February 2010


On Local “Real Food”: Farm Bloomington is overrated.

Last night, my last night in Bloomington, I wasn’t really interested in venturing too far from my hotel: although it wasn’t really cold there was a definite nip to the air and the idea of going outside for a long walk was unpleasant.

Mentally I’d settled on going to the Irish Lion—until I popped into the Inner Chef, which is a stylish cooking equipment shop located between my hotel and the Irish Lion. As I was paying for my purchase, I noticed a flier for Farm Bloomington and the clerk was able to convince me to go there: Sit in the bar and order the Lugar Burger was the gist. He recommended the bar because the service was more consistent and better there than in the dining room and the Lugar Burger because it was the best thing on the menu—that and Chili-Cheese Fries.

He’d convinced me; although I don’t like eating in bars and my lactose issues kept the fries of my personal menu.

I should have gone with my gut feeling and eaten at the Irish Lion.

This wasn’t my first visit to Farm Bloomington: it was my third.

Looks Sophisticated.

My first was one or two years ago and it was a long rocking evening with what I can only call a “gal-pal”—the kind of woman I’d want to mother my kids, if I were that kind of guy. We’d had a good and expensive time surrounded by farm implements and bedpans. The second visit was with a different group of friends and we headed for the “Root Cellar” to drink wine and hang out—the root cellar is a bar cum “performance” venue with subdivided spaces and brick walls.

Between these two visits I’d decided that the restaurant was a bit pretentious, expensive, and ultimately a bit phony. It’s not actually some place I expected to survive because there are just so many other down-home honest places in Bloomington.

So I was actually a bit surprised that the Inner Chef’s clerk persuaded me, but I figured why not—how bad (and expensive) could it be?

The answer was, unfortunately, very.

First up, I should have taken his warning and sat in the bar. Instead I sat in the dining room and at first they tried to sit me in the front half where I would have been exposed by its bright lights to passing pedestrians. I’m sorry but (to borrow an old phrase) homey don’t play that game. I don’t want pedestrians watching me eat. I don’t want to be the only customer in the front room. I quickly said no and was ushered into the space behind the host-stand and seated at a small table.

Initially this was ok: my waitress promptly took my drink order and then told me a list of specials that was sufficiently long that she apologized and offered to read it to me again. (I started to wonder if I was being pranked the way TV Bloopers and Practical Jokes did back in the 1980s—unsuspecting restaurant patrons would be read a list of specials that lasted at least 10 minutes; their reactions recorded by hidden cameras.) I don’t recall the particulars at this point but there were two soups, several main course suggestions, and an Amish cheese plate appetizer (as I recall).

She left me to peruse the menu and after thinking for a little while, I opted for the previously recommended “Lugar Burger”, which is a buffalo burger coming with cheese, bacon, and a side of potato salad. I omitted the cheese—which seemed to throw the waitress a curve and she asked at least once, if not twice, if I actually did not want cheese.

It was around then that I remembered to give my waitress the card that the Inner Chef had provided – it promised to treat me extra well as a friend visiting from the Inner Chef. I have no idea how my service was different from any other customer’s service; if anything it proved to be worse.

The Senator Lugar is far better than Burger Lugar.

I’d brought a magazine to read so I wasn’t paying too much attention to the clock, but it did seem to take relatively long for my burger to come out—and once it was presented to me, the waitress promised to check back with me in a few minutes. Fortunately she left bottles of mustard and “chipotle” ketchup on the table because I would need a lot of the ketchup—and, as an aside, getting thick, slow moving mustard out narrow necked bottle is difficult—German do it right and provide wide necked bottles that you can put a knife in. I think my efforts amused a diner at another table. The ketchup was a bit more fluid.

I assembled the burger to my liking: mustard, ketchup, lettuce, and onion on top – tomatoes off to the side – and started eating it with my hands. I had just taken my first bite when the waitress returned and asked me my opinion—which I was still trying to formulate.

After choking down the first bite, I lied: “it’s fine”.

She left and I didn’t see her again until after I was done eating.

