La Creperie reopens after sad closing

Germain Roignant

Germain Roignant, 75, reopened Le Creperie on Clark Street quietly in December after closing in August. (Phil Velasquez / Chicago Tribune / January 3, 2014)

In the past few months, Germain Roignant has come to think of life as a Chinese soup.

"Sweet and sour," he said Friday, sitting in La Creperie, the newly resurrected Chicago restaurant he closed last August.

It was almost lunchtime. The little front room looked like it had forever, only better.

The ancient wooden floors, from the days the building was a farmhouse, had been stripped of decades of paint and freshly varnished. The old copper awning above the bar gleamed like it hadn't in ages. The crepes still smelled like crepes.

It was hard to imagine this comeback last summer when Roignant, at the age of 75, weary of the business' financial strains, announced he was closing the restaurant he had run for 41 years.

In his farewell weeks, disconsolate customers lined up night after night for one last crepe and a chance to remember their first dates there, their engagements, baby showers or birthdays, the kind of life changes that feel more profound when marked in a place that doesn't seem to change.

That — the constancy of the place — was what kept customers coming back. Inside, it was always 1972, and always France.

When he closed, Roignant felt he was betraying the customers who had built his livelihood, but he had lost more than a restaurant.

Shortly before the closure, his son, Jeremy, who had recently moved to Los Angeles, came back to Chicago to help his father pack. Jeremy died suddenly, unexpectedly in the family home above the restaurant.

"C'est la vie," Roignant told himself.

He had also told himself that he would go home to Brittany, to the French village where he grew up, to ponder the meaning of it all.

And he did.

In the autumn, he saw his boyhood friends. He slept in the bedroom where he was born. He made crepes in the land where he'd learned how.

In the meantime, life changed.

A few doors up North Clark Street, Colin Cameron, his cousin Jack Crombie and Crombie's wife, Pam, run a Scottish pub called Duke of Perth.

As Cameron tells the story, when they heard La Creperie was for sale, they saw a chance to escape their high rent. But when the landlord got wind of their plan, just as they were closing on the Creperie deal, he lowered the rent.

It was no longer urgent to move the pub. So what were they going to do with the La Creperie space?

On one of its last nights, they took another French chef there, thinking he might open a new restaurant. There in the crowd was Roignant, silver-haired and charming in the Gallic way, ebullient with the guests despite his grief, as vital to the place as butter.

"Germain was in his element," Cameron recalled Friday. "The place felt fantastic. It seemed sad it was closing. It seemed wrong it was closing."

An idea bubbled up. Maybe they could partner with Roignant.