ADVERTISEMENT

Locals Know Best: Indianapolis

By Liza Weisstuch
January 12, 2022
skyline at dusk
Rudi1976/Dreamstime
There's no better guide to a city than someone who lives there, so we asked Karen E. Laine and her daughter Mina Starsiak Hawk, stars of HGTV's "Good Bones," for their take on culture, food, and drink in the town they call home.

Indianapolis doesn’t like to beat its own chest, but the city has a lot to boast about. There are the varied cultural institutions, culinary traditions as well as progressive restaurants, green spaces, and its early 20th century status as a manufacturing hub that rivaled Detroit. However, Indy has long been known for just a few things: car racing, NFL powerhouses the Colts, and native sons David Letterman and Kurt Vonnegut. These days it’s increasingly known for Karen E. Laine and Mina Starsiak Hawk, the local mother/daughter team that hosts “Good Bones” on HGTV. In the show, they go around Indy fixing up dilapidated, neglected houses. You might even say they are on a beautification crusade to rehab the city they know and love, neighborhood by neighborhood. We met up with them when they were in New York City to get the lowdown on where to eat, drink, play, and hangout in Indy. 

HAPPY MEALS

Karen and Mina, whose show evolved from the fixer-upper business they started in 2007 called Two Chicks and a Hammer, play their mother/daughter roles with natural ease on the show, disagreements included. When you meet them in person, they’ll tell you that there are a lot of things they don’t agree on off-camera, too. Bluebeard, however, is a recommendation they agree on wholeheartedly. It’s one of the older restaurants in Fletcher Place, an historic residential neighborhood with a bustling commercial core. Among the many memorable dishes at this farmhouse-chic, locally minded restaurant is an indulgent grilled cheese breakfast sandwich with a sunnyside-up egg and truffle honey, which Mina describes with the giddiness of someone talking about a recent tropical vacation. Its nearby sister restaurant is Milktooth, a bustling, airy breakfast and lunch eatery with a diner-style counter. Mina’s friend from high school’s father owns them both, and these kinds of connections are a dime a dozen in town.

“Indy has a small-town feel, even though it’s a big city,” Mina says. “Everyone know everyone.”

Kinda like what happens when Karen visits her favorite coffee shop, Calvin Fletcher’s, which is owned and run by a father and his son. “If you go there twice, they’ll know your order and your name.”

Or consider Rook, a popular spot for traditional Filipino food. The chef here is Carlos Salazar, and Mina worked with him when he was had a less glamorous role in the kitchen and she was waiting tables. And as far as his menus today, “I don’t even have words,” she says as a look of bliss washing over her face.

Any city worth its salt in food culture has locals that will hold one restaurant’s burger in higher esteem than all the rest. For Karen, that supreme burger is served at Ember, where longtime waitress Shelly knows what she wants before Karen even orders. That’s usually the cheese burger, served with lettuce that’s cold and crispy and fries that are always hot and crispy. Or wait—maybe it’s the burger at Kuma’s Corner, an outpost of a rock’n’roll Chicago restaurant known for its giant patties served on a big pretzel bun. “Their burgers are transcendent,” Karen declares. “You can get it with egg, cheese, onion, but the meat is so good that if you just got a burger with nothing on it, you would not be sad.”

ONE SMALL NEIGHBORHOOD WITH A BIG PERSONALITY

The Indy Cultural Trail, a sleek eight-mile bike path dotted with public art, runs throughout the city connecting downtown to the various neighborhoods, including Fletcher Place and Fountain Square, the walkable community that Karen calls home. Virginia Avenue cuts right through the middle of the neighborhood and when the trail opened, all the businesses along it got a boost. That means most of the spots that Karen called local are now better known. And that’s not a bad thing. She recommends Wildwood Market, a shop in an old gas station specializing in meats, cheese, pickles. Each day they make one sandwich, two soups, and a salad, take it or leave it. Mina recommends taking it. They sell out in an hour. Another option is Pure Eatery, known for its local and natural-minded menu. It was a basic sandwich shop when Karen moved in, and now it’s a full-on restaurant and bar where the breakfast taco menu starts at 10AM, earlier than most other restaurants are open. But the real allure here is the mac’n’cheese, which is essentially a choose-your-own-adventure in decadence. Bacon, cheese, spinach, and more cheese are among the swoon-worthy add-on options.