It took me a few moments to diagnose what was wrong, but basically my meal was drier that the Sahara Desert. The bun was toasted—not quite burned, but toasted enough that it was probably seconds from being burned. The burger itself was pretty dry: I’d ordered it medium-rare and it seemed to arrive with a split personality: the first part was closer to well while the second part seemed to be medium-rare tending toward rare.

I ended up pouring a lake of ketchup and resorting to my knife and fork to cut bite sized pieces of the burger, which would be promptly be dunked in ketchup in an effort to get more moisture into the whole shebang.

Ultimately the only thing on my plate that was actually good was the potato salad.

Apparently the Lugar Burger was named the best burger in Indiana by the Food Network Magazine. Based on my experience I suspect that the judges visited only visited two restaurants: Farm Bloomington and Steak ‘n Shake. Steak ‘n Shake must have been having a slightly off day.

After I finished my waitress eventually returned and I made my usual vaguely non-committal, vaguely positive sounds about the meal – what could they realistically do? She asked if I wanted to see the desert menu, and I did.

Here presentation is everything: I’d picked up my magazine again and instead of leaving the menu on the corner of the table within my vision and letting me pick it up when I was ready, she shoved it in front of my face holding it there until I took it from her.


The dessert menu looked nice but I decided against it—opting instead for the check.

This was a process that started to resemble East German service. She went off to get it, returned awhile later with it, and, since I’d foreseen this, I was prepared with cash paper money waiting and after quickly reviewing the bill, I was ready to pay—and, I was a bit surprised, she promptly took my money. However, she did not promptly return with my change. It took at least 5 minutes, if not ten, for her to bring it to me—and I suspect it would have been longer had she not realized I was staring at her as she walked past.

As I left I was wondering what special service(s) I’d received as a result of the card I gave my waitress. The burger was dry; my waitress was slow and inattentive; and there was nothing extra on the table—unless you count the mustard and ketchup.

It all seemed a bit too much—and fake beyond belief.

The restaurant itself is clearly a part of the current trend for “local food” and “real food”. The food is sourced from nearby farms and ranches—my buffalo burger was once living at a ranch near Gosport, a small town located just outside Bloomington. The restaurant tries to give off an ethos of authentic goodness and farm-fresh quality.

It’s also pretentious, expensive, and ultimately a bit phony. I listened to an older gentleman sit at the table next to me with a first time visitor and he obviously loved the place and knew the maitre-de. He pointed out the farm implements décor to his companion; and yes, the décor is quaint: old-fashioned farm implements are hanging from the ceiling.

There are also bedpans hanging on the wall outside the toilets.

The décor here is authentically fake—it’s not down home Indiana, it’s what the owner thinks that big-city folks want to see in a “real food” restaurant. New Yorkers would flock to Farm Bloomington because of its décor—and be charmed into thinking that whatever came out of its kitchen would be wholesome, authentic, fresh, organic, and delicious.

This is why I’m surprised that Farm Bloomington has survived: Bloomington isn’t New York City. People in Bloomington can be in authentic countryside, visiting authentic farms, and seeing actual farm implements in 10 minutes. There’s no need to visit a pretentious, expensive, and phony joint on Kirkwood to get this experience.

It just doesn’t make sense to me—unless it’s survives because of the university and people who are unwilling or unable to do it themselves.

3 comments to On Local “Real Food”: Farm Bloomington is overrated.

  • koko

    I didn’t know that place even existed. However, after living away from the almighty Bloomington…I’ve found that most of the establishments in Bloomington are over priced and mediocre at best. I have a few favorite places but sometimes their service is questionable. It just seems like they are not very consistent with the quality of their food and service.

  • disenchanted

    Buffalo is usually really lean so you have to be very, very careful not to overcook it. Someone obviously wasn’t paying attention to the grill.

  • bloomingfoodie

    I live in Bloomington and have been to Farm only once, which is strange since I love food and have been to most restaurants in town. I think the hype kept me away. The time I visited Farm the food was fine but not stellar, and the service so-so. Echoing your comments it struck me as a place out-of-towners would enjoy as a “real Bloomington experience.” The prices are too high for me to visit more than occasionally, and there’s an aura of pretentiousness surrounding the restaurant. I much prefer The Uptown or the Trojan Horse, which are on the same block, and neither would have a problem accommodating lactose issues.