When I sat down at Strange Bird (128 S. Audubon Rd.), a tropical bar in Indianapolis’s Irvington neighborhood, I ordered a daiquiri. The bartender, Ian, chilled the glass with liquid nitrogen, rolling the vapor around in one hand as he shook the cocktail with the other, then set it in front of me. I took a sip. Perfect. 

The last time I visited Strange Bird, from brothers Neal and Paul Warner, was February 2020, when my boyfriend, Kenney, and I were in Indianapolis on the last weekend trip we’d be able to take for quite some time. I had vowed to return soon to the then-four-month-old spot. (“Soon” wound up being three years later.) Kenney, who lived in Irvington in 2005, was wowed too: “Back then, a bar of that caliber meant a trip to New York or Chicago, not a walk down the street.” I’ve been to Indy many times and sampled the restaurants run by James Beard–nominated chefs Martha Hoover, Neal Brown, Jonathan Brooks, and Abbi Merriss — the people who jump-started the city’s dining scene. For this trip, I wanted to try newer spots with an exciting energy. Places like Strange Bird.

Left: Laminated pastries at Landlocked Baking Company (Photograph: Jeff Marini), Right: The Dressed Down at Strange Bird, with mezcal, pineapple, orange, and bitters (Photograph: Jeff Marini)

The Warner brothers run more than just that. Among their five concepts: Landlocked Baking Company (118 S. Audubon Rd.) next door, a daytime café for biscuit sandwiches, miso grits, and guava and cream cheese pastries. And we had pistachio and spiced demerara lattes made with beans roasted at Coat Check Coffee (401 E. Michigan St.), the Warners’ first spot. They aren’t the only big players in the city’s thriving java scene. Hugo Cano’s Amberson Coffee & Grocer (401 S. College Ave.), located in an old gas station, is a buzzy spot for its pour-overs and vanilla-date lattes. And at the 18-month-old Parlor Public House (600 E. Ohio St.), head barista Zac Foster uses local beans in drinks enhanced with smoke and black sesame drizzle; come evening, head bartender Brian Oliver makes cognac espresso martinis with the house nitro cold brew. 

Vida chef Thomas Melvin plucking greens off the restaurant’s hydroponic wall Photograph: Jeff Marini

Properly buzzed, we headed to dinner on a suggestion from Julia Spalding, the Indianapolis Monthly dining editor. “Do you know about Vida?” she asked me. “They do a prix fixe meal that is spectacular.” She was right. At this understated spot (601 E. New York St.), which opened in 2016, chef Thomas Melvin’s four-course lineup includes a roasted carrot with black bean purée and curry vinaigrette and a salad of “wall greens” that, yes, come off a wall in the kitchen, where Melvin grows leafy greens, herbs, and flowers hydroponically. “The cuisine of Vida is always an evolution,” he told me. 

The next morning, we stopped at Sidedoor Bagel (1103 E. 10th St.). At the tiny corner shop, which opened in late 2021, baker Josh Greeson crafts sourdough bagels worthy of the line stretching down the sidewalk. A sesame one slathered with lox-dill cream cheese was a good start. For lunch, I was excited to try Natural State Provisions (414 Dorman St.), a restaurant and bar that Adam and Alicia Sweet opened last September, inspired by Adam’s Arkansas roots. I loved the super-crispy catfish sandwich and Arkansas cheese dip, loaded with cumin, cayenne, and paprika. Pair it with a pint of Charmer cream ale that Pax Verum brews exclusively for them. With a patio and dog park outside, this is an easy place to while away the afternoon.

Head barista Zac Foster at Parlor Public House Photograph: Parlor Public House

It was a gorgeous early-spring day, so we drove to Lick (1049 E. 54th St.). There, sisters Meredith Kong and Kelly Ryan serve organic ice cream in flavors like raspberry cheesecake. We took ours for a stroll on the nearby Monon Trail, which helped us walk off the day’s meals and gear up for dinner at 9th Street Bistro, a cozy spot from Samir and Rachel Mohammad in Noblesville (56 S. Ninth St.), a 30-minute drive north. Samir, who was nominated this year for a James Beard Award for best chef in the Great Lakes region, cooks his past and present with dishes that nod to his New Mexico roots, like lobster enchiladas, and reflect Indiana flavors, like a pork tenderloin stuffed with sage, Asiago, and country ham. 

On the way out of Indy the next day, we swung by the brightly colored Che Chori (3124 W. 16th St.), where in 2021 Marcos Cesar Perera-Blasco, a sausage maker who was born in Argentina, began making sandwiches like a choripan, a chorizo link with chimichurri, or chopped porchetta accented with chimichurri and pickled red onions. We ordered both, along with empanadas stuffed with the likes of butternut squash and cheesy pineapple bacon, and grabbed seats at a picnic table.

Left: Arkansas cheese dip at Natural State Provisions (Photograph: Amy Cavanaugh), Right: Catfish sandwich at Natural State Provisions (Photograph: Amy Cavanaugh)

Just down the road was where we had started our trip: California Burger (3502 W. 16th St.), which members of the Hugais family opened in 2021. Back then, Indy residents waited for hours in the drive-through for these California-style burgers. I’m still thinking about how great my turkey burger loaded with avocado and veggies was. “This place would kill it in Chicago,” I told Kenney. And it’s one of the reasons I’ll be back — but this time, I won’t let three years go by.