Shortly before the audience stood to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Historic Artcraft Theatre’s early-summer screening of Grease in downtown Franklin, master of ceremonies Rob Shilts gave a shout-out to the town’s latest restoration darling: a steak-dinner restaurant tucked into the old post office. That tidbit of news about RFD Franklin fit seamlessly into the Artcraft’s folksy pre-show banter that included a five-second Sandy-and-Danny skit by Short Attention Span Theatre, raffle prizes, and a contest to ferret out the patron who had traveled the farthest (from Arizona, it turns out) to watch the Pink Ladies and the T-Birds hand jive across the screen of this 1922 Art Deco movie house.
When Shilts (whose storytelling cadence registers somewhere between Garrison Keillor and Motel 6 spokesperson Tom Bodett) mentioned that RFD’s owners were bringing the stately brick structure back to life one vintage P.O. Box at a time, all of us popcorn-stuffed retro geeks leaned forward in our $6 seats. Tell me more. Tell me more.
That’s what happens every time I visit this quiet Johnson County college town with the gentle tree-lined streets and the front-porch swings. I leave with a new checklist of things I want to do when I come back, determined to squeeze in every last antiques store, ice cream cone, tattoo/taxidermy shop, and classic-car show into my own weird hometown tableau, and it’s not my fault I’m such a creeper. Franklin is the kind of place that tricks you into thinking you’re reconnecting with a small-town community, even if it wasn’t your community to begin with.
This place simply embraces its noir stodginess, from the scuffed maple floors to the skylight’s steampunk levers.
But go ahead and pour yourself a glass of iced tea. Because RFD has a good story to tell, having taken its initials from the Rural Free Delivery, a U.S. Postal Service initiative that began in the late 1800s to transport mail directly to remote rural areas. The 82-year-old landmark functioned as a working post office until 1981, then housed Franklin City Hall for 27 years. It still has the institutional steeliness of a place designed for heavy lifting, the walls and tile work in coordinating shades of dusky green, and paneled woodwork framing the dining room—imagine a battleship built inside a Carnegie Library. This place simply embraces its noir stodginess, from the scuffed maple floors to the skylight’s steampunk levers to the private dining room (actually the Postmaster’s Office), where guests can share fried calamari and decadent, creamy deviled eggs spiked with bacon slices.
Owners Lesa McDaniel Talley and John Talley, Franklin residents and preservation buffs who have extensive corporate backgrounds but zero experience running a restaurant, worked with an architect versed in historic buildings to resurrect the original 8,000-square-foot space and add another 1,500 with a patio, kitchen, and ADA-compliant bathroom. The Talleys scoured the country for artifacts like the ornate letterboxes that provide vintage eye candy around the restaurant, and the wall of brass mail cubbies (salvaged from the State Capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin) that serves as a room divider at the back of the dining area. Even the rolling aluminum Gasser chairs tucked under every table were an auction treasure. The Talleys drove to Michigan to pick up about 160 of them, then replaced every last caster to ensure that the chairs would scoot smoothly on the old floors.
The owners also curated RFD’s culinary team, fielding organizational help prior to the May opening from Craig Baker, the restaurateur who made his mark on the Indianapolis dining scene as owner of The Local Eatery & Pub, The Taco Shop, and Bent Rail Brewery. Baker now focuses on restaurant consulting, and he helped design this menu that covers all of the parochial food groups: fully loaded wedge salad, pan-seared scallops, house burger, raspberry-topped crème brûlée. This isn’t fine dining or innovative cuisine, but everything tastes just fine—especially when paired with an old-school house cocktail shaken or stirred within earshot. The smooth, cherry-infused Manhattan will ease you into the chilled shrimp cocktail plated with marinated carrots and onions. The grapefruit mojito’s fizzy pop is a refreshing foil for the pan-seared crab cakes, packed dense with meat and set upon the heat just long enough to pick up a caramelized crunch. Their caper remoulade is more sauce than condiment, but the lemony richness does the job.
The Talleys brought in former Bluebeard sous chef Adam Ditter to run the kitchen. That’s an impressive coup for a startup this far off the beaten path, and though the original menu had plenty of promise, it was undergoing some tweaks two months after opening. One casualty, the roasted half-chicken, made way for an aggressively battered three-piece fried-chicken dinner with a serious crunch and a generous shake of kosher salt that sits on the frizzled skin like tiny diamonds. The pieces rise from a pool of puréed peach butter, with a scoop of unusually savory slaw and sliced biscuits under slabs of herb-studded butter. Every flavor on that plate competes for attention. Meanwhile, across the table, an otherwise perfect mushroom risotto creamy with goat cheese begs for a crank of black pepper.
Delicate, lightly seasoned seared scallops sit atop potato hash, joined by polka dots of carrot purée, and ginger-glazed grilled salmon is stacked with asparagus and lemon risotto. The Brussels sprouts have a vinegar zing to remind you that this kitchen has some ideas of its own regarding the ubiquitous side dish. And a shipment of Decker melons added Indiana sweetness to an arugula salad over the summer.
The steaks are noticeably inexpensive. The small filet runs $19 with a choice of potato and the “Beefhouse” menu tops out at $24 for a 14-ounce ribeye. In both cases, you get what you pay for. Don’t expect these cuts to have the marbled umami of a prized Tomahawk dry-aged in the back room of a high-end steakhouse downtown. Expect a decent bar steak that is all the better with the mushroom demi-glace upgrade. Order another Manhattan to wash it down. Or just get the fried chicken, lean back in your rolling chair, and appreciate what the town of Franklin has done here—welcome an old friend back home.
55 W. Madison St., Franklin, 317-733-7333
4–9 p.m., Fri.
4–10 p.m., Sat.
10 a.m.–2 p.m., 4–10 p.m.
Steaks, pastas, and decorated entrées served with utilitarian sides.
Start with the meaty crab cakes and the bacon-studded deviled eggs, and then advance to the fried chicken and the double brownie à la mode if you manage to save room.
Starters $6–$14; seafood $17–$23; steaks $19–$24; pastas $13–$21; house cocktails $7–$9