Bars are easy to come by. You can get a flight of tequila to accompany the excellent Mexican food at La Margarita, but for something really distinctive, check out New Day Craft Meadery, a spacious, kid-friendly spot adorned with local art. They produce an intriguing variety of meads and cider and host regular events, like yoga and the cleverly named Mead & Knead, a night where you can get a massage while you sip.

It’s a lively neighborhood in general, but it gets even livelier on First Fridays, the monthly event when pop-up shops arrive, bands play in the street, and businesses stay open later to accommodate the many people wandering.

Indy’s music scene is represented here, with spots like HiFi, a performance venue and ad hoc gallery. There’s a bar, but no kitchen, so lots of people order from nearby food trucks.

NATURE AWAITS

Indy has one of the biggest city parks in the country. Clocking in at 39,000 acres, Eagle Creek Park is more than four-times the size of New York City’s Central Park. An incredible urban oasis, it features a reservoir where you can rent kayaks or canoes, a six-mile trail along the periphery, and a half-dozen playgrounds. It’s not uncommon to find locals packed into the sheltered picnic tables or scattered throughout the greenspace in nice weather. The smaller Garfield Park, which boarders Fletcher Square, features European-style sunken gardens as well as a pretty greenhouse decorated with fish, birds, and seasonal decorations. There’s live music, including a summer concert season, and since it’s less than ten minutes driving from downtown, there’s no reason not to stop by.

Keep reading
Inspiration

Get to Know: Glens Falls, NY, One of the Coolest Small Towns in America 2017

Glens Falls, NY, is no. 9 on Budget Travel's list of the 10 Coolest Small Towns in America 2017.  If you take the long view, the Adirondack region is essentially a mosaic of heart-stoppingly gorgeous small towns, but Glens Falls, situated at the southern edge of Adirondack Park in the Hudson River’s “Big Bend” and first settled in 1763, stands out for a few reasons. A magazine in 1944 christened it “Hometown, USA,” and the name has stuck ever since. Some of the area’s largest firms have their headquarters here, yet it’s just a quick trip to nearby caves and waterfalls, which novelist James Finimore Cooper extoled in “The Last of the Mohicans.” Today you can visit the cave, named for the writer, where Hawkeye and his cohorts tried to escape. Glens Falls, it seems, proves nature and commerce can coexist. It’s easy for music, art and theater lovers as well as history buffs to stay entertained here. The Adirondack Theatre Festival performers from Broadway and regional theater for six weeks each summer; the Crandall Public Library and Folklife Center features a chronicle of the region’s rich cultural heritage; the Glens Falls Symphony performs throughout the city; and the Hyde Collection Art Museum, set in an historic house, displays works by Rembrandt, Picasso, da Vinci, and other iconic virtuosos, as well as antique furniture and decorative objects. All that and it's close to all the offerings of the Catskills.  

