The food. The ambiance. The history. And most of all, the heartwarming memories. Reasons you’ll drive miles to get to those Hoosier eateries again and again because you just can’t get them out of your mind.
story by ELIZABETH GRANGER
Michael Pearson was in the fourth grade when his family moved to the small community of Gaston, Indiana. An affable kid, he found his new schoolmates eager to give him the scoop on where to go and what to do. At the top of their list: Ivanhoe’s, in Upland.
For sandwiches, salads, and—oh, yeah—100 flavors of shakes and 100 flavors of sundaes.
Pearson quickly found his favorite: the Trojan Two, named after the local university’s mascot. A mint chocolate chip shake with cookie dough pieces, topped with a scoop of chocolate ice cream.
Pearson’s family believed it was worth the 11-mile trip from home, even on bikes.
When Pearson moved to Muncie and the distance doubled, he continued to head for Ivanhoe’s. Now he’s in Indianapolis, more than 50 miles away. And it’s been 25 years since that first trip to Ivanhoe’s. “Still worth it,” he says. It’s a common sentiment among those who are willing to drive distances to get to their favorite eateries. It’s even got a name: Destination Dining.
“We’ve seen an evolution in culinary tourism,” says Lindsey Skeen, Marketing and Media Director with Indiana Foodways Alliance. “Travelers are now planning an entire getaway based on a visit to a particular restaurant. The dining experience is helping drive their decision on where to travel.”
The Kopper Kettle in Morristown is a prime example. It began as a stopping place between Cincinnati and Indianapolis about 1860, offering lodging as well as dining, and it and it remained in the same family until 1997. That’s when current owners Leigh and Kristi Langkabel bought it, spiffing up the surroundings while holding tightly to the restaurant’s food traditions. Family style dining is available.
The route between Cincy and Indy no longer passes through Morristown, but the restaurant continues to draw diners from miles away. Long known for Hoosier fried chicken, the Kopper Kettle has also become a destination for steak and seafood. The physical setting itself is worth a visit: Old World charm with whimsical enticements. Right now Peter Rabbit is seated at a table, waiting for someone to join him. The carrots are already on his plate. And when the weather’s nice, there’s outside dining.
Fairmount’s dining history is far more recent. Barry and Joanie Howard grew up in Grant County, where they were high school sweethearts. They were away for about 10 years but returned to raise their sons. “I had always thought it would be fun to own a breakfast/ brunch restaurant, but that was not really what was needed in the area,” Joanie Howard says. “So we decided to offer steaks, seafood, burgers and craft beer. A restaurant that provides the type of food we like and the atmosphere we enjoy.”
Four years ago they opened Grains & Grill. Almost immediately it became a destination, pulling diners from not only Fairmount but also beyond the county. Two years ago they added Bad Dad Brewery. And last December, a pizzeria.
The Howards renovated a 1940s John Deer implement building to create a country/farm-feel restaurant. Food choices range from burgers, with G&G branded onto the top of the buns, to steaks and seafood. The No. 1 item is the Hoosier Hot Plate, a giant pork tenderloin smothered in creamy, sausage-studded sawmill gravy and served with baked potato and creamed corn.
Live music is in the brewery on a regular basis. In September G&G celebrates the James Dean festival with music and a parking lot party. It also hosts two markets each year—the next one June 22—with close to 100 vendors offering handmade items.
Both Howard sons, Derek and Patrick, are involved. So, too, are an increasing number of others as Fairmount’s downtown undergoes revitalization.
While some may think of breweries as only specializing in craft beer, visitors flock from all over to have a culinary experience at Byway Brewing in Hammond.
Their chef takes pride in using fresh ingredients and making everything in house … even the ketchup. Their menu features creative dishes that include ingredients like “clock shadow curds,” “mango guacamole,” and “charred tomato.”
Live music attracts many every weekend to Firehouse BBQ & Blues in Richmond. Fireman Tom Broyles bought and renovated Fire Station No. 1 and, in 2012, opened the restaurant. Popular are pulled pork, ribs, and brisket—and the jar o’bacon. Nostalgia representing not only the firehouse but also the city’s blues history fills the rooms.
It’s barbecue in Converse, too, where Jefferson Street BBQ has re-energized the tiny town. Farm-to- fork is the mantra, with many of the food items sourced locally, and the servings are big.
In Story there’s … well … a story. The entire experience comes as a surprise to first-time visitors. First there’s the thought that they might have taken a wrong turn, since Story is 10 miles off State Road 46 on narrow, winding 135 in Brown County. And the sight of the “dilapidated” general store—more than 100 years old—does a great job of hiding the high-end dining surprise inside.
And it is high-end New American cuisine with classical French roots that branches out to incorporate local foods. There’s even a garden in the restaurant’s yard with a chef who makes the morning rounds for that day’s meals. Because this is a true destination restaurant, visitors can opt to spend the night in one of their guest rooms or cottages.
