree" and "Babalu." At these sophisticated hotspots, dancing was de rigueur, dressing up was part of the deal and no other activities - no movies, concerts or plays - were required to complete the night.
While these now somewhat innocent-seeming institutions will never quite reclaim their heyday, there's a new breed of restaurant that, fortunately, understands how the experience of dining out can extend beyond plate and table to be more than just a meal. Knowing that live music or a few funky elements in décor are not enough, these establishments have worked hard to create atmospheres that beg you to linger, to try dishes all over the menu, to get to know your waiter, to stroll on over to the bar or get up and work off a few calories between courses. Sure, you'll find more of these sorts of consummate lounges in Los Angeles, New York or Miami, but Indy now has a few of its own that are turning some heads - and packing in the crowds. As you try to find your own supper club scene, here are some places where you can find more than just a decent plate of food.
2200 W. 86th St.
Blazing the trail in supper clubs is the chic, Cajun-and-jazz-inspired Savoy, which, only a few weeks after opening last fall on 86th Street, was already attracting stylish and spirited throngs of night owls. This restaurant and nightclub has both a spacious dance floor on one side and a smartly appointed, richly dressed dining room on the other - separated to avoid too much noise during dinner. But even in the dining room, hot jazz groups such as Larry Calland's Conga Jazz and the Keni Washington Quartet make it hard to keep your toes from tapping while you enjoy some of the best Creole and Cajun specialties in the city. Chef Cory Black prepares perhaps the best gumbo in town, along with great blackened catfish, excellent crayfish and crab appetizers - don't miss the crab Napoleon! - and even a surprising vegetarian dish or two. Be sure to have a reservation - or sit in the bar and order off one of Indy's most innovative late-night menus.
4705 E. 96th St.
At the other end of the spectrum is a kind of bar that, while very much a place for cocktails, offers some funky sustenance to get the conversation going and stave off the effects of the drinks. This Northside retreat is a rare respite in a strip mall, though frosted windows let you forget you're in a sea of asphalt and concrete. White, not blue, is the dominant color. Gauzy white fabric draped across rafters, tables and retro swivel chairs emphasize the cool clarity of this cocktail lounge. Movies are projected onto the walls on both sides of the bar, and music doesn't obscure conversation. The short but straightforward menu offers a full list of quite fresh sushi offerings, including the Blu Martini roll with cream cheese and spicy tuna, and a Buffalo Bonsai roll is a generous fried roll stuffed with spicy buffalo chicken served with blue cheese dressing and a small salad. Stop in early for half-priced sushi and $5 martinis.
3550 E. 86th St.
Besides the classic steak or chophouse, few types of restaurants have defined "supper club" as much as the Italian restaurant. Before the culinary renaissance of the '90s, when chefs and foodies returned from Tuscany and Emilio-Romagna with a new vision of what Italian food was, the immigrant Italian restaurant in America served dishes that have by now become almost archetypal: lasagna, eggplant parmesan, spaghetti Bolognese. The setting was spiffy - and often raucous - but never too fussy that you couldn't take the whole clan. Now, Maggiano's has brought this all back, even the enormous family-style portions, in a clubby, chummy location on Indy's Northside. Stop in to experience one of their many fun touches. Tuesday through Saturday, Jackie Wood tickles the ivories with some light jazz favorites in the piano bar from 3 to 10:30 p.m. A special weeknight appetizer menu from 4 to 6 p.m. includes fried calamari, crispy zucchini, stuffed mushrooms and bruschetta, each just $1.95. Thursday night is Martini Crostini Night. Martinis on special from 5 to 7 p.m. include the Lemon Drop, the Sour Apple, a classic Cosmopolitan and a featured martini of the month.
10158 Brooks School Road
Owners Tim and Melissa Shelburn know a little bit about fashion. Already the proprietors of two chic couture boutiques in the Geist area, they have taken their sense of style to this funky strip-mall eatery with plenty of earthy, free-form wall hangings, colorful drip paintings and a soothing wall-sized fountain in a back dining room. But it's the spacious bar and live music that really get this place shaking on the weekends. You'll hardly see anyone at a table once the bands start playing. Cuisine takes its cues from Italy and the Mediterranean, with plenty of pastas and some expert flatbread pizzas big enough to make a meal. Try the grouper with white raisin risotto or the tenderloin marsla with garlicky spinach - perhaps the best dish in the house. The chocolate truffle torte makes a well-dressed finish to this fashion show.
