The mob scene in front of Fletcher Place headliner Milktooth one fine Sunday morning bore witness to Indy’s torrid love affair with brunch. Cars slowly trolled the tiny parking lot in vain while a queue of customers huddled under the corrugated awning, starved for pour-over coffee and Dutch Babies. One guy slouched out the door and announced to his friends on the sidewalk, his voice choked with dejection: “There’s a 90-minute wait. Just forget about it.”
I took all of this in as I passed by, practically skipping down Virginia Avenue toward my own hipster repast of thick, crispy jowl bacon and eggs in a basket at Repeal, which quietly opened last July barely a block away in the glazed terra-cotta Virginia Avenue State Bank building. As soon as we entered this tin-ceilinged beaut with its ghost murals on exposed brick walls, the hostess led us to a four-top by the window, as if we had slipped her the secret password or pulled back the manhole cover on an underground speakeasy far from the madding, Dutch Baby–seeking crowd.
That time-hop doesn’t require a huge stretch of the imagination. Repeal takes its name from the heady after-party of a moment in American history when Prohibition was lifted—with the ratification of the 21st Amendment on December 5, 1933—and liquor flowed freely once again. The motif explains why bar manager Eli Sanchez (an alum of Ball & Biscuit and Thunderbird) looks like some kind of dandy mad scientist behind the lamp-lit bar, stirring up $10 revivalist sippers like the Votes Are In, which is warmed with High West Campfire whiskey and caramelized orange syrup in a slow-sipping nod to the Old Fashioned. His Bubble Gum Joe, made with 12.05 gin from Repeal’s resident 20-plate copper-system distillery, fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice, Jamaican bitters, and the herbal sweetness of Aperitivo Cappelletti, gets playfully garnished with a bubblegum swizzle stick. And it’s dangerously easy to knock back one or two of Sanchez’s milky-pink Not Your Average Sours, gilded with foam thick enough to leave a dashing egg-white mustache.
But if building a bar around a restaurant with an anti-temperance theme was a no-brainer, Repeal’s menu gets extra points for creativity—and difficulty. Before opening day, the Repeal team—including chef de cuisine Blake Ellis, who worked at Black Market and Tinker Street—pored over menus and recipes from the 1930s and uncovered curiosities like a peanut salad of green beans, torn basil, and quartered grape tomatoes that Bonnie Parker might have brought to a pitch-in. There’s toasted pimiento cheese on Pullman bread, and beef Manhattan upsold with smoked meat and cheddar-horseradish potatoes. Velveeta, a big seller at the dawn of convenience cooking, boldly congeals fermented cabbage atop the fat and juicy Repeal Burger. And those eggs in a basket at brunch? The dish is built around grilled onions and a slab of Spam—tinned meat being a worthy representation of Repeal’s 1930s aesthetic.
During Indy’s own earnest, earnest locavorian uprising—a time when a diner might indeed wait 90 minutes to eat Indiana lamb just up the street—Repeal is a bit of a renegade. Sometimes, its anachronisms are as weirdly delicious as sweetbreads deep-fried alongside thick slabs of bacon so that smoky saltiness mingles with the tender gland’s creamy, mineral sweetness—or perfectly pink slices of cooled smoked duck, fanned on a berry compote and accompanied by a little cherry hand pie.
Sometimes the throwbacks are simply weird. A side of peas adds in white chocolate and slivered almonds, and a misspelled “Monte Christo” seems nothing more than a French toast sandwich. If you order the mound of chopped, uncooked beef served open-faced on pumpernickel with neon-green relish and a raw egg—the menu calls it simply “Raw Beef,” so don’t say you weren’t warned—the trick is to not think too much about what you are eating. Just enjoy the flavors: fresh … exotic … a little dangerous.
The same general rule could be applied to this restaurant with the concept that makes no sense on paper and makes perfect sense in practice. Don’t think about it. Just raise your old-school beveled glass and enjoy.