Weekender: Bloomington, Indiana
Published: May 2009
By Hillary Geronemus
Victorian B&B's, Apple Crumble, Abstract Art, Horseback Riding, Live Bluegrass
You've probably heard about them in a song (John Mellencamp's "Small Town") or seen them in a movie (Breaking Away), but to really experience those friendly Midwestern Hoosiers you need look no further than Bloomington, Indiana. Its cobblestoned streets, limestone buildings, and old-fashioned porches create a laid-back setting, while the outdoor markets and frequent concerts and lectures keep energy at a steady high. To paraphrase one local artisan, Bloomington has the soul of a big city but the heart of a small town. And though it took a university to lay the city's foundation, the townspeople's desire to prosper is what turned Bloomington into the cultural pulse of the Midwest. So get out your basketball jerseys, reserve a room at an inn, and take a few days to feel the beat.
WHERE TO STAY
Don't be deterred by the stream of Holiday Inns and Motel 6's lining Walnut Avenue. Bloomington does have alternatives; you just need to know where to look.
Scholars Inn 801 N. College Ave.; 800/765-3466 or 812/332-1892, fax 812/355-8785; doubles from $115. So small most residents haven't even heard of it. The Scholars Inn aims for comfortfrom the milk and cookies set out in the lobby to the reading material arranged beside the bathtubs. The six guest rooms, each named for a regional scholar, vary in size and color but are consistent in their French-country feel. Ask nicely and Nikki, the innkeeper, might prepare the house special for breakfast: German-style oven-baked pancakes topped with fresh berries, served in the inn's café next door.
Grant Street Inn 310 N. Grant St.; 800/328-4350 or 812/334-2353, fax 812/331-8673; doubles from $119. If you're lucky enough to reserve a room at the brightest Victorian B&B in Bloomington, you'll know why the waiting list is so long. The owners have expanded twice in the past 10 years, but 24 rooms still can't handle the hordes of devoted guests. The two rooms in the cottage are the coziest, but the eight in the annex are quieter, and six have fireplaces. In the morning, fresh-from-the-oven bread gets guests out of bed in a hurry.
Indiana Memorial Union Hotel 900 E. Seventh St.; 800/209-8145 or 812/856-6381, fax 812/855-3426; doubles from $94. Although the contemporary rooms with country flourishes are small, the location can't be topped: in the largest college union building in the United States, right in the middle of the student hustle and bustle. Besides its 186 rooms, the union houses an auditorium, bookstore, bowling alley, candy store, and food court. Just don't interrupt the crammers who might be hitting the books in the student lounge above the lobby.
Indianapolis International Airport, served by most major airlines, is just a 45-minute drive from Bloomington. The Bloomington Shuttle Service (800/589-6004 or 812/332-6004; $20 one way, $35 round-trip) makes nine trips a day from the airport, but renting a car is the easiest way to travel. From the airport, head south on Interstate 465 to Harding Street, which turns into Highway 37. It's a straight shot south until you hit College Avenue, the first of four Bloomington exits.
WHERE TO EAT
There's shwarma at the Trojan Horse, couscous at the Little Princess, naan at Shanti, and Guinness (on tap) at the Irish Lionand those are just a few entries on the town's lengthy list of ethnic eats. Here are a few other culinary stars:
Janko's Little Zagreb 223 W. Sixth St.; 812/332-0694; dinner for two $40. Red-gingham tablecloths and vintage football posters make the space feel more like a pep rally than a popular Yugoslavian-cum-American steak house. Owner John Pouch opened the restaurant in the seventies in memory of his grandparents, who came from a town outside Zagreb. (His grandmother used to call him Janko, with the j pronounced as a ythe Slavic diminutive for John.) The original menu, filled with Yugoslav delicacies, didn't go over too well in these parts, so now the chef mostly sticks to the more familiar grilled chops, fillets, and T-bones. By keeping décor and side dishes to a minimum,
Zagreb's (as regulars call it) concentrates on what's really important: meat. The few remaining traditional dishes are well worth trying, such as palidzan-sa-sirom (eggplant and other vegetables in a spicy, garlicky tomato sauce), or "flaming Gypsy beef kebabs"served with fire and all.
