The experience of eating out

Remember that scene in When Harry Met Sally (no, not that one) when Carrie Fisher’s character quotes Harry’s best friend (a journalist) saying something about how “Restaurants are to people in the 80s what theater was to people in the 60s?” I wasn’t around to know what theater was to people in the 60s, but I’m guessing it was something about shared entertainment. And I can’t remember the point being made in the movie, but I do know that, 25 years later in 2011, restaurants are about a lot of things, and most of the time it’s not food.

About a month or two after we moved to Indianapolis, Tim and I were in dire need of a date. He asked around at school, and people kept making the same recommendation: you must eat at Mama Carolla’s, it’s an Indianapolis landmark. So for our first night out in this city, we got a sitter, arrived to a packed restaurant, and sat outside in an admittedly quaint patio atmosphere. But I must say that $65 later we had not been wowed by our dinner. I don’t remember what we ate; but the adjectives that come to mind are over-sauced, over-seasoned, over-cooked pasta dishes. I think our “mixed green” salad was nothing but iceburg, our olives tasted canned, and our server didn’t have a clue (you know when all of their recommendations are the most expensive items on the menu). In short, we had paid for the privilege of eating dinner in a quaint outdoor setting; what we had not paid for was good food. I’ve not yet been to Italy, but I’m betting that when I do go, the food will most certainly not resemble that of Mama Carolla’s. We were disheartened, afraid that this was the best our new city had to offer.

Then last night, we had a taste of another quintessential Indianapolis mainstay: Hollyhock Hill. Tim’s parents came through town and took us to dinner; and since we had heard that this was comfort food at its best, we reasoned it would be a great place to share dinner with them. Hollyhock Hill is nothing if not ripe with tradition — it began in 1929 as a rural, intimate dining destination, serving family-style dinners. And much of that feeling is still evident — when you walk in the door you almost instantly feel warm and comfortable, and it seems the servers have been at the restaurant since day one (I could venture to believe that they all live there as well, as I couldn’t imagine my server in anything other than her blue, 1930’s serving dress carrying a 1960’s coffee pot). In short, the place is predictably quirky — and not in an altogether negative way.

We were handed menus with five or six main-course options: fried chicken, beef tenderloin, and various fish entrees. A huge lazy susan in the middle of the table allowed our kids a full hour of dangerous, food-splattering exercises in centrifugal force, and the rest of us to pick pieces of sugar-vinegar dressed iceburg lettuce from a big salad bowl. When our entrees came, we were each brought a dinner plate with our selected protein, a huge pile of mashed potatoes, a matching heap of green beans, and a bright red baked apple ring.

At this point, let me take a deep breath and report that, had we not been seated during the “Early Bird” hour (4:30 – 5:30), our plates would have each cost $18.95. Because we were early, they cost only $11.95.

I had the fried chicken. And, you know, it was what it was. I don’t order fried chicken very often, so I didn’t have much to compare it to. It was better than mine simply because it was thoroughly cooked. And while it wasn’t much to write home about, it was, by far, the best thing on my plate.

Because I would put a full $18.95 on a hunch that my mashed potatoes were instant, and my green beans were from a giant can (this, or pressure-cooked to the point of death). My 7-year old was right on the money when, after I told her she had to eat 5 more green beans, she looked at me and whispered, “But Mom, they don’t taste like anything!” I wish I could’ve argued with her.

And this is where I hit my head up against a wall.

Because this restaurant is packed most evenings I drive by. I have been told by more than one person that this is their favorite restaurant in Indianapolis. And I am just trying to figure out why.

The thing is, I get it. I get nostalgia. I get comfort food. I get slathering biscuits with apple butter. I even get sitting at a table with a center that spins. But what I cannot, will not, ever get, is spending $19 on a plate of food that tastes about like what cafeteria food might taste like. And I’m not trying to think of the worst possible comparison just to be cantankerous; I really think it’s the same food.

