December 05, 2010

French Restaurants In Chicago: 1924-1999 - A 75 year Retrospective


French Restaurants in Chicago, a 75 year retrospective 


Part 2: 1960-1969
A new beginning for French restaurants in Chicago

The period of the 60’s was marked first by a continuation of the all-American style of cooking in American families, particularly those living in the rapidly expanding suburbs, as it had been the case between the post WWII era and the end of the 50’s.
But then Americans started to travel again, particularly to Europe, and got familiarized with its great restaurants and chefs.
In the early part of the decade, the influence of the Kennedy White House and the well-known taste of the its First Lady, whose ancestors, the Bouvier family, were French, for French cooking, was evident.
But the real kick to this new taste for French cuisine was the publication in 1961 of Julia Child’s book, Mastering The Art Of French Cooking, and even more the launching in February of 1963 of her TV series ‘’The French Chef’’ at WGBH in Boston. That program, broadcast in Chicago by WTTW, Channel 11, really motivated American housewives who had a chance to travel to France, like your own mother, Stéphane, who came to Aix- en-Provence in 1961, to expand their own cooking universe, sharpen their skills, and develop a taste for French cuisine.
They pushed their husbands and friends to go downtown to eat in ‘’ French restaurants’’ and to order good French wines, that in the mid-sixties were not easy to locate in the Chicago area liquor stores.
At the same time, many Chicago Francophiles, most of them from the upper-middle class and socialites having spent vacations in France, or even owning properties there, were pushing to create real French restaurants in Chicago, and some of them were ready to invest in such establishments.
Such was the case of Nancy Goldberg wife of the famous local architect Bertrand Goldberg, who recreated in Chicago a replica of the famous Parisian restaurant MAXIM’S . 
MAXIM’S de PARIS opened at 1300 N. Astor street in December of 1963, with the help of Louis Vaudable, the owner of the original restaurant on Rue Royale, near La Madeleine church in Paris.
With the local assistance  of Mrs. Goldberg, Mr. Vaudable managed to bring to Chicago several French professional waiters, captains, cooks and sommeliers who all worked at Maxim’s in Paris.
That was only the beginning of a new ‘’ French’’ trend, and a mini exodus from France to Chicago, that was going to expand until the mid-eighties.
After a couple of years there several alumni from MAXIM’S eventually left to start their own restaurants in Chicago and its suburbs. We will talk about them later.

That decade was also marked by the arrival in the Chicago restaurant landscape of 2 major professionals from the food preparation and hospitality fields who would become nationally recognized stars:
JOVAN TRBOYEVIC, who opened his first restaurant JOVAN on Huron street in 1967 and JEAN BANCHET, who was recruited by Arnie Morton to work as an assistant-chef at the restaurant of the Playboy Club in Lake Geneva, in 1968.
(Jovan Trboyevic would later launch LE PERROQUET on East Walton in 1972, a temple of ‘’French Nouvelle Cuisine’’ that reached international fame, and in 1979 his own private bistro-private club LES NOMADES on East Ontario.
And in 1973 Jean Banchet started one of the most celebrated French restaurants in the U.S. of the post-WWII period, LE FRANCAIS, in Wheeling, in 1973. We will talk about these two landmarks in the next chapter).

It was also the decade when several authentic French Bistros and restaurants were launched by Frenchmen, or by people who lived and worked for many years in France,  and were immediate successes. But some of them did not last very long.  Among the most popular of them we will remember:
LA CHAUMIERE (opened in March 1965 by René Martin on N. Dearborn)
LES CHAMPS ELYSEES (opened in June 1967 on East Chestnut St.
by Jean-Claude Berger and Pierre Dousson)
JOVAN (opened in late 1967 on East Huron by Jovan Trboyevic)
L’ESCARGOT (opened on N. Halsted St. in October 1968 by Alan Tutzer and Lucien Vergé)
LE BORDEAUX (opened in March of 1969 on W. Madison in the Loop by Georges ‘’Kiki’’ Cuisance, and 3 other partners)
LA CHEMINEE opened by Burton Kallick in April of 1969 at the site of what used to be La Chaumière 
L’AUBERGE (opened in October 1969 on N. Clark St.by Yvan Wiedmer and Jean-Paul Vassas)
LA GRENOUILLE (opened in December 1969 in Hyde Park by René Borderie and Jean-Claude Berger)
Several other French restaurants were opened or were morphed from existing eateries during that period, and we will say a few words about all of them later in this article.

The arrival of these real French restaurants constituted a very pleasant and refreshing “new wave” after a long period of domination of this city by:
The mini empire of Ray Castro and Edison Dick. 

