INDIANAPOLIS – Indianapolis' chowder and fried clams didn't measure up to the storied fare that has spoiled John and Cheryl Younghans in their native New England. Fellow New England Patriots fan Bob Ritchie drove to the Hoosier State from Massachusetts and when he arrived was floored by the flatness.
The Circle City, it seemed, was ripe for a culture clash with Northeast fans converging on the Midwest for Super Bowl weekend. They're famously blunt and often brash, a stark contrast to Indiana's "Hoosier hospitality." The fast pace of East Coast living runs counter to Indiana mellow. Conservatives rule Indiana politics. On the East Coast? Fuhgeddaboutit.
But something surprising is happening: The East Coasters like Indy anyway.
"I think they have outdone themselves," said Cheryl Younghans, 62, who has homes in Madison, Ala., and her native Massachusetts.
East Coast fans are finding Indy's charm quite disarming. And that's by design: Indianapolis took the potential clash into account in recent weeks, stressing the need for a human touch as it trained taxi drivers, hospitality workers and volunteers in the ways of nice. Their tips? Make eye contact at 20 feet. Smile at 12 feet. And be sure to urge visitors to "have a super day."
It might seem hokey, but New Yorker John Jolly was quick to relish the friendliness just hours after he arrived Thursday to join his five brothers in taking their terminally ill, cancer-stricken dad to cheer on their beloved Giants at Sunday's game. Two strangers from Indy asked what he liked about the city, then offered tips on hot spots to see.
All for the bargain price of free.
The 37-year-old salesman says New Yorkers are misunderstood, much like Indy may have been as the place coastal Americans tend to dismiss as "flyover country."
"There's a stigma with New York, that we're aggressive and over the top. That's wrong," said Jolly, lauding the Porterhouse he'd just had at Indy's century-old St. Elmo Steak House, a favorite hangout of Peyton Manning.
"You're not going to come all this way to Indy to be a jerk," Jolly's brother, Steven Jolly of St. Charles, Ill., added as the bass from a rock band throbbed from a nearby stage and a young woman played a harp on a street corner, a donations hat at her feet. "We all want to have a good time. We just need a good venue."
Landlocked Indy has labored to be just that, quick to point out it has put on huge events before without a hitch. It hosts the yearly Indianapolis 500 and has also welcomed the global Pan Am Games and a half dozen Final Fours.
Pulling the Super Bowl spectacle off cleanly has huge stakes. A lasting good impression is paramount to any future bid to woo the NFL's team owners into awarding Indy and its retractable-domed Lucas Oil Stadium another Super Bowl. The game previously has gravitated to sun-splashed climes: Twenty-six of the previous 45 Super Bowls have been played in the Miami area, New Orleans and around Los Angeles.
So the nation's 12th-biggest city has trumpeted its cultural stable of museums, symphony, zoo, steakhouses, brewpubs and other dining catering to the gamut of tastes from Italian to Greek, Turkish and Peruvian.
Some New Yorkers accustomed to good deli fare from home have found Shapiro's, which serves up 2-inch-thick sandwiches just a few blocks from the city's cordoned-off Super Bowl mania.
By Thursday, Mitch Fields, a 54-year-old producer for WABC in New York, was on his second visit, again favoring a $12 turkey sandwich he likened in price and quality to the kind he could find back home.
"I love a place like this," he said while dining with Roger Anderson, one of the cameramen. "It stacks up against New York delis, absolutely, which is a shock."
Nearby, Irwin Goodfriend, a 65-year-old certified public accountant from Bronxville, N.Y., visiting Indy with his wife for his 29th Super Bowl in a row, had just polished off a corned beef sandwich he called "as good as I can get in the city."
His stomach full, the Giants fan visiting the Midwest city for the first time found nothing to diss, crowing about how everything was within walking distance much like his favorite Super Bowl venue — New Orleans.
And the niceness of folks, that human touch.
When organizers set out to get folks to crochet 8,000 neck wraps in blue and white — colors of the beloved hometown Colts — for the city's Super Bowl volunteers, the "Super Scarves" project went viral. Soccer moms joined grannies and even jailed male convicts in needling together more than 13,000 of the wraps that flooded in from 46 states and four other countries. The Giants and Patriots got some of the extras as greetings the moment their team planes touched Hoosier soil.
"Super Bowl schlock, meet heartland values," The New York Times wrote of that effort, casting Indy as "a useful antonym for glitz, glamour and bombast."
Children also got in the act. From all reaches of Indiana, they made welcome cards to greet guests in 18,000 Indy-area hotel rooms detailing what they love most about the Hoosier state: things like the Indiana State Fair, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and, naturally, the Colts.
Not everyone has been wooed by Indy's charm. It's still the brunt of some jokes.
A Fort Worth Press-Telegram columnist pooh-poohed Indy's previous experience hosting the Final Four, calling that "a college frat party" compared with the Super Bowl. On the Huffington Post, New York-born, Michigan-raised Austin Beutner lobbies for the Super Bowl four years from now to be in Los Angeles, writing: "Let's be honest — L.A. is a far more entertaining venue than Indianapolis."
"Don't get me wrong: this is not about coastal-cool California beating up on a 'fly-over' state," Beutner adds. "Folks in the Midwest saved up their money to take warm-weather vacations in Southern California, but not many do it the other way around."
Is Indy upset with that assessment?
To borrow a line from their visitors: Fuhgeddaboutit.