You've probably already heard the buzz over Indianapolis, or Columbus—now, less-expected cities like Fort Wayne, Indiana are starting to skew younger (and cooler).
Was the Midwest ever this cool? In an era where people as far away as California crave artisan ice creams made in Columbus, Ohio, when a city like Indianapolis can sustain one of the most refreshingly different daytime restaurants in the country—garnering its creator a F&W Best New Chef nod, back in 2015—when Cincinnati's craft beer scene, neighborhood restaurants and cafes in Detroit, and coffee roasters in rural Wisconsin are grabbing the attention of jaded coastal types, it's clear that not only is the Midwest making its presence felt far beyond the region, it is very often doing so through a rapidly evolving food and drink culture.
It shouldn't really have come as a surprise, then, to see names you might not have expected, smaller cities and towns, popping up on the radar. That's what happened just recently, when Yelp, in partnership with Realtor.com, released a survey of the hottest hipster zip codes in the country. The report mined data from the two sites, to essentially figure out where the next hotspots were going to be. Besides up-and-coming areas of Seattle and San Diego, two cities that are already immensely popular, sharing the top five were neighborhoods in Columbus, Ohio, Rochester, New York, and Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Wait. Fort Wayne?
The answer, actually, is yes. This mid-sized Rust Belt city up in Indiana's northeast quadrant, far enough away from most interstate highways to feel more than a little secluded, has actually done a thing that very few industrial cities have been able to manage in the post-industrial era—it has managed to keep from succumbing to the usual precipitous decline. While anyone driving into town, depending on the direction they are driving from, will have no trouble noticing that the city bears the typical Rust Belt scars—abandoned homes, empty lots, too many unloved blocks—beneath that sometimes hardscrabble exterior lies one of the Midwest's more interesting mid-sized cities.
Not only did it pretty much give America the refrigerator (Fort Wayne is the historic home of the Frigidaire), among other innovations, Fort Wayne was also an early adopter in the City Beautiful movement, today boasting over 90 miles of trails of multi-use trail in the city and surrounds. Foodwise, Fort Wayne is home to one of the best small collections of classic restaurant treasures around, from the vintage Cindy's Diner, to the miniscule Powers Hamburgers, a popular slider joint dating back to World War II. Visually, the city can have quite the impact, as well—architect Michael Graves built his first commissioned projects here, the city's Concordia Theological Seminary was designed by Michigan architect Eero Saarinen, while Louis Kahn's 1973 Arts United Center surprises visitors with its violin-case inspired visuals. Fort Wayne might not play in the big leagues, but it has always been a compelling place, one worth making a detour for.
These days, however, it seems that Fort Wayne is becoming flat out cool. Still in the phase where a visitor to the city will have to know just where to look for the signs—a downtown restaurant here, a block of beautifully refurbished homes over there, an annual festival that you hadn't heard of, not yet—it's clear that there's something afoot here, and that in an age where we're skeptical about everything, let alone lists making the rounds on the internet, Fort Wayne really is a place to keep your eye on. You might even say it's the next Columbus, or the new Indianapolis. (Don't laugh—both of those markets are now coping with surging house prices.)
Headed to town? There are a number of places worth checking out right now, but if you're looking to drill down to where the action really is, you have a few excellent choices. First stop, for sure, is Junk Ditch Brewing, a terrific brewpub with an impressive food menu. It's located in a renovated paper warehouse, just west of downtown; the brewery and restaurant began life as a popular food truck, back in 2012. Mornings, head east of downtown and over the bridge where three rivers—the Maumee, the St. Joseph and the St. Mary's—meet and look for Conjure Coffee, a roaster-café that also serves very good donuts by Hetty Arts Pastry, which has its own truck that makes the rounds, all year long. Come dinner time, book a table at downtown's Tolon, what Chef Matthew Nolot calls Fort Wayne's first "farm-to-fork" restaurant; it's a smart, rustic-modern space with a comfortable, but far from dull New American menu.