We selected eight experiences from all the Indianapolis restaurants we dined in 2023.
We have a French bulldog puppy, Rufus. He came home this summer with us not long after our other Frenchie, J.J., passed. As I write this, the eight-month-old trundles through the backyard strewn with falling leaves. Sniffing. Munching on things that he shouldn’t. That is all he wants to do. Eat. Anything that might have a taste, he is willing to try. That journey of discovery, flavors and aromas compels him to sample anything in his path. George, our chocolate doesn’t help, either. Canine garbage can.
Strangely, as a human baby, that’s all we do, too. As we grow, we seek nourishment to strengthen and teach us. As an adult, I seek dining experiences that make me feel fortified, give me vigor and energy, and are memorable. I think that way as I continue going through my remaining years.
In the Midwest, it’s difficult for a gay man of color who grew up in progressive areas to have a favorable reception, even in a very blue city. Having worked as a waiter in New York City restaurants to pay my college tuition, I met the world, all races, creeds and colors. To be even more specific, as a server at Soho Kitchen & Bar, my colleagues came from Tunisia, Jamaica, the Netherlands, the country of Georgia, Mexico, Venezuela, France, Israel and China. Of course, the U.S. came out on top with struggling artists from various disciplines, hailing from every corner but many from the Midwest. With so many backgrounds and different religions, we learned under this one roof about wines and food. The cavernous space focused on essential bar eats – pizzas, wings, salads, pasta – to accompany the star, the new global world of wine tasting. It was the first restaurant to offer 110 varietals from every grape-growing region. They even had 75 beers on tap. We needed to attend weekly Thursday tastings; sickness and a doctor’s note would get us out from a Kevin Zraly-taught sommelier (it might even have been Mr. Zraly himself a few times). It was the beginning of an eatery to offer such a vast line-up of flights, a now ubiquitous term for small tastes of anything.
I bring this up because I have faced bigotry, intolerance, and racial discrimination throughout my life. While I expected to see it, I didn’t think it would bother me as now that I’m older. And, I thought after all the pandemics and epidemics we have collectively weathered over the last 50 years, it would have been a moot point.
While I would love to say what food and beverage company have treated me in such a fashion, I’m not going to give them any credit.
All of this to say, everyone should work in a restaurant. You may not like everyone, but you are there to ensure your customers eat and drink well.
Lady Tron’s, New Albany, Indiana
Perillos Pizzeria, New Hope, Indiana
Tinker Street, Indy
Chicken Scratch, Indy and Cincinnati
Anthony’s Chophouse, Carmel
When I thought about the list, I wanted to include Midwest restaurants where we have eaten over the past year. Then, as I mentioned, the New York Times 50 Best Restaurants came out without even a whisper of Indiana. I thought it was unfair and not democratic in the least. Selecting 50 establishments implies one from every state, not only a set number with several in one location. Also, we paid for every meal. It wasn’t because we had a media pass.
Here are the final three for i8tonite. They should get a T-shirt.
Four years ago, Nick took a position in Indianapolis. We visited the city seeking a place to live before his start date in Fall 2019. That was the first time I stepped onto Midwest soil. I had eaten everywhere but the Midwest. As a public relations professional in various industries, including tourism and hospitality, I could boast about sleeping and eating on six continents and over 200 destinations. Before my debut flight to this patch of green – Nick is from Wisconsin – I researched places to eat. I couldn’t live in some place without good food. Two of the places I selected were Cafe Patachou and Napolese, two of Martha Hoover’s establishments.
We found a house around the corner from Martin Luther King Jr. Park & Memorial. Napolese, the pizza and wine bar, still stands as a favorite – notably because they offer gluten free, but Petit Chou Bistro holds a special place. The establishment is inclusive, as are all of Ms. Hoover’s places, making everyone feel welcome. Bright plastic flowers and garland edging the windows make it feel like perpetual spring, and I feel a surge of Gallic love without the price of an airline ticket. Of course, the food is delicious Parisian bistro fare such as omelets, salads, rillettes, burgers, steak, and frites. The combination of everything makes me feel good about dining here: the food, the atmosphere and the service.
823 E Westfield Blvd, Indianapolis, IN 46220
Husband and wife team Chef Samir Mohammed and his wife Rachel Firestone launched this 35-seat restaurant in 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic. It took me three years to get here, but it was one of the most memorable meals I had anywhere this year, including places in New York, Chicago, and Nashville. It’s a gem, situated a few doors from the Noblesville landmark courthouse and about a 45-minute drive from downtown Indianapolis. Its diverse menu featuring American classics and globally inspired dishes has already captured attention.
On the night that we were there, the menu, which changes monthly, offered gluten-free hushpuppies, a ras al hanout crusted pork chop on a bed of saffron risotto, and a luscious rib eye with butter and fingerlings. While it was simple, there was a deft execution from a chef who knew his ingredients, primarily local Indiana produce and meats, to serve their customers who traveled to get there.
Nominated for a James Beard award for the Great Lakes region, Mohammed and Firestone should win in the coming years. It offers rustic and welcoming interior decor, attentive service, and delicious flavors from the Mediterranean, Middle East, Southwest, and California in America’s heartland.
56 S 9th St, Noblesville, IN 46060
When I first ate at Love Handle, it was love at first bite. Scrumptious lumberjack breakfasts and thick Dagwood sandwiches populate the handwritten chalkboard. It’s an eating experience of depth, clogged arteries and breathtaking flavors. For example, a typical daily special included a roast pork belly sandwich with homemade guacamole, pea shoots, red salsa, three cheeses melted, pickled red onion, and Sport pepper. And for those vegetarians, one can sup on baked taleggio grilled cheese, raspberry compote, marinated spinach, and a sunny-side-up egg.
The brainchild of Chefs Chris and Ally Benedyk – she makes the sweets – I feel a touch of Southern California kitschy nostalgia when I dine here. It’s a mish-mash of thrift store finds and curiosities that can help bring on a conversation for a first date or perhaps end it. There is a quarter-munching video game, curated clown paintings, and paint-by-numbers pulled out of second-hand bins, creating an eclectic atmosphere to match the food.
It’s not a place for dieters, but one can have a pound of pulled pork if need be. And it’s tough for those who are celiac or gluten intolerant, but the sandwiches can’t be found anywhere but right here in Indy. That’s a good thing.
877 Massachusetts Ave., Indianapolis, IN, United States, Indiana