There are easier ways to open a successful restaurant. Like choosing a raw location that is a little more accommodating than a crumbling building from the late 1800s, former horse stables with no electricity or plumbing—or picking a cuisine with some mass appeal, instead of tackling the exotic complexity of a tapas-style pan-Latin menu. You could provide ample parking, maybe. Take reservations. Give the people what they want.
Livery, the latest blockbuster from Indy’s Cunningham Restaurant Group, followed none of the simple guidelines for a smash hit. And yet it got everything right, from the dramatic modern-
industrial layout worthy of a Dwell magazine spread to the smallest detail: baskets of warm pinwheel chicharrones set out on the tables for snacking, crunchy bites of lime and chili that melt on the tongue. Not only is the classic zesty Mexican chip (a distant relative of the Funyun) utterly addicting, it also happens to resemble Livery’s equestrian-themed logo, a squiggly wagon wheel.
That kind of yummy kismet is worth its weight in gold. Not that any of the Cunningham family restaurants need much help in the branding department. A month after Livery’s November opening, diners were still packing into the tiny entry, huddled around the hostess stand and happily sipping bespoke margaritas while they waited (60 minutes? 90 minutes? Did I mention the no-reservations policy?) for one of the most coveted tables in town. That’s an impressive following for such a tiny Chatham Arch newbie. But you don’t have to be Anthony Bourdain to figure that a nice pedigree accounts for much of Livery’s insta-success. Sibling ventures Mesh, Bru Burger Bar, Union 50, and Vida all wear the standard-issue polish of a company that owns and operates 20 restaurants in three states. You see some of the same elements at Livery: the tucked-away entry, the date-friendly diffused lighting, the polished (but not too polished) staff that hits the ground running. When Cunningham opens a restaurant, the eatery does well.
Carl Chambers has already helped open 12 Cunningham restaurants, and fellow chef Casey Frank helmed the equally glossy Nada. Together, they deliver stunning, eloquently seasoned dishes, like the delicate shrimp ceviche with slivers of red onion and jalapeño nested inside parentheses of fried plantain chips and garnished with a few pieces of popcorn—the starchy components bringing out the sharp brininess of the lime-cooked seafood. A meaty hunk of grilled octopus rests on top of warm white beans enriched with chorizo, like a soothing Latin cassoulet. And while the most unadventurous diner at the table will go straight for the charred cauliflower and shishitos, even those Weight Watchers zero-pointers get dolled up with lime aioli and crispy fried shallots. (Note to the ambitious soul on the prep line who went to the meticulous trouble of dangling one of those pinky onion rings off the end of each little pepper stem on the plate: Your work didnot go unnoticed.)
The Livery menu devotes a section to empanadas, savory pies filled with a range of ingredients (chorizo, barbacoa, queso) and paired with dipping sauces, like a cool cucumber salsa to cut the intensity of the lamb pie and a light yuzu guacamole for the mushroom-and-bean version. Served in orders of three, the fat and crusty morsels that you can pick up and eat with your hands are among the most down-to-earth offerings here. Nearly everything else flaunts all of the lusty, full-flavored hallmarks of Latin cuisine, with its pockets of chilis and cumin, bright chimichurri, and rich, roasted meats. Granted, a shallow pool of polenta adorned with housemade chorizo, fire-roasted tomato, pepitas, and the funky tartness of cabrales blue cheese goes overboard with the intensity, too salty and creamy to eat by the spoonful. Likewise, the pork pastor dish, a jumble of crema-drizzled cilantro, onion, pineapple, and green cabbage atop a corn cake, tries too hard to dazzle. Some diners might be smitten by the busy presentation. But connoisseurs of the succulent spit-roasted, guajillo-rubbed meat would snub this gilded lily, unrecognizable as the simple street food that needs little more than some onions and cilantro to play off the best part of pork pastor: the crunchy bits of meat sweetened with pineapple juice.
If it’s a spectacle you want, you would do better to order the jamon Serrano, a bodice buster of a dish with ribbons of the jerky-like dry-cured ham resting on top of a potato-poblano terrine that rises from a pool of salsa verde. Roasted wild mushrooms intensify all those deep flavors. Cunningham Restaurant’s frequent flyers will recognize components of this dish in the perennial-favorite wood-fired wild mushrooms board at Union 50—but here it skews even more decadent, with the addition of romesco sauce and crema. Another winner, skirt steak glistening with browned butter, is presented in a fan of slices cooked medium, then draped over crispy griddled polenta. Like most of the foods that emerge from the kitchen on imperfectly perfect slate-glazed plates at Livery, it is heavy and filling enough to make you slow down and savor—not just the flavors, but the whole experience.
After all, the building itself, a series of spaces connected and stacked like a cozy Barbie Dreamhouse, deserves some architectural rubbernecking. The low-lit main dining room features a long red-velvet booth along one wall. It connects to a bricked-in bar warmed by brightly upholstered half-clamshells, which connects to a light and airy enclosed porch with windows that open onto the bustle of College Avenue. A staircase ascends to a second-floor bar tucked under the rafters, awash in mood lighting, where bartenders assemble thoughtful cocktails, like the tartly refreshing Blackberry Star made with local grappa, and the stiff, egg-frothed Macho Pisco, tequila in a tailored vest. A pretty little rooftop terrace strung with lights looks like the kind of al fresco hideaway you might seek out for a quiet evening under the stars—your own little secret escape from the crowds. In a different city—São Paulo, maybe—Livery might be one of those quiet local spots you’re dreaming about. Unfortunately, by the time summer rolls around in Indianapolis, everyone will probably be in on the secret, too.