Herron-Morton Place, long a veritable food desert in the heart of Indianapolis, has in the last few months witnessed the makings of a bona fide culinary district. Anyone who’s stood in line for a table at Shoefly Public House (122 E. 22nd St., 317-283-5007) or elbowed into a patio seat at Tinker Street (402 E. 16th St., 317-925-5000) knows the neighborhood has long pined for a place to drink a pint or sup on more than a food-truck taco. The latest restaurateurs to set up shop in the district are the owners of Irvington’s beloved The Legend Classic Irvington Cafe (5614 E. Washington St., 317-536-2028), once trailblazers in their own right for locating in the then-sparse eastside neighborhood. Last month, they opened Penn & Palate (28 E. 16th St., 317-602-6975) in the storied Piccadilly building just steps from Herron High School.
Dating to the late 1920s, the Piccadilly retains plentiful elements of its onetime Art Deco opulence, no more evident than in its dazzling penthouse, and the complex housed a restaurant as recently as the 1950s. That, coupled with the neighborhood’s long arts and literary legacies, inspired the owners toward a renovation that marries just enough contemporary elements (coppery domed pendant lighting and exposed ductwork) with emblems of the city’s past and present: black-and-white vintage photos of the state’s literary lions (Booth Tarkington, Jessamyn West) and vibrant full-color portraits of current cultural icons (painter Kyle Ragsdale, former Indiana Poet Laureate Karen Kovacik). Parking in back will be treacherous for all but the most subcompact cars, but plenty of street spots are available nearby—and the new spot is bound to draw a clientele of neighborhood folks who will hoof it over.
As for food, Penn & Palate’s menu aims for updates of American family classics, which at dinner translates into everything from lamb chops with Brussels sprouts and a pickled-cherry relish to buttermilk-roasted chicken with grilled potato salad and roasted broccoli. Sandwiches and salads headline the lunch menu, along with some tasty starters and homey sides. Slightly sweet corn cakes studded with scallions could have been warmer but paired perfectly with briny marinated olives and a shower of tangy feta. Other items needed slightly more aggressive seasoning, particularly an open-faced braised short-rib sandwich, which heaped hunks—not the more typical shreds—of quite tender short rib atop Amelia’s rosemary bread with a welcome topping of crispy shallots. Somehow, an ancho balsamic glaze got a bit lost in the mix. Frites, which our waitress recommended without hesitation, seemed a little more rustic than their French moniker implied and also needed a sprinkling of salt—though a house aioli added some flavor.
A generous roasted-grape panzanella salad brought together some slightly limp grilled romaine with heartier elements such as asparagus stems, chunks of charred baguette, and somewhat scant roasted grapes. And while the salmon we added was tasty, a quite modest three-ounce portion added a full $8 to our check. “Legendary” cookies baked every morning and heated in the oven had some nice gooey chocolate, especially a Nutella chocolate-chunk variation with a nice reserved sweetness. But these clearly home-baked treats were a little thinner and crunchier than we had hoped for, though other dessert offerings such as a rosemary polenta cake and a chocolate mousse scented with Earl Grey tea offered promise for future visits. All in all, Penn & Palate is a welcome neighborhood addition in a gorgeous locale that, with a few tweaks, could long serve a neighborhood that loves its art, its literature, and, now, its cuisine.