The “Racing Capital of the World” appeals to fans with a need for speed, but Indianapolis also offers a surprisingly diverse dining scene brimming with Hoosier hospitality. From old-fashioned recipes to contemporary takes on ethnic cuisine, Indiana’s capital city offers an array of tempting choices to satisfy any craving.
Best Classic Indy: St. Elmo Steak House
Arguably the most revered dining establishment in town, St. Elmo is famous for its dry-aged steaks, tuxedo-clad waitstaff, vast wine cellar and celebrity sightings; photo-lined hallways honor notable guests who’ve visited these hallowed dining rooms through the years. All dinners include an appropriately retro navy bean soup or tomato juice starter, and locals get a kick out of watching first-timers react to their first bite of the legendary horseradish-laced shrimp cocktail. Wash it all down with an Elmo Cola — a mini glass bottle of Coke to pour into vanilla/Luxardo cherry-infused Maker’s Mark.
These welcoming “student unions for adults” comfort customers with thick slices brioche cinnamon toast, help-yourself coffee and playfully named omelets (the “Hippie with a Benz” features spinach, tomatoes, mushrooms and feta). Forward-thinking owner Martha Hoover set the bar for locally sourced farm-to-table dining when she opened her first location in the Meridian-Kessler neighborhood 30 years ago. Five other locations have since followed, along with offshoot concepts like Napolese, Petite Chou Bistro and Champagne Bar, and Public Greens.
Best Beer Hall: The Rathskeller
With dozens of modern-day craft breweries to discover in Indianapolis, visitors are never far from a great beer. Still, it’s hard to beat the old-world Bavarian ambiance, food and beverages at the Rathskeller. A tenant of the historic Athenaeum building that anchors downtown Indy’s Mass Ave Cultural District, this sprawling space flows through a dining room and event area into the cavernous Kellerbar and a buzzy outdoor biergarten that features walk-up food/drink service, picnic tables, a band shell and live entertainment through the summer.
Meanwhile at the western end of the Athenaeum, this cozy café’s original location cleverly repurposes the theater’s former — you guessed it — coat check room as a comfortable communal gathering spot emphasizing the detailed woodwork. Croissants, granola and other baked goods are made in house, as are the syrups that flavor coffee drinks composed with milk from a regional dairy operation. Caffeinate with their signature butterscotch latte, served hot or cold.
The historic Indianapolis City Market houses nearly 40 food merchants and vendors in one venue to provide everything from crepes, pretzels and soups to sweets, ethnic eats and vegan fare. With so many options, it's impossible to leave City Market hungry. In a nod to terroir, the Tomlinson Tap Room serves only Indiana-made beers. Take your purchases up to the mezzanine level to enjoy with a view of the busy stalls below. Or, if the weather’s nice, snag a table outside on the plaza where a seasonal farmers’ market pops up on Wednesdays.
Best Vegetarian Restaurant: Three Carrots
This City Market vendor expanded into a sunny brick-and-mortar space in Fountain Square in late 2017, delighting local vegetarians and even inspiring some carnivores to rethink their eating habits. Owner Ian Phillips walks the walk, having given up meat himself as a teenager. Now, he’s busy creating his own plant-based interpretations of traditional Indiana dishes — think seitan nuggets and tenderloins, beet burgers, rosemary biscuits and gravy or tofu and grits.
Formerly on located on 38th Street and Lafayette Road not far from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and now (temporarily) housed on Guion Road, Indy’s most eclectic collection of global restaurants spans the flavors of the world. Here, you’ll find eateries capably representing their homelands through the cuisines of Peru, Japan, India, Pakistan, Vietnam, Cuba, Mexico and more. A handful of specialty food shops and markets present the opportunity to browse selections of edible souvenirs.
Best Brunch: Milktooth
This much-lauded brunch destination has been racking up national accolades (including a James Beard Best Chef: Great Lakes nomination) since it launched in 2014 in a reimagined auto repair shop. One taste of the inventive menu items, breakfast cocktails and espresso drinks and it’s easy to see why. You’ll likely have to wait for a table on the weekends; pass the time with a quick stroll on the Indianapolis Cultural Trail that runs past the restaurant along Virginia Avenue.
Fried chicken is no joke in Indiana, and this near-southside neighborhood pub has perfected its recipe with just the right blend of spice and crunch. You can get a boneless breast in a sandwich for lunch topped with lettuce, tomato, onion and pickle. The rest of the bird is the only thing on the menu after 5 p.m., delivered to your table with mac and cheese, Brussels sprouts and tater tots. In keeping with the honky-tonk theme, this former icehouse also hosts live country and bluegrass musical performances.
Best Patio Dining: Half Liter BBQ & Beer Hall
A recent addition to the South Broad Ripple (“SoBro”) lineup, Half Liter welcomes patrons, kids and pets to a casual patio overlooking the popular Monon Trail path. (Carabiners are available to lash leashes to the tables so dog owners can eat in peace — a thoughtful touch). Connected to its parent restaurant, Liter House, Half Liter smokes brisket, pork, chicken and fish with a uniquely Texas-meets-Germany-style mashup. A combo order is the best way to sample several options at once accompanied by sides that play nicely with barbecue — pickles, collard greens, potato salad and such.
Best Burger: Working Man’s Friend
Address234 N Belmont Ave, Indianapolis, IN 46222-4206, USA
A century old and still going strong, this divey 21+ tavern hasn’t changed much since it opened in 1918, attracting blue-collar workers to white-collar execs and everyone in between. The secret to the addictively good burgers? Smashing the beef on the grill to achieve thin patties with lacy, crisp edges. Better make it a double with cheese. The onion rings are outstanding as well. Just hit the ATM before you go; the Working Man’s Friend only accepts cash.
Best for Sweet Treats: Gallery Pastry Shop
Any Indy visitor with a sweet tooth definitely won’t lack for choice when it comes to desserts, but this chic SoBro bakery-café is a true gem, showcasing beautiful displays of macarons, cookies, cakes, croissants and other mouthwatering confections. The charming eatery is a popular setting for baking classes, tastings, chef dinners and other events; look for a second location to open near downtown in the Old Northside neighborhood in the coming year.
Pork tenderloin sandwiches are the unofficial state dish and they come in all shapes and sizes, though the tenderloin traditionally is pounded thin, breaded and then deep-fried to crunchy perfection. Sitting on the Monon Trail in Broad Ripple Village, Plump’s cooks up a particularly popular version of the sandwich. Restaurant namesake Bobby Plump, the real-life Hoosiers basketball legend who sunk the game-winning shot at the buzzer to win the high school state championship in 1954, stops in on the regular.
Best Cocktail Bar: The Inferno Room
The festive Inferno Room definitely gets the party started in Fountain Square with a rather startling collection of native art and artifacts from Papua New Guinea. The cocktail menu has mostly rum-based tropical drinks that go by whimsical call signs like Skull & Bones, Saturn and Aloha Felicia; be forewarned — you’ll want to sip slowly because these drinks pack a serious punch. Pad your stomach with tasty small plates like pineapple fried rice, jerk chicken kabobs, Spam sliders and coconut empanadas.
Best Date Night Destination: Tinker Street
Casual yet intimate, Tinker Street treats guests to complimentary samples of sparkling wine as soon as they’re seated to toast special occasions, or no occasion at all. The scrupulously vetted wine list and staff sommelier ensure perfect wine pairings for the seasonally changing dinner menus. For dessert, the s’more pot de crème is the sweetest finale.