South Bend is a vibrant Midwestern metropolis with a cosmopolitan vibe, historic architecture, natural beauty, and culinary excellence.
Located on the winding St. Joseph River, the city is best known as the home of Notre Dame University, the mighty Fighting Irish athletic teams, and a world-famous golden dome crowning its main administration building.
Indiana’s 4th largest city, South Bend is also notable for Four Winds Field, the Class High-A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs major league baseball team, and Potawatomi Zoo, where four new giraffes are learning to love the limelight.
Collectively, South Bend and Mishawaka are known among locals as “The Bend.”
During a recent media visit sponsored in part by Visit Indiana, I found dining choices to be extensive and mostly locally owned. The Bend beckons with white tablecloth dining, fine international fare, farm-fresh fixings, and oh-so-divine chocolate. I share with you my favorite culinary experiences, in no particular order.
South Bend and Mikawasha are located in north-central Indiana, bordering the Michigan state line. The Bend is about 100 miles east of Chicago and 150 miles north of Indianapolis. The Interstate 80/90 toll road provides easy driving access, and South Bend International Airport offers nonstop flights to and from about a dozen cities. There’s also an Amtrak station on the west side of South Bend about two miles from downtown.
1. The Lauber
Fashioned from a century-old sheet metal company, The Lauber is a hip neighborhood eatery that complements its rich heritage. The building’s original occupant, J.C. Lauber Sheet Metal Company, produced metal building products and specialty architectural elements from 1890 until 2015. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1999.
After an extensive interior renovation, The Lauber opened with enticements of creative casual food and drink, a pup-friendly patio, and an industrial vibe. Many of the building’s original features, such as overhead garage doors and signage, remain in place as reminders of yesteryear.
What To Order At The Lauber
On the menu are an assortment of light bites, sandwiches, salads, and artisan pizzas. The bar serves two dozen beers on tap, a couple hundred distilled spirits, and signature and classic cocktails.
One of my companions raved about his mac and cheese grilled cheese sandwich, a gooey blend of melted cheese and a heap of macaroni and cheese on sourdough bread — and fries. I passed on the carb overload and chose the Neapolitan-style Show Stopper pizza with sweet tomato jam, fresh mozzarella, and a heaping mound of fresh arugula.
Pro Tip: Tin Can Nachos, layered with house-made salsa verde, smoked ancho chili cheese sauce, beef and beans, pickled jalapenos, and lots of other goodies, is a local tradition.
2. Café Navarre
Housed in a historic bank building from the 1920s, Café Navarre melds classical architecture with modern American cuisine and seasonal ingredients from local producers. Soaring radius windows, a barrel-vaulted ceiling rimmed with rosettes, and a sea of white tablecloths affirm the restaurant’s upscale, elegant nature. Dine on the main level, the mezzanine that overlooks the bustle below, or the sidewalk patio, weather permitting.
What To Order At Café Navarre
The menu features steaks and seafood trimmed with the bounties of seasonal harvest. For my main course, I selected the barramundi, which was beautifully presented on a bed of couscous and English pea puree, and surrounded by garden-fresh veggies. I also had the tomato salad with mozzarella, basil, and aged balsamic — it tasted like an explosion of summer.
Pro Tip: The extensive international wine list includes prestigious bubblies and exclusive cabernet sauvignons as well as wallet-friendly varietals.
3. Jesús Latin Grill And Tequila Bar
After meticulous restoration, a former Carnegie Library built in 1916 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places is one of the most popular eateries in The Bend. Jesús Latin Grill and Tequila Bar serves up an infusion of flavors from the global pan-Latin universe, from Mexico to the Caribbean to South America. On the bar roster are more than 250 tequila and mezcal spirits.
The restaurant entrance and outdoor patio are on the lower level at the back of the building, while the event and meeting spaces are at street level. The eclectic interior decor juxtaposes the building’s brick walls and other historic features with contemporary Latin art and modern light fixtures.
What To Order At Jesús Latin Grill And Tequila Bar
Menu offerings run the gamut from street-style tacos to fire-grilled steaks and seafood. We began our evening with several shareable appetizers, including a lively elote and sweet corn tamale combo, and yuca fries slathered in chimichurri pesto. For my entree, I ordered the Ahi Tuna Nikei, a colorful and not-too-spicy arrangement of seared tuna discs, avocado, cucumber, spiced peanuts, and some sauces over a bed of jasmine rice.
