Best Restaurants 2021
As restaurants around Indianapolis slowly reopened after all those dark months when an entire industry laid fallow, we couldn’t stay away. We returned to their tables with a new appreciation—for their sacrifices and pain and delicate ecosystem—as well as that same old desire to eat delicious food. Here are the places that not only came back strong but also gave us hope for the future of our city’s culinary scene.
TO DRIVE PAST the darkened patio of the long-popular Herron-Morton draw was a sad side effect of the pandemic, as well as a bellwether of how the local restaurant scene might come out of its toughest year. But news that owner Tom Main, having failed to find a buyer for the property, was “getting the band back together” and reopening in May was the hope local gourmets and wine lovers had held onto for 14 months. Back to the kitchen came chef Tyler Shortt, bringing perhaps the city’s best shrimp and grits, as well as fork-tender, Asian-inflected pork belly with silky, spicy kimchi and fragrant forbidden rice, the kind of dish that could never translate as takeout. Promoted to sommelier was Ashlee Nemeth, pouring from one of the best wine lists in the city. And back on went the lights and the cool-night heaters on the coziest screened patio in Indy, a signal that slow, intimate dinners with friends over show-stopping dishes could and would happen long into the future.
FINESSED MACARONS HAVE belonged famously to SoBro’s Gallery Pastry Shop for the last five years, courtesy of owners Alison Keefer and Ben Hardy. The Gallery Pastry Bar, their downtown second act, is a celebration of Vegas opulence played out in oyster flights, house breads, and inspired European-style standards. Brunch is served all week and features eggs done every which way, plenty of Tulip Tree Creamery’s bloomy Trillium, mimosa packages, and drag shows. There’s more on the horizon: Pastry chef Youssef Boudarine is working on a to-go concept for doughnuts and gelato at a third location.
ONE BRIGHT SPOT of last year’s restaurant crisis was the emergence of West 16th Street as a bona fide restaurant row lined with California burgers and Florida-style seafood boils. But the standout (and perhaps the best addition to Indy’s international food options in 2020) was Marcos and Laura Perera’s tiny Argentine takeout. Flaky, plump empanadas with fillings ranging from beef or chicken to spinach or butternut squash will have you driving back for a dozen to stock your freezer. Choripanes, sandwiches featuring a savory butterflied Argentine chorizo on a baguette, are a great introduction to Argentine street food, whether you dress yours with sauerkraut or potato sticks. Burgers and dogs come with as many bright and flavorful toppings as you could imagine. And while the Pereras offer a host of authentic and hearty sandwiches, it’s worth waiting until Sunday (and select weekdays) for the knockout, super-tender porchetta, redolent of prosciutto and plums and slathered with aromatic chimichurri. Instead of fries, opt for the Che Chori Chips, dark and crunchy russets that may be the best in town.
OWNERS BRITTANY KOBAYASHI, William Hong, and Alex George (an alum of Austin’s famed Franklin Barbecue) have largely contained their operation to a truck in the parking lot of Metazoa Brewing Company, a testament to their focus on the craft. Maybe they’ve just been too busy serving up 16-hour post oak–smoked brisket and concocting funky specials like mashed potato bowls or Frito chili cheese wraps to think about expansion to fancier digs. Go against instinct here and order the juiciest, most flavorful smoked turkey you’ll find or order up a whole pork butt or rack of ribs (48 hours in advance) for your next backyard picnic.
ALMOST FROM THE day it opened in early 2013, Delicia, the sultry New Latin supper club on College Avenue, inscribed into local culinary lore some of its most memorable entrees. The now fabled Fire ’n’ Ice marries the sweet and the spicy with its beguiling mélange of habanero, hibiscus, and basil. Anything with octopus (atop crisp plantain tostones) or roasted duck (in enchiladas with a host of creamy toppings, bright herbed rice, and black beans) should land on your table during dinner. At brunch, order mimosas by the pitcher, not the glass, to go with a hangover-curing plate of chilaquiles or sweet, spice-dusted Cuban toast soaked in condensed milk.
ANYONE WHO THINKS Indy lacks its own pizza character—that we borrow from Naples, New York, Chicago, and Detroit for our savory pie styles—hasn’t been to Que Wimberly’s one-of-a-kind joint tucked off Binford Boulevard. For “The Trap” alone, a garlic butter–drenched gut buster crowned with lump crab and jumbo shrimp, Wimberly’s dope pizzeria with the picnic-table party vibe and Lil Wayne soundtrack stands out. The menu pays tribute to a host of other local Black-owned businesses (Chef Oya’s and Hank’s Smoked Brisket among them), and Wimberly is constantly on the lookout for nearby spots to honor. A recently added spicy pie loaded with jerk chicken from Yaso Jamaican Grill was an instant knockout. Toppings, including gyro meat, refried beans, and vegan sausage, come on the most buttery, golden crust around, and they’re generally served up by Wimberly herself.