So what are the reasons that these are the restaurants at the top of so many lists, not just in Indianapolis, but many other cities across America?

Every reason I float comes back to experience, and not much, if anything, to do with food. It’s the fact that someone else will cook, and serve up a big enough portion to bring home leftovers. It’s that I won’t have to do dishes (the number of ways I understand this one are countless). It’s even sitting at a table with other people, which is often a way of eating that is foregone at home (guilty as charged). It’s being waited on by women wearing blue apron dresses, and eating at a table that reminds us of our grandmother’s house. It’s biscuits and apple butter, which many people don’t make at home. It’s not having to take a risk.

In short, it’s Disney World. But it’s not the food.

I don’t really know why this bothers me. It’s silly; people can spend their money however they choose. Some people are into car racing, some are into music, some are into Pillow Pets, some are into restaurants that serve mediocre food. I think I get frustrated because there’s nothing separating what I consider to be a veritable realm of very different food establishments. It’s hard for me to swallow, when Hollyhock Hill is considered a “premier dining destination” of the Midwest. Because that title suggests something other than canned beans and instant mashed potatoes. I would be typing a little less frantically, utilizing a smaller number of italics right now if it was called something else entirely — something like a “premier food-product comfort emporium” of the Midwest. Because the Midwest? It really does have some premier dining destinations — right here in this fair city, even*. But they won’t stay in business if the cars in town are all lined up for Hollyhock Hill and Mama Carolla’s on a weekly basis.**

C.S. Lewis has a quote that I have always loved, and while the original context concerned human desire compared with a heavenly joy, I think the analogy works here: “We are half-hearted creatures… like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

From where I sit today, I believe that changing the restaurant culture of this city actually starts at home. There’s no point in trying to convince people that they are paying for food of low quality until they begin to cook their own quality food at home and can taste the difference. That making really good food doesn’t have to be difficult, and in fact becomes more natural with every meal (of course, just when you get comfortable with it you begin to try more difficult things, but usually by then it’s something you desire to do). I know I’m guilty of shaming teasing people who refuse to eat whole food groups of edibles, telling them simply, “you’ve just not had well-prepared tomatoes/greens/fish.” But as a person who grew up not liking soup, vegetables, tomatoes, stews, un-fried fish, or birthday cake, I now know that my dislikes had everything to do with the source of said food (can/out-of-season/box) and not the food itself.

I want more for the people of Indianapolis. Nice people live here, and they should eat well. We live in a part of the country that should be the very heart of good food culture — we live in the middle of fertile farmland, surrounded by a growing number of sustainable farms which can provide almost everything we need to eat in a way that continuously amazes us all. We are better than Disney food.

At least, I believe we can be.


* I am not suggesting that really expensive, high-end dining is our only option. I love comfort food — and wish there was a place in Indianapolis that served well-prepared food in this genre. If you know of a place that does, and you feel like I’ve missed it, let me know!

** I’m also not suggesting that we boycott these places. I have eaten at them now three times, and I’m sure I will again (though not on my dime). I’m much more concerned with the perceived idea that these are the best places Indianapolis has to offer. Or, that the food itself is what’s good about them.

42 thoughts on “The experience of eating out

  1. Um, I kind of love this post for all sorts of reasons. And the fact that you can pull C.S. Lewis into the discussion . . . brilliant.

    Haven’t eaten at either of these restaurants but have heard others rave.

    Have you been to Maxine’s Chicken and Waffles? More soul food than comfort food and I haven’t been there but have again heard others rave.

    1. I’ve heard good things about Maxine’s, and I have every reason to believe it’s the soul food worth the money in this town (and probably a lot cheaper than HH). I plan to try it in the near future!

  2. Well written indeed. By the way you can also add The Iron Skillet to the list, it is the same as Hollyhock Hill. This catagory of “Hoosier Cookin'” does seem to be very popular will all ages of our neighbors. I do think saving money for something good like Recess, or going ethnic are the best restaurant options. The best way is of course to cook at home!

