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An hour due south of Indianapolis lies Bloomington, an idyllic hamlet interspersed with rolling hills, limestone quarries, and Indiana University. Though IU's stamp is all over the city, Bloomington (like Ann Arbor in Michigan) is no mere college town. There's more than corn in Indiana, and from burgers and pizza to craft breweries and Tibetan food, there's no shortage of great dining options in Bloomington for both IU students and "townies" alike.
Coffee (Shop Vibe)
For small batch roasts that you can sip while you shop, check out the Bloomington Coffee Roasters stand at the Bloomington farmers' market. Or if you're in the mood for the eclectically-decorated-patchouli-smelling coffee shop experience, Soma has character (and syrupy sweet lattes) to spare. Some people head upstairs to the Laughing Planet for vegetarian brown rice burritos, though I don't endorse such silliness.
Though I've never seen the appeal, both The Village Deli and The Runcible Spoon have their intended demographics locked down: the former deals oversized pancakes to hungover sweatpants-clad undergrads, while the latter serves homey plates with a side of philosophizing to grad students and faculty. Bloomington Bagel boils theirs in-house and will more than do the trick if you need a bite and coffee to-go.
But if you want a truly great brunch experience, get to Feast Bakery Café, where the menu is chockfull of inventive takes on brunch classics. The Croque Madame and Fried Chicken and Biscuit both feature artfully presented local ingredients in portions that won't leave the rest of your day a sluggish waste.
Doughnut lovers, rejoice! Bloomington has two great spots for the coffee-dunkable. Square Donuts serves just that, and the Krispy Kreme-esque glazed yeast doughnut and cinnamon-spiked apple fritter are not to be missed. Fifty year old local favorite Cresent Donuts is open 24 hours, which means you can enjoy the tender sprinkle cake doughnuts and old fashioneds any time you'd like.
Cresent Donuts, 231 S Adams Street Bloomington, IN 47404 (map); 812-339-7771
Best Place to Gain (and Maintain) the Freshman 15
Dagwood's is an IU institution that cranks out deli sandwiches big enough to make their namesake proud, though the thought of eating one of these gut bombs now exists, as Rose from Titanic said, only in my memory. For wings, cheese fries, and the like, wood-paneled BuffaLouie's is a fiercely-Hoosiers sports bar right off Kirkwood. And appropriately named for its demographic, Baked! delivers made to order cookies to students with, ahem, a late night sweets craving.
None of the burger options near campus are worth checking out (Sorry, Opie Taylor's), but Hinkle's Hamburgers on South Adams can't be missed. The burgers are cooked slider-style, with enough steamed onions to make sure your lunch choice is public domain. What's remarkable, though, is how long the burger is left on the griddle: it has to literally be scraped off the surface with a putty knife, resulting in the thickest crust I've ever seen on a patty. And though the crinkle cut fries and other sides are decidedly from frozen, the fact that they're deep fried to order more than makes up for that.
Hinkle's Hamburgers, 206 S Adams Street Bloomington, IN 47404 (map); 812-339-3335
Check your pizza pretensions at the door when you roll into town: as forward thinking and hip as Bloomington is, this is the heart of the Midwest, and the pizza here reflects that. But as long as you aren't expecting to find some great corner slice joint or something, the pizza here will keep you satisfied. Mother Bear's, the local answer to Pizza Hut, is a longtime student favorite that actually lives up to the hype (as reflected in the hour plus weekend wait times). Both the Spinoccoli (Parmesan garlic white sauce, broccoli, spinach, cheddar, and mozzarella) and Dante's Inferno (sausage, green peppers, jalapeños, and mozzarella) are solid options, and don't forget to order a Goldfish Cracker topped house salad. Pizza X (formerly Pizza Express) is open late, delivers almost anywhere, and is by far the best to-your-door option in the city. For more Bloomington pizza recommendations, check out the United States of Pizza: Indiana Guide.
Best Happy Hour Deal/Cheap Eat
If you're looking for a way to unwind after a tough day of classes, or just need an excuse to get an early start on drinking, Kilroy's On Kirkwood is the easy choice. Happy Hour drink prices are rock bottom, and the freshly baked Breadsticks stuffed with mozzarella, pepperoni, and marinara sauce are as over the top amazing as you'd imagine. If you need a cheap meal but drinking is still a ways off, Dats (an offshoot of Indianapolis-based Yats) offers a number of ever-changing slow cooked Cajun dishes, served over rice with a side of Old Bay-buttered French bread. The stand out is the Chili Cheese Crawfish Étoufée, though the veggie and vegan options are surprisingly good, too.
Where to Enjoy a Pint... and Stick Around for Dinner, Too
Not surprisingly, there's no shortage of places to have a beer in Bloomington, though finding a place you don't mind spending your daylight hours is a little trickier. Crazy Horse serves a hell of a plate of Cheese Stix, and their Around the World in Eighty Beers program grants name-inscribed-on-a-plaque immortality to all who complete it.
Nextdoor at Irish Lion, you can enjoy Irish fare in a hardwood bedecked pub, along with the requisite yards of Guinness and black and tans. The real draw, though, is their extensive Scotch collection. And if you want to extend your pledge to buying local to malted beverages, Upland Brewing Company brews an extensive collection just waiting to be paired with their vegetarian friendly brewpub menu.
