Eat and drink your way around Indianapolis, Indiana.
Story by Chris Chamberlain
Photos courtesy Visit Indy
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the largest sporting facility in the world: It offers permanent seating capacity for more than a quarter million race fans in the stands plus there’s room for another 100,000+ in the infield! Each Memorial Day weekend visitors from around the world descend on Indiana’s state capital for the big race—but if that’s the only reason you visit, you’re missing out on fantastic eating and drinking. Indianapolis, Indiana is worthy of a foodie’s attention any time of the year.
Arguably the most iconic Indianapolis restaurant is St. Elmo Steak House. Since 1902, St. Elmo has been a downtown institution thanks to its Chicago speakeasy-style décor, distinguished service, and menu of steaks, chops, seafood, and specialty food items. Meals start with a delightfully quirky choice between complimentary amuse-bouches: a glass of tomato juice or a cup of navy bean soup. This seemingly bizarre set of palate-cleansers makes more sense when you realize that the original proprietor of St. Elmo was Joe Stahr, an ex-member of the merchant marines. Not only did he name his restaurant after the patron saint of sailors, but his offered freebies are staples of shipboard life: navy bean soup for sustenance and tomato juice to fight off scurvy. So, the kind folks at St. Elmo are just looking out for your good health.
The iconic shrimp cocktail is a must-try at St. Elmo: It’s really more of a challenge than a treat as it’s covered with a ridiculous quantity of cocktail sauce that completely obscures the four crustaceans hiding beneath. The sauce is made using so much pure fresh horseradish that the first bite is like a fiery punch to the forehead—you’ll probably want to scrape most of it off before proceeding, but you have to at least give it a shot for the full hallucinatory experience. You’ve been warned! Travel Channel has dubbed this creation “the world’s spiciest dish.”
For more casual and less adventurous dining options, head to the Fountain Square neighborhood not too far from downtown Indy. There, within walking distance of one another up and down Virginia Avenue you’ll find multiple dining options alongside fun and funky boutiques for window shopping (if not actual shopping). An elevated dive bar, Thunderbird serves classic Southern comfort food like chicken & waffles and blackened catfish. The dim bar ambiance is a fine spot to enjoy creative cocktails or a beer and a shot.
A few steps away is Turchetti’s Salumeria, a butcher shop and deli that serves Old World salamis and practices whole animal butchery. Grab a sandwich from the deli case or order at the counter for a surprisingly refined lunch considering the working butcher shop’s industrial vibe. Try the smashburger made from a meat mix that includes ground bacon or The Rosino sandwich that features several artisan salamis and sausages made in-house including finocchiona salami, calabrese salami, capocollo, and prosciutto cotto plus provolone, tomato, lettuce, onion, giardiniera, and tomato mayo, all piled onto a pullman baguette. It’s quite a sandwich. Alongside your order indulge in a side of fries cooked in beef tallow.
At the other end of Virginia Avenue is Rook, a fun little spot serving what’s described as “street food-inspired contemporary Asian food.” From appetizers like steamed buns stuffed with fried avocado, pork belly, or a delightful jalapeño spam to exotic main courses such as pig face hash and mushroom dashi ramen, Rook takes diners on a culinary adventure to the East. An affordable list of beers, wines and cocktails is also available.
An extremely popular breakfast and lunch destination is Milktooth which was selected as one of the ten best new restaurants in the United States by Bon Appetit magazine when it opened in 2015. Be prepared for a wait since the restaurant doesn’t take reservations, but there are plenty of cozy spots to sit a spell and enjoy one of the specialty coffee drinks or a mimosa (or three) until a table opens up. Once you’re seated, dig into a menu of inventive brunch dishes like cranberry clafoutis Dutch baby pancakes, ancient grains porridge, or roasted cauliflower and shiitake with sumac and citrus tahini. Hungrier diners can tackle larger plates of jerked chicken thighs or a grilled Denver steak with hot bacon dressing and sunny egg. With a morning or midday meal like that, you might not need dinner.
Whether or not you decide to skip supper, Indianapolis offers several opportunities to sample the local beverage scene. Sun King Brewing, the second largest brewery in the state, is located downtown and serves up a variety of craft beers. Take a tour of the modern facility to learn about the process and enjoy tastings of several of its recipes as you visit different parts of the brewery. Who said learning isn’t fun? Among the most popular brews is a Mexican-style lager named Pachanga and a Scottish ale called Wee Mac.
Hotel Tango Artisan Distillery is the first service-disabled combat veteran-owned distillery in the U.S. and gets its name from the military alphabet code for the initials of two of the founders. Located in the historic Fletcher Place neighborhood of downtown, the bar at Hotel Tango serves craft cocktails made exclusively with its own spirits, including Bravo Bourbon, Golf Gin, Victor Vodka, Mike Moonshine, Romeo Rum, Lima Charlie Limoncello, Oscar Charlie Orangecello, and Whiskey. You can also taste spirits individually and even buy a bottle of your favorite(s) to take home.
While you might not expect to find a shrine to the tiki lifestyle and Polynesian culture in the middle of a Midwestern state, that’s exactly what you’ll encounter at The Inferno Room. Filled with authentic examples of artifacts collected from Papua, New Guinea, The Inferno Room is like a multilevel museum of Pacific art, but with drinks. Lots of drinks, including classic tiki recipes culled from the menus of famous bars like Trader Vic’s along with contemporary takes on rummy cocktails. Whether you fill up on small plates like fried peanuts, pineapple fried rice, or loco moco in the Luau Room, or kick back with a painkiller or a singapore sling in the Kahuna Lounge, a visit to The Inferno Room is sure to be a memorable one. That is unless you have too many painkillers, because then you might not remember anything at all.
Plan A Trip
For luxury lodging with convenient access to many dining destinations, check out the modern JW Marriott. Towering 33 stories above downtown, this hotel opened in 2011 as the host hotel for Super Bowl XLVI and is located near the home of the NFL’s Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium as well as parks, museums, and fine dining opportunities. With more than 1,000 rooms ranging from doubles and kings to luxury suites, the JW Marriott is a convenient upscale home base for Indy explorations.
For more ideas on how to fill out your Indy-tinerary, check out the helpful advice at VisitIndy.com.
During the Coronavirus pandemic, many venues are limiting public access and events with safety in mind. Please call to confirm visitor details in advance. We anticipate that regular operations will resume as soon as possible. In the meantime, wash your hands frequently, stay safe, and keep calm.