    1. I had heard that about Iron Skillet too. It’s the money part that gets me — it’s not cheap to eat at these places, and it seems like such a waste.

      I agree — the ethnic food in this town is incredible, and one of the most overlooked eat-out markets. Heard a critic from Food&Wine was here recently, raving about our ethnic food scene.

  3. I had the same experience at another restaurant last year. Everyone *raves* about it, and it was recommended to me by 3 different people when they found out where I would be for the day. The parking lot was full and the wait long, even on off peak hours. I had very high hopes, but ended up choking down tasteless cafeteria food at insanely high prices. I just don’t get it.

    1. I feel like what Indy is missing are good, every-week places. We had The Grit in Athens — amazing comfort food at weekly prices. We could get take-out for $20 and have leftovers. They cooked smart, and had a voraciously loyal crowd because of it.

  4. My first thought, before I got all the way to the end of you piece, is that most people don’t have first hand experience with really good food. I would venture to say that for a large majority of people, establishments like Maggiano’s or Mama Corolla’s or O’Charley’s serve food that probably does taste better than what shows up on their own dinner table.

    I also think there’s an element of fear – I know this is true for my picky husband. He’d rather eat somewhere mediocre and know that he likes what they offer just fine, than risk eating somewhere unknown and hate it.

    You’re spot on about the movement starting at home, though. As we cook more and more things at home that we would typically order out, we realize how good things can really be. It kills me to spend our hard-earned cash on mediocre food, literally makes me sick to our stomach. The key would be to open our homes more often to those around us and show them what food can really taste like when it’s not frozen or processed or dumped out of a can.

    You know how much I miss the food in Nashville, and here’s where I think Indy suffers. Yes, there are quite a few amazing places here, but they mostly out of my price range. I miss the local places making good, quality food for under $10 a plate. Not special occasion places – places we can feel good eating at when I don’t want to do the dishes. There are a few: Yats, Chipotle (not local, but still …), Scotty’s Lakehouse, Pizzology (great deals to be had for lunch).

    By the way, in response to Cherie’s suggestion, Mike love’s Maxines. But you might want to take his definition of “amazing” with a grain of salt.

    Nice work.

    1. I agree! And this is where I end up perpetually frustrated.

      As a person who grew up eating nothing but processed food, it took my own experimentation before I figured out that food could taste different. And I know that not everyone has the time or desire to cook from scratch at home.

      It’s like I do just want to invite everyone in Indianapolis over for dinner. And just serve a plate of real mashed potatoes and green beans.

      And even then I know that many wouldn’t like it, because it would be new. And I would have to let that go.

      But man, it would be hard.

      I know that food is my schtick. And it’s not everyone else’s. It’s just so hard for me to imagine that, if everyone in this city was given a meal made with real food, and also a meal made with canned, that a majority of people wouldn’t prefer the real. But how to get the real food to everyone? It is really hard if everyone keeps dropping cash on the canned.

  5. Thanks for writing this. You express so well the frustration that I so often feel in Indy (and the same frustration that made me start my blog). Personally, I think people in this City often have a problem with change and innovation in food and that is why so many of the types of places you mention, as well as SOOOO many chains do so well here. And as you pointed out, people often write off entire groups of food, like say, seafood, because they had it once and it sucked (because it often can in this City and/or many many years ago it was hard to get good fresh seafood in the middle of the country). BUT you CAN now get great fresh seafood both in restaurants and for your home, but you have to know where to get it. And you have to be brave (but please, in the right places. Because if there is no turnover in something, because people don’t order it, it won’t be good. For instance, want to try mussels honestly? Go to Brugge…don’t get them in some random Italian place. Brugge goes through lots of mussels and they are going to be fresh). This is also what I love about Recess (as you also mention). You have to just let go and eat what is offered. And if you eat it there and you still hate it, at least you know you had it done well.

