Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Alive and Well: Indianapolis Isn't Nap Town Anymore

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Alive and Well: Indianapolis Isn't Nap Town Anymore

Article excerpt

THE WAITER at the St. Elmo Steakhouse set down the shrimp cocktail. I was now alone at my table, except for the shrimp. The man at the next table, alone and shrimpless, nodded toward me. I returned the nod coldly, picked up the outside fork and speared a shrimp.

It was a large shrimp. Deftly I maneuvered its fat end to pick up extra sauce, and I felt the man's eyes as I moved the shrimp toward my mouth, fat end first, trying not to drip sauce on my cheap but yellow sweater.

I took a bite. I chewed. I looked over at the man. I saw him grin. And my sinuses screamed. Screamed. The man spoke. "I like to bring clients here," he said, "and watch that first bite." The St. Elmo in downtown Indianapolis, "famous since 1902," is famous for its steaks but is especially famous for the sauce on its shrimp cocktails. The tomatoey look is camouflage. The sauce (never on the side) is 99 percent freshly ground horseradish. Every bite brings tears. "Never do get used to it," said the man - Dan, from Minneapolis, a regular at the St. Elmo whenever he's in Indianapolis, which is often. He turned reflective. "This is a great town," said Dan. "I'll tell you what - this is a well-kept secret." So why relate this little but true story? First, to let you know that Indianapolis has a steakhouse that has been here since 1902. Only real cities have that. Second, to further advise you that the St. Elmo charges $8.95 for its shrimp cocktail. Restaurants with a clientele that wears overalls and seed-company caps do not charge $8.95 for their shrimp cocktails. Third, there's that "well-kept secret" quote. Moments after Dan paid his bill and left, a couple were seated at what was his table. Cross-table conversation began immediately. I made some mildly positive comment about Indianapolis. The woman reacted as if on cue. "We're a well-kept secret," she said, "and we're getting better all the time." Now, I don't know how long people here have been stuck on this "well-kept secret" thing, but it's not long for this world. Something has happened here, and it's startling, and it's getting around. Lack Of Image Not long ago, Indianapolis was a sleepy state capital known mainly for its Memorial Day 500-mile auto race and its dullness the rest of the year. Trivialists knew it as the home of poet James Whitcomb Riley and the birthplace of John Dillinger. There was the St. Elmo. That was about it. "The chamber did a study and found that Indianapolis had no image," said Karen Yakovac, spokeswoman for the Indianapolis Project, which promotes the city. It was worse than that. "It was a dying city," said that woman at the next table, who, by happenstance, was Barbara Weaver Smith, executive director of the Indiana Humanities Council. "There were no downtown hotels. The people had left downtown years ago." Theaters had closed. Department stores had closed. "Everything was heading out to suburbia," said Patty Creech, who works at the city's visitor center. "It isn't that it wasn't safe - it was that there wasn't a lot to do." Well, guess what? One Saturday night last fall in Indianapolis, Carol Channing was starring downtown in "Hello, Dolly!" at the Murat Theater; "The Magnificent Ambersons," a production of the Indiana Repertory Theatre, was onstage at the Indiana Theatre; "Evita" was going strong at the American Cabaret Theater; and the Indianapolis Symphony was rocking the Circle Theatre with a mix of Sibelius and "Also Sprach Zarathustra." Not so long ago, the Murat was a Shrine relic suitable mainly for circuses; the Indiana Theatre was a closed and possibly doomed 1927 movie palace; the American Cabaret Theatre was in New York; and the Circle Theatre was a closed and possibly doomed 1916 movie palace. These nights, downtown Indianapolis streets are alive. Step outside the absolutely beautiful Circle Theatre on a mild evening and Monument Circle - a brick roundabout that surrounds the landmark Soldiers' & Sailors' Monument - is bustling with folks headed to and from restaurants and nightspots that not long ago didn't exist, the illuminated state capital sending its beam down Market Street like a brilliant manmade moon. …

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