News for the Hospitality Executive
|By John Keilman, Chicago Tribune
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Jun. 26, 2003 - For years, Le Francais has been an haute cuisine magnet for Wheeling, drawing diners from across the world to sample fine French food in what the influential Mobil Travel Guide once haughtily dismissed as a "suburban-wasteland location."
But unless a buyer appears soon, the final butter-poached lobster will leave the restaurant's kitchen Saturday night, ending a 30-year run for one of the best-known restaurants in the Chicago area.
"It would be kind of like if the Cubs moved out of the city and they tore down Wrigley Field," said Village President Greg Klatecki.
"It's one of the originals. It probably helped establish the notoriety of Restaurant Row in Wheeling."
Owner and chef Don Yamauchi said Le Francais, 269 N. Milwaukee Ave., primarily was a victim of the economy, but other factors were at work as well, from menu changes to anti-French sentiment stirred by the war in Iraq.
"We've had many phone calls. People can't distinguish between governments and cuisine," he said. "People have said, 'We will stop coming here because of that." That's really unfortunate. It's food and wine, not a political statement."
Jean Banchet, a French chef with a personality as oversized as his prized Harley-Davidson motorcycles, founded Le Francais on Wheeling's busy Milwaukee Avenue in 1973, and the restaurant quickly reached the vanguard, earning a rare five-star distinction from Mobil.
"It got internationally famous under the regime of Jean Banchet," said Dennis Ray Wheaton, chief dining critic for Tribune Co.-owned Chicago Magazine. "It was obviously the best restaurant in Chicago, the best restaurant in the suburbs, for a long time."
Banchet left in 1989, returned in 1999, then sold to Yamauchi and business partner Phil Mott two years ago. Yamauchi said he opted for a more contemporary style of French cooking, and at first the critics loved it. The chef said business was good too, until Sept. 11, 2001.
The resulting economic turmoil "really made everyone not want to spend," Yamauchi said. "Everyone was on a budget. We didn't have the traveler coming in from Palwaukee [Municipal Airport], the layover passenger from O'Hare."
Meanwhile, discontent grew among some diners who missed Banchet's approach. Some regarded Yamauchi's more casual fare as Asian-French fusion, which turned off some who spent $100 per person in anticipation of a formal French meal.
Yamauchi said his cooking is purely French but acknowledged that "the people who were coming here expecting Jean Banchet's food didn't like my food. There's definitely a difference."
Some of Yamauchi's fans say the criticism was unfair. Dianna Burke, who had Yamauchi teach cooking classes at her cookware store in Libertyville, said too many diners were clinging to their memories.
"It's like Don said to me once: 'These people aren't wearing the same clothes they did in the '70s. Why are they eating the same food?'" she said. "You'd think people would be able to change, but they aren't."
Yamauchi said the restaurant was starting to climb out of the doldrums when the Iraq war hit. The chef said the ensuing French-bashing atmosphere put an end to the revival.
"There was definitely an increase in business until that happened, but that just took the wind out of our sails," he said.
But Patricia Dailey, editor in chief of Oak Brook-based Restaurants and Institutions Magazine, doubts the anti-French mood had much to do with the restaurant's troubles.
"His problems started long before then," she said. "For a long time, Le Francais didn't have the buzz that would make it a destination for people. Its time seemed to have passed."
Yamauchi said that about a month ago, he and Mott decided to pull out of the business. They're still looking for someone to buy or lease the restaurant, preferably keeping the name, but no matter what, their involvement will end Saturday night.
Some locals predict Wheeling's culinary reputation will persevere if Le Francais closed.
"The rest of the restaurants on Milwaukee Avenue"--such as Bob Chinn's Crab House and 94th Aero Squadron--"are also highly regarded in their own right," said Bill Whitmer, the village's director of economic development. "Wheeling and Milwaukee Avenue's Restaurant Row will live on, just in a little different light."
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(c) 2003, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.
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