Most of their restaurants were more French in name than in authenticity of their cuisine.
But to be honest we should add that they partially contributed to the beginning of that revival of the public’s interest for a French-style cuisine that was no longer popular in Chicago restaurants since the early 30’s.
Café de Paris that we mentioned in the first segment of this retrospective was eventually acquired by Ray Castro and his financial partner Edison Dick in 1952 who over the next few years was about to create an important group of “Continental restaurants” in Chicago, most of them with French names.
In spite of the commercial success of that enterprise, many serious critics and cognoscenti, while recognizing that it launched a renewal of the taste for “French” style dining in the 50’s in Chicago, admit that the Castro Group restaurants were more pretending to be French than authentically French. In spite of their French names, type of menus, decor and service, today we would rather call that type of cuisine  ''Continental'' cuisine.
Personally I hesitate to call them French restaurants because most chefs, cooks, and managers who worked for them were not French, or even French-trained.
But nevertheless several of these places became very popular. Over the last few years I have been talking with many Chicagoans who are still nostalgic about dates, anniversaries, graduation celebrations, or business dinners with out-of- town guests during trade shows, they had in of Ray Castro’s restaurants
Ray Castro was a young Cuban immigrant who arrived in Chicago in 1930. After various jobs, he eventually ended up working as a busboy at the famous Pump Room in the Ambassador East hotel when it was launched by Ernie Byfield in 1938.
He climbed many steps of the hierarchy in that restaurant to become Captain then Maitre D’ in the Beau Nash Room. In this capacity he met one of their well-to-do clients Edison Dick, the heir of the copying and office machines manufacturing company AB Dick.
In 1951, Castro asked him to help him financially to buy the Café de Paris on Dearborn from the previous owners Edna and Frank Giesel who knew Edison Dick well. Edison Dick accepted and in 1952 it became the beginning of a long partnership that ended at the end of 1969 when they sold their group to ITT (International Telephone and Telegraph) a New-York-based company.
At one point they owned and managed 16 restaurants, including a few specializing in Latin-American, Seafood, or American cuisine based on steaks, such as the Kinzie Steak House on West Kinzie Street, The Terrace in Lake Point Tower, or the Sea Gull, also in Lake Point Tower.
Edison Dick loved to eat but did not know anything about cooking and food preparation. He was mainly the investor and financial manager. Ray Castro with his strong experience in restaurants was the actual manager of operations.
The Vice President of the Group was a Frenchman by the name of Henri Glattard who became the manager of Le Mignon, once it was sold to ITT and re-opened in 1973. 
I will simply list some of the most well known “French” restaurants in the Castro Restaurants Group and provide their date of opening.
Except for my one-time experience at Jacques, I have never eaten in any of them, since when I moved for good to Chicago in January of 1970, I was more interested in discovering small cheap and unpretentious ethnic bistros (Greek, German, Italian, Serbian, etc.), and the very few authentic small French bistros that existed at the time, than spending money in so-called “French” restaurants. 

CAFE DE PARIS, 1260 N. Dearborn Parkway.  
Opened in 1941 and restarted in 1952 by Edison Dick and Ray Castro

The famous French chef Henri Charpentier was the first chef de cuisine in 1941-42. In the early sixties the chef was an Italian, Pat Nutti, who also worked at the famous Chez Paree, a night-club and supper club that was not French at all. Café de Paris famous signature dish was the ‘’duckling à la Belasco’’.

JAQUES FRENCH RESTAURANT at 900 N. Michigan Avenue . Opened in 1935 at this address. But started at 180 East Delaware in 1928 then purchased by Castro in 1954.
MAISON LAFITE in the Churchill Hotel at 1255 North Parkway opened in 1959 

LA MAISONETTE 3445 Dempster in Skokie, opened in 1959
L’EPUISETTE , 21 W. Goethe, opened in 1963, was a very popular seafood restaurant for several years
CAFE LA TOUR at 400 East Randolph in Lake Point Tower opened in 1964
BIGGS at 1150 N. Dearborn opened in 1954 then was acquired and renovated by Ray Castro in 1964 .
Very elegant, it was considered by many as the best continental restaurant n Chicago. Jovan Trboyevic was Maitre D’ there in 1964.
MON PETIT , 1255 N. State in 1964 
LE MIGNON, 712 N. Rush
It never really started its operations before the group was sold to ITT but was about to be launched in 1969. It was reopened in 1973 by Edison Dick and Henri Glattard. 
LA COQUILLE, opened in early 70, at 3200 N. Lake Shore Drive.
Like Le Mignon it seems that it was not included in the sale of the group to ITT since it was still managed by Ray Castro in late 1970.

None of these restaurants still exist in 2010.
Several of these restaurants were decorated in a very old-fashioned style that would pretend either to look like a French provincial country inn, or a faux
“urban de luxe” fancy restaurant, complete with drapes, candelabras, golden mirrors, wood trimmings, crystal glasses, elegant silver and tableware, etc.
The staff would wear traditional “French garcon de café’’ outfits, and the cooks sported the traditional “toques”.
The menus would propose the classics that most Americans think they would find in any French restaurants: snails, stuffed mushrooms, frog legs, lobster bisque, stuffed crepes with crab meat in a cream and mushroom sauce, tournedos forestière, steak Diane, veal Prince Orloff, rack of lamb, duck à l’orange, or in a sweet cherry sauce, truite meunière, Dover sole, omelette flambée, cherries jubilee, souflé au Grand Marnier, etc.
But it would be quite difficult to find in these eateries a simple faux-filet au poivre with real pommes frites, a veal Marengo, a navarin d’agneau, a skate wing in a brown butter and caper sauce, a tarte Tatin or a sorbet au cassis made from fresh fruit.
Most waiters would push you to order cocktails or champagne but rarely would they suggest to pair the food with a good bottle of Bordeaux, because very few of them had any solid knowledge of French wines.
Coffee was still the choice beverage during dinner (‘’coffee now or after’’ was the ritual question at the beginning of the meal), along with the cocktails and whiskies that people continued to drink with their main course.
But of course, no real espresso machine could be seen in any of these restaurants. 

Now, I will differentiate 2 categories of “French” restaurants launched in that 1960-1969 period:

  • Restaurants that were actually owned and/or managed by French people, and where the kitchen was operated by French chefs and cooks.
This list which constitutes the main focus of this article will be elaborate.
  • Restaurants that sometimes served decent “French” food but were not owned or managed by French people. A few employed French chefs and cooks though .
That list will be less detailed. I would call most of the restaurants in that category as “continental with a touch of French"…

What can be remembered about this period is that you could have a complete 3 course dinner in these establishments for a very reasonable price: from $ 2.75 in the early sixties to 8 or 9 dollars at the end of the decade

1. Restaurants that were actually owned and/or managed by French people, and/or where the kitchen was in the hands of French chefs and cooks.

I think that the first one of this type to start its operations in the early sixties was CAFE FRENCH MARKET located in the ASCOTT HOUSE HOTEL at 1000  S. Michigan Avenue .

