Devour Indy (formerly known as Devour Downtown) is coming up soon! January 23 through February 5, all participating Indy restaurants will have special value-priced tasting menus. This semiannual event is a great opportunity to try a new place or new-to-you ethnic cuisine. Parents, you owe it to yourselves to schedule a date night and get a babysitter for your kids. (Need help with finding a sitter? Read this post.) Several people have asked me for a list of favorite downtown restaurants for special occasions or a night out, so here it is, alphabetized for your convenience. Our picks for date nights tend to be the places where either kids are not allowed, or the food is outside their comfort zone and we'd like to be able to enjoy it in peace without possible complaints... not that our kids ever complain, of course, about anything ;).
1. Ash & Elm Cider Co., on east Washington Street between State and Rural, south of the Woodruff Place neighborhood. Located in the reclaimed historic Neidhammer building, the tasting room offers several different varieties of Ash & Elm's artisan hard cider on tap and a small menu of sandwiches and light snacks, like ricotta toast with honey.
2. Black Market, on the east end of Mass Ave next to the Indy Reads building. This bar has great regionally-inspired, seasonal comfort food as well as the best outdoor covered patio in the city for a romantic summer date night or dinner with friends.
3. Bluebeard, in Fletcher Place, right on the Cultural Trail. This restaurant has great food (from James Beard semifinalist chef Abbi Merriss) and decor (how can you resist classic books, globes and typewriters??), but be aware that as a walk-in only establishment, if you don't get there early on a weeknight, you may be in for a long wait. The service is sincere and heartfelt, but not always fast. Great patio spot for al fresco dining.
4. Cannon Ball Brewing Company, at 17th and the Monon in the Kennedy-King neighborhood. The craft beers are accompanied by surprisingly creative farm-to-table food from the former sous-chef at R Bistro, Erin Kem.
5. Cerulean, adjacent to The Alexander Hotel on the corner of Delaware and South Streets. Molecular gastronomy, award-winning pastry chef, airy modern designer-style space--it's easy to see why this restaurant is perennially popular with foodies and has been my personal favorite for special occasions for the past few years. Valet parking is available and reservations are accepted. Cerulean hosted the first Indianapolis James Beard Foundation dinner in October 2016, partnering with two other regional chefs based in Louisville and Cincinnati.
6. Festiva, a brand-new eatery on 16th Street east of the Monon Trail, focusing on Mexican cuisine. Owned by the Tinker Street team, so expect the same attention to detail and high level of service. It's a small space (larger than Tinker Street, which isn't saying much), but very well-done. We haven't been able to eat here yet, because it's popular, crowded and walk-in only. [On a recent Friday night at 8 pm, they told us it would be at least an hour to get a table!] But the aromas promised deliciousness.
7. Libertine Liquor Bar, on the basement level of Pizzology on Mass Ave. We've been fans of chef Neal Brown's food since we experienced the gourmet French fare at his Broad Ripple restaurant L'explorateur, which closed down eight years ago. Libertine is our favorite place for craft cocktails and small plates in a rustic space with a speakeasy vibe.
8. Livery, on College Avenue just south of St. Clair and Mass Ave on the Cultural Trail. The newest effort by the Cunningham Group (of Bru Burger, Mesh, and several others) is located in a historic building that was originally horse stables, and the decor cleverly pays tribute to the building's past. Latin American cuisine -- think Delicia, but slightly smaller menu and really unique space. Valet parking is available and reservations are accepted. There's a second bar and cozy dining space upstairs, with doors opening to the rooftop patio, which I can't wait to try when the weather warms up!
9. Marrow, on the corner of Prospect & Shelby, near the fountain in Fountain Square. Marrow is the brainchild of ex-Bluebeard chef John Adams. The website describes its fare as "global soul food" and "locally sourced/globally inspired." Others classify it as Asian fusion cuisine. We've only eaten here once, but we enjoyed our meal. Reservations are accepted, and it's located in a great area for an after-dinner walk in fair weather.
10. Pioneer, diagonally across from Marrow, on the corner of Shelby and Virginia Ave. This place offers a fascinating mix of German, Austrian, and Northern Italian cuisine from the Alpine region in Europe. The menu deserves a perusal just for its charming artistic design, in my opinion. The dining space feels modern, sleek and comfortable, and there's an outdoor patio/beer garden with live music in summer.
11. Spoke & Steele, located in Le Meridien Hotel (formerly the historic Canterbury), on Illinois Street near the corner of Georgia Street. Budget-friendly parking is available in the underground Circle Centre Mall garage. Spoke & Steele is sandwiched next to Harry & Izzy's and St. Elmo Steak House. It's a beautiful mid-century chic space, with "bespoke" and "barrel-aged" cocktails (I'm not entirely sure what that means, besides delicious) and farm-to-table cuisine that is certainly innovative within its category (hotel restaurant/bar) and the immediate neighborhood (chain restaurants and traditional steakhouses). We'd recommend the award-winning "Smoke & Spice" cocktail, one of my favorite drinks I've ever tasted. There's a good deal of dramatic flair involved; the glass is brought to your table upside down on a cedar plank to fill it with intense smoky flavor before the liquid is poured in (rye, tequila, amaretto, spiced simple syrup, apple bitters, alpine herb bitters, cayenne).
12. Tinker Street, at 16th & New Jersey. This cozy gourmet restaurant & wine bar has been a neighborhood gem since it opened two years ago, and it also draws foodies from around the city. It is always packed at dinnertime on first Fridays because of its proximity to the Harrison Center for the Arts and other IDADA galleries. My advice is to go early on a weeknight if you can; they don't accept reservations, and we try to avoid long waits for a table when we're paying a babysitter :). Also, this isn't the best spot for a romantic celebration of a special occasion; it's inevitably loud because the space is small. But it does have great food, an energetic vibe, and high-quality service; the owners make sure you feel welcome and important. You get the impression that the servers have been trained to achieve the perfect balance of attentiveness; never lax or neglectful, but never bothersome or intrusive.
13. Union 50, on East Street near the corner of Mass Ave, across from Pizzology. Over two years ago, Cunningham Group reclaimed and repurposed the historic building that once served as the bricklayers' union hall. The restaurant/bar has a fun atmosphere and good energy, with live music on a small stage a few times per week. I first heard it described as "the place where chefs go to eat on their night off." Because the food is good, the space is comfortable, and because Union 50 is open late: until 1 am during the week and 2 am on weekends. There's a parking lot in back, valet parking in front, and outdoor seating in summer. I highly recommend the wood-fired wild mushrooms with potato-bacon terrine and romesco.
14. Vida, on New York Street in Lockerbie Square. This place is the pearl of the Cunningham Group and the best of the best, consistently. When you get a table here, you know that everything you eat will be fabulous; the food will be locally sourced; the aesthetic will be beautiful and refined; the chairs will be comfortable; you will be treated well because the servers and sommeliers are professional and knowledgeable. Also, great cocktails (we recommend the "El Chapo"), a fabulous 5-course tasting menu, and a talented French-trained pastry chef. Valet parking is available; street parking in Lockerbie tends to be limited or reserved for residents only. This would be my go-to choice if I wanted to be sure beyond a doubt that everything would be perfect for my special occasion.