    And don’t get me wrong, I love comfort food (and particularly fried chicken). You can get great fried chicken at places like Mississippi Belle–and it is cheaper (and with fresh potatoes and other sides). But Hollyhock Hill? I totally agree. Completely overrated. I ate there once in my adult life just before I started blogging and thus, have never posted a review of it. But I have no desire to go back because I found everything bland and have no desire to eat it again. As for Italian restaurants, don’t even get me started….I think people in Indianapolis must not even know there are other ways to cook pasta (and chicken and veal for that matter) that do not involve marinara or alfredo sauce and mounds of cheese. I have had the pleasure of eating in Italy in several regions and it makes me sad that Italian restaurants in Indy can’t be more inventive. Again, if people were given a little taste, I think they might just venture out of that safety zone… But who knows?

    I also totally agree with your assertion that changing people’s attitude starts at home.

    Sorry I have gone on and on, but you touched a nerve! I also want so much more for the people of Indy–after having the privilege of living in places where food is seen as almost an art form, I would love for our city to have a tremendous food culture too. There is absolutely no reason why we can’t. Like you said, half the stuff you see on menus around the country comes from the heartland.

    Ok, I’ll stop now! thanks again!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Erin. I actually did a search on your site, before posting this, to see if you’d ever reviewed Hollyhock ; ) I had a feeling you would feel the same way about it.

      I’ve never been to Mississippi Belle — but now I’ll be sure to try it. I’m glad to know that there is a place doing comfort food with fresh ingredients.

      I take a tiny bit of solace in the fact that I know it’s not just Indianapolis. I wrote a post a couple years ago about going to the NC beach, and in the tiny town we were in, none of the restaurants served local seafood. They had boats coming into dock a block away, loaded with shrimp and fish, and they instead bought the frozen seafood from Sysco. All because it increased the profit margin.

      THAT is where I get fired up. The people who eat the food? I just want to show them better food. The restaurant owners? I have no patience for them.

      1. Yeah, we saw that trend at some places in Florida too–bringing in cheap frozen stuff instead of using fresh local stuff. Frustrating.

        By the way, speaking of fish, don’t get the fish at Mississippi Belle. The chicken is where it’s at (and I have heard good things about other meat entrees, but we had the fish once and it was pollack, not catfish, and not very good).

  6. Once again, preach it sister! I’m with you all the way. Had our first actually good meal in Toronto here this weekend, and breathed a big sigh of relief. My first bite and I knew, okay, this place gets it. So many places just don’t and I too don’t quite understand how they get away with it…

  7. I can tell you Charlotte is not the answer . So many big chains, so much blaaa food, we have a few good spots, but they are few are far between and not in our part of town. If we want any kind of fish we will make it at home , Chap can out cook any seafood place in town.

    keep looking there must be something

    1. Jane, I have a feeling Charlotte and Indy are similar. But they are both big enough to do better — that’s the kicker.

      I believe you, that Chap can out-cook any seafood place in town!

  8. I don’t know if this means anything in the context of your article — except that it proves you’re preaching to the choir with me — but I’ve lived in Indy 9 years and never been to either of those restaurants. I’ve heard people talk about Mama Carolla’s and never been, but I’ve honestly never even heard of Hollyhock Hill.

    I will say that the restaurant culture has changed immensely since I moved here. Where there were only a handful of places doing really great things with food (especially using local sources), now they’re everywhere. Here’s a sampling of places putting an emphasis on using local ingredients (mostly centers on downtown):

    Creation Cafe
    The Goose (sandwiches, Enoteca)
    The Patachou Empire
    Tavern on South
    14 West
    The Ball & Biscuit
    R Bistro
    Brugge Brasserie
    Pure Eatery
    120 West Fresh Market
    Left Bank Cafe

    Not a single one of them is a national chain. Some are expensive, some are cheap. Admittedly, they’re not uniformly amazing, but you sense a rising tide when Indy is finally able to produce a list of locally-based establishments with a focus on local foods. Places like Mama Carolla’s, Hollyhock Hill, Iaria’s, etc. will probably always get rave “nostalgia” reviews, but that doesn’t mean Indy isn’t moving in the right direction.

