The Miller section of Gary, Indiana, is only three-quarters of an hour down the skyway from downtown Chicago, so visitors can easily drive out and stay the day. The quickest way to get there is to get off the Indiana Tollroad at the first exit past downtown Gary (the one for routes 12 and 20) and then proceed east on U.S. 20 to Lake Street. The Chicago South Shore & South Bend Railroad (312-782-0676) serves the community, but to really see the area it's best to have a car.
The main attractions are the natural settings and--surprising as it may seem--the food. There are three and a half miles of public beach in Miller, accessible from either Lake Street, Grand Boulevard, or County Line Road. The Lake Street beach has a boat launch, where on summer weekends scores of Hobie Cat enthusiasts set sail. You can park in a city-owned lot at Lake or Grand, or at the foot of County Line, where there's a private parking lot with a small concession stand that some people favor. Others prefer to park in the 700-space lot belonging to the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, reachable off County Line, and then use the Lakeshore's West Beach, open sunrise to sunset. A cautionary note: no alcohol is allowed within the Lakeshore.
The Lakeshore (219-926-7561), a 13,000-acre federal park established in 1972, stretches east from Miller and is well worth a visit. To fully orient yourself, exit from I-94 at Indiana route 49; go east on U.S. 12 until you hit the visitor center, open from 8 AM to 6 PM daily. Or take the South Shore railroad and get off at the Kemil Road station.
Here's a synopsis of prime Lakeshore sites: The West Beach has not only its sand to recommend it but a mile-long hiking trail that encompasses the geological history of the dunescape, with overlooks that give a view of Chicago. Farther east, off Mineral Springs Road, you'll find Chellberg Farm, a turn-of-the-century affair with farm animals and exhibits, and the Bailly Homestead, the long-ago headquarters of early fur trader Joseph Bailly. The grounds of both sites are open 6 AM to 11 PM daily, but the Bailly house is only open weekends from 1 to 4. Mount Baldy, a gigantic exposed dune perfect for climbing, is located near the Michigan City border.
Miller itself claims acres of Lakeshore property as well as the Paul H. Douglas Center for Environmental Education (100 S. Lake St., 219-938-0947). Named for the late Illinois senator who championed the Lakeshore, the Douglas center caters mostly to groups, but it's open to families 8 AM to 4:30 PM Sunday. (Confidentially, if you stop by on any other day, and it's slow at the center, you'll get a guided tour anyway.) Interpreters conduct visitors through programs on folklore, wildflowers, and reptiles and amphibians. The programs start at the center headquarters but invariably move outdoors to explore the area, characterized by wetlands and dunes, all set under stands of oak trees.
Now for the food. For 75 years the Beach Cafe in Miller (903 N. Shelby, 219-938-9890) has specialized in boned-and-buttered fried perch. Some locals bemoan the present-day quality of the perch, but don't believe any besmirching--the $9 perch platter is scrumptious. Ming Ling (566 S. Lake St., 219-938-6617) is a classic Chinese restaurant, which is justifiably touted both for its egg roll and for the fact that its owners, the Yau family, have been in Miller for 20 years.
Across the street is the Miller Bakery Cafe (555 S. Lake, 219-938-2229), recently converted by Dann and Robin Niven from an old bakery. "I looked around at all the money moving into Miller," remarks Dann, "and I thought to myself, What this place needs is a nice restaurant." Dann, vice president of an air-refrigeration firm, designed the interior. The pleasant room, in postmodern pastels and white tablecloths, retains some 40s-era features of the bakery.
Chef Gary Sanders dishes up continental fare that includes such items as sea bass, herbed pork tenderloin rolled in stone-ground mustard, and pasta presented with edible flowers. Supper entrees run $7.95 to $11.95. Dann, enthusiastic about every aspect of his restaurant, is proud of his wait staff: "One guy is a Chippendale dancer, another a hairdresser, and we have a black kid with a ponytail. We're very hip." The food, as my family and I can attest, is delicious. The cafe is open for dinner and lunch (when sandwiches and pasta are served). Reservations are suggested for weekend evenings and they're closed Mondays.
Gary is sometimes thought to be a dining wasteland, but there are some wonderful culinary adventures to be had there. Evelyn Douglas operates Evelyn's Cafeteria (2301 Virginia, 219-882-5517), where the soul food offerings are as tasty as they are ample. "You shouldn't just open a restaurant," says Evelyn, "unless you make sure people get enough." For $5.99, customers are entitled to an entree (ranging from baked chicken to chitlins), three side dishes (don't miss the sweet potatoes), corn bread, salad, and dessert (go for the peach cobbler). Evelyn's also offers an all-you-can-eat breakfast. And if your automobile's dirty, get it cleaned at Evelyn's car wash next door.
Theodosia's Elbow Room (200 W. 25th Ave., 219-882-1484) is a wood-paneled joint adjoining a liquor store. The eatery is called the Elbow Room because it once consisted of a narrow counter at which diners had to muscle for room. Long a favorite retreat of former Gary mayor Richard Hatcher, the Elbow Room serves daily specials, but one-stop visitors are advised to order the deep-fried catfish. "We make Catfish Digby's look like a choirboy," boasts current owner Lawrence Lipscomb.
By many accounts the best ribs in Gary can be had at Van Zant's Ribs on the Run (1907 W. 11th Ave., 219-883-1429). Though primarily a carry-out spot, Ribs on the Run, located in an old garage, has tables for 20 people. The beef ribs are basted with what proprietor Arine Van Zant calls "in-between sauce," meaning in between mild and spicy. The $9.50 full slab comes accompanied with coleslaw, broasted potatoes or potato salad, and a thick hunk of garlic bread. Closed Saturday (Arine is a Seventh-Day Adventist).
For pork ribs head for Rosie's Ribs (4280 W. 5th Ave., 219-944-0039). The ribs, slathered with either hot, mild, or mixed sauce, are grilled on an open barbecue in back. A slab is $12.95. Be prepared to eat in the car because Rosie's has no seating.