WHETHER IT’S ACTING as the buttoned-up cousin to Martha Hoover’s homier Patachou spots or a nighttime taste of Parisian bistro fare largely lost to the past, Petite Chou provides both the pleasures of in-crowd status and a taste for the Continental. Yeasted Liège waffles and French toast made with brioche lend breakfast a Gallic air, and who wouldn’t fall hard for a croque madame lavished in mornay sauce and Gruyere, wearing a fried-egg beret? Sadly, Wednesday duck-fat fried chicken is in the archives, but an exemplary chicken paillard is a worthy lighter replacement, and quail stuffed with brie, arugula, and sun-dried tomatoes is just as satisfying in a slightly retro manner while keeping your fingers clean. Vichyssoise is warm here, bucking convention, but it’s lush and brightened with herb oil, and deeply savory French onion soup will restore in any season. Lobster may be the better choice with your frites than steak, and the fish du nuit is butter-basted yet always as fresh as the sea.
THE SPICY TUNA roll at your local Japanese hibachi might be as satisfying. And you may love the udon at your favorite Asian takeout. Yet, for bringing together high-quality ingredients and exacting techniques of traditional dining, no other Asian restaurant experience in the city is as elegant, measured, and immersive as the multicourse meals at Nobuharu Nakajima’s Hinata, housed in a high-rise lobby on Washington Street. Tapping talented Japanese native Akinori Tanigawa as his master chef to introduce locals to kaiseki-style, kitchen-driven dining, Nakajima shored up what he saw as the city’s lack of real Japanese cuisine with meals that sweep from dainty small-plate appetizers of plum-glazed chicken, grilled mackerel, or fluffy rolled omelets to some of the freshest sashimi served in landlocked Indiana to tempura with local fresh vegetables, sea bass, rare beef tenderloin, and refreshing cold noodles. A drink menu is a primer on sake grades, and the bar aptly shakes up top-shelf East-West cocktails you’ll gladly sip for the hour-plus, spa-like meal.
RESTAURANTS DISHING UP rich curries and masalas do well in a city hooked on the lush flavors of Indian food. Aroma takes the cuisine to a higher level with showpiece dishes like a tender stew of bhuna ghee goat, dal Bukhara (which cooks overnight with tomato puree, ginger, and garlic), and velvety saag paneer. Chef Kamal Papanai performs fragrant magic with hard-to-find regional treats like creamy malai kofta studded with fried paneer-and-potato balls. Start with a plate of chunky samosas and finish strong with Papanai’s silken rice pudding served inside a hollowed orange.
ANOTHER UNEXPECTED SWATH of the city to come alive with new food options last year was East 46th Street, where a handful of hangouts provided a much-needed pandemic escape. Definitely the most unassuming and offbeat sleeper on the block was Justin Rice’s corrugated-metal food truck behind his brother Jesse’s low-key bar, Loom. And while the fare at Log is a mix of carnival favorites and deluxe snack-bar treats, the execution is so spot-on and the specials are so fresh it’s worth blowing your midweek diet for a porkburger, a fried bologna sandwich, or Rice’s crispy, golden take on eggrolls filled with either sloppy Joe meat, mac and cheese, or Reuben ingredients. A Ritz cracker–breaded tenderloin that’s crackly and light at the same time instantly got the attention of Hoosier purists. And extras like pizza dough balls showered in Parmesan, fried veggies, and ballpark nachos are served up with heaping helpings of nostalgia. Log brings back the kind of winking anti-restaurant attitude that’s been lost since food trucks hit the city over a decade ago, and for that we’re asking for extra napkins.
AS CANON BALL Brewing was making its transition to Scarlet Lane Gastropub last summer, chef Erin Kem could have rested on her laurels. She could have cruised on the reputation of her bar mix, daily hand-rolled tacos, and Turkish wet burgers, which were already some of the freshest pub grub in the city. Instead, she dug deep into her love of seasonal ingredients and international flavors, adding a bright, Mexican street corn–inspired salad and a farmers market pizza to the menu, then dreaming up creative brunch ideas, such as one themed on the Seven Deadly Sins in May that ran the gamut from Spam and Velveeta to halibut and escargot. This summer’s menu was Kem’s best, with empanadas stuffed full of eggs, olives, currants, and chicken cooked in Kolsch, as well as a melon salad with a tangy sumac vinaigrette, and a mile-high pimento-cheese burger. It even featured monkfish with a cool carrot-ginger broth and Korean noodles that hearkened to Kem’s fine-dining pedigree.