It opened its doors in July of 1962 under the management of a Frenchman named Jean-Marie Guillaume, a former food and beverage manager at both Ambassador and Sherman hotels. That man knew his business quite well and insisted to import almost everything from France, including the chef, according to Jacques Grelley, the former owner of the French restaurant Frère Jacques on N. Clark street , who worked there for a while as a busboy when he arrived in Chicago from France in 62. That “fancy” French restaurant was in fact more American in decor than French and the menu was obviously concocted to please Midwest palates: lobster bisque, soupe à l’oignon, vegetables in a chicken broth en croûte, bouillabaisse, and bizarre dishes like that beef roll stuffed with rice with a paprika cream sauce. The place closed in late 1964.
I do not know what ever happened to J.M Guillaume.

MAXIM'S DE PARIS opened in the basement of the Astor Towers hotel  at 1300 N. Astor in December of 1963.

Nancy Goldberg’s creation was quite an impressive restaurant with its red and gold decor, shiny brass trims, dark wood furniture, mirrors on the walls, chandeliers, beautiful French sterling and serving carts, and above all typical French polished but discrete service . The whole place, that wanted to resemble as much as possible to the French original Maxim’s on Rue Royale in Paris was located in a building designed by her husband, famous local architect Bertrand Goldberg, but there was no stained glass dome over the dining room. It was initially operated under the management of Louis Vaudable, owner of Maxim’s in Paris, with the help of an efficient “Directeur” Raymond Bompart who had a solid professional background in traditional French and European hotels and restaurants. He was a maitre d’hotel at the Ambassador hotel in Chicago in 1960 before going back to Paris to Maxim’s.
The menu was a repertoire of French classics: From Cream of Mussels Soup, Sole Albert, Mousse de Foie Gras, Foie Gras sauce Périgourdine, Steak Diane, Filet de Boeuf en Croûte, Pommes soufflées, to Veal Orloff, and of course marvelous dessert soufflés. The wine list was probably the richest in Chicago at the time in Great Bordeaux and Bourgognes. All the celebrities who came to town and the local “beautiful people” would of course start their dinner with Champagne.  


All the chefs and head waiters had been trained in Paris and were brought in, along with Monsieur Bompart, by Vaudable with the local help of Nancy Goldberg.
Some of the notable chefs, cooks, and maitres D', who worked in that famous kitchen were Pierre Monet, Michel Grobon, Gérard Humilier, Christian Gaborit, Jean-Paul Weber, and Pierre Orsi. 
Orsi who was only 29 at the time, worked there from 1967 to 1969, when he decided to return to his native Lyon to take over the famous eponymous restaurant. But he marked during his short tenure at Maxim's with an innovation: a spectacular buffet-lunch that included fancy hors-d'oeuvre, hot dishes served at the table from rolling carts,  and desserts, for $ 5.00. 
Later on  in 1970 Bernard Cretier started as sous-chef and stayed as executive chef until the late 1970s when he opened his own restaurant, Le Vichyssois, in Lakemoor. 
Michel Maloiseau also worked as chef there for 3 years in the late 70s.

Maxim’s in its original format, had a glorious run for several years and totally eclipsed other Chicago fancy places such as the Pump Room as the ‘’place to see and be seen’’. But it had to close its doors in March of 1982. A very successful discothèque, The Metro, was launched there in the very early seventies. But it did not last long.

In 1984 Georges Badonski, one of the most creative entrepreneurs there ever was on the Chicago restaurant scene (Le Bastille, Tango, George’s) decided to buy Maxim's space and to open it as a restaurant again. Louis Vaudable in the meantime had sold Maxim’s of Paris to Pierre Cardin in 1981 but did not want to have any connection with Maxim’s Chicago.  

Badonski hired a young French cuisinier named Jean Joho who was working under Paul Haeberlin at the Auberge de l'Ill in Alsace.
But eventually, everything went wrong for various reasons, legal, financial, and conflicting personalities and interests. And the  "New Maxim's" did not last very long.
Many of the former French employees of the original Maxim’s from the early sixties, such as Georges Cuisance, Christian Gaborit, Gérard Humilier, Michel Grobon, Michel Laurent, Jean-Paul Weber, René Borderie, Pierre Monet, Raymond Soubrier, or Jean-Claude Berger, stayed around and opened their own restaurants, or work for some others in Chicago.
A French manager Raymond Bonaparte, left in 1966 to open a restaurant in Madison, Wisconsin
We will talk about some of these people and what happened to them later in this segment.

LA CHAUMIERE opened at 1161 N. Dearborn in March of 1965
This small but charming and elegant place that could seat only 44 guests at a time was launched by René Martin, who waited on tables at Jacques for 8 years and was himself the son of a restaurateur in Paris, and his wife Josie
It became rapidly a hit since it was at the time the only restaurant in town with an almost exclusively French staff. 
The chef was Gérard Pin and the sous-chef, was Bernard Lecoq, who 7 years later would open his own restaurant, Café Bernard, that still exists in 2010. Both men, friends of Martin, came from France to work at La Chaumière.
One of the waiters was Jacques Grelley, future owner of Frère Jacques.
Opened for lunch and dinner, regular customers loved the relaxed bistro atmosphere and the poached turbot with hollandaise sauce.
The following year the restaurant doubled its seating capacity and added a wine bar.
But eventually it went from success to hard times and Bill Contos, owner of Chez Paul, bought the closed place in 1968 and reopened it a few months later with Henri Coudrier as chef de cuisine. A few months later, in April of 1969, it morphed into LA CHEMINEE. 

