The loss of a son and a restaurant

La Creperie owner prepares to close restaurant weeks after son's death

Germain Roignant went to Rosehill Cemetery on Friday morning to visit the grave where his son was buried a few days ago. He has gone there every day, just to say hello.

He stays for a while, still trying to fathom how it is that his son could be gone, then he comes back to La Creperie, the restaurant he has owned for 41 years, to prepare for a different kind of farewell.

Since word got out several weeks ago that La Creperie would close Thursday, customers have swarmed in from all over, lining up nightly on North Clark Street for one last dinner, despondent if they come at midday only to discover that the restaurant no longer serves lunch.

"We just put money in the meter," wailed a woman who showed up at noon Friday in hopes of a valedictory crepe.

The entrance was locked, but Roignant, a slender, agile man of 75 with a swoop of silver hair, was sitting at a table next to an open door-size window. He stepped across the sill, onto the sidewalk.

He touched the woman gently on the elbow.

"How much?" he asked. "I pay you back."

It has gone on like this for days, all these woeful pilgrimages, by families who have celebrated birthdays here for years, friends who have held baby showers or wedding showers, middle-aged couples like the pair who on Friday drove down from Woodstock for a final meal at the site of their first date in 1979.

"I feel like a traitor," Roignant said.

Roignant is grateful for the outpouring — "I want to say thank you to Chicago for the loyalty and the love" — but also mystified that the closing of one small restaurant has stirred so many people.

He has one theory why: "It is a reunion with their emotions."

With its small rooms, dark wood, old posters and genteel shabbiness, La Creperie evokes a vanished world, the world of Chicago and France in 1972.

Back then, when Roignant and his wife, Sara, opened their one-room restaurant in an old frame house in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood, la cuisine francaise had a special place in American culture. It made a diner feel worldly and romantic.

Several young French chefs moved to Chicago in that era and opened restaurants ranging from the humble to the swank. La Creperie, the one that endured longest, was humble.

Roignant had grown up, in the pinched years after World War II, eating the simple food common in his small Breton town.

Two buckwheat crepes with butter, no filler, followed by two sweet crepes for dessert. Voila, lunch.

Before he left for the United States to make a life with a Joliet woman he'd met in Germany, he asked a neighbor to teach him to make crepes. From her, he learned the three secrets: The dough can't be too thick or too thin. The grill needs to be greased every third crepe. The pressure of the hand on the crepe rake has to be just right.

"You have the hand," she told him.

In the beginning, the only crepes at La Creperie involved variations of ham, eggs and cheese. Then a chef arrived and said he could make a crepe with beef bourguignon. Another came and said he could make a curry crepe, and a good snail butter.

The menu, like the room, expanded. BYOB gave way to a bar. But the comforting, battered feel of 1972 never changed.

Germain and Sara raised two daughters and a son above the restaurant. When the kids were grown, they replaced the swingset and lawn out back with a restaurant patio.

Then, on the restaurant's 30th anniversary, Sara died. Their son, Jeremy, and his wife, Yasmina Ksikes, became involved in managing the place. Still, Roignant was there most nights, talking to customers, playing trumpet with an accordionist on Thursday evenings, his French accent a permanent part of the charm.

But there were money problems, he said, despite the fact that in 41 years there was hardly a Saturday night at 8 without a wait.

So a few months ago, he decided to close. His son and daughter-in-law moved to Los Angeles. He'd bought his childhood home in Brittany, France, a few years ago and he figured he'd go stay there. Maybe get a little dog.

As the creperie's closing approached, Jeremy called to say he wanted to come help his dad pack up the place. He arrived on a Monday.

On the following Thursday, Aug. 1, Roignant found him dead, of what the family says was a heart attack, in the family home above the restaurant.

"He was a beautiful boy, 6 foot 4," Roignant said. "I will never know all that went through his heart, his head, what he did the night before."

The relentless cheer he has shown in the past few days suddenly dissolved.

"We can't talk about that too much."

On Friday morning, after his trip to the cemetery, Roignant brought scores of Jeremy's books from the upstairs apartment down to the back garden. He laid them on a table, planning to ask customers to take one.

By evening, there would be a line out the door, the fragrance of crepes on the grill, the clamor of memories, more endings and goodbyes leading to the last one.

Before I left, Roignant leaned across the table and tapped my notebook.

"Somewhere in there," he said, "you're going to have to put 'c'est la vie.'"

mschmich@tribune.com

CHICAGO

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