Sunday, March 9th, 2014

Sunday Night Dinner in Indianapolis

Sunday night dinner in Herron-Morton Place, Indianapolis. This is one of three dinner groups in that neighborhood. Photo by Amanda Reynolds (check out the mirror!)

Urban culture varies radically from city to city. Yet to a great extent the culture of the usual suspects type of places tends to get portrayed as normative. In New York, for example, with its tiny apartments, the social life is often in public, in many cases literally on the streets of the city, which pulse with energy. As the ne plus ultra of cities, the street life of New York is often seen as what every place should aspire to. There’s a body of literature which attributes all sorts of positive effects to this New York style urbanism, such as the notion of “collisions” and “serendipitous encounters”. But while New York’s street life and social scene may indeed be engaging, how often does one actually strike up a conversation with someone random on the street or in a coffee shop there that turns into something meaningful? The only collisions I’ve ever had there were literal.

New York is the most well known and championed style of interaction, though hardly the only one. Think of San Francisco and something clearly distinct will come to mind, albeit with some similarities. LA has its own mythos. The TV show Portlandia does a great job of capturing our idea of the quirky urban life of that city.

Cities that lack the cachet of an NYC, SF, or Portland can often find their own urban culture lacking in comparison. To be taken seriously, the logic goes, they must measure up to the yardstick defined by others. But while I do not subscribe to the idea of value free cultural comparisons, I do believe cities need not judge themselves as wanting just because they don’t function like New York City. Rather, they should seek to be the best they can be on their own terms. Since few cities are anything like New York, aspiring to that kind of urbanism would only be a case study in frustration anyway.

Indianapolis cultural commentator David Hoppe once said something to the effect that “the social life of Indianapolis happens in back yards.” And this is true. Unlike a New York City, Indianapolis does not wow you just by walking down the street. While I believe in trying to contextualize the facts on the ground in the most positive way possible for moving forward, that doesn’t mean reclassifying genuine defects as virtues. In the case of Indianapolis, the generally poor impression left by its built environment and lack of street life can’t be denied. There are plenty of great places to go, but you generally need someone to point you in the right direction.

But there are countervailing virtues as well, ones generally under appreciated. Unlike New York, Indy has a far more robust social life in private spaces like houses and back yards. This produces a qualitatively different type of social capital, one with its own unique set of strengths.

One example of this is the emergence of community based Sunday dinners. This was an organic movement and as a result lacks a fancy name, but in keeping with the generally low key and unpretentious character of the city, let’s just call it Sunday Night Dinner.

Sunday night dinners are a type of intentional community in which 6-8 families in a neighborhood decide to get together for dinner every Sunday night on a rotating basis. This originated in 2006 on Pleasant St. in the Fountain Square neighborhood when a group of neighbors decided to start getting together regularly for dinner. Here’s how Tonya Beeler, one of the founding members, describes it:

When most of us talk about it, we just call it Sunday Night Dinner. It’s unassuming, I know – but that’s what Sunday Dinner is to us. We’ve had it consistently for almost 8 years – having only cancelled dinner a handful of times. The majority of the families on the original list are still regular participants and we’ve added and lost a few through the years.

What is Sunday Night Dinner to us? In this stage in our lives, its sometimes difficult to physically connect to your neighbors, but we know that each Sunday we’re going to see our friends. It’s also a good time to have newcomers to the neighborhood connect with some of us old timers. We’ve also had visits from Mayor Ballard (before he was elected) and Melina Kennedy (when she was running) and I still have a fond memory of John Day sitting down to sup with us. But what is it mostly? Just a day in the week where we meet to take a breath, sit down, and eat together. It’s my favorite day of the week.

