Built in 1931, the Coca-Cola Bottling Plant on Massachusetts Avenue debuted the same year as the Empire State Building, Dick Tracy comic strips, and the U.S. patent for the aerosol can. This glorious Art Deco structure wrapped in white glazed terra cotta with ornamental chevrons and sunbursts stood sentinel along one of the original diagonals through downtown Indianapolis as the Great Depression raged and World War II commenced. It survived urban flight and Mass Ave’s many phases—from a 1970s skid row to a scrappy 1980s artists’ haven to the current condo-lined jewel in the crown of urban Indy.
The building (at one time the world’s largest Coca-Cola bottling facility) would change hands a few times as well. One previous owner, Indianapolis Motor Speedway magnate Tony Hulman, used the property to store his vintage car collection before selling it to Indianapolis Public Schools, which repurposed the landmark, still lavished in original ceramic tilework, terrazzo floors, and a grand marble staircase, as a training facility and service center for its fleet of school buses.
The place deserved a majestic welcome-back when it reopened in early January as part of the 12-acre mixed-use Bottleworks District, housing a boutique hotel, an eight-screen movie theater, a duckpin bowling alley, shops, and a 38,000-square-foot food hall called The Garage. No one—especially not Wisconsin-based Hendricks Commercial Properties, the developer behind the $300 million project—could have predicted the wet-blanket effect of a mid-pandemic grand opening.
As restaurants everywhere struggled against the financial shockwaves of COVID-19, The Garage rolled out its trendy combination of communal dining and curated food vendors with an emphasis on local independent businesses. In the first weeks of operation, visitors donned their masks and ordered baskets of stuffed arepas, Venezuelan cornmeal pancakes made fresh behind the counter at Azucar Morena. One space over, J’s Lobster & Fish Market was cramming enormous hunks of chilled, sweet claw and knuckle meat inside squishy New England–style split rolls and drizzling it all in warm butter. (At $18, it’s one of the priciest choices in the food hall but worth the splurge.) Red-blooded fans of meaty Brazilian cuisine gravitated toward the sizzle of grilled-beef sandwiches from Gaucho’s Fire, which began life as a food truck run by husband and wife Rogerio and Ruby Tregnago. Abbiocco Pizzeria cranked out big, floppy slices and calzones, while Poke Guru assembled bright, multiple-choice bowls of marinated salmon, kimchi, edamame, seaweed salad, and wasabi mayo, an encore presentation of its original grab-and-go concept on the second level of City Market—a solid reminder that grown-up cafeterias like The Garage are not necessarily new concepts.
In fact, every bustling commissary from Market Street’s historic cluster of working-class food stalls to the glossier collaborations at Carmel’s Sun King Spirits and Fishers Test Kitchen (along with, one could argue, every fabulous shopping mall food court in between) shares some DNA with The Garage’s ensemble cast of culinary hawkers. Indy’s recent obsession with this type of hunter-gatherer mode of casual dining follows on the heels of larger-market successes like Chicago’s Revival Food Hall, Corporation Food Hall in Los Angeles, and The Deco Food + Drink in Manhattan’s Garment District.
The Garage’s historic industrial shell is a selling point. Its exterior is still engraved with the original GARAGE imprint in a crisp retro font, and the interior is all exposed ceiling beams and buffed concrete floors with some vestiges of crusty machinery on display like steampunk art, including a massive Monarch “Flame Hardened” lathe that still bears its “DANGER 480 VOLTS” sticker. You feast on the vintage patina as much as you do the Korean barbecue tacos at La Chinita Poblana and the heaping waffle cones from Lick Ice Cream that might as well be Instagram bait.
Somewhere between your first Sipes’ Old-Fashioned and your second Peanut Butter Busted Knuckle porter from Hard Truth Distilling’s full cocktail bar stationed right in the middle of the room, you might get a little carried away. You might even forget that we are in the middle of an unprecedented world-health crisis. And that’s why I can’t, in good conscience, recommend visiting The Garage during peak hours, as I did on that busy Friday night when I first checked it out. There were too many bodies to weave around in an enclosed space that was not designed to accommodate long lines of people standing at safe, six-foot distances. Too many below-the-nose masks. Too many moments when I felt uncomfortably comfortable.
My second experience, in the middle of a lazy weekday, felt more in-step with the realities of 2021—a little less like a Willy Wonka chocolate factory tour. Just a handful of us early birds had the place to ourselves, so we claimed a wiped-down table and assembled a progressive lunch, beginning with a nostalgic visit to the Clancy’s Hamburgers stand for a classic textbook coney dog topped with beef chili, cheddar-jack cheese, and diced onions, and the double-pattied Clancy’s Topper. This is one of two remaining locations of the Noblesville chain that once boasted more than 30 regional burger joints, including one coveted stopover on the drive home from my childhood vacation Bible school. We shopped around and added a beef pastel (like a big, savory hand pie) and a basket of puffy Brazilian cheese bread from Gaucho’s Fire, and then we finished with generous scoops of coffee chip and gingersnap lemon curd ice cream from Lick.
We nursed our cones as we took a slow lap around the Bottleworks spread, marveling at the architecture and the pedestrian-friendly layout with strings of twinkle lights draped over the tidy brick walkways. If you look closely on a quiet pandemic day, you can see the ghosts of its past life—but also a shining glimpse of its future