Just inside the door of the bustling, family-friendly pub at the junction of Fall Creek Place and Herron-Morton, amid a tight crush of customers in their scarves and peacoats, one exceptionally antsy patron at the head of a large party can’t quite grasp the concept of “Just have a seat anywhere you want.”
“Is this all there is to it?” she asks nervously, balking as she takes in the dining room of Shoefly Public House, a comfortable mix of four-tops, communal bench seats, and curved booths set against grouty exposed brick and ketchup-colored walls. But the staff, weeks after the eat-and-drinkery’s late September opening, is unflappable. They gather spent pint glasses, push tables together, gauge the next surge of tickets. In a matter of minutes, the impatient lady advances from the awkward scene at the front door to the inner sanctum.
Such roll-up-your-sleeves problem-solving has been a bit of a theme for Shoefly’s owner, Craig Mariutto, who arrived in Indianapolis from upstate New York (where he started working in delis at the age of 14) by way of Las Vegas (where he helped open the Mandalay Bay House of Blues and met his Hoosier-born wife, Kaitlin). The couple ended up back in her home state six years ago, eventually buying a house not far from this restaurant now filled with young, civic-minded near-northsiders with a taste for craft beer.
“It took about a week for us to realize that all you have in Fall Creek is fast food and Goose the Market,” says Mariutto. “It took two years of me saying, ‘Somebody’s got to figure that out and do something’ before I finally got annoyed enough to do it myself. And then it took another four years to get this place opened.”
The location he picked, a brick two-story with sweet arched doorways and wide-paned windows that let in a flood of natural light, was in the midst of a developer’s restoration—caved-in roof and all—when Mariutto chose to rent it. Even after an extensive rehab, the place sports a slightly gritty demeanor—perhaps just enough to give its menu a Brooklyn accent. It comes as no surprise, then, that the beverage list includes a genuine egg cream made with the good stuff: Fox’s U-Bet Chocolate Syrup. There is also a potent housemade ginger beer and an eclectic list of brews, from Sun King to a coconut-curry hefeweizen.
The food starts out as casual pub fare, as in a plate of fried duck wings with crispy skin sauced to order in, say, a spot-on Asian-style orange glaze or a garlic-Parmesan mix. Among a short list of burgers, the Blue Bison gets its tricky proportions just right, the puck of gamey lean meat blanketed in enough thick-cut bacon to pull out the patty’s subtle flavors, plus a hint of bleu cheese. The menu changes every few months, as does the selection of rough-edged pretzel flatbreads, which recently included a spinach-and-mushroom version covered in smoked Gouda and that cream-cheesy Boursin sauce.
Shoefly’s interpretation of beer-battered walleye ranks among the best fish ’n’ chips basket in town, the meaty fillets plump and moist beneath the crunch, offered with a tangy housemade tartar sauce. And the original fall lineup included a glorious flatiron steak, crisped on the outside while sporting the perfect ruby medium-rare coloration on the inside, propped up on planks of fried yucca and drizzled in spicy-sour chimichurri.
One of the biggest challenges was designing a recipe for the dessert that shares its name with this restaurant, shoofly pie. Mariutto admits that they pulled the words Shoefly Public House out of the air (after watching the cat swat at a fly), so when a friend told him he’d better have the Pennsylvania Dutch molasses standard on his menu, he paid a visit to Virginia’s Michie Tavern, which makes a famous one.
He started with that recipe, a crustless version from one of the oldest inns in America. But Mariutto knew his customers weren’t just going to expect a shoofly pie; they were going to expect a good shoofly pie. What he ended up with is a kind of hot, underbaked molasses cookie with a gooey center, its nearly peppery flavors cut by an essential scoop of crystallized ginger gelato. It is the kind of sweet that makes a table go quiet. In a place with as much going on as this one, that’s saying a lot.
SHOEFLY PUBLIC HOUSE
122 E. 22nd St., 317-283-5007, shoeflypublichouse.com
Hours Mon.–Wed. 11 a.m.–11 p.m., Thurs.–Sat. 11 a.m.–midnight
Photos by Tony Valainis
This article appeared in the January 2014 issue.