Scholars Inn Gourmet Café & Wine Bar 717 N. College Ave.; 812/332-1892; dinner for two $50. "We put the name of the chef on the menu, and that's a pretty big deal for Bloomington," the waitress says with pride after she reads the specials. It's a good idea, because Richelle Wylie's fresh approach to the usual dishes should be attached indelibly to her name. Entrées such as pan-seared halibut with chipotle sauce, accompanied by black beans and rice, and pork chops marinated in citrus teriyaki sauce served with cranberry chutney and creamed spinach, are followed by mouthwatering dessertsespecially the apple crumble topped with caramel-and-almond whipped cream. In case you don't know which of the 108 wines would best complement your meal, Wylie has listed her favorite next to each dish.
Runcible Spoon 412 E. Sixth St.; 812/334-3997; breakfast for two $10. Scoot past the coffee-shop junkies playing checkers out front and go directly down the staircase, hung with artwork by local Picassos, to find one of the finest breakfast joints in town. In a wood-paneled room, everyone from hippies to professors feasts on fresh-fruit pancakes or eggs Benedict while filling in the blanks of a crossword puzzle left behind by the previous patron. Don't be surprised to find yourself sharing the rest room with a beady-eyed goldfishthe Spoon converted an unused bathtub into an aquarium. Just be sure to leave the lights on; the fish are afraid of the dark.
Michael's Uptown Café 102 E. Kirkwood Ave.; 812/339-0900; brunch for two $20. What happens when you mix the Creole spices of New Orleans with the unpretentious style of the Midwest?You get one of the most eccentric menus in towncountry cooking with a kick. While Michael's dinner menu is inspired by Big Easy nights, it's the Sunday brunch (a plateful of andouille omelettes, biscuits and gravy, spicy home fries) that would really make Emeril Lagasse tingle.
Laughing Planet Café 322 E. Kirkwood Ave.; 812/323-2233; lunch for two $14. The tacky decorationred and yellow walls, a statuette of the Virgin of Guadeloupeis the perfect complement to the equally wacky, gigantic burritos. Take the seven-ingredient Cuban burrito, for example: beans, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, plantains, barbecue sauce, and banana salsa (hemp cheese available on request). Before you tackle the oversized wrap, consult the explicit burrito-eating instructions on each table. The abridged version: Hold vertically; munch downward, peeling wrapper as you go; avoid fingers.
Basketball is to Indiana what oranges are to Florida. To be sure, local folks are proud of the ballplayers they've bred, but Hoosiers have sown all kinds of seeds.
Fresh fruit and vegetables are sold at the Farmers' Market (401 N. Morton St.; held Saturday mornings MayOctober), but the prepared foodchili, pickled peppers, fresh breadand the live bluegrass music are what make the outdoor stalls worthy of a morning detour.
For local and foreign wines, drop by Oliver Winery (8024 N. State Rd. 37; 800/258-2783), the largest and oldest in Indiana. The timber roadside shop stocks 18 varieties of wine (three of them made from grapes harvested from the Oliver family's vineyard) and offers free tastings year-round. Pick up a loaf of French bread and some cheese at the Farmers' Market, select your favorite vintage, and claim a picnic table by the winery's pond, which is surrounded by 15 acres of green hills and ash trees.
If you prefer hops to grapes, buy a half-gallon "growler" (a beer jug, in localspeak) at the Brewpub (1795 E. 10th St., inside Lennie's Brewery, Restaurant & Pub; 812/323-2112) and fill it up with one of the Bloomington Brewing Co.'s microbrews. Across town is the grander Upland Brewing Co. (350 W. 11th St.; 812/336-2337), where divine Belgian-style wheat ale is served alongside bar snacks such as burgers, steaks, and Buffalo wings.
Take some time to digest and sober up at the By Hand Gallery (109 Fountain Square Mall; 812/334-3255). At this artisans' cooperative, local potters, weavers, carvers, and jewelry designers showcase their wares at reasonable prices.
