It's the old story: boy meets girl, boy marries girl, boy and girl move to Chicago and open up a French restaurant. OK, so maybe that's not the old story--but it is the story of La Creperie, the Lincoln Park restaurant that this year celebrates its 30th anniversary.
Back in October of 1963, Joliet native Sara Blondis, fresh out of college, traveled to Paris to teach English at the Berlitz school. During her stay she and a friend took a trip to Hamburg, and one night they decided to dine at a restaurant called Zum Alten Rathaus. "It was cold outside," Sara says, "and I wanted something to warm my hands with." So the first thing she ordered was a cup of coffee.
Germain Roignant had grown up in Brittany, the western French province known for its buckwheat crepes, and had spent several years waiting tables in Nice and Paris. Longing for travel, he had accepted an offer from some loyal customers to return with them to Germany, where he could work and learn the language. They helped him get a job at--you guessed it--Zum Alten Rathaus.
Germain waited on Sara and her friend that night. "She knew about two words in French," recalls Germain. On top of that she wanted coffee. "But I had never served coffee before the meal. So I showed her the wine list."
"It was the first time I ever had wine," says Sara. After a few glasses and a meal, she finally got her coffee. By that time Germain was off the clock and offered to take them to a local pub, where everyone locked arms and sang sea chanteys. It made for a memorable evening.
The next night Germain and Sara went on their first date, to a club called the Top Ten, where five bands were playing. The last band sang in English, and Sara went up to talk to them afterward. It turns out they were four lads from Liverpool known as the Beatles.
The women returned to Paris, and the young couple continued to correspond. By Easter Germain had gotten a job at the Hotel George V in Paris and they were seeing each other steadily. In September of '64 they decided to head back to the States, where Sara continued to teach--in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco--and Germain continued to wait tables. In San Francisco he earned his degree in restaurant management. "He wanted his own restaurant," Sara says.
So in June of '72, by then married with two children, the couple moved to Chicago to be near her family and to open their own place. "My father bought the building"--the one at 2845 N. Clark that they still occupy--"and we rented the space from him." At the time La Creperie was one of only a few French restaurants in Chicago, and it was even more unusual in that Germain had decided it would serve only crepes.
The street vendors Germain remembered from his childhood poured the pancakes onto a large round grill of stone or cast iron, cooked them very thin, and sold them plain with a little powdered sugar or filled with egg, ham, and cheese (called "the complete") or with jelly, fruit puree, or chestnuts. Early on, Sara and Germain expanded their crepe fillings from the rather limited traditional choices to offer options like beef bourguignonne, ratatouille, and coq au vin. The list of dessert crepe fillings ranged from the simple (strawberries, Nutella, ice cream) to the decadent (creme de marron, bananas Sara, suzette a la Germain). And they were a bargain: even today the most expensive crepe is $7.25, while a full meal--entree crepe, soup or salad, and a dessert crepe--is a prix fixe of $16, a little more for seafood.
For the first six months business in La Creperie's two rooms was a little slow. "We had a small menu," says Germain. "But then we were written up in the Sunday section of the Sun-Times. That same night there was a line at the door, and for the next five years there was a line at the door. We built up a steady clientele."
In 1981 they moved La Creperie up the street to 2940 N. Clark, where there were three rooms plus a bar, and turned the smaller space into a health food restaurant called Franco American Cafe. But patrons of La Creperie complained that they missed the garden, so in 1983 they closed up the health food restaurant and moved La Creperie back to its original location. "Now customers come in and say, 'Oh, I'm so glad you are still here. I haven't been in here for 20 years,'" says Germain.
Perhaps they remember the atmosphere, which hasn't changed much: French posters and a chalkboard menu decorate dark wood walls, while accordion music fills the air. More likely they're coming back for the food, which hasn't changed either. Besides crepes, the Roignants serve steak frites and orange roughy, as well as escargots, onion soup gratinee, and pate. A brunch menu (served until 4 every day) is heavy on egg dishes. And the bar serves 36 mostly French wines by the glass, along with hard cider from Normandy.
These days Germain and Sara--soon to be grandparents--have their son, Jeremy, helping out with every facet of the business, including managing the Web page, www.lacreperieusa.com. Meanwhile, they have plans to expand production of their crepes and market them in stores. Sara thinks eventually they could overtake croissants in popularity. "You buy them in the store and take them home," she says, "and have them plain with your coffee. Just like in Brittany."
La Creperie is at 2845 N. Clark, 773-528-9050.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.