DE PROVENCE- MAISON HENRI, 2820 N. Southport opened in the summer of 1965.
This tiny café was located above a pastry-deli-catering shop called Maison Henri.
Henri Naurath (born in Germany but a French resident for many years) had come to Chicago from Paris in 1960. He made quite a reputation with his sausages that Chicagoans discovered at a French Fair at Carson’s in1963. So 1965, with a French partner called Antoine Sorgia, they opened De Provence, since Saugia was
From Marseilles. They transformed the space where Henri made his sausages into a kitchen for their French chef, and served typical French fare such as Tournedos Rossini and Baba au Rhum. The place was BYOB. I do not know how long it operated but in 1966 the restaurant name was changed back to Maison Henri..
Antoine Sorgia, who before De Provence had worked as a waiter at La Chaumière, eventually opened his own restaurant Antoine Ambassador Supper Club in Aurora in early 1966. It was essentially an American restaurant but his chef-partner there, Marius Laura, would produce French dishes on demand. 

One had to wait until 1967 to see another authentic French restaurant opening:
LES CHAMPS ELYSEES, at 260 East Chestnut Street
It was launched on June 1, 1967 by Pierre Dousson, a former chef at Maxim’s and now the chef here and his partner Jean-Claude Berger, an alumnus of the Royal Hunt at the Ambassador East hotel, who as Maitre d’ was in charge of the dining room. The launching of this charming and elegant restaurant benefited from the financial and managerial backing of Norman Kaplan and George Weingart. Seating was limited to 80 customers but the restaurant was open for lunch and dinner .
Most of the items on the menu were French classics: Tournedos Rossini, Dover Sole, Turbot hollandaise, Rack of Lamb.
In 1969 the restaurant would regularly welcome high school students with their French teachers for lunch. They would order in French, converse I French with Pierre Dousson, and learn about French cuisine. Jean-Claude Berger left the restaurant in 1969 to briefly join the staff at Jovan, then later that year he launched La Grenouille in Hyde Park with René Borderie, another former Maitre D’ at Maxim’s.
More later about this restaurant.
Champs-Elysées continued to be successful until the early 70’s. In 1970. Jean Banchet was the chef there for a brief period.
Later on the space was occupied for several years by Zaven and nowadays is the site of another French bistro: Le Petit Paris of Alain Sitbon. 

LA BRASSERIE DE STRASBOURG at 1934 N. Clark also opened at about the same time in early June of 1967 in the North Park hotel.
The owners once again were René and Josie Martin, the couple who had opened La Chaumière 2 years before.
Gérard Humilier was also a chef there.
It was a much larger place than La Chaumière and after they had stopped serving regular lunch and dinner menus, intended to cater to the late evening diners coming out of the theater or a movie for à la carte typical brasserie fare like Soupe à l’oignon, Choucroute Garnie, Quiche Lorraine, and cheese plates. The full 7course dinner menu was priced around $ 8.00.The ambiance was relaxed and informal and many people enjoyed the late hour service.
They also opened a tiny 4 tables café adjoining the restaurant called Saint Honoré Pastry shop, where you could order a couple of simple bistro dishes and good French pastries, sorbets, and ice-cream, along with strong coffee.
Unfortunately, the whole operation went bankrupt and closed 14 months later.
Gene Sage, the famous Chicago restaurateur, bought the location in 1969 and intended to transform it into a ‘’French pub’’ serving small plates and bar food, a concept that was way ahead of its time in 1969. I do not know if that project was ever finalized. 

JOVAN at 16 East Huron
The opening of this very chic restaurant by Jovan Trboyevic was really a turning point in the modern history of contemporary classy French cuisine in Chicago when it opened on November 10, 1967.
Located on the second floor of a charming old house, its 60 seats dining room was very elegant and beautifully decorated with dominant cream and red colors.
Some of the walls had murals depicting French markets. They were the work of Maggie (Meg) Abbott a very talented artist and decorator, who eventually became Trboyevic’s wife and later on decorated both Le Perroquet and Les Nomades from A to Z.
Every detail was perfect like it would be in a traditional place of haute cuisine in France.
This restaurant was about to launch the celebrated career of the man who personified a new breed of high-class restaurateurs in America, Jovan Trboyevic.
Jovan, (his name was pronounced Yovan) passed away some months ago and I will continue to miss him for many years to come, not only because he was a great human being and a friend, but also because he really changed the way to manage a great restaurant and forever the approach to high quality French food in that city that used to be called ‘’ a meat and potato town’’
His itinerary before the creation of Jovan had been, and that is the least we can say, unusual. He escaped Yugoslavia in 1941 in an old submarine taken over by a crew of fortune, men who like him detested the take over by the Nazis of most of Western Europe, to join the British forces in Egypt. After some commando and training missions in India and Palestine he ended up being parachuted back to his own country to re-establish links for the Brits with Yugoslavian partisans. He stayed in various fighting and support capacities in Yugoslavia until 1943. Then he was sent to Italy to spy for the British army. Then he went to Switzerland and to London to do political work. In 1944 he returned to Geneva and worked in restaurants to make a living and went to Lausanne to study at a good culinary restaurant and hotel management school. He learned all facets of that type of business and increased his already solid knowledge of food and wine inherited from his father. Then in 1954 he came to the U.S. He worked as captain at famous New York restaurants like the 21 Club and Sardi`s and even opened a fancy restaurant in Larchmont that he kept for several years.
His first professional contact with the restaurant scene in Chicago was in 1964 when the Castro-Dick organization asked him to come here to start a real restaurant in a beautiful mansion on Dearborn St.
It became BIGG’S where Jovan worked for a year as Maitre D’. But he had difficulties to adjust to Castro’s concept of what a successful restaurant should be.
Once again, the “nomad” that he always was hit the road.
After meeting with Burton Brown, the owner of the Gaslight Clubs, he worked for him as a Maitre d’ in the restaurants of the DC and NYC clubs. But B. Browne wanted to send him to L.A to work at the new club. Jovan preferred to stay in Chicago, a city he had learned to like and where he had made many friends. So in 67 with the blessing of Browne and the financial backing of 2 well-known Chicago businessmen and socialites, Potter Palmer and Gordon Bent, and two other minor partners, he became co-owner and General Manager of Jovan.
It became an immediate success helped by the talents of French chef Bernard Binder, who cooked, under Jovan’s direction, not only classic dishes such as escargots, sweetbreads, quenelles de brochet (pike mousse), rack of lamb with ratatouille, duck in a peppercorn sauce, and soufflé au Grand Marnier, but also offered more modern ways to prepare fish, fresh vegetables, and unusual (for America) typical French cuts of meat.
In 68, Binder was replaced as chef by Jean-Pierre Tournier, and some others.
But above all the unusual extensive European management experience of Jovan himself, who was a perfectionist, the excellent polished service provided by the dining room waiting staff, that included Gérard Humilier as Maitre D’, and the super wine list that included great Bordeaux and Bourgognes rarely found in French restaurants in Chicago in these days constituted a winning formula.
He also introduced with success the concept of “prix-fixe” dinner at around 9 dollars.
One interesting detail: Jovan was so attached to the high quality of the ingredients used in his kitchen that he supervised most of the buying, and quite often went himself to the market to select the exact fruits, vegetables, herbs or cheese, fish, or cut of meat that he wanted. And he also acquired the first expresso coffee machine ever used in a Chicago restaurant.
In fact I would say that Jovan really introduced to Chicago what was known in France as“La Cuisine Du Marché’’. 
In other words the menu was composed every day based on the best products he could find at the market
At Jovan there was no pre-printed menu.
JOVAN was awarded the Holiday magazine restaurant award in 1969
Jovan Trboyevic sold Jovan in 1977 to Dieter Ahrens, his Maitre D’,who later on became manager when Jovan was to busy with his new Le Perroquet,
The restaurant burned in 1982 and was relocated in 1983 at 1660 N. Lasalle Street
P.S Jovan was not French himself, but he was totally immersed in the French culture and his kitchen and waiting staff was mostly French