WHAT'S IN A NAME
So what exactly is a Hoosier?The term is generally used for a native or resident of Indiana, but people have attached countless urban legends to the word's origin. Some look back to 1825, when a Samuel Hoosher supervised a group of Indiana men building a canal along the Ohio River . . . thus, "Hoosher's men." A more colorful version is poet James Whitcomb Riley's; he suggested that early pioneers participated in such vicious bar brawls, body parts were typically bitten off . . . leading to "Who's ear?" Webster's sees it as an alteration of hoozer, a word in English dialect meaning "anything large of its kind." In a 1987 letter to the Wall Street Journal, former governor Robert D. Orr wrote that the mystery of the word's derivation should remain, adding that there's "no mystery, however, of the fact that we are a friendly tribe and truly proud to be known for our Hoosier hospitality.' "
It's the last place you'd expect to see lotus-position-sitting, robe-wearing, Siddhartha-revering monks, but Bloomington has become something of a breeding ground for Buddhists, authentic and wannabe alike. In 1951after refusing to cooperate in an assassination attempt on his own brother, His Holiness the Dalai LamaThubten Jigme Norbu left Tibet and roamed the globe. He finally settled here as a professor of Tibetan studies at IU. Even though he's now retired, Norbu's presence alone acts as a catalyst to spiritual awakening, spawning numerous religious retreats.
Norbu opened the Tibetan Cultural Center (3655 Snoddy Rd.; 812/334-7046) in 1979 to promote interfaith dialogue while preserving the rituals of Tibetan Buddhism. You can simply attend a lecture, or, if you're there on the right day, you might witness the resident monk, the Venerable Ngawang Wangchuck, chanting to clanging cymbals in front of the Dalai Lama's altar. The intricate Medicine Buddha sand mandala (a detailed drawing made from colored grains of sand), displayed under protective glass inside the center, draws a crowd. Such works of art are usually destroyed after completion to underscore the Buddhist belief in the impermanence of everything, but the one at the Tibetan Cultural Center gets to endure in the material world. The center also claims two of the first chortens (Buddhist temples) on this continent, and they're open to the public.
For a more introspective experience, wander past the trailers to Lower Cascades Park. There you'll find the brightly colored Dagom Gaden Tensung Ling Buddhist Monastery (102 Clubhouse Dr.; 812/339-0857), whose gardens are the perfect place to reflect on the wonders of nature. You can also join one of the intense meditation sessions on your quest for enlightenment.
If all that karma-cleansing builds up an appetite, head to one of the three restaurants in town that specialize in Tibetan delicacies. The Snow Lion (113 S. Grant St.; 812/336-0835) has historyit was one of the first Tibetan restaurants in the countrybut it's the cheerful Anyetsang's Little Tibet (415 E. Fourth St.; 812/331-0122) that serves the best Himalayan dishes around. Whether you're eating your mealsay, a traditional curry or momos (steamed dumplings stuffed with meat or vegetables)indoors or on the porch, you'll enjoy the peaceful ambience for which Tibetans are renowned. In an effort to spread the word about the unfortunate political situation in Tibet, Thupten Anyetsang and his wife, Lhamo, provide "Free Tibet" literature.
You can get a taste of Middle and Far Eastern cuisine while grooving to the sounds of live jazz at Café Django (116 N. Grant St.; 812/335-1297) on Friday nights. American music may seem an unlikely backdrop for the tantalizing tastes of Tibet and the Middle East, but one look at the rollicking crowd and you'll know you've stumbled onto a winning combination.
No, this town is not a John Mellencamp shrine. Bloomington locals still love their favorite hometown hero, no matter how many times he changes his name. But they take pride in all their famous musicians, from Hoagy Carmichael to the violin prodigy Joshua Bell. Bars and clubs around town keep the beat, booking every type of music from symphonic to good ol' rock and roll.
For jazz, head straight to the back room of the eclectic Bear's Place (1316 E. Third St.; 812/339-3460) on Thursdays from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Here, David Miller's Jazz Fables cover greats such as Miles Davis and Sun Ra while patrons relax over dinner. The low-key (and affordable) restaurant allows students and professional musicians to book shows. Anyone can have a little fun by ordering from the tongue-in-cheek menu. (Our favorite item is the chicken lips, which has this explanation: "We know chickens don't have lips, but have you ever seen a buffalo with wings?And have you ever seen a chicken count its fingers?")