I used to be part of a quarterly dinner club in Chicago. Given the frequency, our idea was to make each dinner “special” in the sense that we went all out with super high-quality food, etc. In Indy, while good food is certainly part of the equation, the regular weekly cadence means it’s as much about friends and neighbors as it is special ambiance. It’s about regular life lived in the city. In the picture at the top it’s paper plates and plastic cups all the way – and that’s just fine. Can’t stay for some reason? No worries, bring some tupperware, grab some food, and run. In a sense, it’s the Kinfolk Magazine ethic (motto: doing things simple sure is complicated – and expensive) in genuine form, shorn of Portland pretense.

Sunday night dinner in the Beeler’s backyard in Fountain Square, Indianapolis, Easter 2012. Photo: Cindy Ragsdale

Oh, and typically with children, which actually exist in abundance in Indianapolis.

The idea spread and now there are Sunday night dinner groups all over the city. I’m told there are three in Herron-Morton Place alone, which I can’t quite wrap my head around given how small the area is.

I can’t help but notice the similarity of these dinner groups to religious small group gathering. In the last couple decades, Evangelical churches have moved away from mid-week services in favor of small group gathering during the week (sometimes called home groups or other names). The idea is to promote more actual community than is possible in a larger assembly format. These dinner groups are in effect secular small groups, ones that help provide the sense of connectedness, regularity, and rootedness that’s so often missing from our contemporary world.

Outdoor fun on Sunday night isn’t just for summer in Herron-Morton Place, Indianapolis. Photo by Amanda Reynolds.

These groups aren’t just walled garden cliques, however. The host generally invites guests to attend. So there’s a type of brokered introduction which in my experience is the real source of “serendipitous” encounters of genuine value. An arranged guest invite is one way to get people connected in their neighborhood, or even to help people who are deciding whether or not to take the plunge into city living to get a feel for what life lived in a particular neighborhood is actually like.

In fact, if you are visiting Indianapolis on a Sunday night, or live there and want to check it out, email the City Gallery at the Harrison Center For the Arts and they will set you up. The email address is

I don’t want to suggest that Indianapolis invented the concept of the dinner club or is the only place such events occur. For all I know, lots of places do this. (Heck, as big as it is, odds are that includes New York City). And as with all traditions, this particular instantiation will likely die off at some point (though it’s still growing eight years after starting on Pleasant St). Yet the prevalence of this type of cultural phenomenon is part of the explanation for why Indianapolis has consistently managed to punch above its weight class in so many areas. Although the type of obvious assets and strength evidenced by super-cool buildings or crowds on the street may be lacking in Indianapolis vis-a-vis some other places, the city contains deep reservoirs of cultural capital that aren’t as visible and may never be fully understood or mapped, but nevertheless are of profound importance. This is the real secret sauce of the city.

Copying this idea, locally or anywhere, is definitely welcomed. Should you be interested, here are the “Indianapolis Rules” for Sunday night dinners, courtesy of Tonya Beeler:

1. Dinner is every Sunday night, with six to eight families, each hosting on a rotating basis.

2. The host is responsible for preparing all of the food for everyone. (Work? Yes, but it also means seven weeks of not having to do anything but show up).

3. The host is responsible for inviting all guests. Do not invite guests without checking with the host first.

4. If you’re not coming, tell the host as far in advance as possible.

5. At the very beginning of the dinner, the host makes sure all the guests know of any rules for the house (no one allowed upstairs, kids can’t eat in the living room, toilet handle needs to be held down for 3 seconds, whatever).

6. If your family will not be coming for dinner, but you still want food, there’s no need to let the host know, just stop by early in the meal (so you don’t miss anything, food goes fast!!!) with some tupperware and fill it to go.

Sunday night dinner in Fountain Square, Indianapolis. Painting by Kyle Ragsdale.

Topics: Urban Culture
Cities: Indianapolis

15 Responses to “Sunday Night Dinner in Indianapolis”

  1. Matt Hall says:

    “Urban’ means ‘public’ to many people. I think that is what distinguishes some cities from others. If things aren’t understood as truly public, they are different, not less, but different.