In the Spring of 1968, a new flock of 7 French cooks arrived in Chicago. They had been hired to man the kitchens of the various new restaurants at the Playboy Club in Lake Geneva, WI
The head of that group was Michel Cipolla, who after a stint at the Playboy Club in London, took over as executive chef of the main dining room at the young age of 29. His sous-chef was Jean Banchet who came from Monte Carlo after an apprenticeship at the famous La Pyramide of Monsieur Point in Vienne. Other chefs who eventually would make a career in Chicago restaurants were Michel Maloiseau and Gérard Parrat.
Since the Playboy Club was not a French restaurant in Chicago we will not write about it at this time.
Only one major French restaurants opened in 1968, but it was perhaps the first one to bring traditional “cuisine bourgeoise provinciale” to a neighborhood a little far from downtown, and that was at the time unusual for a French restaurant .

L’ESCARGOT at 2925 N. Halsted opened its doors in October of 1968.



The owner Alan Tutzer was not a chef but had a precise idea of what he wanted: a traditional unpretentious French restaurant offering typical dishes representative of “cuisine bourgeoise” that you would find in typical restaurants of the “province”.
So he hired as chef and partner a Frenchman with an already solid experience in that field: Lucien Vergé, a native of Lyon, the capital of cuisine bourgeoise, who had apprenticed there with one of the ‘’mères’’ the famous women chef-owners of traditional restaurants in Lyon. He was a cook in the French army, and also had apprenticed in 4 stars Parisian hotels such as the Crillon and the Plaza-Aténée, and in 1956 at the young age of 23 had been hired at the Veau d’Or, a famous French restaurant in New York City where he worked as sous-chef until 1962.
Before starting at l’Escargot Vergé worked at the Mid-America Club and Chez Paul and he had a great sense of what hospitality should mean.
L’Escargot actually had the look and the feel of a real French ‘’restaurant de province’’ with the long wooden bar and its beautiful vases of fresh flowers, banquettes with wooden trimmings and coat hooks, comfortable booths, tables covered with white cloths and nice silverware , framed posters and Paris street signs on the walls. The quality of the welcome by the host and dining room staff and of the service was also very French , relaxed but professional. It was the opposite of a stuffy New-York style fancy French restaurant. Everybody, whatever clothes he or she was wearing, whether he ordered a salad and coffee for lunch or an expensive bottle of Burgundy with duck for dinner was always treated well. And Lucien himself walked around the dining room to greet regulars and newcomers.
And the food was real comfort food with some elegance.
I loved the marvelous pâtés, the artichaut vinaigrette, the typically lyonnais saucisson chaud en croûte, the cassoulet Toulousain, a rare find in Chicago in the early seventies, the French endives au gratin, the Cornish hen ‘’grand mère’’, the gigot d’agneau aux flageolets.
But some of his most popular dishes were based on organ meat: kidneys, veal liver soufflé, ris de veau (sweetbreads), cervelle (brains) en croûte, and fish such as stuffed trout and sole meunière.
The first years you could have a complete meal (without wine) for less than 10 dollars.
10 years later it was a bit more expensive but you still could eat very well for 20 dollars with wine. And the wine list was very attractive and nicely priced.
The restaurant was a non-stop popular place in spite of its relatively remote location from its opening until it burned in 1979. Then in 1980 Tutzer and Vergé opened a 2nd L’ Escargot in the Allerton Hotel at Michigan and Huron that proved to be equally popular. Lucien Vergé died in 1985. He was only 52.
Without him the restaurants (they had rebuilt the original on Halsted in the early 80`s) we not the same anymore.

