Introducing: Labor District Cafe

From fast-food innovator Punch Burger comes a new “throwback” noontime option for the workaday lunch crowd.

If some of the first restaurants in Indianapolis opened their doors to feed the city’s workers on their lunch breaks, then Labor District Cafe (135 N. Pennsylvania St., 317-672-7591) in BMO Plaza, the latest enterprise from the Punch Burger crew, has a lot of history to live up to. Thankfully, you don’t have to be a paper-pusher in a high-rise office building downtown to have lunch at this stylish, second-story setup in the former home of Sahm’s at the Plaza. If you do have to be back at the office, you might want to go for the quick-service counter (though we had a bit of trouble finding it, hidden as it is around the wall behind the host stand). But once we caught sight of the spacious dining room with its sweeping ceilings and bright wintertime views of Pennsylvania Street, we figured the boss would understand and opted for the leisurely sit-down experience. And, with a generous menu of lunch classics, soups, salads, and sides to choose from, we figured we’d need a little time to decide.
Given that the same people who brought burnt-cheese cheeseburgers in adorable wire baskets to Punch Burger conceived the place, we weren’t surprised that Labor District wears a similar mod-but-approachable style, down to the uber-industrial, Union Label–like insignia hung outside the entryway. Walls bathed in a creamy tomato-soup red, menus bolted to aluminum clipboards, and drinks served in mason jars all add to the old-made-new charm. Offering everything from chicken velvet soup and a classic Cobb salad to fried catfish and a turkey Manhattan, the menu falls in a comfy spot somewhere between the L.S. Ayres Tearoom and your neighborhood greasy spoon. But it’s 2014, so a chalkboard lists all of the farmstead suppliers: beef from Fischer Farms in Jasper, eggs from Creighton Brothers in Warsaw. Somehow it assuaged some guilt that our lunch would have a small carbon footprint.
Our friendly and informative waiter plopped a stainless-steel bowl of popcorn—not Orville Redenbacher’s but Cousin Willie’s from Ramsey, Indiana—on our table when we sat down, an increasingly common freebie that could have been warmer or dressed up with a more unusual seasoning. Still, we were happy to have something to munch on while we pored over the menu. Despite the variety, sandwiches dominate, and we went for the meatloaf version, which came with melted horseradish cheddar and crispy onions on grilled sourdough. The meatloaf was nicely seasoned, without too many distracting toppings, but it tended to slide off the bread, making for less-than-dainty eating. House chips were alternatively rustic and crisp or a little soggy and flat. Much better was a side of Parmesan roasted broccoli, the vegetable of the day, an earthy, nutty way to get our veggies. A bowl of somewhat underseasoned chicken velvet soup, a onetime tearoom standard, dwarfed the half of a curried egg-salad sandwich we chose for the “Pick Two” lunch combo. And while the egg salad did have a nice undertone of sweet curry, a paltry helping of it fairly dripped off of the croissant it came on.
A sandwich board out front had promised “We Have Pie!” and we could hardly turn down a couple of slices once we saw them in the bakery case. Hailing from United Pies in Elkhart and the legendary Wick’s Pies from Winchester, these were Mom-worthy pastries to be reckoned with, from the light, creamy texture of the sugar cream to the warm, summery filling of the blueberry, both topped with luscious homemade whipped cream. In retrospect, we might have started with the pie, which, along with cups of steaming-hot coffee, was all we needed to send us back to work fortified and ready to tackle whatever tasks came our way.