I miss R Bistro already.
News that chef Regina Mehallick will close her landmark restaurant on Mass Ave is bittersweet. Apparently the restaurant’s business was flagging. At the same time, the demands of Mehallick’s retail venture, R2GO, on nearby College, were spreading her thin.
After 15 years of rocking and rolling, it was time to smell the roses. For a little while, at least.
What’s bittersweet is that while it is hard to overstate Mehallick’s contribution to Downtown’s cultural scene, R Bistro’s passing is indicative of how profusely that scene has blossomed over the past few years. R Bistro will be missed by those of us accustomed to its pleasures, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of other dining options to choose from — with more in the works.
You’ll note I referred to R Bistro as being part of Indy’s cultural scene. While it’s easy to think of what we eat in terms of sustenance, this is like confusing a map with an actual landscape. When Chef Regina made a point of offering seasonal menus, emphasizing locally sourced ingredients, she engaged in helping to describe what makes Indianapolis — a city located in the heart of the heart of the country — unique.
This is something artists do: use particulars (in this case, dishes germane to our region) to arrive at something universal (nourishment).
Like many artists, I suspect Chef Regina would be a little impatient with such high-falutin’ notions. Her concern has always been with the details of composition, creating the right juxtapositions of ingredients in service to memorably satisfying flavors.
R Bistro was the right place at the right time (2001) for Indianapolis. Although the city’s independent dining scene was scant, an audience for more ambitious eating had been primed by the success of high end chains. R Bistro spoke directly to burgeoning appetites in a way that was, at once, unabashedly local and, just as important, sophisticated. It became a favorite place to take visitors.
In the years since, it’s been interesting to watch how the city has embraced creative cuisine and topnotch chefs. More than any other artform, food seems to have captured the popular imagination — and discretionary spending — to an extent that should be the envy of other local arts enterprises. Chefs have fans following them from one new venture to the next. And consumers who pass an evening gallery hopping without ever buying the works on offer think nothing of spending sizable sums on a locally-sourced dinner and the latest mixology.
When R Bistro opened there, the far end of Mass Ave was a dark and rather lonely place. Look at it now. If ever there was an argument for the attractive virtues of creative enterprise, this is it. Food, in Indy, as in so many other places, leads the way. While Mass Ave’s renaissance is thanks to a whole tribe of folks with vision, someone had to be first to make a meaningful bet on the future of that street. R Bistro made that bet.
Regina Mehallick is an artist imbued with a restless verve. Surely she’s not done with us yet.