LE BORDEAUX at 3 W. Madison in the Loop opened in March of 1969
This restaurant, located in a basement of that building half a block west of busy State Street, was at the time the only French restaurant in the Loop. Until its closing in 1989 it never stopped being packed for lunch with regulars, essentially businessmen, ladies who were going shopping, and a bunch of French compatriots who considered that restaurant as being almost their own “club”. There was also a limited “pre-theater” crowd. And then the restaurant closed early.
It was started by George Cuisance, better known as Kiki, and three other colleagues, Bernard Bounaud who became the first chef, Christian Finance, and Ramon Colom, who had all lost their jobs when La Chaumière went under in 1968.
They each contributed $ 5,000 to acquire the place which was an Italian restaurant called Pierre’s.
Kiki, one of the veteran French restaurateurs in Chicago whose Kiki’s Bistro has been a landmark at 900 N. Franklin since 1990, had come to Chicago in December of 1963 to work at MAXIM’s. But he already had a solid professional experience acquired, after he graduated from the Ecole Hotelière of Thonon in France in 1954, in French, British, German, and Spanish restaurants and hotels in various capacities.
He became relatively rapidly the sole owner of the business and an iconic figure in the French restaurant community.
The décor was typical of a French provincial country ‘’auberge’’ with its tables covered with red and white check table cloth, small intimate lamps, French posters and paintings on the walls, and empty wood wine barrels near the entrance. But the absence of windows and natural light was more evocative of a ‘’speakeasy’’.
In the early years Le Bordeaux was probably the only French restaurants in Downtown Chicago serving such typical brasserie dishes such as kidneys in a Dijon sauce, mussels marinière, sweetbreads, calf brains with capers, as well as steak-frites, boeuf bourguignon, coq au vin, quiche lorraine, salade niçoise, and crème brulée. Their very tasty pommes frites were hand-cut every morning, and salads, such as the Neptune and the Surcouf with shrimps, crabmeat, and avocado, were always very fresh and nicely dressed and very popular with women shopping at nearby Marshall Field’s. In the early days, Bernard Bounaud, the first chef, had his own signature dish, a very tasty filet of sole in a white wine and cream sauce; It costed only $4.50 at dinner. In those days you could have a very decent lunch with a glass of wine for less than $ 3.00. Two other French “cuisiniers” (cooks) took charge of the small kitchen after Bernard Bounaud’s departure in 1970.
In the seventies and early eighties Le Bordeaux had a Japanese chef, Yasuo Mizuchi,(I’m not too sure about the exact spelling of his name, but many people called him Yoshi) who would nevertheless continue to cook in the cuisine bourgeoise tradition.
In the first 10 years people ordered more cocktails, especially martinis, with their lunch, rather than wine. But from the middle 70`s French wine became very popular there.
The bar, separated from the main dining room, was populated by regulars. Several of my French friends and colleagues and I shared many great lunches there in one of the very intimate and comfortable booths.
Kiki was always a very cheerful and efficient host and never stopped joking and laughing. A lunch at Le Bordeaux was the best remedy against bleak depressing winter days in Chicago. When Le Bordeaux lost its lease,Kiki started a new restaurant Le Bordeaux North in 1989, also in a lower level a few blocks away at the corner of Michigan and Randolph. But it was not the same as the old place and Kiki closed it to move to Franklin St.
Many French chefs, cooks and waiters would stop-by Le Bordeaux and share a glass and a gossip there.

LA CHEMINEE at 1161 N. Dearborn, also opened in April of 1969 in the space formerly occupied by La Chaumière.
This time the new owner was Burton Kallick, a Chicago businessman who had been pursuing the dream of owning a French restaurant for a long time, but the manager was no other than René Martin, the former owner. And once again the decoration of that intimate and charming place was the work of his wife Josie.
The food was more or less similar to La Chaumière’s with the addition of dishes like Quiche Lorraine. You could have a complete dinner for less than 10 dollars. But many of the favorites were more often ones found in ‘’ continental’’ restaurants: Beef Wellington, Duck à l’orange, Veal in a cream and Calvados sauce, etc. The wine list was quite extensive since Mr. Kallick was a wine connoisseur. , but later on in 1977 the menu was expanded by Chef Willy Maes, formerly at the 95th and Jean-Claude Bridoux.
The restaurant, that benefited from a steady client base made of regulars and out-of-towners, was quite successful until it closed in1978 (or79)

L’AUBERGE at 2324 N. Clark St  opened in the fall of 1969. 
It was launched by 2 French alumni of La Chaumière and La Cheminée, Yvan Wiedmer and Jean-Paul Vassas and by a former chef of Chez Paul, André Bucher.
The very rustic décor, red brick walls, waxed hardwood parquet floor, along with its old pieces of furniture created a warm atmosphere similar to what you would find in an old French country inn. People loved it from the start.
The menu was rich in both typical comfort food dishes such as tasty patés, including good rillettes, and veal stew with tomatoes, mushrooms, and olives, and more sophisticated specialties such as Coquilles St. Jacques, lobster, Brook trout, and beignets of calf brains
The wine list was quite interesting and essentially French with good burgundies.
In 69 when it opened you could have quite a nice 3 course meal for 10 bucks.
The restaurant remained a popular spot until the end of 1982. 

LA GRENOUILLE at 1345 East Hyde Park was the last authentic French restaurant to open in December of 1969.
Once again the owners were not newcomers in Chicago since they were Jean-Claude Berger, who had founded Les Champs-Elysées in 1967 and René Borderie had been a Maitre d’ at Maxim’s for 5 years.
Berger was in charge of the kitchen and Borderie was in charge of the dining-room and the bar. Food was traditional French fare and included of course frog legs served in the Provençal style. The dining room, in a building owned by The University of Chicago, was nicely appointed. Prices were quite reasonable and you could have a Table d’Hôte dinner for about 7 dollars.
Unfortunately Hyde Park was not at the time a Mecca for foodies, and professors and students were rather frugal as far as restaurant going is concerned, and the lack of regular customers forced the restaurant to close after a while.

2. Restaurants that pretended to be ‘’French’’ and sometimes served very decent “French” food but were not owned or managed by French people. I would call most of them ‘’Continental’’ with a French touch.

