Fort Jesse Cafe is located on the east side of Normal, directly across from the main entrance to the Bridgestone tire manufacturer. If you see two huge tires on either side of an entrance to a fenced property, you’re in the right place. Fort Jesse is very unassuming on the outside. In fact, the first time we visited we drove past it twice. It’s in the suite closest to the road in a bland little strip, flanked by a dentist and italian ice stand to the west, and a veterinarian to the east.
Once you find it, there’s a possibility you’re in for a mild to moderate wait. Fridays and weekends are exceptionally busy, but I promise you it is worth the wait. The lobby is small, but there are benches outside. A couple of new additions to the outdoor waiting area are sidewalk chalk for the kids (or the kid in you) and a bags set on the lawn. Inside the decor is very simple with rustic touches. The tables are scrubbed wood and remind me of family dinners at Grandma’s house. There is a large chalkboard on one wall that has seasonal information or quotes, and the north wall is a bank of large windows to let in lots of natural light. This fairly nondescript space is very simply and efficiently transformed into a bustling diner atmosphere.
After about 30 minutes we were seated and ordered coffee. They have a specialty coffee called the Mo-Joe ($3.25), which is essentially a fancy mocha. Sometimes they’ll have a salted caramel version, which is truly delightful. Our fabulous server even topped mine with brownie bits, which I’m not sure is standard but I loved the personal touch. The salted caramel Mo-Joe is a very playful beverage. It has a nice balance between coffee and chocolate flavors, with a hint of cinnamon, and is topped with thick whipped cream, caramel drizzle, sea salt, and in my case, brownie bits. It creates a warm and complex but cohesive coffee experience.
One of the specials while we were there was fish and chips ($7.50). It was a nice seasonal option. The haddock was mild and flaky, but a little chewy in the thicker parts. It was crusted in a thick beer batter that was crispy on the outermost edges and still a bit soft inside where it touched the meat of the fish. It paired really well with their house tartar sauce, which was tangy, creamy, and complemented the mildness of the fish. It came with a side of “chips,” or in this case, french fries. These french fries are truly the star of the dish. They’re about the same thickness as a fast food fry — just thick enough to ensure the insides are buttery soft while the outside is crispy and brown, probably double fried to achieve the level of crunch you get. There’s really no adequate description for the immense joy I got from them. These french fries might be my favorite of any restaurant I’ve visited.
The last couple of times I’ve visited I got chicken and waffles, which is a pretty stellar option. They’re always a nice juxtaposition of soft waffles and crunchy chicken, sweet syrup and salty butter, with a little bit of spicy kick. But this time I decided to try something different — the Cuban with house chips. I was not disappointed.
The Cuban ($8.50) is slow-roasted pork, ham, swiss cheese, relish, whole grain mustard, and red onion nestled between two slices of Italian bread, and the whole sandwich is toasted. Normally you get pickles on a Cuban, and while I missed the crunch you get from a pickle chip, I really enjoyed the tangy sweetness of the relish. It played very nicely with the spice in the sandwich. The meat was tender and just slightly chewy, the cheese melty enough to hold it all together, and the condiments were evenly spaced so you got all the flavors in each bite. It came with a side of their house made potato chips. They were sliced thick enough that you get a hearty crunch and perfectly fried without being greasy, then lightly salted.
My 2 year old was out of daycare that day and accompanied us; part of the plan was to visit the Children’s Discovery Museum in Downtown Normal. Obviously we had to feed him, too. He chose French toast ($5.50) off the kids menu, which has 6-8 offerings. It came with 1 scrambled egg and 2 pieces of toast. My kid isn’t a big egg fan, so I wouldn’t read too much into the fact that he didn’t touch the eggs. He did however immediately eat an entire strip of bacon in one go. The second strip of bacon he savored more slowly and dipped it in syrup. The French toast itself was a thick piece of texas toast that was evenly battered and toasted, again without being greasy. I didn’t get a chance to sample it, my kid ate the whole thing — crust included. Based on this, I have to assume the kids French toast is a pretty solid choice for the 12 and under crowd.
Our server was absolutely wonderful. She was smiling every time we saw her, which was often as she was very attentive. She answered our questions, brought us extra napkins, even handing one directly to my kid when he spilled a bit of milk on his shirt. Having such a stellar server made our experience even better.
Fort Jesse Cafe is one of Bloomington-Normal’s finest, a modern diner with quality food and an exceptional staff. It's family friendly, has natural light and basic, yet cozy, decor. If you get nothing else, order the Mo-Joe and french fries.
Fort Jesse Cafe
1531 Fort Jesse Rd #1
M-F 6 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Sa + Su 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Photos by Sarah Meilike