Forgotten French? Mais non! Not that it ever went away, but French dining in Chicago is surging anew
Back in the ’80s, anyone perusing lists of Chicago’s most highly regarded restaurants (the diner-opinion-driven Zagat Survey, for instance) would have found that French cuisine dominated the public’s fancy.
Leading the charge would have been Le Francais, so popular in its heyday that wealthy out-of-staters flew their private jets to Palwaukee Airport (as it was called then) to feast on Jean Banchet’s food. Also prominent would have been Ambria, Cafe Provencal, Carlos’, Jimmy’s Place, La Tour, Le Ciel Bleu, Le Perroquet, Le Titi de Paris, Le Vichyssois and more.
(If this list is making you feel nostalgic, you’re old.)
None of the above restaurants is alive today. And on the Zagat online site (the most recent I found was from 2017), there are but two French restaurants — Les Nomades and Yoshi’s Cafe — among Chicago’s top 50 (discounting Avec, mistakenly identified as French).
The critically acclaimed restaurants today go by different names and different labels, if they have labels at all. Acadia, Alinea, Blackbird, Boka, Elske, Oriole, Smyth — highly individual restaurants sometimes dubbed “contemporary American” because it’s the least-inaccurate label we have (and the least informative). But they’re not French.
What happened? In the late ’80s, a surge in Chicago fine dining (including the birth of Charlie Trotter’s and Topolobampo) made the long drive to suburban French mainstays less appealing and less necessary. Population shifts exposed diners to bolder and spicier cuisines, which proved popular. And some of the late, great French restaurants simply ran out of time, felled by death (Cafe Provencal, Chez Paul), retirement (The Bakery, Le Titi de Paris, Les Vichyssois) and redevelopment (Bistrot Margot, Le Ciel Bleu).
French restaurants didn’t die, but trends went elsewhere, putting bistros on the back burner.
That may be starting to change; French food is making waves again. Nationally, we’ve seen heaps of critical praise and awards for Le Coucou in New York and Petit Trois in Los Angeles, and hot new French restaurants elsewhere include Justine’s in Austin, La Merise in Denver and Tiny Lou’s in Atlanta.
Locally, Grant Achatz devoted half of Next’s 2018 menus to French cuisine. The Blanchard in Chicago closed too quickly (2013-2016), but its brief run included two best new restaurant awards (The Tribune and Jean Banchet Awards) and a semifinalist nod (for best new) from the James Beard Foundation. George Trois was named restaurant of the year by the Jean Banchet Awards in January.
Add to that some impressive newcomers, such as Le Sud, a picture-perfect bistro in Roscoe Village, and Taureaux Tavern, a Loop restaurant that mixes classic French food (via former Blackbird chef Michael Sheerin) with lavish art deco design.
On the way is Cafe Cancale, a French-seafood restaurant by One Off Hospitality Group, which will open as early as June in Wicker Park. When One Off Hospitality (Blackbird, Avec, Violet Hour, more) sinks money into a French concept, you know there’s something going on. (Boka boys, the boule is in your court.)
Chef John Hogan recently left his post at River Roast in hopes of opening a French bistro.
“I think I have another restaurant left in me,” Hogan said, “and it’s got to be a French bistro. After coming back from a Paris trip in October, I really have a bug to do it.”
The project is still in its nascent stages — a promising early deal fell through — but Hogan said he’s encouraged by the rise in interest in French food.
“I’m kind of banking on it,” he said, “because that’s what I do. Choucroute, coq au vin — these dishes have a lot of soul to them. Really bold flavors, and great, classic technique.”
Other chefs and restaurateurs stress that while French restaurants may have escaped the spotlight in Chicago, they hardly went away completely. Some of Chicago’s longest-lived restaurants are French; Everest (the only Michelin-starred French restaurant in Chicago) and Les Nomades are more than 30 years old; Kiki’s Bistro is 29. Le Bouchon turned 25 last year, and its sibling restaurant, La Sardine, turned 20. Brindille, receiving more attention with the closing of sibling restaurant Naha, just turned 6. Way out west in Lockport, Tallgrass is approaching its 38th birthday.
“French cuisine … is the best,” said Les Nomades owner Mary Beth Liccioni, who acknowledges a certain bias. “Even chefs considered avant-garde today got their basics in French technique. That’s important.”
“One of the most surprising signs here at Everest is that we have a clientele that is very young compared to a number of years ago,” said chef/proprietor Jean Joho. “I think the younger customers are getting tired of noisy restaurants with no personality, where you don’t remember what you had and you never had a conversation. A restaurant doesn’t have to be stuffy, but it has to have class. Today, more and more, people want to be recognized; it’s nice to hear, ‘Nice to see you again.’”
“We’re seeing more young people coming out (to Les Nomades), and a lot have never experienced (French fine dining),” she said. “They appreciate the different ambience; they like dressing up.”
“One thing we know how to do is open a restaurant and keep it open for 10 years,” said the French-born Martial Noguier, whose Gold Coast restaurant, Bistronomic, will turn 9 this year. “Our business is strong. Mon Ami Gabi in Lincoln Park, they’re doing a great business. I don’t think people in Chicago forget about French food or don’t like it; I think the media put French food to the side and pushed more the different cuisine.”
“I think, also, many French restaurants got tired, in the way they operated and the way they make food,” said Joho. “You have to update yourself on a regular basis; I think that’s what’s paid off all the years (at Everest). Today, the customer knows much more, and you have to make better food.
“I’m lucky,” he said. “My wife tells me 100 percent if there’s something wrong.”