LES FONTAINES ROUGES at 1011 W. Irving Park was started by Georges Soulias in 1960 
It wanted to look like a French restaurant as seen by an American eye. Its name derived from 2 mini-fountains in the walls of the original restaurant that dispensed red wine. Actually it had a decent wine list at its beginning, and a few classic French dishes , but was better known for its flaming deserts and the background music. I have no idea if any French people ever cooked or served meals there.

LE COQ AU VIN at 1400 N. Lake Shore Drive
Launched in the fall of 1960 by Dominick Trolli, an Italian chef who previously worked at Maison Lafite.
It was a charming bistro that at one time served a decent coq au vin.
It lasted until the mid 70`s.

RED CARPET at 28 W. Elm St. 
Started in 1960, this rather fancy restaurant actually served some decent mix of Creole and French food like Lobster in Pernod sauce, Veal Marseillaise, or baked oysters in a shrimp and crab sauce. I believe that the original chef was from Jamaica or Haiti.
In any case the owners were also the proprietors of an hotel in Jamaica where later on they recruited a French chef, Jacques Chevalier, who came to cook in Chicago in another of their restaurants The Red Carpet in the early sixties offered a good wine list. You could have a complete dinner there for 4 dollars in 1964.
Some years later it morphed into the very popular Le Festival

MAISON MICHELE at 2118 N. Clark
Founded in November 1961 by Howard and Anne Drake.
Howard had a formal training acquired in a restaurant school in Michigan and Anne had learned how to cook from her French mother. Michèle was the name of their first–born daughter.
The bistro had a very warm and cozy atmosphere, red and white checked table cloths and candles in empty wine bottles brought by customers since it was a BYOB. The menu was hand written.
The food was typical country-French with Onion soup, beef Bourguignon, coq au vin, rognons sautés (kidneys), cheese and fruit tarts. At one point it might have had a French cook.
It remained very popular even after its original owners sold the place in 1979.
In 1963 the Drakes opened a second but more elaborate elegant and expensive French restaurant, 


CHATEAU CHANTAL, at 72 East Oak. 
Chantal was the name of their second daughter. It featured a full bar and a good wine list, I do not know when its closed its doors but it did not last very long.

LE BALCON at 1646 N. Larrabee, was opened in 1963 by Guy Dubois, a Belgian.
It was a small BYOB café where the multi-tasking Dubois was at the same time the cook, the manager, the Maitre D’… and the dishwasher . Nevertheless this very simply decorated and not very fancy small place, in spite of its surprising location, had a relatively sophisticated menu including Coquilles Saint Jacques, sole, beef tenderloin Béarnaise, or squab. And also chocolate mousse and Baba au Rhum long before these desserts became popular. 

CAFÉ DES ARTISTES ET MODELES at 1644 N. Wells.
Opened in late 1963, it tried to resemble a Left Bank Paris bistro.
The décor and furnishings were a bit primitive and definitely unsophisticated.
But the food was classic bistro fare: Onion Soup, Boeuf Bourguignon, cheese.
I have no information about its management or when it closed its doors. 

CAFÉ LA CLOCHE opened in 1964 at 1533 N. Wells

Created and managed by JOHN SNOWDEN, one of the most talented and demanding professional chef in Chicago, it served real French dishes.
Unfortunately it lasted only a few months and Snowden moved to open a cooking school.
John Snowden, who had  a solid cooking training in France,  had been the chef and partner at Le Provençal in Hyde Park in the early 50`s.
Eventually he became one of the foremost French cooking instructor in the Midwest at his school Dumas Père.

CHEZ PAUL, the famous restaurant created by Paul Contos in the mid 40’s moved in 1964 from its original location at 180 East Delaware to the beautiful Mc Cormick Mansion at 660 N. Rush St.

It would stay in this building, for a long time under the management of Bill Contos, until it closed for good in the early 90’s.
This restaurant was the epitomy of the French-Continental tradition in Chicago. It really had a definite French flair, especially during the period when the dining room was managed by Jean-Paul Weber.
It had many ups and downs during its long history but I have to admit that occasionally I enjoyed a nice ‘’French’’ lunch with visiting French business people there.
Several French cooks, such as Lucien Vergé, waiters, and managers worked there at different times of its long history.

CAFÉ BONAPARTE, in the Sheraton-Blackstone Hotel at 636 South Michigan.
I do not know exactly when it opened, but for a few years in the early sixties it was one of the most elegant dining, dancing, and cabaret place in Chicago.
The décor was entirely dominated by Napoleon themes and the wait staff donned costumes from that era.
The cuisine was quite traditional, expensive, and continental: Beef Tournedos, Turbot in a cream sauce, Guinea hen in cherry sauce, etc. I do not know either in what year it closed. At one point it had a French chef and French Maitre D’

THE FINNERY, at the Hartford Plaza, 365 W. Monroe, was a sister seafood restaurant to the FRENCH ROOM was opened in May 1969 by Pierre Schmied, a French-speaking Swiss .

That nicely appointed eatery was essentially an upscale seafood restaurant, whose chef, Frenchman Pierre Poubelle, an alumnus from the famous French seafood restaurant Prunier in London, eventually worked in the kitchen of Le Perroquet. A novelty at the time was the fact that there was no menu. Customers would be presented the fish of the day, freshly delivered, and decided how they wanted it prepared for them.

THE FLYING FRENCHMAN 25 East Chestnut.

Located in an old brownstone this charming place was started in November of 1969 by Bill Contos, the owner of Chez Paul as a café specializing in stuffed crepes, quiche, onion soup and salads.
But when Jean Banchet who had come in 1968 from France to work at the Playboy Club in Lake Geneva, then quit to be briefly chef at Les Champs Elysées and at the Gaslight Club, came on board as a chef it turned into a very good French restaurant under the management of Jean-Paul Weber between 1970 and 1972. 