Of course, I had to have a margarita, so I chose the Jesús Classico, concocted with a touch of orange liqueur and a salt rim. You can order a margarita flight if you please.
Pro Tip: Canned cake, made in-house, is a dessert specialty. Mama’s Blueberry Sour Cream Cake is made with locally sourced organic blueberries. Yes, it really comes in a can.
4. South Bend Farmer’s Market Café
More than a century old, the indoor South Bend Farmer’s Market is one of the largest and most diverse emporiums in the Midwest. 50-plus farmers, producers, and artisans purvey their produce, meats, dairy products, baked goods, flowers, handicrafts, and more. The market is open 3 days a week year-round, and 4 days during the summer and fall. One of the mainstays is the Farmer’s Market Café.
What To Order At Farmer’s Market Café
The restaurant serves up farm-to-fork breakfasts and lunches using fresh ingredients from market vendors. How fresh? Well, when one of my companions ordered chicken and waffles, the restaurant manager ran down to one of the stalls to buy chicken breasts to deep fry. My pick was breakfast conventional: a ham and cheese omelet.
Pro Tip: The Cinnamon Roll French Toast, drizzled with frosting, is absolutely decadent.
5. South Bend Brew Werks
South Bend Brew Werks is an intimate nanobrewery and brewpub with a community conscience. The establishment donates to area nonprofits and invites local musicians and artists to showcase their talents. The rustic decor is largely fashioned with reclaimed wood.
The bar has 16 taps with a rotating selection, all brewed onsite. The lineup includes an eclectic array of IPAs, stouts, porters, and ales, some of which are concocted with inventive ingredients like fruit, oatmeal, or chocolate.
What To Order At South Bend Brew Werks
The food menu features upscale comfort food served indoors or on the outdoor patio. Grilled cheese sandwiches are a specialty, so I ordered a delicious roasted tomato BLT with smoked gouda, roasted tomatoes, bacon, and greens.
I was impressed by the options to accommodate a diner’s dietary preferences or needs. Pasta dishes can be ordered with zucchini noodles or shell pasta, for example, and many dishes are vegan.
Pro Tip: If beer isn’t your thing, try the refreshing on-tap cocktail Gin Basil Lemonade.
6. Chocolate Café
For three decades, South Bend Chocolate Company has been crafting fine chocolates sold the world over. The chocolatier makes over 500 different candies, sweets, and crunches, and roasts its own coffee beans as well.
During our visit to the factory headquarters and retail outlet, a former toy company, we toured the production lines and museum of chocolate memorabilia and artifacts. We also lingered at the casual Chocolate Café for a bite and sip.
Additional Chocolate Café locations are downtown South Bend and the South Bend International Airport.
What To Order At South Bend Chocolate Factory
The menu consists of bagels and baked goods, sandwiches and wraps, ice cream, and specialty coffee drinks. Order the hot chocolate, which is rich and velvety and topped with a swirl of whipped cream.
Pro Tip: Did I mention the hot chocolate?
7. Exchange Whiskey Bar
After a few days of tasting South Bend, it was time for an adult beverage. A congenial concierge at our Marriott Aloft hotel recommended Exchange Whiskey Bar a few blocks away. Reminiscent of a glamorous Prohibition-era speakeasy, the softly lit lounge is known for its menu of more than 450 international whiskeys and distilled spirits. Artfully crafted cocktails and charcuterie plates are also served. A second Whiskey Exchange Bar is in Indianapolis.
Exchange Whiskey Bar occupies the first floor of a six-story former bank building that was constructed in 1913 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Original architectural features such as marble walls and iron railings are complemented by Asian-style rugs, velvet- and leather-upholstered seating, luxe pillows, and romantic candlelight.
What To Order At Exchange Whiskey Bar
I capped the evening with a BRB, a fruit-forward vodka cocktail with flavors of blackberry, raspberry, and blueberry. One of my companions ordered an Upland beer, a made-in-Indiana brew. He’s the same guy who ate the mac and cheese grilled cheese at The Lauber.
Pro Tip: The cocktail menu changes seasonally, so ask what’s new.