In the heart of downtown Michigan City, at the end of the Michigan Road — or the beginning, depending on your perspective — you’ll find the Michigan City Uptown Arts District.
When I surveyed the Michigan Road in 2008, this was some mighty depressed real estate. But in 2010 the Uptown Arts District was formed, and a slow transformation began. The transformation remains underway today, but “there’s a there there,” as we say in the road-tripping business. You can spend a pleasant day here popping in and out of the boutique shops and galleries, and enjoying a meal and a pint at one of the several restaurants.
Margaret and I did this on the day before Thanksgiving, a blustery and gray day. There wasn’t much action on this midweek day-before-a-holiday, but we were pleased to find many shops and pubs open.
We spent most of our time on the Uptown Arts District’s main drag, Franklin Street. It’s a downtown strip typical of Indiana, with plenty of old buildings in a row.
Several striking buildings line this strip, including this one, a former Eagles lodge. I’d sure like to know the story of that crazy roof!
Lots of public art lines Franklin Street. I liked this little scene on one of the street corners.
Given how close this is to Lake Michigan, this wavelike metal sculpture makes perfect sense.
We capped our Uptown Arts District stroll with a visit to an Irish pub, where we had a couple remarkably good pints of Guinness. From there we could see were within walking distance of a large outlet mall, so we went over and did a little early Christmas shopping. All in all, it was a lovely day. If you’d like to have a similarly lovely day, it awaits you at the end of the Michigan Road.
It’s a gleaming stainless-steel 1954 Mountain View diner, shipped by rail from the New Jersey factory and opened for business on US 40, the old National Road, just east of Plainfield, Indiana. It served there for more than 50 years before hard times befell it and it closed. That’s how I found it when I last toured the National Road across western Indiana, in 2009; I hoped to take my breakfast there. See a photo of it that day deep in this post. And then the health department declared an addition behind the diner unsound. As the last diner of its type on the National Road, preservationists swung into action. This year, it moved four miles west into the town of Plainfield, where it was restored and reopened. The Oasis sign is a reproduction from photographs; the original had been removed decades ago. The Diner sign is original but restored.
My sons and I visited for dinner a couple weeks ago with some road-trip-loving friends. My younger son and I had cheeseburgers — they grind bacon into their beef for extra flavor. My other son had the cheesesteak, which he called “amazing.” The company and the setting were pretty darn good, too.
Logansport’s Whitehouse Restaurant closed its doors for good on Saturday after 73 years.
Little family-run diners used to be typical; every town had at least one. They began disappearing in the late 1970s, by my estimation, as fast-food and diner-style chain restaurants really caught on. I think that the wide availability of places like McDonald’s and Denny’s, coupled with the consistency and predictability of their offerings, made them feel like a safer choice.
Today, it takes an adventurous spirit to stop for a cheeseburger at a place like The Whitehouse. To be blunt, it was run down, as the photo above shows. Inside, seven decades of patrons resting their arms on the counters wore the color off the laminate. It spoke of owners who weren’t making a killing in the restaurant business, but who kept at it because they loved it and it made a good enough living for them. In truth, the restaurant was clean, the staff was friendly, and the food was good. But it probably felt safer for most people to drive on to the next fast-food place.
I know I felt that way. I’ve driven through Logansport a hundred times, easy, over the last 30 years. The Whitehouse is on the Michigan Road, which is always the route I take through town. But when I was hungry, I always drove right past The Whitehouse and went a little out of my way to visit a Mickey D’s.
Curiosity finallygot the better of me about six years ago, and I stopped for a cheeseburger. What a great cheeseburger it was, the kind with crispy edges! I wished I had taken the chance years and years before. I’ve stopped every time I found them open since (which could be tricky, as their hours were 4 a.m. to 1 p.m.). Once my sons in the car with me at lunchtime as we passed through town, and we stopped. It was very cool to let them experience something that had once been very common in America.
A fellow named Lester worked the grill. He had been at it for 60 years when he passed away in early 2012. I wondered then how much longer The Whitehouse would hang on, as it seemed like he was the force that kept the place going. And now here we are.
Are there any family-run places near where you are? Go visit them today.