A setting akin to the Story Inn is Bonge’s Tavern in Perkinsville. Not so easy to find, either, but Bonge’s is putting the tiny berg on Hoosiers’ culinary map. A wait of up to two hours is not uncommon, especially during warm weather. So tailgating in the parking lot has taken on a life of its own. Party atmosphere outside followed by a culinary experience inside.
Multiple-award-winner Joseph Decuis, in northeastern Indiana’s Roanoke, offers fine dining with Wagyu beef raised nearby. Special dining rooms offer distinct settings that include watching the chefs at work or enjoying an al fresco feel inside. Two lodgings are available, one within walking distance of the restaurant and the other on the Wagyu farm.
More fine dining destinations can be found at two high-end restaurants in French Lick: French Lick Resort’s 1875: The Steakhouse, and Sinclair’s located at the West Baden Springs Hotel. Both are well- known for their incredible food and ambiance, and draw visitors from both inside and outside of Indiana.
In Terre Haute, Stables Steakhouse features premium black angus steaks and more, all housed in a historic turn-of-the- century Victorian stable building. The unique architecture captures the city’s history, and was originally built by the Terre Haute Brewing Company to house the horses that delivered beer for the company.
It’s casual fine dining with Old World charm at Richmond’s Old Richmond Inn. Chef Galo Molina, from Ecuador, offers a menu that ranges from Hoosier favorites to dishes with an international flair.
In West Lafayette, O’Bryan’s Nine Irish Brothers focuses on the Emerald Isle. Owner Jerry O’Bryan, the youngest of 14 children growing up on an Indiana farm, spent years thinking about the restaurant before it came to be. He considered his Irish heritage and his love of people, and he made research trips to Ireland to find the perfect pub to emulate.
The restaurant’s recipes are from O’Bryan’s family and from contacts in Ireland. Think bangers and mash, fish and chips, shepherd’s pie—along with Jameson, Guinness, and Smithwick’s. And live Irish music on the weekends.
Two sister—or would that be brother?—restaurants are in Lafayette and Indianapolis. The British Isles star at Payne’s Restaurant in Gas City, with their fish and chips, beef stew and Yorkshire pudding, huntsman’s breakfast, cock-a-leekie soup.
Zydeco’s in Mooresville is a nod to Cajun cooking. Think red beans and rice, jambalaya, gumbo, crawfish etouffee, …. like good Cajun cuisine, not overly spicy. And the ambiance alone is worth the drive; it’s oozing with so much character that diners will feel like they’ve been transported to New Orleans.
Decades-old memories of drive-ins with carhops send folks to the Triple XXX in West Lafayette. When it opened in 1929, it was the state’s first drive-in. It had carhops until 1986.
Triple XXX root beer was born in the early 1900s, and eventually there were more than 100 stands throughout the country. Now the West Lafayette site is the only Triple XXX Thirst Station left.
The root beer recipe is original. The chopped steak is like it’s always been. The most popular burger is the Duane Purvis, which includes peanut butter. It’s named for a 1930s Purdue football player who “ate peanut butter on everything.” There are more, named after Bernie Flowers, Bob Griese, Ryan Kerrigan, David Boudia, Ashley Burkhardt, …
33 Brick Street in French Lick pays homage to hometown basketball legend Larry Bird with plenty of Bird memorabilia along with casual cooking.
Harry’s Old Kettle Pub & Grill in Wabash, which began as a drive-in in the 1940s, continues to honor its traditions. That includes adding $1 bills to the ceiling to commemorate special occasions.
In Plainfield, it’s the Oasis Diner that prompts wistfulness. Opened in 1954, it closed in 2008 when its owner suffered health problems. In 2010 Indiana Landmarks listed it on its “10 Most Endangered” list. But Doug Huff and Don Rector bought the diner—and moved, restored and in 2014 reopened it.
Huff said patrons “usually come for the experience first, and then they come back for the food.” No carhops here, but there’s outside as well as inside dining.
The diner experience at Larrison’s Diner in downtown Seymour is steeped in history and character. Their building dates back more than 100 years, when it first opened as a grocery store. Today, the Larrison family still carries on the tradition of serving homestyle meals, including homemade fries, old-style hamburgers, and plate lunch specials.
So do two stand-out Amish restaurants in northern Indiana, where the order of the day is “simple, wholesome cooking”—fried chicken, mashed potatoes, noodles. And pie, with crust made from lard. Das Dutchman Essenhaus in Middlebury is the largest restaurant in Indiana. Its Shipshewana counterpart is the Blue Gate Restaurant and Bakery, an award-winning eatery that features more than 25 kinds of pie.
At the Whistle Stop Restaurant, just north of downtown Monon in White County, travelers can combine good food and a fun learning experience. The restaurant is located inside the Monon Connection Museum, which features a privately held collection of over
6,000 items of railroad artifacts and memorabilia. The museum and restaurant were inspired by the town’s rich railroad history surrounding the Monon Line that was created by the Chicago, Indianapolis and Louisville Railroad.
“Dining has become so much more than just the food,” Lindsey Skeen says. “It’s about having an overall experience. And people are willing to drive hours for these experiences … and to build memories.”