Best in the City: Social Guide

Best place for coffee: Fortezza. Photography by Neal Bruns
Best place for a cocktail: Wine Down Tastings and Tapas. Photography by Neal Bruns
Best place for a first date: Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory. Photography by Neal Bruns

And now it’s time for something completely subjective. As the city of Fort Wayne continues to advance and evolve on the road to one million residents, new businesses and events are popping up at a rapid pace, especially within the urban core. It’s a welcome trend for a mid-sized American city on the brink of groundbreaking growth and opportunity.

Throughout each year, Fort Wayne Magazine tracks down the area’s prime picks in food, shopping, culture and entertainment and delights in sharing these gems with readers, whether they’re treasured institutions or the newest biz on the block. But sometimes we like to summarize our findings. Thus, our 2016 Social Guide came to be. While the research that goes into this type of guide is highly entertaining and tasty, it’s not all fun and games. Restaurants, shops and events are investigated thoroughly and the task is not taken lightly. Fort Wayne Magazine is a champion of the city, its residents and all the local, small businesses in the region. The job will never be done because the city’s growth never will be. There will always be new establishments and events to consider and any “Best of” style list will undoubtedly shift from year to year.

An informal poll of Fort Wayne residents of various ages and backgrounds revealed some surprises as well as a very hard truth (see the Brunch category). While some contributors chose to remain nameless, others were happy to go on record about their top picks. Whether you agree with all the picks or not, we hope you’ll devour this social guide and support the places highlighted throughout. Without further ado, here’s the 2016 guide to frolicking in Fort Wayne.

Best Place for a Cup of Coffee
The basics of a great coffee shop are these: good brew, tasty menu, nice environment and friendly service. Fort Wayne has no shortage of good local coffee shops (even some that roast their own beans), but the one that ticks all the boxes with aplomb is Fortezza. Known for precise (and beautiful) execution of their espresso drinks, Fortezza also offers a delicious brunch-ish menu, albeit on the small side. The sleek downtown spot is airy, and the spacious conference room can be reserved by anyone for free. The staff members are not only friendly but super knowledgable and are happy to guide you into your next favorite beverage. Says Andrew Hoffman, who can often be found with his laptop at the window bar, “They care as much about the simple cup of coffee as they do about the fancy latte.” For many local coffee lovers, Fortezza perfectly hits the spot.

Best Place to Take Your Corporate Team
Hands down, the answer to this question is SkyZone. Here’s why: Everyone’s happy and giggling when they’re bouncing in a room full of trampolines. The music is upbeat and the environment is bright. Need to work out some frustrations under the guise of team building? Get a game of dodgeball going. Want to inspire a little friendly competish? Play a game of H.O.R.S.E. at the basketball hoops. Wish to laugh just a little at your boss? Encourage him or her to jump in the foam pit, because everyone looks ridiculous when trying to climb out of it. Any team is guaranteed to share in laughs and good memories.

Best Place to Have Brunch
Are you ready for some real talk? A great brunch place does not yet exist in this city but high hopes abound for The Golden’s take on everyone’s favorite weekend meal, opening soon in the new Ash building downtown. You might say, “But what about (insert your current breakfast place here)?” Well, do they serve fresh brunch fare, offer espresso drinks (real, not pumped out of a glorified gas station “cappuccino” machine), Mimosas, Bellinis, Bloody Marys and the like while allowing those under 21 to dine? Because if not, it’s just not cutting it for the masses. There are places in town that could say yes to nearly all these categories except for the one about allowing all ages, which is a real sticking point because no one schedules a babysitter for brunch, nor should they have to. Fort Wayne has many, many gifts, but an outstanding brunch place is not one of them … yet.

Best Place to Host Your Book Club
The most popular spot for the monthly meetup of a book club tends to be the living rooms of club members. But when it’s your turn to host and you just don’t have the energy to clean or whip up a nice spread of refreshments, outsource. 800 Degrees Three Fires offers a semi-private room off the bar with a large square table for family-style noshing and conversation. The food is fantastic, as is the wine (essential to any book club meetup) and you won’t have to clean up afterwards. We know those book clubs can get wild …

Best Place for a First Date
Dinner and a movie is the standard, sure, if a bit passé. The modern first date now takes place at a cultural institution for a few reasons. They’re safe and very public (just in case your date turns out to be a creep) while offering an interesting, interactive environment to inspire “get to know you” conversation (helps to reduce inevitable awkward silences). Think the Botanical Conservatory (shown here) or even the zoo, suggests Wendy Stein. It may contain the word kids in its name, but anyone would be entertained at our city’s fantastic zoo. Then, depending on chemistry, it’s an easy transition to either dinner and drinks or a quick goodnight and good luck.

Best Place to Break Up with Someone
OK. You may only cut things off with someone via text if you’ve only been on a few casual dates. Anything more serious than that deserves a face-to-face conversation, regardless of how awkward the situation is. First, avoid picking a favorite or oft-frequented spot because it will forever remind the break-ee of being dumped, thus potentially ruining all future visits. Second, you’ll want it to be a public place but not too busy. No one wants or needs the humiliation of being cut loose in front of prying eyes. Third, choose a spot with easy access to welcome relief – like two equidistant bars so each of you can go your own way and cry into a drink. So, meet up at the intersection of East Superior Street and South Barr Street. One of you can head to Don Hall’s Gas House (order a glass or two of your favorite Kim Crawford) while the other makes a beeline to Club Soda (try the Bloody Basil).