When it came time to build a new performance center, Indiana University, home to one of the country's top music schools, held nothing back. With state-of-the-art acoustics in a concert hall that could hold three sessions of Congress with room to spare, the Musical Arts Center (Jordan Ave.; 812/855-7433) stages one of the biggest opera seasons in the Western Hemisphere. The MAC also accommodates a 125-piece orchestra along with a 250-member choir, as well as more-intimate jazz performances led by the conductor of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, and just plain cool cat, David Baker.
The multipurpose IU Auditorium (Fine Arts Plaza, 1211 E. Seventh St.; 812/855-1103)reopened after an 18-month, $12.5 million renovationhas staged a variety of events, from a speech by Mikhail Gorbachev to a Broadway play to a stop on a Phish concert tour.
Before Béla Fleck became a staple on the bluegrass circuit, the Bluebird Night Club (216 N. Walnut St.; 812/336-3984) was his regular stamping ground. The wide array of local and visiting musicians makes Bluebird one of the few remaining joints that could survive on reputation alone (Mellencamp used to play here when he still went by "Cougar")though the nickel beers on Thursdays before the band takes the stage help, too.
Neither as transparent nor as controversial as his glass pyramid gateway to the Louvre, I. M. Pei's design of the Indiana University Art Museum (1133 E. Seventh St.; 812/855-5445) has his fingerprints all over it. With few 90-degree angles and an expert use of light, the structure compares in beauty to the 35,000 masterpieces within. This is one of the finest university art museums in the country, displaying works that span every continent and genre. Picasso's abstract L'Atelier and Man Ray's surreal L'Énigme d'Isidore Ducasse keep good company with the marble bust of Septimius Severus (dating back to a.d. 201), as well as intricately carved African artifacts.
You can still view some pieces from the notorious 1997 exhibition "The Art of Desire," plus other tasteful examples of erotic art at the prominent Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender & Reproduction (1165 E. Third St.; 812/855-7686). Its gallery also shows artifacts such as a 19th-century chastity belt, erotic frescoes, and a decorated condom collection.
For collectibles that you can purchase, make your way to the Garret antiques shop (403 W. Kirkwood Ave.; 812/339-4175), where everything from porcelain vases to vintage light fixtures is for sale. The eponymous owner has been collecting objets d'art for the past 50 years, filling every nook and cranny of his three-story Victorian house.
When the clutter becomes overwhelming, just cross the railroad tracks to the spacious Bloomington Antique Mall (311 W. Seventh St.; 812/332-2290). The three sprawling floors are home to more than 80 dealers selling pieces from centuries past. The vendors themselves are usually not present, but that doesn't mean you can't bargain; just leave your asking price with attendants at the front desk, and they'll get back to you by the end of the day.
Drive in any direction from town, and you'll see the rolling hills and amber waves of grain that make up the Midwest. Though Indiana has a bad rap for brutal winters, there's no finer place to run, ride, swim, bike, or fish on a hot summer day.
Your best bet for spotting a white-tailed deer or pileated woodpecker is at Brown County State Park, 20 minutes east of Bloomington on scenic Highway 46. Both of the park's public entrances give access to a laby- rinth of wooded roads, all of which eventually lead to a lake, cliff, or campground in the lush 16,000-acre park. Take a hike, or rent a horse for a guided trail ride from the Saddle Barn (812/988-8166; $9 for 2.2 miles, $13.50 for 3.3 miles) and gallop past procrastinating students and visiting Amish.
When you've worked up a sweat, make your way to one of the area's three recreational lakes. Though Griffy Lake and Lake Lemon (both north of town) are cool and pleasant, the enormous Lake Monroe (south of town) is the most rewarding. Covering almost 17 square miles, it's the largest man-made lake in Indiana; visitors can swim, sail, fish, water-ski, hike, camp, or just soak up some rays on its shores and rafts.
Don't expend all your energy in the sun without hitting the trails of Bloomington's Wapehani Mountain Bike Park (off Weimer Rd. between Second St. and Tapp Rd.; 812/349-3736). Along eight miles of moderate tracks you'll encounter steep rises, obstacles, and tight switchbacks. Get trail information and rent bikes at IU Outdoor Adventures in the Union (812/855-2231; $16 per day).
If you're searching for an unusual evening activity, J. L. Waters & Co. (109 N. College Ave.; 812/334-1845) schedules Monday night fly-fishing and paddling adventures. With the shop's experts, you can try out rods, canoes, and kayaks in the moonlight.