I was fully intending to write a story on a completely different subject, but St. Elmo’s got in the way. I am, in all honesty, slightly tipsy as I write this. St. Elmo’s is a place that encourages such things. Besides, as Ernest Hemingway famously said, “write drunk, edit sober.”
In 1902, a restaurant and bar opened up in downtown Indianapolis called St. Elmo’s. It is one of those places with overdone booths, lots of paneling, and a mosaic tile floor in front of the enormous bar.
During prohibition the place had to have been a speakeasy. It’s right out of central casting in that respect, and so is the entire staff. Over-dressed in stiff formal shirts, they all seem comfortable and unflappable. Our waiter, Brett, is a comic book good looking fellow – graying at the temples, 1,000 watt smile, consistently personable – and a fantastic waiter.
Tony Borroz is attending the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500, scheduled for Sunday, May 28th, 2017. This series, Bricks And Bones, explores the cultural significance, endearing legacy, and the nitty-gritty phenomenon of The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
Wall of Fame
Why, you might ask, am I wasting your precious time and management’s delicate space in this publication talking about a restaurant? Because St. Elmo’s, since time immemorial, has been the place to eat if you are a driver, team owner, or a rich mechanic. The walls (which should be outfitted with mirrors so the hoi polloi of Indianapolis can watch themselves while they are eating) are lined with pictures of famous drivers and of the track from days gone by.
“There’s Mario,” I think to myself, noticing a four-by-four foot formal portrait. Autographed, of course. Foyt, Unser, Unser (again), Unser (little Al), Vukovich, and more black and white shots of the starting field than I can count. I see a few of the newer drivers’ shots here and there. Lyn St. James, former Indy 500 racer comes strolling in. Unnoticed by the gathering crowd, she draws my attention like a magnet. Shorter than I expected, she’s still frighteningly cute and charismatic and capable of driving a car 50% faster than I will ever be able to; everything a boy like me would like.
Bill Healey and I are sitting at our table in the bar section, chatting with Brett before he puts our order in.
Bill, with the casual ease of one local to another asks, “anyone been in?”
“Anyone” in this case, meaning drivers or recognizable team personnel.
“Oh sure,” Brett said. “Mario was in just a little while ago,” he continues, looking around as if he’s wondering where one of the most prominent people in the history of auto racing had wandered off too. When I mention Bill is an old friend of Mario’s (Andretti bought Bill’s grandparent’s home in ’65 when he moved to Speedway from Nazareth, Pennsylvania) Brett goes all agog. They start trading stories for a few before Brett goes and puts our order in.
Soon he returns with Elmo’s signature dish: Shrimp cocktail.
Yes, St. Elmo’s is a steak place. A very, very good steak place as it turns out, but they are, for some unexplained reason, known far and wide for their shrimp cocktail. I am not a big fan of shrimp in general, or shrimp cocktail for that matter, but hey, this is what the restaurant in Indy that all the drivers go to is known for, so of course I’m going to try it.
“This is Kosher, right,” I ask Brett as he approaches with a chilled silver bowl.
“Kosher as can be!” he says without missing a beat, adding a face imploding wink that is all dimple and smiles. As he sets the bowl of four shrimp drowning in cocktail sauce down, I notice he is not wearing a wedding ring. A given percentage of the women in Indy must have dated this guy, I think to myself, with an inward sigh known only to those of us who are not cartoonishly handsome.
“Gentleman, you have been warned,” Brett said before turning smartly and moving away.
Moment of Truth
He is, of course, referring to the cocktail sauce itself. It is famously high octane stuff. I can see chunks of horseradish floating within. I spear a shrimp, set it on the small side plate, and chop off a chunk with the absurdly tiny shrimp cocktail fork provided. “Wow,” I think to myself, “pretty good.” I immediately segment off another chunk.
Before I have completely swallowed it, my eyes tear slightly, and I feel my pupils snap closed to the size of pinheads. My sinuses feel like a domed NFL stadium with the doors open; light, airy, with a slight breeze entering from the south/southwest. Briefly I can see through time. It’s like shrimp flavored with napalm and sugar. Without hesitation I eat the rest of shrimp #1 and move directly onto #2. It goes without saying the steak was fantastic. Shoot, the baked potato was fantastic. And don’t get me started on the bread.
Brett comes and goes from time to time. We chat. Where are we sitting (meaning at the track for the race)? How many races has Healey gone too (all of them his entire live since he was a baby)? Where am I from (the middle of the desert)?
“Come back anytime,” Brett said, and he either means it or is so good at his job he can lie with complete conviction.
I pick up the check. I owe Healey. He’s bought me so many dinners over time, that alone should be enough. But Bill is also responsible for lining things up for getting me into the 500 itself. Bill knows people. When your grandparents sell their house on 16th to a young Italian racer in 1965, you know people. When your uncle has a place two houses down, also on 16th, and was a track guard during World War II, you know people. When your lifelong friends with Clint Brawner, you know people. When A.J. Watson calls you out in a crowd at the supermarket, and comes up to shake your hand, you know people. When the house I am currently sitting in and writing this is within 2 blocks of 16th and Georgetown Road, you know people.
You also know that when you come to the races, and someone asks, “where should we go for dinner,” that St. Elmo’s is, and always will be, the answer.
Tony Borroz has spent his entire life racing antique and sports cars. He means well, even if he has a bias towards lighter, agile cars rather than big engine muscle cars or family sedans.
Chapter 3: The Quiet Racer here.
Chapter 4: Hang Ten here.
Chapter 5: Female Perspective here.
Chapter 6: The Fearless Spaniard here.
Cover Photo: St. Elmo Steak House.