Where to Eat Before the Game
Whether you support the Hoosiers on the field or court, you can soak in the college town atmosphere and tie on a few a mere stumble away at Yogi's Grill & Bar. Also walkable is Smokin' Jack's Rib Shack (apparently owned by the same people behind Kilroy's), a roadhouse themed BBQ joint that makes their own sauces. The pulled pork sandwich was just fine, but I'd stick to the ribs. And if you elect to avoid the bustle near the stadium, you can trade it for more of the same on Kirkwood at Nick's English Hut. Enjoy an only-in-Indiana Stromboli (essentially loose Italian sausage topped with pizza sauce and cheese between a toasted sub bun) and a game of Sink the Biz for the full experience.
I've gulped watery G&Ts in enough sticky-floored and stale Bud Light scented bars to be of the opinion that any bar in a college town is a dive, but townie favorite The Office Lounge deserves special mention. Located far enough away from campus that the average student wouldn't dream of making the trek, this place is part pool hall, part bar and grill (think breaded pork tenderloins, sirloin steaks, and bleu cheese dressing topped iceberg lettuce salads), and part package liquor store. Bonus points for the ever-present crowd of sincere karaoke-ers, though I don't want to be there if someone ever tries to sing anything but a country song.
The Office Lounge, 3900 E Third Street Bloomington, IN 47401 (map); 812-332-0911
Best Hangover Cure
Need something a little greasy after a long night of drinking? If you actually wake up in time for breakfast, surround yourself with locals and let the bacon, hash browns, sausage gravy, and black coffee at Wee Willie's cure what ails you. If you don't roll out of bed in time for eggs, a plateful of queso soaked chicken nachos at Casa Brava (or its sister restaurant, La Charreada) will do the trick, too.
Wee Willie's, 1724 S Walnut Street Bloomington, IN 47401 (map); 812-332-0500
Casa Brava, 410 S College Mall Road Bloomington, IN 47401 (map); 812-339-2777
Where to Impress a Date
If your date is the type that would be impressed by eating wedge salads and French onion soup in a mansion, take him or her to Scholar's Inn Gourmet Café. Otherwise, borrow a car and drive north on Highway 37 to Oliver Winery. Though hardly a destination for the vino sophisticate (their Soft Red is sweeeeet), lovebirds can enjoy reasonably priced bottles and an extensive selection of meats and cheeses on the tree and pond lined back acreage. Be sure to pick up a few bottles of Camelot Mead for the road, too.
When You're Feeling Adventurous
Fourth Street is the epicenter of ethnic cuisine in Bloomington. A surprisingly healthy smattering of Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and Asian countries are well represented through their respective culinary embassies. Any one of the former houses-turned-restaurants are a welcome break from the same old pizza and wings, though the Chura Mo Mo at Anyetsang's Little Tibet are especially worth seeking out, and the weekday lunch buffet at Siam House remains a guilty pleasure of mine.
When I want soft serve in that classic DQ style, I go to The Chocolate Moose. The closest thing Bloomington has to a drive-in, you really can't go wrong with anything frozen on the menu, but the Frenchie (just Coney sauce between a hamburger bun) has to be ordered to be believed.
Best Local Markets
Bloomingfoods is your standard hippy-dippy co-op, albeit a good one. And if you avoid the produce and stick to the Asian pantry staples, bulk dried goods, and expansive beer and wine selection, you'll be a satisfied customer at Sahara Mart. But you'll do your best food shopping in town Saturday mornings at the Bloomington Farmers' Market. Farmers with characters as colorful as their produce, prices low enough that you could actually do a week's shopping here, and an unparalleled level of camaraderie among patrons- this is what a farmers' market is supposed to be.
When the Parents Come to Visit
Chances are you've hauled months' worth of pizza boxes to the dumpster to get your place semi-presentable. Have them return the favor by treating you to a nice dinner. Lennie's features thoughtful pub fare, as well as Sicilian-inspired pizzas and strombolis (the type the rest of the world outside Indiana will recognize). They also own the attached Bloomington Brewing Co., which is sure to scratch your dad's recently burgeoning craft beer itch.
Are your parents generous-feeling corn-fed Midwesterners? Get them to spring for dinner at Janko's Little Zagreb, which specializes in large slabs of red meat and ribs, and not much else. All meals are served with "hand broken salads" (translation: freshly ripped iceberg lettuce in a bowl), and baked potatoes, so your parents will have solid proof that you're eating your vegetables.
Where to Eat for Homecoming
If you're on this site post-college, there's a chance that you may like to try somewhere a little more... sophisticated on your next trip back to B-Town. Located right off the Square, Restaurant Tallent is the spot. Committed to farm to table cooking since before it caught on en masse, the lovingly Midwest menu changes with the seasons, and it's no rare sight to see chef/owner Dave Tallent perusing the Farmers' Market for the night's special.
Restaurant Tallent, 208 N Walnut Street Bloomington, IN 47404 (map); 812-330-9801; restauranttallent.com
Whew, Did We Miss Anything?
What about you, students and alumni? Let us know in the comments where you like to eat near Indiana University and in Bloomington proper.