I could also mention the CAFE CHABLIS at 6510 W, North avenue.
 Unfortunately I was not able to find any precise info about that place. 

In fact I'm quite sure that I missed a few French eateries from that period.
I hope that somebody will update my research on those missing pieces in my little jigsaw puzzle.
Also I apologize for all the people who worked in these restaurants that I either did not know or did not have enough space and time to mention. I arrived in Chicago in January of 1970. That implies that I did not have an opportunity to visit most of the places described in this segment of my retrospective. 

To summarize that era, it was a period of transition when real traditional French cuisine became more popular in Chicago. The highlight of that decade was the introduction by Jovan Trboyevic in 1967 of a new contemporary approach in the use of fresh ingredients, vegetables and fish, and lighter sauces. He was really the first restaurateur to launch “ La cuisine du marché’’ here.

This article could not have been seriously researched without the precious assistance of a few co-contributors at LTH Forum, among them René G and Dicksond, as well as of several French friends who worked for many years on the Chicago restaurant business scene, among them Jacques Grelley, Gérard Humilier,and Georges Cuisance. And thanks to Jim Bonk for refreshing some of my memories of these places.
Also the many articles and reviews that I found in the archives of the Chicago Tribune (Kay Loring, Irv Kupcinet, and others) were very helpful 

Next chapter: 1970-1979 The fantastic Decade.
Nouvelle Cuisine battles traditional French cuisine

19 comments:

  1. Anonymous9:25 AM

    I was shocked that a man considered by many to be the epitomy of French Maitre D's, Jean Pierre Sire, was not mentioned in this lengthy article.

    Jean Pierre was the "face" of Chez Paul until it closed. Jean Pierre worked for another restaurant until his untimely death from lung cancer.

    Joe Lane

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Anonymous7:35 PM

      I work at CHEZ PAUL restaurant for a few years and Jean Pierre was the maitre D very nice guy we call him "Garbancito" I have very greats memories from this place all the workers were treated with respect thanks to the owner mr Bill contos .

      Delete
  2. Sorry about bypassing that element. And Thank you for your contribution. It is impossible in writing a piece such as this one to mention everybody who played a role in that field.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Anonymous6:13 PM

    Very impressive work, very interesting. Merci beaucoup.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Anonymous7:54 PM

    Le Titi de Paris....Alouette...Le Francais....D&J bistro...and so on.....Great Job! Merci

    ReplyDelete
  5. Le Titi, Alouette, Le Français , D&J, all these will be covered in my next segment 1969-1979 where they belong. Be patient.
    Thanks for reading.

    Thanks also to the other anonymous reader for his appreciated comment.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Amazingly detailed and exhaustive list, Alain. I have never dined at any of them, sadly, because in the days when I was in Chicago every chance I could get, I was also either a student, or struggling to pay off student loans.

    Ryamond Bonaparte went to Madison? What restaurant did he open there?

    ReplyDelete
  7. Hello Mimi,
    Thanks, but I have to admit that I was quite surprised to learn that you were in Chicago during the period covered by this piece: 1959-1969....I would have thought that you were a bit too young to patronize Chicago restaurants in that specific time frame. Anyway, it's good to hear from you. Especially Today... I was afraid that you may be buried under 10 feet of snow up there...
    All the best.

    Alain

    P.S To answer you question about Raymond Bonaparte, he left Maxim's in 1966 to launch the "30 Club Square" (I'm not 100% sure of the name)in Madison,WI

    ReplyDelete
  8. yes,.. im sure that french loves their own food,, because it is true that their foods are delicious and healthy,, specially if they are having the Regional Food in France: Perigord

    ReplyDelete
  9. Anonymous5:33 PM

    Around 1981 I had the pleasure of eating a magnificent dinner at a renowned restaurant near O'Hare, was it Skokie? It had been selected as the best restaurant in the US and was truly good. I have now forgotten the name. Can you help?
    Kai Kristensen in San Francisco

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Or maybe Café le Cave? That is truly right up the road and has existed nearly as long as I've been alive, growing up in nearby Chicago neighborhood of Norwood Park. My ex took me there a few times while we were dating.
      It does fall into the Continental category (if that) though; they have Italian dishes too and while the romantic bar, (voted most romantic by ChowHound)and cave-like setting remain unchanged, they have a huge events business, especially for weddings.

      That would have been within 5-10 minutes from O'Hare, right on Mannheim. Le Francais would most likely take ~ 25-30 minutes or more to get to Wheeling from O'Hare, so if you can remember HOW close....
      I'd totally forgotten about that place, so thanks for the memory reminder!
      MaryAnn

      Delete
  10. You are very probably refering to LE FRANCAIS, a very good and celebrated all over the US that at the time was owned by the great chef Jean Banchet. Opened in 1973 the restaurant was located on Milwaukee Avenue in Wheeling about 8 miles north of O'Hare airport.
    After Banchet it had 3 other chef-owners, and closed for good in 2008.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Le Francais closed its doors in 2007 not 2008.
    Sorry.
    Alain

    ReplyDelete
  12. I love this series. It's very interesting and well-researched. I'm looking forward to the next "installment" Thank you

    ReplyDelete
  13. this is great. thanks for sharing this to us. very interesting.

    ReplyDelete
  14. I'm Jean Claude Berger's son. Fun reading about his past :)

    ReplyDelete
  15. Gordon, I did not have the luck to meet personally with your father, but everything I heard about him from other French restaurant owners, patrons, or waiters, led me to think that he was a very good professional.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Thanks dear for this lovely post!! I think you have spent lots of time to get the information on French Restaurants and their food recipes. I love to read your article. Could you please send details for San Francisco restaurants? I am very curious to know about their food menu items.

    ReplyDelete

  17. TKS, unfortunately even though I know the SF area quite well, I would be unable to answer you question about its restaurants and their recipes. Sorry

    ReplyDelete