Behind the lace curtains at Gavroche the windows were steamed up. Glass lamps with flower decals hung over the tables, and orange lamps illuminated the bar. It wasn't chic. It was comforting, like your mom's kitchen. It was French. So French it seemed to belong in some faraway corner of Paris.
We drank wine and ate bread, olives, steamed mussels, grilled chicken-apple sausage, and peasant-style pate. But in the back corner, as if to remind us that this was indeed Chicago, a pianist and a guitarist were playing the blues. The music was so good that no one seemed to worry that it had been a half hour and our entrees hadn't arrived.
Our food came after the band took its second break. Then the music started again. Suddenly the woman next to me said, "I think the man playing the guitar is the chef."
Peter Crawford, co-owner of the restaurant, is one-quarter French. He's also a chef, blues guitarist, cofounder of the nightclub B.L.U.E.S. Etcetera, and comrade of such legends as the late Sunnyland Slim, Jimmy Walker, and Mighty Joe Young. He's been a fixture on the Chicago blues scene since 1972, the year he moved here from Ann Arbor, Michigan. He'd just graduated from college and got a part-time job at Jazz Record Mart. Soon he was working part-time at Delmark Records--one of the most important independent jazz and blues labels in the U.S.-- sweeping floors, filling invoices, answering phones, and collating records. At night he hung out with the blues musicians at Sylvio's, Theresa's, and Turner's. Mighty Joe Young was the first to invite him onstage to play. By 1977 he was playing regular gigs with Walker and Slim. He later recorded with blues mandolinist Yank Rachell and others.
Crawford is modest about his musical achievements. "It's a very wide-open scene here. If you want to play blues and you sit down and learn how to play stuff, people will invite you up to play with them. They'll give you a try on jobs. They don't pay very well, obviously. But if you're active you can develop a base of experience. There's people from all over the world who come here and do as I have."
The son of a lawyer and an artist, Crawford began playing after his 13th birthday, when his mother bought him a guitar. "I have music in my blood. If you lived on my side of town, in the fall everyone was forced to listen to the U. of M. marching band practicing. My parents used to say I would wake them up in the night singing band music."
In the late 70s he founded a record label called Mirage, but he never really marketed it. He laughs. "We weren't a record label--we were a mirage." During the 1980s he bopped around the music industry. He did distribution for Flying Fish, the indie specializing in folk, blues, and world music. He then managed U.S. operations for the Danish label SteepleChase, one of the first companies to market compact discs in this country, and he booked U.S. bands in Europe. In 1983 he founded Red Beans, an indie specializing in acoustic blues that he sold a decade later. And in 1987 he became a founding partner of B.L.U.E.S. Etcetera, an offshoot of B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted, both of which cater to a large tourist and college crowd.
But by 1992 he was getting tired of the rowdy crowds. "I wanted to be in a venue where things were more civilized. And I had this cooking thing going on in my head." He sold his portion of the club and enrolled at the Cooking Hospitality Institute of Chicago. A year later he was looking to start a restaurant.
Crawford's partner at Gavroche, which moved last spring from Bucktown to Irving Park Road near Lincoln, is Said Boudjenah, a gregarious Algerian-American who speaks fluent French and graduated from the Academie des Beaux Arts in Paris. Boudjenah, whose paintings hang on the walls, tends the wine cellar and front of the house; Crawford tends the back, planning menus, taking deliveries, cooking.
The working-class French ambience comes from Boudjenah, who admires the camaraderie that grows among customers who frequent small, family-owned operations in France. "We hope that our customers become our friends," he says earnestly. "And also friends with each other."
Their menu offers French onion soup, three kinds of pate, and sea scallops with a dijon cream sauce, but Crawford, whose hero is the chef behind the lunch counter in the comic strip Dagwood, hesitates to call Gavroche a French restaurant. "I'm really only French in technique. My feeling is that the French wrote the book on modern Western cooking, essentially. Most people who learn how to cook learn the French method, so therefore I can call this a French restaurant."
Yet he isn't particularly keen on the French themselves. "I always hated French class. And then, after dealing with all the French tourists that came into B.L.U.E.S. Etcetera, I came to develop a healthy disrespect for the French." He pauses. "But food is different. It's like music. Both make people happy."
On Thursdays and Sundays he and Boudjenah offer live entertainment, usually friends and former Red Beans recording artists. After the dinner rush is over Crawford often grabs his guitar and joins them, and late diners simply have to wait.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos/J.B. Spector.