    Now, don’t get me wrong: I definitely don’t mean to imply that Indy food culture has arrived. There’s still a LOT more to be done. And your central point that learning about good food begins at home is one that Indy should definitely take to heart. Excellent piece.

    1. Thanks, Chris — it’s a great list. I’ve only been to a few of those, and would love to try them all. Our eat-out budget is tiny though, so it might take a while. Which is probably one reason I get so riled up when relatively expensive food is mediocre — I don’t want to waste the opportunities I do have.

      I’m with you — I think Indy is moving in a great direction, and I can only hope that furthering the discussion will help that continue.

  9. This is so right on.

    For all the talk of being a “world class city”, we have yet to arrive in the restaurant department for sure. Which reinforces the need to support the handful of places listed above (comment by Chris Corr).

  10. And THAT is why I’m staying in Athens forever (God, please don’t move me). πŸ˜‰

    Growing up, we ate out at a real restaurant (discounting occasional fast food or pizza) about once a year. Mom is a great cook, and now I understand why we ate the majority of our meals at home. It’s cheaper, and it tastes better. Even canned was better at home.

    On the canned note, I hate canned green beans, especially the big flat ones. Restaurants that serve these go down several points in my mind, and I’m probably not eating there again unless forced too. I can tolerate instant mashed potatoes, as long as there’s gravy.

    You should really start that restaurant you were joking about last April Fool’s Day.

    1. Stephanie, Athens ruined me. Don’t ever move (though the lack of poodle-sized cockroaches here in Indiana does tend to balance things out).

    1. Thanks for these suggestions Jason — they originally ended up in a spam folder b/c of the multiple links. I’ll look for them next time I get to the west side!

  11. Well, I have to say, having lived in Indy my entire life (except for my 5 years in Bloomington at IU and a year in Chicago) that for families here–those restaurants ARE all about NOSTALGIA and experience.

    I recall first eating at Hollyhock Hill in the 70’s as a toddler (grainy, family photos assist my memory). We’d go there after funerals…for engagement dinners…the food IS food “product,” as you said, but the ambiance and the feeling of family memories is one-of-a-kind local.

    Similarly with Mama’s, it’s really more about the crowd and the house and the people watching and the fireplace.

    Thank goodness we are getting more places here where the food is creative, and fresh, and genuine.

    I wish Hollyhock Hill would update their menu with fresh food…but if that happened, perhaps the ownership/management would have changed and consequently the ability to travel back in time when you walk through their front door.

    For those of us whose grandparents DID make the trek to the then-rural restaurant, and then took our parents, who then took us, it really is NOT about the food at Hollyhock Hill at all, I guess…and just to confirm: since my dad died in 2005 we haven’t been to Hollyhock Hill once. I definitely don’t crave their food in the slightest bit…I just miss the times gone by and occasionally think about going there.

    Wonderful piece, Katy. Truly enjoyed it. Now I need to go and try some of the restaurants your friend listed. πŸ™‚

    1. Jennifer, I definitely think the nostalgia is tied to family relationships, and a generation of Indy residents growing up going there with grandparents. It somehow felt appropriate that my kids were there with theirs.

      The problem for me is that sometime, someone did make the decision to switch to ready-made foods (I don’t think there were giant cans of green beans in 1929). And I think they could just as easily switch back; but that would cut a great deal into their profit margin.

      Really, I place just as much — if not more — responsibility on the restaurant owners than on people who choose to eat there (for whatever reason). To me, it’s almost like a scam. Kind of Truman-Show-esque — taking advantage of a lack of knowledge of something more real.

      Because there are tons of restaurants who utilize cheap, ready-made foods: Yatz is one that comes to mind. They undoubtedly use lots of ingredients from cans (tomatoes, etc.) but the difference is they put effort into seasonings and they charge what it’s worth (a plate of food for $6).

