Travel

Race — don't walk — to Indianapolis

My recent trip to Indianapolis seemed nearly flawless — save for the drippy rain, save for the continuously bad directions from the locals. Asking for directions is always a great way to meet new people, not to mention an instant IQ test for a local populace. Can they think on their feet? Do they have any uncommon powers of description? In my Indy experience, no.

Yet in the way stories unfold with surprising twists and unforeseen character development, I came to discover the people of this city are its greatest attraction. The speedway may be Indy's cynosure, but the people are the place. I suggest meeting as many as humanly possible.

This is Vonnegut country, so you'd be wise not to underestimate it. Rock minstrel John Mellencamp riffed on it too, and he may be a better reflection of an area with an absolute lack of brio or pretense. Let me tell you, three days here are like rehab for the ills of bigger cities: congestion, hard eyes and hubris.

The city's hub is a gracious old war memorial — the Midwest's Trafalgar Square. But for 100 years now, Indy's main attraction has been that sprawling speedway, by the same dude who blighted us with Miami Beach. Best not to hold that against him, because:

1) He's dead

2) He did leave us with this landmark speedway complex, where in a week, 400,000 screaming fans will celebrate 100 years as the nation's wildest one-day sports spectacle.

Indianapolis has not reinvented the modern American metropolis, but it's sandpapering the edges, buffing the chandeliers, cleaning the sidewalks. The next nine months may be the city's biggest ever: It's not only holding the 100th incarnation of its epic racing event, but also the 2012 Super Bowl (courts willing).

In the process, Indy has made itself into the sort of prairie stopover that is worth a look even when not hosting mega events or your company's annual sales confab. Did I mention that the bars stay open till 3 a.m.?

And as a sporting destination — the Colts, the Pacers, the NFL Combine, NCAA tourneys — it seems a Midwestern overachiever.

That winning Hoosier hospitality I mentioned seals the deal. In fact, Indianapolis may well be America's friendliest city. In three days, I didn't have a single encounter that was less than pleasant — and most were uncommonly warm.

Score bonus points for world-class beefsteak, surprisingly fresh seafood and dozens of attractions, from a renowned art museum to a little library that just opened to honor native son Vonnegut.

Indianapolis is the kind of town Mom wanted you to marry. So get in. Let's take a few laps:

THE STARTING LINE

That handsome hub we mentioned? Monument Circle, the centerpiece of the bricky downtown and darling of blimp shots during Colts games. What Michigan Avenue is to Chicago, Monument Circle is to Indianapolis — a twinkly, overlighted, postcard shot.

On my first visit, I used it as my starting point. I bunked at the Columbia Club, a brassy, old private club that sits on the circle like a 10-story period piece. It rents rooms to nonmembers, and at $89 weeknights, Columbia Club is a stately bargain.

Now usually I'm repulsed by the chatty vibe of hotel bars, yet I find myself in them over and over. Ironic, right? So, on my first night, I wound up at the Capital Grille, where a heavily peppered, dry-aged piece of rib-eye was my date for the evening.

The Capital Grille is part of the city's Conrad Hotel, where visiting NBA teams stay. High-end stuff to be sure, but the Cap Grille is worth a stop, for a drink, dinner and a sampling of Hoosier friendliness.

The city's football and basketball arenas are downtown, and games draw fans to Meridian Street, sure to be the main gathering place for Super Bowl activities. Locals say that this boulevard will be tented to keep out the notorious, clammy February cold. The free-flowing booze will work too.

Most times, though, Meridian Street is a beery younger scene, and except for the Slippery Noodle — once a bordello and now a popular blues club — grown-ups might do well to play elsewhere.

But one new nightspot is worth a look: Sensu. With big video screens lining one wall of the restaurant and a full nightclub underneath, Sensu is bound to draw the cool crowd during Super Bowl week. Don't say you weren't warned.

Meanwhile, the menu is interesting. I ordered the lacquered pork, a modest slab with a sweet teriyaki glaze. Had it not been my last night in town, I'd have returned and run through more of the menu.