IN JUNE, this Fletcher Place icon celebrated its ninth birthday, a happy occasion that snuck up on us. Has it really been nearly a decade since Tom and Edward Battista launched this modest farm-to-table restaurant named after a Kurt Vonnegut book, introducing Indy to unfussy haute cuisine? Chef Abbi Merriss’s finessed “Modwestern” menu—including recent additions like a high-rise tuna melt on a slab of Amelia’s pullman loaf, a compressed cantaloupe salad, and grilled quail with kimchi gazpacho—feels as fresh and imaginative as ever.
THE MENU READS like a Wikipedia entry for traditional Italian cuisine: spaghetti Bolognese made with fresh pasta, tender ricotta-stuffed tortelloni, sweet potato gnocchi, hearty pennetta boscaiola. That sounds about right for a restaurant that has sat quietly off Keystone Avenue since 1951 (and once housed a legendary piano bar). Yet Capri remains one of Indy’s most polished white-tablecloth establishments. Take a seat in the sexy, dark dining room near the stone fireplace or at one of the more laidback outdoor spots beneath a lush, vine-covered pergola. You’ll feel like you’re on Roman holiday, even before the server arrives to recite the evening’s specials in a musical Italian accent.
CHEF JOSH ONGLEY’S fever dream of a menu is perfectly in sync with the intensely exotic design at The Inferno Room—as much a museum of Papua New Guinea artifacts as it is a Melanesian-inspired restaurant. It’s easy enough to settle into the amber-lit den and suck down an enormous Kooky Colada garnished to the core with tiki accoutrement or a brain-numbing Painkiller. It would be a mistake, though, to get too lubricated to savor a plate of tingly thom yum dry rub wings, the extra-crispy crab rangoon, or complex sweet and sour longevity noodles spiked with tamarind. Spam is one of Ongley’s delicious through lines, appearing in sliders and pineapple fried rice, as well as items on Inferno Room’s recently added Hangover Brunch. Weekends are the best time to take advantage of specials like lobster chow mein, Japanese octopus balls, spicy Korean rice cakes and purple carrots in shrimp broth, and an impressive parade of steamed buns.
THE FLAGSHIP RESTAURANT inside the Bottleworks Hotel is a new concept from Cunningham Restaurant Group, which has a knack for creating stylish middle-brow crowd-pleasers that play well to Midwestern foodies. Its first interpretation of Asian-fusion cuisine comes in a sexy space combining black-steel trusswork with golden lights—and the kitchen contains a Robata grill from Japan that imparts dishes with a pungent smokiness, skewing the menu in the direction of rib-sticking pork bao buns and hearty noodle bowls. Modita trades authenticity for fun, approachable twists on favorites, like tangerine chicken (which lacks any sticky-sweetness) and soft-crab tempura. The libations list is larger than the food menu—and more ambitious.
THE MEANDERING chalkboard menu that hangs behind the counter of this Portuguese-inflected eatery can feel a little intimidating to anyone new to the country’s diverse fare. Like a computer screen with too many tabs open, it’s a tumble of sandwiches, small plates, antipasti, and daily specials such as spicy, slow-cooked cacoila—Portuguese pulled pork. Spare the crick in your neck and go straight for the Portuguese soup, a heady combination of peppery smoked sausage, kale, cabbage, and beans, and the house-cut fries topped with gravy, peppers, and an over-easy egg. Any dish that mentions piri piri chicken is a winner, from the unassuming shredded-chicken salad croissant to the dazzling piri piri fried chicken atop thick Liège waffles. You won’t want to waste a drop of garlicky tomato broth left after you polish off the little neck clams in your vongole con tomato, either. Instead of saving room for dessert, pick a boxful of milk tarts to take home.
SERVING “REVENGE BURGERS and Spite Snacks” under a defiantly generic shingle, the Meridian-Kessler spot that restaurateur Martha Hoover introduced in July 2020 captured all of those dystopian YA novel vibes we were feeling in the early days of the pandemic. Juicy smashburgers piled with cheese and sauce were the marquee act, but the menu gradually expanded to include a wagyu hot dog, a jumbo Lion’s Mane mushroom sandwich, a dolled-up sloppy Joe, and even a $6 kid’s Unhappy Meal complete with fries, juice, toy, and a baby burger or buttermilk fried chicken. But Apocalypse Burger is more than the sum of its aioli-drenched parts. In the most uncertain times, it served as a culinary talisman—a party at the end of the world with canned wine, Blackout Ding Dong cakes, and brunch on the patio with a DJ to keep the party going.