Inspiration

Three-Day Weekend: Monterey, CA

Approaching Monterey from the north remains one of my all-time favorite travel experiences. My wife, Michele, and I spent part of our road trip honeymoon in Monterey years ago, and the trip down from San Francisco still gives me a thrill: I love everything about the drive - from the top of Monterey Bay near the beaches and boardwalk of Santa Cruz, southward through the agricultural vistas of the Salinas Valley, and into the bustling coastal city that inspired literary heroes of mine, including Robert Louis Stevenson and John Steinbeck. We visited Monterey this past July, and it was all the more special because we’d been away for more than a decade and were essentially introducing both of our daughters, now 10 and 14, to this special community, bursting with local history, incredible seafood, local wines, and the opportunity to drink in the gorgeous Monterey Bay (mysteriously misty in the morning, shining bright turquoise at midday, achingly beautiful at sundown) at every turn. LUXE-FOR-LESS LODGING We were among the first guests to stay at the just-opened Wave Street Inn, conveniently located (as the name “Wave Street” might suggest) near the water. We loved waking up to views of Monterey Bay, the songs of seagulls, and the friendly, attentive hotel staff. The design of the hotel was so eye-popping, a playful homage to the industrial and maritime spaces in downtown Monterey, that my daughters, who don’t normally notice such details, were tossing around phrases like “exceptional interior design” and “imaginative architecture.” WHAT TO DO Our comfy, design-forward room was also just a few minutes’ walk from Cannery Row. In the first half of the 20th century, “Cannery Row” was a nickname for the hub of the sardine fishing and processing industries that made Monterey the busy, culturally diverse city that it remains to this day. Cannery Row is also the title of a hilarious, touching John Steinbeck novel, which famously opens, “Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise…”. A far cry from those noisy, smelly cannery days, the street is now the epicenter of incredible fresh-from-the-bay seafood, local wine-tasting, unique shops, family-friendly activities, and exhibits devoted to the history of the region’s Native peoples, Spanish colonists, and 19th- and 20th-century settlers. Start with a walking tour along the Monterey Bay Coastal Trail, with stops along the water to savor what Robert Louis Stevenson called “the most felicitous meeting of land and sea.” The trail is easily walkable from Cannery Town down toward Fisherman’s Wharf or up toward neighboring Pacific Grove, offering frequent overlooks, unbeatable photo opps, and (often) sightings of sea lions, sea otters, and even porpoises and dolphins. If you find yourself staring a bit too long at the water, don’t worry - it really is that beautiful and, no, it can’t really be captured in photographs. You’ll carry the memory home with you, I promise. Of course, if you’re visiting with kids, they’re eventually going to ask you to stop staring at the bay and “do something.” Cannery Row obliges with a seemingly endless array of unique shopping - way beyond the customary T-shirts and sweatshirts you’ve come to expect in other destinations, Monterey’s shops offers quality arts and crafts, jewelry, and a great selection of literature and local history books too. For a deeper dive into local history, book a visit to the Spirit of Monterey Wax Museum. My younger daughter and I also enjoyed the Monterey Mirror Maze - we “escaped” the maze in minutes on our first try, then got more and more (pleasantly) lost in the maze on each subsequent visit. My only advice to newbies is to hold hands, but that’s (almost) always good advice, right? Getting out on the bay is more ambitious, and very rewarding. Adventures by the Sea offers the chance to explore the water and waterfront. Founded by local Frank Knight, the company has several locations around town where you can rent kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, bicycles, and surreys. I recommend that you book a kayak tour, in which a knowledgeable guide will take you out on the bay and talk about the wildlife and history, and you’ve got a pretty good chance of getting up-close-and-personal (safely) with sea lions, seals, and sea otters. You may find the sea lions lounging on the decks of fishing boats, as my wife and daughter did, while the seals love to hide in the seaweed and slyly peek out at visitors. Sea otters, on the other hand, may swim right toward your kayak or even swim under you. Of course you’ll want to take pictures: Adventures by the Sea supplies you with a “dry bag” to keep valuables like cameras and smartphones safe. You’ll also get a waterproof jacket and pants to wear over your clothes, but do consider kayaking barefoot or in water-safe shoes because your lower legs and feet will almost certainly get wet out there. Our visit to Monterey was very much centered around Cannery Row and the outdoor activities nearby, but if you’re in town long enough, you ought to consider a trip to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, housed in a former cannery and hosting sea life from the bay plus a variety of changing exhibits, presentations, and events. Fisherman’s Wharf, a few blocks north of Cannery Row, boasts some fine restaurants and a fun party scene in the evenings. And the entire Monterey Peninsula, including the quiet Victorian beauty of Pacific Grove, the drop-dead-gorgeous Carmel Valley, the town of Carmel, and the Pacific coastline to the south of Lovers’ Point, is the kind of place you may never want to leave. WHAT TO EAT Sipping from a flight of local Pinot Noirs while looking out at the impossible turquoise of the Monterey Bay in the late afternoon is just one reason to stop by A Taste of Monterey Wine Market and Bistro, on Cannery Row. In addition to the awesome wine tasting for grownups, the whole family loved passing small plates like crab dip, local artichokes, and hummus, and entrees like flatbread pizzas, New England clam chowder, and panini. Lunch at Lalla Oceanside Grill, including incredible calamari (“Wow! It’s bigger than back in New York!”) and fish tacos, was a pleasure not only for the food but also for the sleek mid-century modern decor inside and the bayside views out the window. When visiting Monterey, resistance to Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop is futile. By all means go, sit down, and indulge in one of the shop’s yes-it’s-too-big-and-yes-you’re-going-to-finish-it-anyway treats, towering ice cream concoctions named for Cali landmarks like the Golden Gate banana split and the Muir Woods black cherry vanilla sundae. (Experienced travelers, including yours truly, also note that the lines at the Monterey shop are much shorter than those at the Ghirardelli’s at San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf.) We celebrated our final evening in Monterey at The Fish Hopper, also on Cannery Row. The appetizers are incredibly satisfying, offering a medley of prawns, calamari, and crab in a variety of imaginative relishes like mango and papaya, plus awesome (and massive) local artichokes. Entrees like a bread bowl New England clam chowder, steaks, and sustainably sourced fish make this a nice place to end your day. We loved watching sea otters eating their own dinner right outside the window - floating on their backs and cracking clam shells on rocks on their chests. It crossed our minds that, this evening before we had to pack up and leave Monterey, the sea otters might have been putting on a little show for us, perhaps their way of saying, “Goodbye.” We decided that it’s much more likely they were saying, “Until we meet again...”

