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Not many would picture fine French dining at a roadside motel as this ad from the 1960s boasted. (Image: Indiana State Library)

When Indy residents head out of the city on State Road 67 towards Vincennes, they may notice an aging sign advertising a French restaurant fronting a lonely vacant lot strewn with gravel and fallen trees. For recent additions to the area, it seems self-evident why classic French cuisine would not make it in this southwestern Marion County outpost. After all, the area today is still somewhat rural, and it would seem folks might feel more at ease downing comfort food at Gray Brothers Cafeteria, a little further down the road. Yet flocks of people made this trip for over fifty years to dine on escargot and other French favorites at Chez Jean Restaurant and Inn in Camby.

Courtesy Indiana State Library

“Exciting restaurants with a well-known chef which feature creative and complex foods and emphasize various culinary techniques and a focus on seasonality. A highly trained dining room staff provides refined personal service and attention.” The definition for a Mobil four star restaurant. One has to travel to Illinois or Ohio to experience these days. (Image: Indiana State Library)

A twelve-room motel and restaurant serving up hamburgers and other dinner fare would not be anything remarkable in 1957. That changed when Jean Milesi purchased the unassuming property some twenty miles from downtown Indianapolis. Milesi, born and trained in France, spent the previous four years working with his brother in Louisville, Kentucky, learning the ins and outs of the American restaurant business. Along with his wife Barbara, they fashioned the motel into a destination. Patrons described the experience akin to being in the French countryside. The Milesis catered many a first date, anniversary, and high school French club outing for forty years, until retiring in 1997.

The story does not end here. Longtime family friend Chef Carl Huckaby purchased the facility from the Milesis. This brought the winner of the American Culinary Foundation’s 1996 “Chef of the Year” award to the kitchen of the establishment. Huckaby was able to keep the longstanding experience that customers expected, while adding to the menu. The operation expanded to include a bakery and deli on the south side of Indianapolis.

Courtesy

A weathered sign and the stumps of the pine trees that once surrounded the restaurant and inn are all that remain today. (Image: Google Images)

A myriad of circumstances undoubtedly contributed to the demise of the venerable restaurant. The formal experience and personalized service synonymous with traditional French cuisine had become a bit passé. As higher end restaurants with a more casual environment have sprouted up all over throughout recent years, the light dimmed on once sought-after destination restaurants. The collapse of the economy in 2008 was certainly no help to the profitability of the labor-intensive operation. The restaurant closed in 2009, just beating out the Chanteclair as the last traditional full service French dining option in the area. The final guests at the property were the Plainfield Fire Department, who burnt everything to the ground in a training exercise. Sadly, Chef Huckaby passed away in 2013. Today the sign remains in front of a vacant lot, waiting to be gobbled up by suburbia.

What have been some your favorite lost dining destinations over the years? And do you have a favorite nationality of cuisine?

Printed Sources:

Reid Duffy’s Guide to Indiana’s Favorite Restaurants, 2006, Indiana University Press

Indianapolis Monthly, November 1997

Indianapolis Star, June 4, 2013

6 responses to “At Your Leisure: Pardon my French”

  1. Donna Winsted says:

    I had a funny experience at this restaurant back in the late 1950s. I worked for a lady who had a photo shop on N Alabama St. In the mornings I would print photos from the rolls of film we picked up the previous day from drug stores, etc. and when they were all printed, she and I would return the finished photos. One day we were driving on SR 67 (Kentucky Ave.) and saw the Chez Jean sign. We were a little hungry, so we stopped in to get “French fries” to go!!!! We had no idea that we were in an upscale place. When the waitress told us they didn’t have French fries, my boss got mad and stomped out! (The waitress did say that they had potato puffs. I sure wish we had gotten some – I’ll bet they were Heavenly!)

  2. Thomas says:

    I once worked for Chef Carl Huckaby at Chez Jean on Massachusetts Ave. Now an Aveda hair salon. He made the best pastries in the world along with other amazing baked goods. I never had the pleasure of dining at his restaurant though.

  3. Don says:

    I happened upon this place while looking for a room one evening in about 1985. The room was cheap. The meal was expensive but excellent.

  4. Dean White says:

    Author
    Dean White
    My mother Ruby White was a waitress at Chez Jeans for a long time. She was one of jeans ( as mom called Her Boss ) fav Waitress. she told us stories about some of the real unusual french foods only found at Chez Jean’s restaurant. Like the day she was told to serve some very aged Expensive Cheese ( casu marzu,) to some customers. the Cheese was wrapped in Cheesecloth and when she opened it there was worms in it. She was told that’s how it is to be served. put some on some bread and give it to them. The men ate every bit of it and asked for more. Then there was the day Jean tricked my momma. Mom Loved Jean’s Beef Stroganoff! She would always ask Jean could she have just a small portion of the beef Stroganoff for her lunch break but, jean would tell her ” ruby you know we can’t do that.” It was for the paying customers only. One thing mom hated was serving was escargot. (Snails ) and she told Jean He Would never get her to eat any Snails. It was my mom’s birthday and Jean had a plan. He told my mom ” Ruby For your lunch Break I made you a Whole Plate of your favorite Dish Beef Stroganoff! It’s my birthday gift to you. ” Mom Ate the Whole Plate and told Jean How Much She Loved it. Then Jean Told Mom ” Ruby I thought you Said You Would Never Eat my escargot. ” Mom said, “and you will never get me to put a snail in my mouth Jean. ” Then Jean Said, ” But you Just Ate a Whole Plate of escargot Stroganoff! ” He Substituted the beef with Snails. Mom said she won’t be tricked again lol. When Mom had to leave the restaurant Jean begged mom to stay. He told her she was the best of the best! He even offered mom a big raise to stay but, mom had to leave to be a Momma. She Became The Best Momma Ever also. I should know I was her Baby Boy.

  5. Sharon L Coleman says:

    What was the name of the French restaurant in Park Fletcher from many years ago?

  6. Carolyn Roesbery says:

    oh boy! I can guarantee the potato puffs would have been heavenly! Especially if the Chef was trained at the Cordon Bleu, Paris! What a great thing to have in Indiana! And French pastries are the most amazing delicacies in the world !

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