AMONG THE HANDFUL of standalone restaurants to open at The Yard at Fishers District since its 2019 debut, this upscale grill with Hamilton County initials has a distractingly good-looking veneer. But beyond the flagstone columns, plush leather banquettes, and impressive wine tower, it delivers a solid menu of elevated yet accessible dishes that is right on brand for parent company Huse Culinary (which also operates St. Elmo Steak House, Harry & Izzy’s, and 1933 Lounge). A thick-cut, nicely charred Berkshire pork chop retains its succulence, served with chipotle-peach jam that kicks up the flavor. The leg-quarter chicken is smoked then fried to a delicious crackle. Nibs of lobster are presented like escargot, bubbling with garlic butter and molten havarti. Even the grilled cheese is truffled and served with rich roasted-tomato soup poured tableside.
ANTHONY LAZZARA’S MODERN ode to red meat—where majestic mahogany doors open onto a dining room of two-story glazed walls and decorative brick—stands as proof that a steakhouse doesn’t have to ooze testosterone to be great. Servers smartly explain the finer points of the Butcher Block selections, from the cast iron–crusted Provencal ribeye accompanied by a soft-poached egg to the lavishly marbled spinalis. Sides—like a platter of sauteed forest mushrooms sprouting a chicken-skin crouton, black-truffled tartare with a peppered egg yolk, and handmade gnocchi in red-pepper bisque—complete the tableau that you can admire while sipping your Flora y Fumo cocktail, itself a whole to-do involving a sprig of torched rosemary that perfumes the air.
A FITTING ADDITION to Eddie Sahm’s brood of casually cool restaurants, this Fishers conversion of Sahm’s Bar & Grill pays tribute to family patriarch William S. Sahm. Old photos of him decorate the walls, and the senior Sahm provided the inspiration for the eatery’s retro cigarette-pack branding. But the recipes tell bigger stories, too. The Bush League tenderloin takes its name from the former Indianapolis Indians stadium. The Cap’n Crunch–crusted fried chicken sandwich is called the Cap’n Ellis after chef and co-owner Blake Ellis. And even if we’re not in on the joke of the Speedo burger, one of Hoss’s signature thick burgers topped with sauteed mushrooms, onions, and banana peppers, it’s a fantastic melding of flavors. Dessert could take the form of a hunk of peach cobbler, a slice of Mexican chocolate pie, or something equally decadent topped with the house soft-serve ice cream.
WHETHER YOU ARE Team Tomato Juice or Team Navy Bean Soup, we can all agree on at least one thing: When we want to dine like genteel carnivores on shockingly huge slabs of bone-in prime rib and 32-ounce dry-aged Tomahawk ribeyes washed down with vanilla-tinged Elmo Colas, downtown Indy’s 119-year-old landmark is still our solid, go-to spot.
THE MILKTOOTH TEAM used last year’s pandemic downtime to refresh the dining room and take its daytime menu through a couple of transformations that sounded more dramatic and metamorphic than they actually were. (Scaled-back hours? Join the post-quarantine club. Jewish deli conversion? The occasional smoked-salmon biali seems to be all that’s left of that major dust-up.) With chef Esteban Rosas—a talented alum of Black Market and Rook—now in command of the peekaboo kitchen, brunch might consist of a pan-seared grouper sandwich layered with fried green tomatoes and esquites pimento cheese, flank steak chilaquiles, a pistachio waffle with whipped salted butter and lime-leaf syrup, or a sexy still-life of strawberry-lemonade sourdough beignets.
IT’S HARD TO imagine a better chef to revive downtown’s storied Elbow Room than Glenn Brown. The former Country Club of Indianapolis chef specializes in “vintage American” cuisine—straightforward but expertly prepared pork chops, chicken, shrimp, and steak, jazzed up with fine-dining presentation. The familiar standards complement the bar and dining room’s cozy, pubby feel that’s exactly the way you remember it from when you came here for chili and tenderloin sandwiches. The latter is still on the menu as a tribute, but you’ll also be tempted by a burger spread with mushroom-and-artichoke dip, and a full plate of fat shrimp, grits, and seared tuna.
EARLIER THIS YEAR, pasta savant Alan Sternberg came on board downtown’s most endearing Italian restaurant. As executive chef, he has dosed the traditional saucy menu with his own brand of reserved artistry—at its most delicious in weekend specials like a recent prosciutto and melon salad dressed with lemon thyme syrup.
