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Tavern On the Plaza: a tasty outdoor option

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Tavern On the Plaza's Baby Back Ribs ($11). Photo by Mark Lee
  • Tavern On the Plaza's Baby Back Ribs ($11). Photo by Mark Lee

We were downtown at half past 6 p.m., the temperature still hovering near 90 degrees. But, we thought, this is May — way too early in the season to be taking cover in conditioned air, especially on an otherwise lustrous evening. So we headed to Tavern On the Plaza for a bite.

Tavern On the Plaza is the JW Marriott's latest flourish, a spacious outdoor cafe located on the hotel's northwest corner, across from the Eiteljorg and Indiana State museums, and immediately adjacent to local designer Jeff Laramore's scarlet swoosh, also known as "The Cardinal," one of the more successful pieces of public sculpture to be installed downtown.

The considerable talent behind Osteria Pronto, the terrific Italian restaurant located on the JW's first floor, is responsible for TOP, but that's not to say that Osteria's menu has merely been transported into the open. While some signature items (the formidable meatball dish, Spaghetti Vecchio Mondo, for example) are on offer, TOP's menu includes a selection of other dishes, like burgers and baby back ribs, that are prepared on a grill installed at the edge of the dining area. There's also a well fortified bar for cocktails, beer and wine.

We started with a couple of salads, the Top ($7) and a Classic Caesar ($8). These were served in generously proportioned bowls. The Top consisted of mixed lettuces with toasty garlic croutons and robust shavings of Parmesan cheese, topped with a bright balsamic dressing. The Caesar found the right balance between tartness and cream that managed to be refreshing, despite the ambient evening warmth.

My companion followed her salad with a half order of the Penne Primavera ($10), a creamy green pasta dish, including fresh peas, tomatoes, eggplant and zucchini, mixed with what amounted to a Gorgonzola cheese pesto. The flavors of the fresh vegetables were actually amplified by the rich cheese, which kept its place in the mix and refrained from overpowering the other ingredients.

I ordered a half slab of the Baby Back Ribs ($11). This abundant serving of six heavy-duty bones came with sides of jalapeno slaw and baked beans. The choice of a serving of fruit or chips, standard with all grilled dishes, was almost too much.

The ribs were slathered in a rich, if not particularly original, sauce. They were awesomely meaty but, alas, on the springy side for me — this meat didn't slide from the bone. Those sides, on the other hand, were superb. The slaw was downright refreshing, the peppers giving it a remarkable dash of pep. And the beans — infiltrated with finely shredded pork — were a marvelous complement. All in all, this was a prodigious meal for the price.

We finished by sharing an order of Ice Cream ($7), which turned out to be a gelato parfait, consisting of strawberry, mocha-like chocolate and vanilla scoops, with ripe strawberries, blueberries and blackberries. It was topped with a daub of whipped cream plus sticks of white and dark chocolate swirls. Lovely.

We slaked our thirsts with a couple of our favorite Indiana brews, a bottle of 3 Floyds Pride and Joy ($6.50) and a can of Sun King's Sunlight Cream ($7). Service, a seeming hallmark of the JW Marriott brand, was unfailingly friendly.

With its easy access to the museums and other attractions at White River State Park, Victory Field and the Canal Walk, Tavern On the Plaza represents a tasty new option for folks who want to be downtown without having to go indoors. While we were there, a quartet of cyclists pulled up for a meal. At last, Indy's downtown is finally starting to find a style it can call its own. Places like TOP are helping make it happen.

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