In Indy, everyone directs visitors to St. Elmo, a downtown steakhouse that seats 390 for dinner and is renowned for its heavily horseradished shrimp cocktail. Tried it, and I'm proud to say I still have a functioning tongue. Be sure to have some ice water handy. Or maybe a paramedic. This stuff is a poor man's colonic.

By the way, had more of that bad Bloody Mary mix at St. Elmo, the super thin stuff you see being poured from New York to L.A. Almost an automotive fluid, it seems to have been skimmed from the tops of frozen pizzas.

I will investigate this further and get back to you. But beware. Suddenly I'm having more bad versions of this classic cocktail than good ones.

Bloody outrage.

WHAT A BUNCH OF ANIMALS

By day, I checked out downtown's White River State Park, which houses a pretty good zoo: The cheetahs approach you eye to eye in their glass cage. A novel attraction lets kids race against the notoriously speedy cats, a ribbon of red lights simulating the speed of the cheetah.

Here's a walking tour I recommend: Take a $5 cab to the zoo, worth a couple of hours, then work your way across a pedestrian bridge toward a trio of attractions, the NCAA Hall of Champions , the Indiana State Museum or the Eiteljorg Museum (Native American artwork). The Hall of Champions ($3) is a must for college fans, with exhibits and film clips on a range of sports.

Continue east to the capitol and take in the soaring rotunda.

By now, you're ready for lunch. Best burger ever? Try the Weber Grill restaurant, marked by the red kettle that Weber made famous.

If ever a lunch joint spoke directly to my soul, this is it. On this day, the chef's special, a mixture of lamb and beef, is easily the juiciest burger I've ever had, one of those succulent sandwiches that eventually comes to take the shape of your hands. Weber Grill is a small chain, one in Indy and three in the Chicago area.

"Want a tour of the kitchen?" the bartender, Kara, asked as I marveled over the all-charcoal menu, and, of course, I did.

Now, maybe you're ready for a boat ride along the canal that branches off the White River, or maybe a walk through the imposing Indiana War Memorial and Museum, four blocks north of the circle. Indianapolis claims to have the most war memorials outside of Washington, D.C., which is easy to believe. Everywhere you turn, there's another limestone monument.

You have a couple of distinct choices for your next stop: the small but interesting new Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library , a few blocks west, which just opened in January, or the Chocolate Café, right on Monument Circle, where some pretty decadent ice cream or hot chocolate await, depending on the weather. In Indiana, it can change hourly.

WHERE THE LOCALS PLAY

Six miles north of downtown, Broad Ripple — a neighborhood, not a drink — gets a lot of juicy notices for its mix of restaurants and a thriving bar scene.

But locals kept pointing me toward Massachusetts Avenue, a closer choice and walkable from downtown on a nice evening.

Mass. Ave. offers an interesting stretch of clubs and restaurants — a little bohemian, a little slice of life.

One of the oldest dives around is the Chatterbox, which features jazz on its tiny stage. It's a long, narrow, tiny place with a vintage cash register and some of the best music in town.

Up the street, you'll find the sprawling Rathskeller, a totally different kind of place but a hugely popular nightspot as well, with German food, live music and a roadhouse vibe. The clientele spans all ages, and though everyone seems to know everyone else, you'll feel very welcome. Try the Spaten Optimator, on tap.

Bars stay open here till 3 a.m. Did I mention that? Maybe that's obvious. If I seem even less lucid than usual or there are significant gaps in information, we can look to that.

It's no wonder, though, why this town has become a thriving convention magnet, thanks to plenty of attractions, easy transit and an unforced convivial atmosphere.

Sort of the anti-Vegas.

The choices are diverse and easy. On the same evening, you could climb into one of the horse-drawn carriages downtown or head up to Broad Ripple or Mass. Ave.

I didn't even make it out to the Indianapolis Museum of Art, which has drawn raves for a large and wide-ranging collection. It was closed the day I'd devoted to it.

No worries. Still plenty to do, too much to eat, too much to see.

Really, does any destination require more?

chris.erskine@latimes.com

twitter@erskinetimes

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