Best Place to Watch Sports
If you’re not watching the game in person or in the comfort of your home, Scotty’s Brewhouse is the place to be for any sporting event. With what seems like 73 TV’s, you can’t not see at least three screens in your line of vision, no matter where you turn your head. The robust menu of hearty American food is complemented by a wide variety of beer, from the basics to coveted craft brews. And if your kids are tagging along, you’re in luck because Scotty’s makes a point to cater to children with thoughtful touches like a complimentary fresh veggie appetizer and a treasure box prize at the end of the meal.

Best Excuse for Leaving a Social Event
The popular responses to this question include the standard scapegoats of work and/or kids. But perhaps the most inventive is one that works for two reasons: No one will want to discuss it further and no one would believe you’d just make it up (and then actually speak it aloud). The excuse? Diarrhea. Moving on …

Best Place for a Picnic
While any park will do (and Fort Wayne has many of them), the most picturesque is the Sunken Gardens in Huntington. This hidden gem from the 1920s is accented by lush plants and trees, fish ponds and a charming stone bridge. It’s even romantic enough for a wedding.

Best Reason to Watch a Sunrise
While the funniest response to the poll was, “it better involve donuts,” a more poetic reason was the most popular. Whether rising early specifically for the sunrise or waiting for the break of dawn after a night of reveling, watching a sunrise is chance to witness the calm, quiet beauty of Northeast Indiana. Taking in a sunrise has a more zen-like quality than the romance of a sunset and allows one to really connect with oneself before embarking on the day. Which leads us to …

Best Place to Watch a Sunrise
With so many bodies of water at our disposal, the popular answer here is “while floating on one of our beautiful lakes.” In the city, it’s all about getting up as high as possible and the recommendation from one respondent is to find your way to the top, open-air floor of any downtown parking garage.

Best Place to Watch a Sunset
Says a very specific respondent, Matthew Galloway, “Sunset from the Maumee river, east of town between downtown and the Tecumseh Street Bridge. Time it with a boat ride from Hall’s Deck. The city is framed perfectly.”

Best Place to People Watch
One response was the Glenbrook Square food court, which is not far off base. The crush of people juggling shopping bags and trays of food, especially the families with small children, can provide endless entertainment and a peek into mainstream Midwestern suburban life. But the most widely submitted answer was the full slate of festivals hosted around town. From the oh-so-popular Three Rivers and Johnny Appleseed festivals to the Grabill Country Fair and the St. Joe Pickle Festival, the events bring the masses into a concentrated space with over-the-top food and entertainment.

Best Way to Invite Guests to an Event
There’s a sliding scale for choosing an invite, based on how formal the event is. While there’s no denying the convenience and price of a digital invitation, there seems to be a swing back to old school paper, sent via the United States Postal Service. Quick aside: The USPS is an important institution and with every stamp you place on an envelope, you’re helping to rescue it. Plus, receiving anything other than a bill in the mail is a joyous occasion and who couldn’t use a little bit more joy in their day? Go vintage and send out paper invites to your next shindig. The Monogram Shoppe can help in this department. Rant over. Now, for the digital options. Yes, Facebook is convenient, but when you want a more stylish, distinctive choice, Paperless Post is the go-to. Users can choose from many designs and the service “tracks attendance and helps you send reminders,” says Kristin Packnett, a fan of the site.

Best Way to RSVP
No matter what, you must RSVP. Doesn’t matter how. Send smoke signals if you must, but an RSVP is necessary. Says one popular party planner, “I think it’s a combination of elements. Not responding is their way of leaving things open in their calendar, perhaps for a better offer. But it’s also pure laziness. Either way, it’s rude to the host who’s trying to plan accordingly. Etiquette has somehow gone out the window.” Aspire to great manners and RSVP as soon as you can in the manner in which the host has requested. The RSVP is non-negotiable – get on board.

Best Place for a Cocktail
You might already have your favorite spot nailed down. But if you haven’t been to Wine Down Tastings and Tapas, located within the Harrison, you’re missing out. The warm and intimate spot offers more than 50 wines for guests to try, in sample sizes or full glasses, from sleek, DIY-dispensing, tasting machines that keep the wines at their ideal temperatures. But while this place is known for its wine, the impressive collection of craft cocktails is noteworthy as well. The Smoked Old Fashioned is a prized libation that gets its signature taste from the glass, inverted over a smoking hickory plank before the liquor is poured. “Mad Men” might be over, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make like Don Draper and relax into a cozy banquette with this iconic drink.

Best Place to Have an Intellectual Conversation
The not-for-profit Cinema Center is a film society that offers Northeast Indiana viewings of foreign films, documentaries and classic movies as well as educational programs. Cinema Center celebrates film as an art form and has been attracting diverse audiences to downtown Fort Wayne. With a full slate of indie and hard-to-get movies and special events like post-movie discussions and themed parties, plus the highly anticipated Hobnobben Film Festival debuting this year, Cinema Center is the city’s place to have interesting, meaningful conversations about life, art and expression. Join the cool kids and become a member for $5 movies and free popcorn.

Best Live Music Venue
For elegant affairs, there’s nothing finer than the historic Embassy. Playing host to national acts of all genres, the stunningly beautiful former movie palace inspires oohs and ahhs from guests as well as performers. It’s a glittering jewel of Fort Wayne. Thank the stars it was saved for us to enjoy. For something a bit more raw, more intimate, the snug venue The B-Side holds about 60 guests and books singer-songwriter, punk rock, stand-up comedy, poetry and modern dance acts. The atmosphere is downright cool, but even cooler is the chance to interact with the acts after the show. At The B-Side, everyone is a VIP.

First appeared in the April 2016 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.

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