I didn’t grow up in Indianapolis, so I’m always at a loss when people talk about the sentimental joys of dining in the old L.S. Ayres Tea Room. In my hometown of Richmond, Indiana, I don’t recall my mom taking me to any restaurants that required donning my Sunday-best dress, white gloves and black patent leather shoes. The closest we got to fine dining was our weekly trip to the longtime defunct Miller’s Cafeteria for the best broasted chicken EVER.
So although I missed the opportunity to appreciate the original tea room in its heyday (it operated from 1905 until 1990 in the former L.S. Ayres department store), the painstakingly recreated eatery at the Indiana State Museum provides a nostalgic chance to enjoy some of the dishes that made it famous.
The first thing that hit me when I walked in was, wow, this place is old school. Then again, that’s the vibe they’re going for with ornate chandeliers, white columns and curtained room partitions. It’s all very elegant and refined; I could very clearly picture the ladies who’ve lunched here through the years and what a big deal it must have been. Things are a little more relaxed now. White gloves are no longer de rigeur and the dress code is more forgiving. Still, this is obviously a restaurant that strives to uphold tradition. I’ll bet it’s probably packed to the gills on Mother’s Day.
In keeping with the décor, the menu is seriously retro, full of fun throwback recipes like ham loaf, Hawaiian chicken salad served in a hollowed out pineapple, Monte Cristo sandwiches and chicken pot pie.
My group’s menu was preselected; we had the option to sub out other items if we wanted, but I figured whoever was doing the choosing knew best. I trusted that judgment, and was happy to do so.
To start, everyone at our table slurped down cups of the signature chicken velvet soup. If you like creamy soups, this stuff should be right up your alley. Rich doesn’t even begin to cover it — this was so thick, it was nearly a gravy with chunky tender chicken bites buried within. The cup was the perfect amount; I can’t imagine eating an entire bowl, unless that’s the only thing you plan on having.
There were a couple of choices for our second course – I went for the “small” Monte Cristo, which actually wasn’t small at all, but a full sandwich. (For the uninitiated, a Monte Cristo is like a French toast sandwich filled with ham, turkey and cheese.) The whole concoction is assembled, dunked into an egg batter, grilled and served with a little cup of fruity jammy dipping sauce. Not for the faint of heart, but certainly delicious.
Dessert was something called a pecan ball — a scoop of vanilla ice cream that’s been rolled in a thick coating of chopped nuts, refrozen and then served with fudge sauce and whipped cream. Old-fashioned, indulgent and the ideal way to end this kind of meal. Don’t worry about the calories, just dig in and go for it.
A couple quick facts I betcha didn’t know about the Indiana State Museum: the exterior of the limestone building includes a small sculpture and/or block representing each of the 92 counties within the state. And the IMAX theater snack bar features Indiana-made products like popcorn, Hubbard & Cravens coffee, and Gummi bears from Vincennes. Cool.
The L.S. Ayres Tea Room at the Indiana State Museum is open for lunch only, and is closed Mondays. The restaurant isn’t large, so reservations are a good idea, especially around any holidays. My mom would have loved this place.
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