EVANSVILLE, Ind. — What’s happening to us, Evansville?
Our smallish meat-and-potatoes city, which until recently was known as a spot for chain restaurants and deep-fried festival food, has sprouted a reputation as a budding food and dining Mecca.
It started slowly, but in recent years our appreciation for adventurous dining and beverages has exploded, and people are noticing.
Zoe Taylor, formerly the operations manager at Carson’s Brewery, told me she was stunned by the change in food culture when she returned in 2018 after a few years away.
“When I moved away, Evansville was very commercialized,” she said. “It was just a big small town. Now, when friends come to visit, you can take them to Haynie’s Corner or go bar hopping on Franklin Street. As a young person, it’s wonderful to see these new small restaurants popping up. We are diversifying, but for our predominantly white population, to have all these different foods and cultures coming in is so exciting.”
It’s been a long road, and change started slowly. Not that long ago, there were very few ethnic restaurants in the area, and upscale places tended to be steakhouses or members-only clubs.
In the early 90s, Mexican family-owned restaurants started to appear. Sushi gained acceptance with the Toyota plant in Princeton later in the decade. Larry Minor opened Lorenzo’s Bistro, which was Evansville’s go-to upscale creative restaurant for many years.
The doors were cracking open.
“When I wanted to open a Greek restaurant in Evansville 20 years ago, my family said to do a steakhouse,” Acropolis owner Doros Hadjisavva said. “We opened the Greek Restaurant, and I think it was the best choice because it was a different cuisine in Evansville. We have diversity in the population, and they want something different. Look at all the places we have now.”
Today we have a whole, rich spectrum of food and beverage-related businesses and events.
Witness that Flourish, a vegan restaurant, was voted the best new restaurant of 2020 in the Courier & Press Readers’ Choice poll. A vegan restaurant. In Evansville.
The number of food trucks on our roads is expanding so quickly it’s hard to keep up. It’s somewhere between 30 and 40. Between Evansville, Newburgh and Henderson, we have five bustling farmers markets. International grocery stores from many cultures are flourishing.
We have six beer breweries and the Dusty Barn Distillery near Mount Vernon, Indiana. The Farmer and Frenchman winery in Henderson is known for excellent European food as well as wine, and wineries from miles around come to participate in our Wine and Jazz Festivals. Bars are crafting their own cocktail ingredients, and we have The Beer Snob, a craft-beer only store on North First Avenue.
Food festivals by Evansville Events celebrate everything from chicken wings to stromboli, and the yearly Islamic Center International Food festival, which started as a small gathering in 2001, now feeds thousands as it raises money for the Tri-State Food Bank. Fiesta Evansville and the HOLA Festival are enormous outdoor celebrations of Latin food and culture, and of course, there’s still the West Side Nut Club Fall Festival which boasts a variety of unique and often fried dishes.
You can sample cuisine from China, Vietnam, Thailand, Haiti, El Salvador, Peru, Greece, Persia, Lebanon and Syria, Germany, Italy, France, Mexico, India, Japan, Hawaii, Korea, Nepal and other countries all at Evansville-area establishiments.
At Pangea Kitchen, diners savor pizza certified by the Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana and Thai dishes by Thai Royal Palace Chef Wanphen McDonald.
“I worked at Berry Plastics for 25 years, and we’d try to attract younger professionals, and they’d want to know about our restaurants,” Randy Hobson, owner of Pangea and 2nd Language Patisserie, said. “I’d kind of joke that we had a lot of chains to choose from.”
He wanted to change that.
“Every culture in this city has great things going on right now,” he said. “I opened Pangea specifically to help create an ethnic food culture that would bring more parts of the world to Evansville. And I think teaching young cooks how to do things like make fresh pasta or run a wood-fired oven or make French pastry will help create an even better food culture 10 years from now.”
New American creative dining
Away from the ethnic sphere, within the last few years we’ve also begun wholeheartedly supporting locally-owned restaurants where quality and creativity are king.
Chef Tim Mills opened Madeleine’s Fusion Restaurant in 2005. It was where businesspeople could impress out-of-town clients with sophisticated food and wine, but it also drew locals who enjoyed game meats and seafood not offered elsewhere. Demand for them slowly built.
Now we have modern spots such as Amy’s on Franklin, where Chef Jeremiah Galey ages whole ribeyes in smoked butter; Schymik’s Kitchen, where Chef Chris Garrett might base a whole tasting menu around a dish of spicy rabbit dumplings and locally-grown mushrooms; and The Collective, where Chef Andy Wood makes even the cheese in-house, the bar makes their own herbal tonic syrup and every day brings a new Aioli.
A final sign of (and driver of) our local dining obsession is Tri-State Restaurant Reviews on Facebook, where 30,000 locals do nothing but talk (and argue) about restaurants. For the size of our metro area, that is a stunning amount of members. The site has been active for nine years and continues to grow.
“I didn’t expect it to take off the way it did,” said Kenny Garrett of Henderson, who began the page. “I was just looking for a place to go eat and made a Facebook page to ask about restaurants, and it turned into this.”
He’s thrilled his creation has helped spark local enthusiasm for different culinary experiences and also has created an app called Tri-State Foodies with restaurant listings.
“When you look at the age of the entrepreneurs running these newer restaurants, a lot of them are in their 40s or younger,” he said. “There are people looking for places to go eat, and these young chefs are seeing that they can do it, and people are excited to go and check it out.”
Zoe Taylor summed it up well.
“A lack of diversity contributes to people leaving a town, and once you have a well-established food and bar culture, it brings people in, and that brings more ideas,” she said. “The pandemic really brought home how important to us our unique restaurants are.”