THE UNTHINKABLE NOTION of eating lobster in a food hall became a fancy reality early this year, when former Chicago food truck purveyor J. Wolf opened a counter inside The Garage, the curated food court in the middle of Mass Ave’s new Bottleworks District. The headliner, Wolf’s chunky roll, is the essence of hand-held decadence. Cool claw and knuckle meat tucked inside a toasted, mayo-swiped New England–style split bun gets a drizzle of butter and a shake of Old Bay seasoning. It is perfect in its simplicity, but the menu goes off in more elaborate directions, tempting you away from the classic crustacean sandwich with a lobster BLT, a fried cod sandwich on a brioche bun, and clam chowder queso nachos that you can upgrade to a $24 “Whole Boat” version topped with lobster, crab, and shrimp.
WHEN CHEF CARLOS Salazar left Rook downtown to open Lil Dumplings at Fishers Test Kitchen in 2019, Marion County’s loss was Hamilton County’s gain. People in the northern ’burbs could finally have easy access to Salazar’s singular take on global favorites. (His Dan Dan noodles with pork and chili oil practically had its own fan club in Indy.) While in Fishers, he continued to experiment with flavors and food cultures, steering the menu in the direction his interests led him, serving everything from Tan Tan ramen to Filipino baked spaghetti with hot dog bolognese to Philly cheesesteak dumplings with aerated Cheez Whiz. This fall, Salazar is headed back downtown when his lease is up in Fishers, and Lil Dumplings will evolve into Lil Dumplings Noodle Bar in The Garage at Bottleworks. Expect noodles of all sorts—ramen, crispy noodles, and even the long-awaited return of Dan Dan. There will also be a small menu of appetizers like pork spring rolls and okonomiyaki pancakes, and a VIP bar that’s reservation-only so Salazar can always have a seat available for his wife, kids, and close friends. (Don’t look for it on Open Table—it’s only an option for those with the number to Salazar’s bat phone.)
A MEANDERING SUSHI bar spans the back dining room, mission control for concise nigiri, sashimi, and specialty rolls as pretty as set gems. The tuna and yellowtail glisten ruby and pink. The rolls have complex, almost Mondrian, cross sections. This is the meticulous detail work that makes Chris Thomas and Paul Estridge Jr.’s Main Street Carmel restaurant such a delight. Using the rugged Pacific Coast as its guiding theme—in both cuisine and aesthetics—Monterey also excels in plating up stunning seafood entrees such as butter-glazed sea bass, bacon-wrapped scallops on tiny polenta cakes, and housemade Fishermans Wharf ravioli under chorizo lobster cream sauce.
THE CORE RECIPES on chef Steven Oakley’s fanciful menu remain untouched. The sticky-sweet apricots soaked in tequila and wrapped in hickory bacon. The toasted brioche Toad in a Hole. Stanley’s Meatloaf with its baked-on chili jam in place of ketchup (and Hungry Man TV dinner wink). The honey-drizzled shrimp corn dogs that slayed Bobby Flay. But listen closely when your server describes the nightly specials, often a unique opportunity to savor something hyper-seasonal (like fried squash blossoms) given the Oakleys Bistro treatment (stuffed with goat cheese and Calabrian chili).
THE FOUR-COURSE multiple-choice dinners at Cunningham Restaurant Group’s retrofitted Lockerbie Square location unfold like culinary Choose Your Own Adventures. Will you start with a single octopus tentacle curled around a confetti of roasted cauliflower and candied pepita, a few perfect mouthfuls of hamachi, or roasted carrots polka-dotted with coconut yogurt and curry vinaigrette? Should you go with foie gras or pork belly for your second course? And then … will it be seared scallops, sliced ribeye with black truffle gnocchi, or the tortelloni—a delicious trust fall garnished with cultured cream—before an equally enchanting dessert course? Weather permitting, let this storyline unfold on a partially enclosed patio that reminds you that you’re sitting in downtown’s coziest historic neighborhood.
TO DINE AT this sprawling Cantonese restaurant on Indy’s west side is to become schooled in stir-fried bitter melon, beef tendon with white radish, silken mapo tofu (an Anthony Bourdain fave), and a delicious meadow of Chinese greens: garlic baby choy, gold and silver pea tips, and water spinach with black bean sauce. Servers will not steer you wrong through the scores of seafood, rice, noodles, and veggie dishes. Every laminated menu page feels like a new adventure, so if you think you’ve ordered a few too many baskets of dim sum, order a few more.
Additional reporting and writing from Megan Fernandez and Lavanya Narayanan.