What's astonishing isn't what Indianapolis has become. We've finally grown accustomed to the resurgence. What's astonishing is while other Midwestern cities continue to struggle, Indianapolis has become a worthwhile destination while still being surrounded by Indiana.
"We have so many people," says Simon Robinson, "come from other parts of the country and say, 'If I'd had any idea what Indianapolis is like . . . ' "It's not anything like Muncie. Not anymore.
Robinson is managing partner of Nicky Blaine's, a darkish 10-year-old cigar-martini bar that's right out of the 1950s and just a dart-toss (no darts in Nicky's) from Monument Circle, the heart of downtown Indy. The cigars are prime. The drinks are honest.
"It's not an inexpensive place," says Robinson, whose top-shelf martinis are a couple of bucks costlier than the same drink around the corner in the city's revered steak joint St. Elmo. "Our philosophy was serve real drinks in real glasses and charge accordingly for them."
And serve them with live jazz Tuesdays through Thursdays.
"We have an older, more established clientele," he says. "With money."
Within walking distance of this cocktail lounge are more than a half dozen bars that range from typical college yahoo places to the kind where the post-IUPUI crowd dresses for, well, effect, with pounding rhythms to match. Plus a Morton's, Ruth's Chris, McCormick & Schmick's (you get the idea) and just enough local faves (including "famous since 1902" St. Elmo) to supply that needed "yes, this is Indianapolis" wake-up slap.
There's a buzz in Indy these days, and these nights, even when the race cars aren't in full vroom.
"It's been in the last 12 years that Indianapolis has had a complete revitalization," says Robinson. "It's become very metropolitan."
And a very good time.
St. Elmo Steak House, 127 S. Illinois St.; 317-635-0636; www.stelmos.com. Great steaks for more than a century, and someone at the table has to order the $14.95 shrimp cocktail. The Rathskeller, 401 E. Michigan St.; 317-636-0396; www.rathskeller.com. Schnitzels and atmosphere.
R Bistro, 888 Massachusetts Ave.; 317-423-0312; www.rbistro .com. So contemporary in food and decor, you'll wish it were in Chicago. Dunaway's Palazzo Ossigeno, 351 S. East St.; 317-638-7663; www.dunaways.com. Steaks, seafood, surprises (a delicious wonton-like duck ravioli) plus rooftop dining. Oceanaire Seafood Room, 30 S. Meridian St.; 317-955-2277; www.theoceanaire.com. Downtown Indy has all the upscale chains; this one overcomes the stigma.
Howl at the Moon, 20 E. Georgia St.; 315-955-0300; www.howlatthemoon.com. Yeah, it's a chain (we have one in Chicago), but with Butler U signs, dueling rock pianos, and twisting and shouting, who cares? Subterra Lounge, 250 S. Meridian St.; 317-472-8600; www.subterralounge.com. Of the bars on the block, this one most avoids the look-at-me desperation. Nicky Blaine's, 20 N. Meridian St.; 317-638-5588; www.nickyblaines.com. Cigars, martinis and live jazz Tuesdays through Thursdays make it swelegant enough to forgive the weekend-night thumping "house music."
An elegant bar
Scholars Inn, 725 Massachusetts Ave.; 317-536-0707; www.scholarsinn.com. For a glass of wine or a martini (more than a dozen variations listed) and gazing into each other's eyes, this one is dreamy. Serious dining as well.
Especially hot districts
The Wholesale District, for our purposes mainly the stretch of Meridian Street south of Georgia Street, a couple of blocks below Monument Circle. A cluster of bars, some for post-college dancing and strutting, others (Blu, 6, Ice) a little more upscale and more subversive on the strut. Plus The Claddagh, a spot-on replica of an Irish pub. Mass Ave, Massachusetts Avenue northwest of the Circle. An appealingly artsy pocket of performance venues, restaurants and civilized watering holes. Broad Ripple. Six miles (and a $20 cab fare) north of downtown is two blocks of bar after bar after bar -- and the obligatory hot wings.
Slippery Noodle Inn, 317 S. Meridian St.; 317-631-6974; www.slipperynoodle.com. Legendary blues bar (with food) in an 1850 building that was, among other things, a bordello into the mid-1950s. Yes, they do serve noodles.
Other after-dark sustenance (a mere sampling)
Lots of stages, notably the American Cabaret Theatre, 800-375-8887, www.actindy.org; Theatre on the Square, 317-685-TOTS, www.tots.org; Indiana Repertory Theatre, 317-635-5277, www.indianarep.com; and Phoenix Theatre, 317-635-PLAY, www.phoenixtheatre .org; Indianapolis Indians baseball (the Pirates' Triple-A farm club), 317-269-3545 ext. 258, www.indyindians.com; Jazz Concerts at the Indianapolis Zoo, Thursday nights through Aug. 16, 317-630-2001, www.whi terivergardens.com; Comedy- Sportz, dueling improv on Mass Ave, 317-951-8499, www.in dycomedysportz.com.
Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association, 800-824-INDY, www.indy.org.
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