The sky is as immaculate as a crisply bleached bedsheet, when I lock my commuter bicycle to a parking sign two steps north of La Creperie, the family-owned-and-run casual bistro on Clark Street midway between Diversey and Surf. A stretch of midnight-colored windowpanes that open in the summertime to welcome the Chicago sunshine are closed as I approach, since it’s barely 9am and the eatery will not open for another two hours. But not too much time passes after I rap on the wood-framed doorway, before I’m greeted by Yasmina Ksikes, Germain Roignant’s daughter-in-law. She sports a breezy mustard sweater and multi-hued organdy skirt, the perfect outfit for this deceptively warm autumn day. She offers a cup of coffee while we wait for Germain to appear, which I accept. Once she returns from the kitchen with two demitasses of steamy French Roast, one for each of us, we review our mornings and make small talk, sipping politely.
Germain arrives soon, vigorously explaining the errands he has already during the beginning hours of the day. The pulse of his energy is as determined as a thirsty bee dashing from flower to flower, collecting enough pollen to carry home in order to create something as sweet as nectar and as nourishing as a good memory.
Germain Roignant, Yasmina Ksikes
Yasmina: [Germain] is from Brittany, the northwestern part of France. He was working in Germany when he met Sara…
Germain: I was in Germany for two years after college…
Yasmina: Sara was a French teacher from Joliet with a love for movies and language and art and France, and [she and a friend] happened to go to the restaurant where Germain was a server. Being American, she asked for a cup of coffee with lunch.
“No, no,” Germain said,” that doesn’t happen here. I’m not going to give you some coffee. I’m going to give you some wine.”
I think the connection happened right away, because that’s how it started, just a French waiter and two pretty girls. They ended up having a little fun, and little by little, their love grew and developed…
Germain: My wife had been living in California nearly six months before, and I had always wanted to go to California…
Yasmina: … and she asked him to come to Chicago with her. So he came here and met her family.
Germain: I learned that there was a two-year course available in San Francisco, so I said,” Let’s go to San Fransisco!” We went there for the best years of the last century, ’66, ’67, ’68, and ’69, when everybody did drugs- except me!
We came back to Chicago in ’69, because our first child was born and my wife did not want her kids to grow apart from the others, cousins, aunts, and uncles. Now, I had lived in the East, and had never seen Chicago. I worked downtown for a few years.
Yasmina: But Germain wanted to make crepes…
Germain: I would go to creperies in my hometown once or twice a week, when I was growing up. It was a simple, cheap lunch. I watched men on the streets of France making crepes. One time, one man was making a crepe, and I thought,” Wow, that’s a lot of dough!” He added another four ounces of dough, then put cheese and ham in it, folded and folded it, stuffed it in a canape, then handed it to a person waiting to have his lunch right there. Sure, a ham and cheese sandwich is good, but a crepe is better!
The best apprenticeship is work. So one day I asked a friend over there, a woman named Josephine (but we used to call her “Feenie”), “Do you mind if I come by one day to see how you make your dough?”
She said,” Sure!”
That’s how I developed a hand to make a crepe. A crepemaker makes a basic dough- eggs, water, milk, salt, sugar, flour- and then finishes it by adding a little more salt, butter, water, or milk, until the consistency of the dough is as he knows. For crepes, you can vary a little bit; it doesn’t have to be precise. If it’s too liquidous, add some more flour to it. I learned that you can make one crepe, and it can be heavy and doughy, especially when it’s made in a skillet. Thinness can determine taste. Ingredients can determine taste.
Yasmina: So he said to Sara,” Why don’t we have a little cart, and I’ll make crepes, so that we can make a living?” But the building was here, and they thought,” Why don’t we just create a creperie?”