5252 E. 82nd St.
For sheer elegance, few restaurants in Indianapolis can compare to Vizion, appropriately adjacent to upscale home furnishings outlet Houseworks on 86th Street. From the centerpiece wine tower to gauzy green curtains tumbling down the windows to a wall that changes colors throughout the meal, this is place where the décor is as much a feast for the eyes as the food. Upstairs, Vapour Lounge, offering cocktails and live music, overfills on the weekends with a raucous crowd, turning the whole place into much more of a "scene" than mere watering hole and eatery. Appropriately, the cuisine at this hotspot features meats seared to an impressive 700 degrees, along with some excellent flatbread pizzas and more delicate items such as pheasant and veal. Interesting desserts range from more traditional crème brûlée to house-made wild cherry sorbet.
3720 E. 82nd St.
Clearly built around its music "venue," this über-stylish newcomer to Indy's music and food scene serves up some surprisingly hot tracks in the kitchen as well as its concert stage. Hermetically separated from the rollicking venue, the restaurant is a paradise of orange and nicely subdued contemporary fixtures, complete with adjustable blinds at many of the tables. Come for such eclectic performers as Camper Van Beethoven and Branford Marsalis, but stay for such innovative eats as the ultra-crisp yuzu sesame fries and sweet corn fritters with maple syrup. Or try the "suzza," Music Mill's 9-inch, stuffed pie riff on pizzas with everything from stir-fried beef and mushrooms to spicy imperial chicken. Great salads, soups and sandwiches, including the weighty Elvis Impersonator. Don't leave without trying a Xango roll-up sweet bar. Leave it to the Music Mill to deep-fry cheesecake in this divine closing act.
Rick's Boatyard Café
4050 Dandy Trail
Waterside vistas aren't exactly common in Indiana. But you'll think you might just be sitting on the bayou or the beach when you step out onto one of the spacious verandas at Rick's Café Boatyard, overlooking Eagle Creek Reservoir on Indy's Westside. You can even get onto the water on a summer evening for a pontoon boat tour of the reservoir. Live jazz is plentiful at this New Orleans-inspired restaurant complex. The menu features plenty of seafood and USDA prime steaks, as well as wood-fired pizzas and pastas such as the seafood rigatoni and the Bayou fettuccine with crawfish and brandy. Sunday brunch with live music is a great way to get away from the city on a sunny summer weekend. But warm nights are when this place really comes alive.
8340 Allisonville Road
A former Bob Evans is an unlikely spot for a Miami-themed supper club, but you'll be surprised at how this place has been transformed into a hopping music venue and art deco restaurant. It's worth the drive just to see their collection of vintage red martini shakers inside the door. The bar has a corner stage for bands and plenty of room for getting up off your feet. An impressive 400-gallon fish tank and vibrant purples and greens help you forget you're at the city's busiest intersection in landlocked Indiana. If you can pull yourself away from live acts such as Tropical Zoo, try the coconut shrimp or tenderloin tips for appetizers. Go traditional for entrees - the filet mignon is nicely prepared and quite reasonably priced. Try this place for lunch as well. With two outdoor patios, Avalon is perfect for springtime al fresco dining.
The Jazz Kitchen
5377 N. College Ave.
With a name like The Jazz Kitchen, you know that music is just as important as the food. Some of the great acts of the Indy and national jazz scene have played at this hallowed little corner on College Avenue. Upcoming performances include the Joey DeFrancesco Trio, the Freddy Cole Quartet and Maynard Ferguson and the Big Bop Nouveau Band. But the kitchen is just as important to this neighborhood club, and plenty of jazz goes on in the preparation of the food. Cajun and Caribbean-inspired dishes include a piquant ceviche, crab cakes with Creole mayonnaise, paella, banana leaf-wrapped grouper and two étoufées in honor of both Satchmo and Charlie Parker. A new, updated menu was unveiled on March 11, and while plenty of the old favorites remain, the new improvisations make this an even more inviting place to have dinner - and you know the music will be good.