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For the first time since the IBM days, staying in town is now a viable option for an enjoyable night out. All we have to do is not screw it up.
On a frigid November evening, days ahead of Thanksgiving, the auto-technician servicing my car walked into the waiting room holding my oil cap. Caked around the seal was a glob of off-white sludge, oil which had globbed up due to water vapor condensation. I’ll admit, I panicked for a moment. This had only happened one other time in my life, and it happened because I had been a young, negligent idiot when it came to taking care of my ride.
This time, however, the cause wasn’t a lack of diligence on my part. The blame belonged to my town—my suddenly interesting, wholly awesome, newly vibrant small city. You see, for the first 18 years I lived in Greencastle, “dining out” often meant a 30-50 minute drive to anywhere but here. A good long drive, more than enough time to burn out the condensed water in the engine block. Because I stayed home, however? Because I "short-tripped" everywhere...? Gunk in the motor.
It’s not that Greencastle lacked good places back then: The Putnam Inn offered (and still offers) some of the best “comfort food” anywhere in the state. And throughout my first years in the city, Gail Smith was slowly developing Almost Home from a small tea-room operation into the one of Greencastle’s few fine-dining options.
And it’s not as if we all lived in abject misery in the days before the “Downtown Renaissance” swooped in and saved us from despair. Besides the Putnam Inn and Almost Home Wendi and I often frequented spots like The Fluttering Duck and the now defunct Chief’s—a cozy little space reminding us of a great vacation we spent in the French Quarter years before. As good as they were, however, the small town feel exuded at the time still managed to nudge us out of town in search of something more “urban.”
Then it all changed.
How we got here is a story of its own. Suffice it to say that FOX 59’s recent edition of “Your Town Friday” distorts that history by implying that A) “all things DePauw” saved the city, and B) the only decent restaurants in town are Bridges Wine Bar and Tap House 24. I do frequent both places. They’re fun and dynamic, casting that very “city feel” Wendi I used to seek when we crawled into the car and rolled out to Indy. But they are not the only game in town. More importantly, both of those establishments are better off because of that fact.
Chris and Angie Weeks have worked extremely hard transforming the city’s old NAPA store into Wasser Brewing Company. The brewery’s visual style contrasts with the Tap House’s “sharp lines” aesthetic and Bridge’s downtown Indy décor, but that very contrast makes it a perfect addition to the city’s landscape. Complementing them is the perpetually relevant Swizzle Stick Bar, where—I would argue—the modern notion of “the Greencastle scene” began. I still remember my first steps into the place, some ten years ago. Here Gail Smith could have settled for one of the same two options which existed at the time: rustic and hillbilly or fancy and snobby. Instead, she dovetailed the two creating scene which felt just as comfortable for a line worker in Carharts as it did for a pharmacology sales rep wearing tailored Burbury.
Elsewhere the story is the same. Rhonda Brotherton and family have transformed Mr. Ron’s (their once demure and quaint little bar adjacent to more notable Putnam Inn) into a stunning place to both hunker down for a pint and dine from a range of modern menu selections. The Fluttering Duck’s addition of the patio pergola and Friday afternoon acoustic sessions has become one of those events I spend Wednesday and Thursday and all the long hours of a Friday morning eagerly looking forward to. And Jay and Jackie Hopkins have worked with tremendous limitations (especially in terms of square-footage) and have rewritten all the rules which I thought a place like Moore’s Bar and Grill had to follow. Twenty years ago, I walked in there begrudgingly, my eyes on the exit every second of my stay. Today, Moore’s is that nestled little cove we often crave when we’re out on the town. Here the darkened walls and low ceilings absorb everyone’s voices and send them back to you with the edges rubbed smooth.
Throw in the other establishments: Myers’ Market (a great lunchtime stop), Don Juilo’s (a well-kept place with affordable and fast service), The Silver Lady Saloon on the south end (I’ve not had anything there, but I hear the food is solid), and legendary stops like Marvin's and Mama Nunz's and you can see why my town, my little city is the kind of place which encourages me to stay home. As I get older, I welcome it. Nothing quite ruins a nice dinner date in a good restaurant like the laborious effort of navigating U.S. 40 or the interstate with a beer and plate-load of chicken marsala embedded in your gut.
But as much I love what the city has become, I fear what may happen to it. There are those gargantuan threats, the likes of which we have little control over—another stock market implosion, statistical and not-so-statistical threats to DePauw’s enrollment numbers, and things like that. I’m more concerned however with something strangely more nefarious—the “threat of human pettiness.”
That nasty Yelp or Facebook review may make you feel vindicated, but if it deters two or three families from following you through the door then all you’ve done is “reviewed” yourself (and the rest of us) back to a series of long drives to Terre Haute, Indy, and Bloomington (Take note: your name is affixed to that review. If you blow this for the rest of us we will remember). Sure, the service was slow, but subtract the 32 minutes you saved driving to Plainfield. Then keep in mind that several of these businesses are scrapping to find, hire, and retain their wait and kitchen staff. And don’t forget…you’re out of the house! It’s probably a date. You don’t have to cook. More importantly, you don’t have rinse and load that dishwasher. You’re also probably going to run into people you know. Friends. It’s a small town, and we all know each other. This is a good thing. So grab a plate of nachos, shut-up, nibble, and be happy.
I’ve heard all the belly-aching and the frustrations. And speaking honestly I have belly-ached myself…about one small thing or another about every establishment as well. The difference, however, is that I don’t give up on them. The learning curve at Wasser or Mr. Ron’s might glare in comparison to the rough edges needing work at Bridges or anywhere else, but those curves are everywhere. What’s important that everyone is working hard. Everyone wants you to enjoy your stay.
If you’re reasonable, rational, intelligent, sane, normal…you’ll find your visit was probably a good one. If something upsets you, talk to the staff about it. Be civil. Put yourself in their shoes. Then come back. If not…if their sin was so egregious that it passes the point of forgiveness, then invite me to your house. Cook up a meal for me. Show me how you would have done it. But if you screw up, I’ll show you what you look like to everyone in town.
In Greencastle keeping this scene alive—this incredible, beautiful, elegant setting in what someone once called “an elite little town”…that is a team effort.
Some of my fellow Greendingle-ites subscribe to that hard-and-fast orthodoxy of the free-market, believing that if a bar, brewpub, or restaurant fails then it was meant to. Maybe that works in a city of 50,000…60,000…100,000 people. In Greencastle, however, keeping this scene alive—this incredible, beautiful, elegant setting in what someone once called “an elite little town”…that is a team effort.
Sometimes, I will still make those jaunts to the big towns. A brew festival here, visiting family there, an urgent need for a handful of those obnoxious magnets at Silver in the City on other occasions. Half the time, I travel simply to burn out the condensation in my car’s engine. My effort to keep that cream-colored ring of grime off my oil cap. Most of the time, however, you’ll find me anywhere from that slick new bar north on Jackson Street to that half-shaded patio along Seminary. A lot of people are working very hard to make my town a wonderful place to live. The least I can do is show them that I value their effort.
Donovan Wheeler writes for several publications and passionately teaches a group of lovably obnoxious teenagers in Greencastle, Indiana. Of all the places where he could have spent the last 20 years of his life, he can't think of any better than here.