New in Town: Tinker Street

Celebrated restaurateur Peter George teams up with former Puccini’s Smiling Teeth owner Tom Main to make his long-awaited return to the Indy restaurant scene.

If the scene had been Virginia Avenue, and it had been the early ’90s, you could have caught a glimpse of Peter George welcoming customers to his cutting-edge, one-of-a-kind contemporary restaurant, beaming at what a boon his place was for the neighborhood. Instead, it was 16th Street, over 20 years later, in a time when plenty of Peter George acolytes have gone on to make Indianapolis a formidable competitor on the Midwestern culinary scene. And yet, there was George, in his element, seating diners himself and squeezing into a banquette to chat with customers and help them choose among the small plates, “botanicals,” and “land/sea” offerings on former Oakleys Bistro sous chef Braedon Kellner’s refreshingly light and eclectic menu.

Plans for Tinker Street (402 E. 16th St., 925-5000) to open as early as last July 4th got pushed back until winter, with further delays even as the finishing touches were going on this tiny but high-spirited bistro in a former real estate office. But no one seemed to mind, as nearly every seat and bar stool was filled late into the evening on just the third night in business. On hand as well was Tom Main, the founder and former owner of Puccini’s Smiling Teeth, a still beloved pizza franchise with over a dozen locations in two states. Main had been out of the restaurant business about as long as George, who at one point had three of Indy’s most beloved restaurants, Peter’s, Chops: An American Steak House, and Bistro 936. But while those landmark institutions used to define high-end dining in Indianapolis, George has taken a much funkier and more casual tact for opening in a surprising corner of Herron-Morton, which has long pined for innovative local restaurants. George also purchased the long abandoned former barbecue house across the street and has plans for a second spot, though he’s still mulling over the possibilities.

For now, being back in business at a place that seats just 34 in its main dining room, with an additional 40+ seats on its heated outdoor patio, seems to have rejuvenated George’s spirits. And his staff and kitchen were at full speed right from the start. The surprisingly practiced and professional waitstaff made sure that plates kept coming out at a steady pace. Though our seats were definitely snug, we could still appreciate all of the clean, modern touches, such as the wood and metal work done by Burlington craftsman Melvin Lytton and the wall-sized urban group portraits by Kyle Ragsdale.

Highlights from Kellner’s menu included a bright salad of ruby grapefruit with creamy avocado, feta, and “live” hydroponic arugula picked in the back. A lush swath of pork belly came paired with earthy, chewy sorghum seeds, and a crunchy, fiery kimchi made in house. “Hope you could handle the kick,” George said, passing our table, making clear just how much he’s been involved in putting together Tinker Street’s fresh menu with plenty of global influences. An especially crispy but flaky filet of steelhead trout came above a smooth puree of turnips with sauteed Swiss chard and a nicely balanced tangerine sauce. Whimsical desserts included housemade sponge-cake “Twinkies” with a judiciously sweet coffee cream, crunchy pecans, and toffee bits. Even more memorable was a play on the classic s’more in pot de crème form with a luscious chocolate crème crowned with a well-toasted homemade marshmallow and paired interestingly with a stripe of vegetable ash, which customers could add themselves for a bitter, smoky contrast. More than a decade out of the restaurant business definitely gave George some time to reimagine the direction of his latest affair, and his partnership with Main has helped to make Tinker Street one of the more approachable and lively new restaurants to come along in a while—a neighborhood spot with affordable bites that has one foot in George’s fine-dining past.