      Of course, they don’t have spinning tables… ; )

  12. Katie, So true!! My husband and I LOVE to eat out. Many people think that means Applebees or Chili’s! Yuck! We want the whole experience. The atmosphere, the wine, the company, and the food. Nothing more disappointing than wasting $ and calories on something that we could have made better ourselves!

    1. Julie, I feel sick when I spend too much money on poorly-prepared food… even lose sleep over it! Kind of a pain, actually…

  13. I totally agree with you. I just had a birthday dinner there and it was sad to hear my family talk about how impressed with the green beans because they were so green. Nothing of the taste…and when i began to explain to them that they were canned and had been pressure cooked to keep them that color so you would think that they ‘taste’ better…i was written off as a food snob.

    This is another issue with the food culture in Indy. If you try to eat outside of the HH’s and Mama Corrola’s you are being a snob for turning your nose up for the simple fact that i prepare better food in my home than do these massive processed food establishments.

    I agree….it starts at home. And not cooking the same processed foods that you eat at these types of restaurants. Good new is…there are changes happening on a daily basis. We have to remember tha twe make choices every single day to change the way that we eat and get our food. the process of making food in the manner that we are speaking of did not happen over night (even though it can seem that way). So we have to remember that it will be even more difficult and take even more time to change it again to the way that it should be.

    Keep up the fight!! Excellent post

    1. Andy, I have come across the same argument — that if I dislike something that other people like, I must be a food snob.

      I am also often accused of being a “gourmet,” and I don’t like that title either, because it suggests something inaccessible. That’s a harder title for me to swallow, though — because if there is anything I want to convince people, it’s that cooking good food at home does not have to be expensive or difficult. It just takes a little time (the very thing most people who don’t cook at home are unwilling to invest).

    1. I bought one this morning ; ) JUST so we can make the comparison to HH. Thanks for giving me a heads-up!

  14. What a great article! Brava! Well ladies and gentlemen I’m just sorry you all can’t come to my families houses to join in on the fun and deliciousness (I don’t think thats a word but you get my drift) of the food that we prepare. I am of Italian descent and as a child helped and watched closely while my mother and my nonna (grandmother) sang and made magia (magic) from their gardens and the downtown city market. Occasionally we will venture out in search of a restaurant with the same familiar smells, taste and new recipes to try. Yes, we are ‘food snobs’ and proud of it. In fact we rate the restaurants we visit. Here are some you may want to try: Iozzo’s, Mesh, Capri and Pipers. They are as close as you can get to real food in Indy.

  15. In a word? Amen.

    In more words?? I too am a good food evangelist. My thoughts are all focused on education of the eater. By educating the eater, they can start demanding more and better for themselves. We are in a cycle of reinforcing bad (food) behaviors. I feel free to speak because I’m working to help educate and SO ARE YOU. And so are your readers and other commenters.

    I’ll PM you on a project I’m working on and would love to get your input. Keep up the great writing!

    P.s. I found you through our mutual friend, Tara V. I actually thought you were a national blog she was telling me about. Super excited to find out you are local. πŸ™‚

      1. Carrie, I’d love to hear about your project! My email is on the contact page — send it when you have a moment.

        Hope to meet sometime, either through Tara or the IWFM (I’m usually there early, but slow to leave ; )

  16. Thanks for a great post–I’m a foodie, pretty new to Indy, and having a hard time with the lack of food culture here.

    May I recommend The Legend (in Irvington) for well-made comfort food? Yum.

    1. B., I will try it! Thanks for the rec — and after being here over 18 months, I can honestly say that the food culture is growing. I think the city is coming around, albeit slower than any of us would like ; )

  17. I don’t know what you folks are talking about Athens having good food. I grew up there and find it no better if not worse than Indy. I lived in Boston. That has good food. I was just in San Fransisco. Near my hotel there were five good and inexpensive restaurants in one block. I think anyone of them would be packed day after day here in Indy.

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