  2. TJIndy says:

    Thanks for the interesting story. It reminded me of how I first started meeting a lot of people in Indianapolis when I first moved to the city in 1984. I met a guy who invited me to what he called “Saturday Night Dinner”. It was a group of about 12 – 15 people who took turns cooking the Saturday night meal for all of the guests. There were usually about 15 – 20 people who attended. 10 – 12 of the regulars along with four to six guests each time. To tell “the rest of the story” — it was a group of gay men who met at the same place: a very, very nice townhome in downtown Indy each week which the owner allowed to be used for the dinners. It was just up to the person in charge of cooking each week to get there early and bring all of the food. While it probably was a little more focused on the “social” end of things, it probably wasn’t too different from the types of neighborhood dinners described in the story above.

    I was part of this group for several years and probably cooked dinners about fifteen times or so for groups ranging from a dozen people to one time when I cooked for about 40! As was noted in the story, although it is expensive when it is your turn to make the meal — you do get to eat for free every Saturday night except for the three or four times each year when it is your turn. With our group, the food was usually very good – with plenty to drink as well!

    It was a great way to get to meet a lot of people quickly and many of these people have remained my best friends even to today. One thing that makes this not too difficult in Indy is the relatively low cost of living. People with average jobs don’t have too much trouble owning homes and can spend money on other things besides spending it all on housing, food and transportation. (In the early 90’s I bought my nice, small two bedroom bungalow in a safe neighborhood with tree-lined streets by a beautiful park located about 2 miles from downtown for $53,000. I paid it off in 15 years and still live there.)

    It seems that, while for the most part people work hard at their jobs, a big part of “Life” in Indy is about enjoying yourself, helping to make people feel welcome and doing things as part of a team to help make improvements and to help build a stronger community. There are many people who are very willing to help people make connections. They realize that it takes a lot of people working together to do good things and there are a lot of people who enjoy volunteering and doing many things to help make the community and their neighborhoods better. Whether getting together for these social building dinners initially – or now, with my strong involvement in my neighborhood organization — I have always found it easy to find good people who want to help you meet the right people and succeed and, with more people working together to make improvements of various types in the community – it helps make Indy an increasingly attractive place to live.

  3. TJ, thanks for sharing. That’s more evidence this is actually cultural as I noted.

  4. Chris Barnett says:

    This seems to me a secular form of church-basement pitch-in dinners; as you noted, it is not a whole lot different from the “house church” movement either.

    It is a way of building community at a human scale, something that occurs in every kind and size of settlement.

    I’d leave it to the sociologists, but it seems to me not a lot different from English “pub culture” in meeting the need for a place where one is known and accepted.

  5. Jon Seisa says:

    This type of communal camaraderie is not just great and stimulating but strengthens bonds. Delicious food and wine is a real unifier. I wouldn’t mind doing this but on a much smaller scale, say, 4 like-minded main adults and/or significant others (for the 4 Sundays of the month). In my family growing up, the Sunday Brunch was very big and attended by all my aunts, uncles and cousins. But eventually it disintegrated when the older adults started to die off and graduated to the big dining table in the sky. I do miss those memorable times… and those kitchen percolating aromas.

  6. George Mattei says:

    Interesting. I noted in a recent post comment that, on my last trip to Indianapolis, I had somewhat of a hard time finding sit-down restaurants outside of downtown, and when I did, they were half-empty on a Saturday evening. Compare to Columbus which-for better or worse-has a gazillion TGI O’Charlie-bees around the outerbelt that are packed form 5 to 9 PM every night, later on weekends.

    This cultural trend in Indy may explain some of that-maybe people are spending time with neighbors in their backyard instead of with 100 of their closest strangers in a restaurant.

  7. Chris Barnett says:

    George, I assure you that metro Indy is full of Chili O’Charley Olive bees. Just not where these dinner groups meet…The chains are in suburban locations.

  8. John Morris says:

    Some of you may know about Detroit’s soup/ dinner fundraisers?