It had been too long, Sherrel and I agreed, since our last stop on the Indiana Fried Chicken Tour. Buying and moving into a new home had consumed his time for weeks. By the time he had settled in, I had turned in my notice at the company where we both worked. We knew we had to squeeze in one more stop on the Tour before I moved on.
We knew just where we would go: Maxine’s Chicken and Waffles. We had been once before, hoping to sample their fried-chicken dinner. The hour round trip to Maxine’s downtown Indianapolis location (132 N. East Street) from our Carmel office meant we were pushing the lunch hour’s limits. After we arrived, we learned that fried-chicken perfection took 35 minutes, time we just didn’t have.
So we settled for their signature chicken and waffles. If you’ve never had this dish, let me assure you that it is delicious. The enormous chicken wings go startlingly well with the crispy-on-the-outside, tender-on-the inside waffles, especially when you douse them in syrup. Our lunch was so fresh and good that we vowed to return. We figured we could call ahead to order the full fried chicken dinner.
When I became a short-timer in our office, let’s just say that on-time returns from lunch became less of a priority. Our return visit to Maxine’s was a certainty.
Maxine’s is in a newish building shared with one of downtown’s few gas stations – an odd pairing, to be sure. But when you step inside you forget all about the fueling going on.
Malissa, our waitress, appeared directly to take our drink order. She returned straightaway with our unsweet iced tea and a plate of little cornbread pancakes laid around a dollop of peach butter. The cornbread was moist and slightly sweet; the peach butter was creamy and sweet but not very peachy. Maybe I should have slathered more on the bread to get the full peach flavor.
Our dinners came with a small salad, fresh and crisp, of head lettuce, tomatoes, onion, and sharp cheddar. The onions were pungent and strong, surprisingly so, and were this simple salad’s highlight. Unremarkable croutons and ranch dressing (served on the side) rounded out the salad.
Sherrel called Maxine’s from the parking lot at work to put in our chicken order, and the golden-brown goodness arrived shortly after we finished our salads.
I ordered my traditional sides of green beans and mashed potatoes with gravy. Sherrel got the potatoes and fried green tomatoes. My green beans were mushy, but at least they had good, slightly spicy flavor and weren’t fatty. A tomato slice and a ring of that strong onion topped and complemented them. The mashed potatoes were the best we’ve had on the Tour. There was no question about their origin: these were genuine mashed potatoes – unquestionably neither whipped nor instant as they were full of little potato chunks. They delivered solid, straight up potato flavor, with only a hint of the milk or cream that was holding them together. Maxine’s clearly chooses excellent quality potatoes. The gravy that topped them was slightly sweet and a little too fatty. A dash of salt improved it. Sherrel declared the fried green tomatoes to be fine, especially with the supplied sauce, but didn’t elaborate.
At last I dove into the chicken, the main event. Maxine’s delivers four pieces with each order, either all dark meat or all white meat. I ordered the white, Sherrel ordered the dark, and we traded two pieces so we could each experience the whole chicken.
The coating was thin and crisp. I guessed that this was a simple flour dredge. But later Sherrel wondered whether Maxine’s uses crushed corn flakes in its coating. I think he may be right. The coating was mildly seasoned, perhaps only with a little salt.
It works because the dense, tender meat carries deep, rich chicken flavor. Maxine’s is buying high-quality birds, easily the finest meat we’ve experienced on the Tour. Actually, this was the most inherently flavorful bird I’ve ever eaten. They don’t adorn it with thick, highly seasoned coating because this meat doesn’t need it; it speaks for itself. My only quibble was that the breast was a tiny, tiny, tiny bit dry.
My meal was $17.75. Sherrel’s dark-meat order was about a buck less. (That’s him over there, hard at work on his dinner.) This was a great experience, made even better by Malissa, who served us with a giant smile, an infectious great attitude, and an uncanny ability to appear at our table at the exact moments we needed her.
As Sherrel and I drove back to the office, we vowed that we would keep the Tour going despite it being more complicated now to schedule stops. Altogether too often our chicken quest was continued merely because we happened to pass each other in the hallway and one of us cried, “Chicken!” We must redouble our efforts; this is too much fun.