If someone were to design a walking tour of downtown Indy’s South Meridian Street, they’d have plenty of material.
The Wholesale District’s dense commercial bustle dates back to our earliest days as a Midwestern metropolis packed with turn-of-the-century storefront merchants and warehouses in the shadow of the sprawling Union Railroad Station. Those sepia-toned urban blocks eventually became ground zero for nightlife in the heart of Indianapolis. In addition to the historic Slippery Noodle Inn, you had places like Ike & Jonesy’s, Hollywood Bar & Filmworks, Cadillac Ranch, Tiki Bob’s, and Taps & Dolls—notoriously nocturnal and sometimes questionable. (The latter two businesses shut down last year amid multiple incidences of violent crime.) For better or for worse, that edgy, gritty, sleepless stretch of downtown is our own little Las Vegas strip. And for Long Island Tea–sippers of a certain age, what happened on the Bartini’s dance floor stayed on the Bartini’s dance floor.
But that was then.
Hovito Ultra Lounge—the sleek new Black-owned business right in the middle of it all—is now.
A latte-toned oasis of low sofas and curvaceous leather chairs, the 4,700-square-foot bar and restaurant opened in February, taking over the Claddagh Irish Pub & Restaurant location that closed permanently in the midst of Covid-19 stay-at-home orders. The massive wooden bar that was handmade in Ireland is gone, of course. Starburst chandeliers dangling from a blacked-out exposed ceiling replaced the pub’s glowing, lantern-style light fixtures. Dramatic white curtains cover the windows from ceiling to floor, and several clamshell booths turn the open room into a series of intimate vignettes. Owner Will Edwards is also involved with the upscale Havana Cigar Lounge in Fishers District, and you can see the family resemblance—in their muted color schemes, and their big chairs pulled up to small tables.
At the bar that backs up to a wall of illuminated amber, Espresso Martinis are shaken; Spicy Pineapple Margaritas get poured into chili-rimmed glasses; and Hovito Midnight Blu cocktails are mixed with Smirnoff lemonade vodka, cranberry juice, and Hovito’s own Blue Guava Moscato. A simple, two-page food menu checks all the boxes for lounge-based dining.
Buffalo chicken rolls are basically egg rolls indulgently filled with Super Bowl party dip and served with ranch dressing. Crispy empanadas stuffed with velvety shredded Cuban beef are deliciously coated in aji cream and romesco sauces that intensify the meat’s garlicky richness. Teriyaki-glazed salmon comes with grilled asparagus and seasoned rice. Fried Brussels sprouts billed as a side make an excellent entree. And well-marbled lamb chops arranged in a pyramid are smoky and tender with a crispy char along their edges. You’ll want to tear into them like savory little lollipops. Pace yourself.
All of these artistically plated dishes—plus mahi mahi tacos, mac and cheese spiked with jalapeño puree, Wagyu beef sliders, and signature chicken wings—pass through a pick-up window in the farthest corner of the room, beyond the DJ table, the sculpted metal barstools, the wall with the built-in linear fire feature, and the flowered selfie wall where a woman dressed to the nines posed with a mylar balloon “30” during her birthday brunch one Sunday morning. All of her friends, equally pulled-together, joined the photo session. I was eating waffles and chicken wings, along with some Southern-style shrimp and cheesy grits with cremini mushrooms, squeezing in a downtown breakfast at the end of a morning road trip. My hair in a messy ponytail and the front of my shirt dribbled with maple syrup, I felt embarrassingly underdressed. As I should.
You don’t show up for brunch here with your bed head or wrinkled traveling clothes—even though those faux pas don’t technically go against Hovito’s dress code. Yes, there is a dress code, albeit a no-brainer that prohibits ball caps; do-rags; skull caps; bandanas; excessively baggy or sagging clothing; offensive language on clothing; athletic wear, sweats, or tank tops; or see-through clothing. “Management will enforce such code after 7 p.m.,” the etiquette states. I’m okay with that, just as I don’t mind showing my ID to a bouncer at the door for brunch.
It comes with the (uncharted) territory. Hovito has set out to create something timely, unique, and lovely in downtown Indianapolis, something this neighborhood could use. And that’s worth showing up for—in your Sunday best. 234 S. Meridian St., 317-969-6909