St. Elmo's, curry goat and duck bowling: A travel writer's guide to eating and playing in Indy

Chaya Milchtein breaks down how travelers of every size can enjoy the "Elopement Capital of the Midwest"

Published September 24, 2022 4:30PM (EDT)

The author in front of St. Elmo's steakhouse  (Jodyann Morgan)
The author in front of St. Elmo's steakhouse (Jodyann Morgan)

"A Fatty's Guide to Traveling and Eating the World" is a monthly travel and food column here at Salon that’s dedicated to helping travelers of all sizes find adventure

Just a three-hour drive from Chicago, the city of Indianapolis isn't the first destination most people think of when they are planning a vacation. But, I'd humbly ask them to reconsider. Indianapolis is a beautiful city of just under a million residents, and an up-and-coming foodie scene that rivals many in the Midwest

Morgan and I got married in Indianapolis, in the backyard of an Airbnb that butted right up to the White River. We were engaged when COVID hit and hadn't really started planning a wedding, but it seemed important to make the legal commitment sooner rather than later. When I heard that Indianapolis is the "elopement capital of the Midwest" (which was potentially initially just a cute slogan, but after my wedding was featured in over a dozen publications, including the New York Times, it's official), we decided on the city for our virtual nuptials, which were eventually dubbed "the Biggest Queerest Wedding of the Year."

When I was invited back to attend the Indianapolis 500, it was a no brainer. Travel writing is my passion, but most people know me as an automotive educator who has spent my adult life working in the automotive industry before starting Mechanic Shop Femme. This was an opportunity to combine my passions for a trip of a lifetime. And Indianapolis was just as I remembered it — full of vibrant, kind people, and so much to do and enjoy.

Here are some of my favorite things to do and places to eat in the Elopement Capital of the Midwest.

Tie Dye Lab

Tie dye wasn't part of my childhood experience, but when I came across the Tie Dye Lab outside the city of Indianapolis, I knew I just had to try ite And yes, while this is an activity you can do with your kids, adults can totally do it too and have an amazing time, like my wife and I did. If you've been a reader of this column or watch my Tiktoks, you already know that hand-on workshops are my jam, and this was no exception. 

The Tie Dye Lab is set up perfectly, with clothing and other items displayed on the wall, laminated instructions and fabulous folks to walk you through the whole process. They have plus-size t-shirts that go up to a 5X and other items like hats, aprons, and beach towels. We were pressed for time, but despite rushing, managed to each get two unique tie dye pieces completed. 

Squish Factor: The tables are bar-height, so the chairs are the tall metal types that aren't great for bigger folks. I stood the whole time, and since there was a lot of moving around, it worked great. 

River Tubing

River tubing is so much fun! If you've never been, essentially you float down-river in a giant tube. It's surprisingly comfortable and really relaxing. We drove down to the White River Canoe Company in Noblesville, where we rented the tubes, links and a small tube for a cooler before getting on a shuttle bus to the river. From there, it was a simple walk to get down to the river. Be sure to bring a charged-up waterproof speaker, some snacks and water!

Duckpin bowling

If you're a fan of bowling (and honestly, even if you aren't), you're in for a real treat at the fully restored, 1930-style Action Duckpin Bowling alley in the Fountain Square Theater building. Duckpin bowling is said to have originated in Baltimore, Maryland, and is a bowling-like game with a small ball and small pins. 

I love bowling, but my long nails have made it difficult. Duckpin bowling, on the other hand, is perfect! The ball fits perfectly into your hand. But don't get the idea that this game is easy because it's actually really challenging. The bowling alley recommends you make a reservation because they do tend to fill up.

The Indianapolis 500

If you end up in Indianapolis on Memorial Day weekend, the Indy 500 is something you should definitely not sleep on, even if you aren't a car person. As Morgan Snyder, the director of public relations at Visit Indy summed it up, the race is "500 miles, 200 laps and a cold bottle of milk." 

325,000 people attended the race this year, with good reason. Indycar speeds exceed 200 miles an hour as they fly around the track. The fans are loud and excited; you can feel the energy in the massive Speedway. The Indy 500 serves food and drinks to so many people that they simply can't keep up, so to cover the gap, you are allowed to bring a cooler full of alcohol and food into the Speedway. 

If you're not in town during the Indy500, be sure to visit the Indianapolis Motor Speedway museum for a look into the sport's history — it's a lot more interesting than you'd think. If you enjoy the upstairs tour, consider buying a ticket for the VIP basement tour, where "a repository of rare, priceless, and one-of-a-kind racing and automotive artifacts and vehicles" can be found. 

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Squish factor: It wasn't as hot as was expected, but the day at the race still drained all the energy from me. The lines for food and drinks are miles long, so it's critical that you bring water with you.

The Trap

I was honored to meet Chef Oya, who was named the Indianapolis "Queen of Seafood" by the Indy A-List, during my most recent trip to Indianapolis. In a hut attached to a liquor store, Chef Oya serves up a seafood boil at her restaurant, The Trap. "TRAP" is an acronym for her mission: "Toward Restoring food Access to the People." Chef Oya has a policy of feeding everyone, no questions asked, even if they can't afford their meal. 

Chef Oya spoke to Forbes last year and said: "We're in one of the worst neighborhoods in the city. It's the worst for crime, and literacy rates are low. People don't come here unless they have to do it. This is in the middle of a food desert. I also have a special tray that's not advertised, which I've been doing since I opened. If people are hungry, they can come to us and get it for free. No questions asked. My duty is to feed people. This is my love language." 

If you don't make it out to the restaurant, look for her popular Trap Buttahs in Indianapolis souvenir shops and markets.

St. Elmo Steak House

Getting a shrimp cocktail at the St. Elmo's Steakhouse is practically a requirement for visiting Indianapolis. The steakhouse is the 23rd highest-grossing independently owned restaurant in the United States, and its shrimp cocktail is truly iconic. The cocktail sauce is made of horseradish, clearing out your sinuses with one small taste. Other than the shrimp cocktail, St Elmo's is a traditional old-school steakhouse, popular with celebrities, race car drivers and Indianapolis residents looking for a place to celebrate milestones. I had their blue cheese-crusted ribeye, which was fantastic. Make a reservation well in advance, or be disappointed! 

Doctor Who Museum

My wife, who travels with me, shoots my photos and videos and puts up with my shenanigans, is a "Doctor Who" superfan.

Located just outside Indianapolis is the world's only "Doctor Who" museum, Who North America, so we just had to go. Who North America is a fan's dream. Half of the space is full of artifacts, rare items and "Doctor Who" memorabilia. The other half is a souvenir shop featuring all the Doctor Who-inspired goodies you can possibly dream up. Morgan was like a kid in a candy store. If you are a "Doctor Who" fan or if you love one, clear an hour of your day to visit. 

Jamaican Reggae Grill

To surprise my wife on our wedding day, I placed a massive order for Jamaican food from the Jamaican Reggae Grill. They prepared curry goat, rice and peas, cabbage and rum cake that easily rivaled the fancy wedding dinner we enjoyed after tying the knot. If you're looking for an amazing meal, stop by their location in Monon Square Shopping. 

By Chaya Milchtein

Chaya Milchtein is an automotive educator and journalist who writes about cars, plus size fashion, queer life and love, and sometimes, food and travel. Her work has in Real Simple, Parents Magazine, Xtra Magazine, Al Jazeera, Shondaland and others.

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