Inspiration

Get to Know: Indianola, MS, One of the Coolest Small Towns in America 2017

Indianola, Mississippi, is no. 10 on Budget Travel's list of the 10 Coolest Small Towns in America 2017.  Asbury Park, New Jersey has Bruce Springsteen; Muscle Shoals, Alabama has Lynyrd Skynyrd; and Indianola, Mississippi has blues maestro B.B. King. It seems like the entire city, which is known as the Crown of the Delta and measures less than nine square miles, is a shrine to him. First and foremost, of course, is the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center, a $14 million institution that opened in 2008. In addition to being a tribute to an American legend, who’s buried in the museum’s memorial garden, the exhibits chronicle an entire history of the blues. If you’re not there during the museum’s B.B. King Homecoming Festival each May, there are plenty of clubs around the city, some of which are so old school they don’t even have websites, where you can see—rather, hear— King’s legacy in action. Even the streets here are named after him and Lucille, his guitar. But blues isn’t the only history to learn here. The town’s historic district, a showcase of Victorian era-style and Tudor Revival homes, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2009. Like nearly every city in the South, Indianola delivers on meals to remember. The Blue Biscuit is easily one of the most visited joints, what with its high-profile location across from the museum, and Betty's Place is a classic, historic diner, but veer off the well-trod path and chances are high you’ll be richly rewarded. 

Inspiration

Get to Know: Cannon Beach, OR, One of the Coolest Small Towns in America 2017

Cannon Beach, Oregon is no. 6 on Budget Travel’s list of the 10 Coolest Small Towns in America 2017. Here’s the magic number to remember when you think about this breathtaking oceanside town: 363. That’s how many miles of shoreline there are here, each mile as stunning as the last, especially the stretch where you can take in the views of the iconic Haystack Rock, a majestic millions-years-old boulder 235 feet from the shoreline. Colorful tidepools swirl around it and all sorts of birds as well as puffins gather there and you can walk right up to it in low tide. But any of the many places to stay along the water, from rustic B&Bs to more posh resorts, offer quite a vista to wake up to. Needless to say, Cannon Beach is a mecca for outdoor sports. There are plenty of spots for surfers to catch waves and calmer areas for kayakers. Hiking amid some of the world’s tallest trees in Ecola State Park or bike rides along the local expanse of the 382-mile Oregon Coast Trail are ways for landlubbers to spend the days.  The Lost Art of Nursing Museum, and the Columbia River Maritime Museum, a treasure trove of maritime objects, are just a few of the institutions that give visitors a sense of the area’s rich and varied history. But to get back to the future, this being Oregon, there are vast dining and drinking options that far exceed what you’d expect for such a small town. Pig N Pancake and Crepe Neptune are among the tempting options for breakfast fare. Dinner is a thrilling array of everything from family-owned Ecola Seafood, which specializes in the local catch, to the elegant, chill Seasons Café, known for its elevated, creative twists salads and sandwiches along with local beer and wine, and the quirky Cannon Beach Hardware and Public House, where you can chow down on pub grub and shop for tools, camping gear, and paint supplies. The originality of that spot alone is enough to have us booking our ticket.