The Indy Burger Guy visited the Red Key Tavern on Saturday, February 18, 2017.
Anyone who knows me well knows that I’m a literature buff. Several years ago, almost on a dare from one of my best friends, I read the entirety of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace and followed that up by reading other great works of classic literature from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables to James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment over the course of subsequent years.
As a ‘literary nerd’ – for lack of a better term – I’ve long been fascinated by the literary landscape of my home city. And while authors like John Green and Dan Wakefield loom large for more modern audiences, there are three Indiana authors who make up what I call Indy’s Authorial Triumvirate: James Whitcomb Riley, Booth Tarkington, and Kurt Vonnegut. While I could write for days on these authors, their import, and the stamp they left on both literary culture and their home city… well, let’s be honest, I’m here for the burgers!
I knew the Red Key as “that spot that I used to drive by on my way to Broad Ripple” back when I lived in the Mapleton-Fall Creek neighborhood… that is, until Buzzfeed published their 12 Historic Bars Every Book Nerd Needs to Visit list back in 2014. I’m not used to seeing Indianapolis show up on lists like that, so needless to say, I was a bit shocked to see a storefront that I recognized as being from my own hometown. Apparently, the Red Key was a favorite haunt of Vonnegut on his frequent visits to his hometown and currently serves as a ‘home base’ of sorts for Hoosier author Dan Wakefield, who hosts a radio show called “Uncle Dan’s Story Hour” there every month. (Tickets for the monthly event are available online at Eventbrite, but it tends to sell out – March’s session, recording tonight, has been full since February!) Wakefield was such a fan of the bar that he featured it prominently in his 1970 novel Going All the Way, and scenes from the film adaptation (starring Jeremy Davies and Ben Affleck) were even filmed there!
In addition to being featured in Buzzfeed’s literary bar rundown, the Red Key was also the only bar in the state of Indiana to make The Daily Meal’s 2015 list of the 150 Best Bars in America, where it ranked at number 106.
The Red Key was founded in 1933 by the Duke Brothers as the Old English Tavern before being renamed ‘Red Key’ the next year when it was purchased by Jack Buening. It changed hands a couple more times before being bought by WWII vet and POW Russ Settle in 1951, who passed away in 2010. Settle’s family still runs the place and his wife Dollie’s recipes are still on the menu. (You can read the full history of the Red Key on their website.) The bar is almost the very definition of a neighborhood bar. Located in the Meridian-Kessler neighborhood, it seems to cater more to regulars than a lot of new business. I walked in on a Saturday mid-morning, about an hour after they had opened, and was greeted with a tentative “Can I help you?” from the bartender.
“Are you open?” I asked.
“…yes,” she replied.
“I was hoping to get lunch, if that’s okay.”
She squinted past the model planes that hang from the ceiling to look at a clock on the far wall before muttering, “Well, I guess it is past eleven, isn’t it…?”
I sat down at the bar and ordered a beer and food. The bar has no beer on tap, so everything comes from a bottle or a can. (From the looks of the fully stocked bar, they also do some mean cocktails.) I ordered a local craft brew with a glass and was given the ice cold can and a small cocktail glass to pour the full pint into (in increments, obviously). While I sipped, I took in the ambience.
As I mentioned before, the Red Key has several model planes dangling from the ceiling, a callback to founder Russ Settle’s time in the Army Air Corp in WWII. There’s the head of a deceased deer-like animal above the bar nestled between two large, old-timey-looking murals. There’s a decent amount of seating in the small space. Across from the bar are a row of framed photographs depicting mostly what I assumed to be Russ and family, along with some of the bar’s more famous patrons – among them Kurt Vonnegut and Dan Wakefield. Most of the accents are dark wood. This is the kind of bar that hasn’t changed much in the last 75 years… and that’s the way the regulars probably like it.
I ordered the cheeseburger, naturally, with a side of potato salad, but was told they had sold out of the potato salad. (Since I was clearly the first customer of the day, I took that to mean they hadn’t made any that day, which was disappointing, because all indications led me to believe that the potato salad was something quite special.) I opted instead for a cup of the chili, which I was told was a seasonal menu item offered between October and April annually (“about every six months,” the bartender informed me). The chili ended up being a really nice accompaniment to the burger – it was served piping hot and steaming and was loaded with lots of spicy ground beef!
The burger, though, was the real highlight. It’s every bit a ‘no frills’ burger, to the point where it’s even served on a styrofoam plate rather than a ceramic one. It’s a thick ground beef patty – wonderfully seasoned and cooked on a flattop grill – on a lightly-toasted white bread bun with a slice of American cheese melted atop the meat. ‘Everything on it’ included iceberg lettuce, a rather thick slice of tomato, a full slice of white onion (rather than just a few rings), some dill pickle slices, and mayo.
The burger was cooked fresh, but I was never asked exactly how I wanted it cooked (which, unless it’s a smashed patty burger, is kind of a pet peeve of mine). It was cooked to a perfect medium well, which is a shade overdone for my preferences, but still managed to come out fairly juicy. The meat was wonderfully seasoned and overall very tasty. Like I did with the Double Cheeseburger at the Workingman’s Friend, I got a little nostalgic eating the cheeseburger at the Red Key, my mind going back to childhood cookouts and time spent with family.
A couple things that threw me about the burger at the Red Key, however, were the MTB ration which was thrown off more by the size of the slice of the tomato than anything else (it was really thick – about half the thickness of my burger). The bun also wasn’t terribly good at holding everything together either, which made for some issues with eatability. Still, it’s no wonder that Red Key has gained notoriety for its food with a burger that altogether tasty.
As I was finishing and the bartender was cashing me out, she asked how everything was.
“Very good,” I replied honestly.
“Good,” she said with a smile. “Then you’ll be back.”
That’s when it hit me that, while the Red Key is a bar that seems to cater almost exclusively to their established clientele, no business can survive that way for long. It falls to a younger generation to seek out these historic establishments and patronize them, otherwise, we may find ourselves in a place without a past, which is a very frightening prospect… for me, at least. So, do yourselves a favor and grab a burger and a drink at the Red Key. Hopefully, they’ll have some potato salad made for you when you get there.
FINAL RANKING: 8.2/10
Red Key Tavern
5170 N College Ave.
Indianapolis, IN 46205
Cost Range: $ ($7 and under)