After going to more contemporary joints the last couple of weeks I thought we needed a change. We needed to go back to our roots. So we decided to visit a local legend. The Working Man’s Friend. Pat and I have both been here several times but this is the first time we visited together. Sometimes we forget that the older joints have as much to offer a community as the newer more trendy spots. This place opened in 1918 as a lunch counter built by an immigrant from Macedonia named Louie Stamatkin. We met the third generation owner; Becky, and she has as clear a business perspective as her ancestor. She showed us a copy of the history of the joint, the short version;but I didn’t bring my scanner so I had to rely on the phone camera.
I apologize for the poor copy. I was unable to find an alternate source so this is all I am able to give.
The place offers several tables and a 60 foot long bar. A bar that was the longest in Indianapolis when it was built in 1952. Since their menu is limited they rely on 2 signs to tell the clientele. A small one on a side wall.
And a more extensive sigh behind the bar.
As a bar they do offer the basic liquors and bottled beer. As for their drafts they only offer Bud and Bud Light. Of course they do sell a 32 ounce frosted goblet for about 5 bucks.
As for the “ambiance” it was as old-time as you would expect. No exposed ducts or art work. Just the usual beer distributor give a ways behind the bar.
Pat and I both opted for burgers. They do have a fish sandwich,but Pat forgot that,or didn’t notice so he ordered a double with fries.
About their burgers. They are simply ground beef, nothing proprietary,just plain cow. They seem to be put up in 4 ounce patties and then smashed on a hot griddle. The seasoning is minimal;if at all. The appeal is the beefy crispness of the burger. The bun is a generic store bun but the overall flavor makes this an exceptional bite. They use shredded lettuce;which I do like, even though I opted for just onion and pickle. For the double they give a middle bun;like a Big Mac. But you can get it without.
My single was crispy and tasty. There is always a danger that a smashed burger can be dry. But if they are done with the proper amount of attention and brought out in time that is not an issue. Pat opted for fries but I decided on onion rings. These are beer battered and fried and are delicious.
I was very impressed with the rings. I know they are the bane of Pat’s existence but if you aren’t allergic a good battered onion ring is a wonder. So if you want to wander into an Old School lunch room then by all means try this one. They are open from 11 to 5 and only take cash.
This week we didn’t have lunch at just any joint, we had lunch at an Indianapolis Landmark. The Red Key. The Red Key has been an institution on the north side since 1953, when Russ Settle and his wife opened. Mr. Settle was a WW II veteran. A B-17 co-pilot and a POW. So to say he didn’t suffer fools gladly would be an understatement. I think the epitome of his approach to business would be his rules. They are as valid now as they were then.
This joint is as rugged as John Wayne and as authentic as Humphrey Bogart. I don’t think the decor has changed in at least 40 years. But it sure is comfortable. Like a pair of favorite slippers.
Pat suggested this place a few weeks back. Fran, Pat’s wife wanted to go there for her Birthday. She’s not a native Hoosier and she had heard a lot about its history and wanted to see for herself. She enjoyed the charm and simplicity of the place and it got Ol’ Pat thinking. Since we are cheerleaders for the small business owner why not go to a place that is the epitome of Mom and Pop joints. After all Red Key has been around for 60 years. As you can expect the menu is small. During the day there is only one person on duty. Bartender / server / cook.
Pat and I both opted for cheeseburgers. His with BBQ chips and mine with potato salad.
The burgers are simple flat top affairs. Grocery store meat and grocery store buns. No aioli, or special sauces. Beef cooked through, with crispy edges and American cheese. Personally I like the fact that they don’t use red onion. If I get a cold set on a burger it will be white or yellow onion and dill chips. So the burgers 4 thumbs up. I can’t say the same for the potato salad. It was home-made,and of the whipped variety, but it was pretty bland. It seemed to be cold mashed taters, a touch of mayo and some crunchy bits. Not real exciting.
Mr. Russ Settle passed away in 2010, and his son is running the show. After his passing IBJ wrote an article giving a bit of the history of the Red Key. I am including a link to that article to give people a feel for what the Red Key Tavern is.
I think a place like the Red Key is essential for the sanity of a city’s people. A quiet spot where you know what to expect. A place that has open and expressed rules. Unlike so many other joints that seem to have no limits on what goes on. I think that might appeal to a lot of folks. Not just old timers.