Family, Culinary Masterpieces at the Heart of the Fort Grille

The family business of the Fort Grille in Fortville, owned by the Dowless family (left to right) Michele, Rachel, James, Cameron and Caleb.

In a small, simple building on the outskirts of Fortville is perhaps one of the finest restaurant destinations in the Geist area. The Fort Grille, the last stop on your left as you leave Fortville headed towards Pendleton, has quickly become a favorite of locals and the word is spreading.

“I grew up working in Baltimore in our family’s 250-seat supper club,” said head chef and owner James Dowless. “I was only 14 when I started as a busboy in the back, learning the kitchen from the ground up. My uncle always wanted me to be a bartender or work the front of the house, but I fell in love with cooking and wanted to stay in the kitchen.”

Fried green tomatoes, a yummy appetizer.

While in college, Dowless met his now wife Michele, a salad station employee at an O’Toole’s restaurant. He continued his culinary career and Michele began working for Eli Lilly & Company as a cancer researcher which landed them in Durham, North Carolina.

Life was going along great in 2004, the Dowlesses were finishing up the bulding of their dream home and Michele had just given birth to their third child, Rachel. Then, a chain of events occurred that brought the Dowlesses to Indianapolis. Within a few weeks of Michele learning that Eli Lilly was closing the Research Triangle Park, James began having severe headaches.

“I could have taken a severance package, but we weren’t sure what was wrong with James,” explained Michele. They soon found out that the headaches were from a brain tumor and would be removed at Duke University Hospital. After the surgery, Michele accepted a transfer to the Eli Lilly campus in downtown Indianapolis and the family moved to the northeast end of Geist Reservoir.

The special of the night: Baked campanelle.

A few years later, another brain tumor surfaced and James again faced a tricky surgery to have it removed. After he recovered, his itch to get back into the kitchen resulted in the purchase of a struggling restaurant called Robbie’s in Fortville which the Dowlesses reopened in May 2011 as the Fort Grille.

“I just decided I’m not going to live in fear,” said James about his recurrent brain tumors. “I want to do what I love to do.”

The Fort Grille is a true family restaurant. While James runs the kitchen in the back, Michele works the front in the evenings and prepares most of the homemade desserts. Occasionally you’ll see one of them leave out the back door to pick up their sons Caleb and Cameron from lacrosse practice or you’ll spot their youngest, Rachel, waiting tables.

Walking into the Fort Grille, I felt like I was walking into a diner along Route 66 somewhere in Missouri. Two waist-high counters with bar stools on the right, a row of newly upholstered booths on the left. In the rear of the restaurant, a large open room with more free-standing tables for seating. The restaurant is decorated very simply with nods to the local railroad history and works by a local artist. Nothing out of the ordinary.

However, when our teenaged waitress handed us our menu, we realized this was no ordinary diner.

The Fort Grille’s “eclectic” menu features entrees like the Veal Saltimbocca, Chicken Marsala, and a family favorite of Shrimp ‘n Grits. To round out the menu, they also carry a broad range of moderately priced sandwiches, salads, soups, and a $.99 kids menu.

For our visit, Jeanne and I sampled the Fried Green Tomatoes, Broccoli Cheddar soup, and then shared the daily special, Baked Campanelle. Neither of us have ever tried fried green tomatoes and we were both impressed with not only the taste, but the presentation, served on greens with a balsamic vinaigrette, pesto and goat cheese drizzle. The baked campanelle was amazing, made very rich and creamy with gorgonzola cheese. I thought I could eat it all but realized quickly a take home box was in order.

The unassuming Fort Grille appears like any other roadside diner.

Michele wouldn’t let us leave without a dessert, so we tried the mint chocolate cheesecake which featured small bits of York Peppermint Patties on top. Simply amazing.

“We make everything homemade,” says James as he points back to the bustling kitchen. “Even the bread we serve is homemade. We take the crumbs from the bread and use it for breading on our fried green tomatoes. You can taste the difference.”

The Fort Grille closes each night at 9:00 pm and is open for lunch at 11:00 am Monday through Saturday, serving brunch only on Saturday mornings starting at 10:00 am. My recommendation is to pay a visit for dinner so you can have the full experience with appetizers, entree, and a homemade dessert. To see their full menu, visit

If you are looking for a true family restaurant with gourmet food, take the 10 minute drive east to Fortville and pay the Dowlesses a visit. You’ll quickly become part of their growing fan base of loyal customers.

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