    “Detroit SOUP is a microgranting dinner celebrating and supporting creative projects in Detroit. For a donation $5 attendees receive soup, salad, bread and a vote and hear from four presentations ranging from art, urban agriculture, social justice, social entrepreneurs, education, technology and more. Each presenter has four minutes to share their idea and answer four questions from the audience. At the event, attendees eat, talk, share resources, enjoy art and vote on the project they think benefits the city the most. At the end of the night, we count the ballots and the winner goes home with all of the money raised to carry out their project. Winners come back to a future SOUP dinner to report their project’s progress.”

    We were doing something like that in Pittsburgh, called Soup N’at

  9. BLW says:

    Could you amplify on your phrase “the generally poor impression left by its built environment”? I suspect that the impression starts with our sparse downtown architecture, but you may have captured the broader uninterestingness of the place. Even so, wouldn’t you admit that the situation has improved and stands to get better?

  10. BLW, Indy is no Detroit, but the parts of the piece below by Pete Saunders about Detroit’s housing stock and public realm apply just as well to Indy:

    I might note that Detroit’s residential streets are actually better designed than Indy’s, as Pete’s photos make clear. Notice the full sidewalks and parkway buffers between the sidewalk and curb. That’s missing in most of even the old city of Indianapolis.

  11. George Mattei says:

    Chris, you’re right-they do. I looked on several common chain restaurants for locations in both Indy and Columbus-sure enough-they are there. I think maybe the difference is that in Columbus they seem to be RIGHT off the highway-you see the signs easily and know they are there. In Indy, they seem to be a bit farther off the exit, maybe?

    I don’t know why we had a hard time finding them last time I was there. However, I stand corrected.

  12. Chris Barnett says:

    George, Indy has only about 60% as much highway as Columbus inside the beltway, so there are not as many exits nor as much stuff “right off the highway”. Of Indy’s five major enclosed malls, only one (the worst of the lot) is right off I-65 inside the loop. Two others (healthy) are just off the I-465 loop on the north side, and the other healthy one is on US31 five miles south of the loop. The other one (not dying but not great) is off US40 a couple miles east of the loop.

    As I pointed out on that other thread, “inside the loop” dining skews toward local and local chain sit-down, as well as fast food. The “Chilibees” tend to be near or outside the loop by the major malls. That’s a bit of an oversimplification, but more true than not.

    Back to the point of the post:

    The dinner groups Aaron mentions are in core and near-core Indy neighborhoods, between 1 and 3 miles from downtown. Many of the people I know who live there are urbanists who have consciously chosen to reject suburban accoutrements, including chain restaurants…partly because those same chains would never consider locating in their neighborhoods.

  13. urbanleftbehind says:


    The athletic and agricultural research areas near the OSU campus area (particularly Lane Avenue and areas near the SR-315/Olentangy River Road corridor) contain a modicum of sit-down chain restaurants that are technically near the core of Columbus, although they are located to service OSU-generated clientele. In the early morning of my graduation ceremony, I took one look at the line outside of a Bob Evans on Olentangy River Road and decided to high-tail it to a diner along High Street a good 1 1/2 or 2 miles north of Lane Avenue. Great choice, small crowd, quiet, hearty food.

  14. BLW says:

    As to #10 yes I couldn’t agree more. When I moved to Indianapolis in the late ’70s, the very first thing that caught my attention was the absence of curbs and adequate sidewalks. The situation has improved lately, but the damage to the post-World War II suburbs is done.

  15. John Morris says:

    Getting back to the original topic. I wish Aaron posted more about this kind of subtle human interaction. Words like civil society and and social capital describe something very real, if not always easy to quantify.

    One of the best arguments against zoning and certainly large scale urban renewal programs is that real communities are built over time. Its no surprise that large developments built at once so often fail.

    Zoning that allows for gradual adjustment, adaptation and change lets places grow while retaining social capital.

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