Germain: I had the recipe already, so we looked for a location. I didn’t like this location at first and would have preferred to go on Broadway. It was rundown. Across the street was a dinky, dinky, dinky house, then three other houses that had been there about a hundred years, probably. In front there was an old building, which was taken down to build the Ace Hardware on the corner that was later sold to Border’s [Bookstore]. Coming north there was an old Japanese restaurant, Keo’s, which went out of business. The hospital next door was there, and has been for forty years. There was a big night club called The Phoenix, and a little arcade. But it was not all that great around here. From here to Belmont was so-so. You wouldn’t go to Clark and Belmont too much. Ann Sather was [on Belmont] at the time. But you would go in and get out! But here we had a [cooking area in front] and a huge garden in back, a perfect place for the kids to play. All of a sudden, it became very attractive and we decided to go here.
Yasmina: In the beginning, there was just the little room here, the front room. [The bar area] was the kitchen, and Germain began making crepes every night from 4:00 til 11:00…
Germain: This was in 1972. We started as a very inexpensive place. A salad was fifty cents, and people would order two salads and have that as a meal. In February of 1973, when an article in the paper had the power to draw people in, there was an article written about the restaurant, and that did it. People just came! We had only the front room here, and ten tables, but lines of customers would wait at the door. Eventually, we added a backroom and opened a part of the garden area to outdoor dining, al fresco. What we had going for us was that we were a destination. People used to find themselves thinking, “Ah, we haven’t been to La Creperie in a while. Why don’t we go there tonight?” They knew the crepes and they knew us, and that compensated for the rest. When people came here, they felt at home for an hour-and-a-half.
Soon, the area around Broadway and Diversey became more eclectic and expensive. People began renting buildings and cleaning up. There wasn’t too much happening here, but on Clark, and past Diversey going south on Clark, there became better opportunities for a small store to start. The bank on the corner came here, the building behind us became a PetSmart, and the city chose to move a [moviehouse] project into the Century Mall. Another old building on the corner was taken down to build an Ace Hardware.
Gentrification is great, but the little guy can’t come in. It’s not a help. The PetSmart went under, and the building has been empty a long time. This white elephant to the south of us called The Century hasn’t been fully rented for the past twenty-five years. There’s another huge space next door, and half of it is empty all of the time. The place across the street has been for rent for four years. People want too much for it, so a little guy cannot make it, not if he has to pay $3,000.00 a month. That’s why it remains vacant. It’s sad, but it’s a sign of the times.
Business slowed down again a few years ago, but that’s the lucky part of being business for a long time. If you want to come back, you can come back. We’ve had people who have left Chicago and moved to Florida come back and say,” We haven’t been back for twenty years. But you’re still here! That’s so great!” Some have come back after thirty-five years. I recognize most of them, because I was here pretty much by myself in those years, over there making crepes behind the wall.
Our claim to fame is that Kate Walsh used to work here twelve years ago, maybe. She left and went on to do The Drew Carey Show, then ER and The Practice. Sean Hayes, who played “Jack” on Will and Grace has come in with his friends.
When I was coming back from France a few years back, I sat next to Mayor Daley. I was looking at him and thinking,” I know that guy, but I can’t place him.” No one was with him, no bodyguard. So we talked.
I said, “Yeah, I’ve been there for thirty-five years, maybe. Have you been in yet?”
“No, not yet. But we’ll come in. We’ll come in for breakfast.”
But he never came in, probably because he had too much business to do…
I always like to think about how to succeed in life. How do you succeed? Find out what everyone else is doing, and do something else! Nobody was making crepes when we started, except for a downtown place called The Flying Dutchman. But they had skillet-type crepes, and ours were a specialty. I felt, being in America, I didn’t have to do something that you would find in my hometown. In the beginning, we never sold chicken or beef in a crepe with a wine sauce. But we tried it, and people have tried it, liked it, and made a meal of it. That is something you wouldn’t see in France. It’s our own.
If I had the money, I’d love to find a spot to [put a crepe stand] downtown. It could be good! There are so many people downtown, and one out of ten will want to try, and, if they liked it, then they would come back! I’m surprised no one has done this with crepes downtown! But I would like to spend some time smelling the roses soon. I would love to sit around and do nothing!!! I’m seventy-three now and would like to have my son take the business over. In France, there are places that have been around since Napoleon was going in for lunch. If my kids take over, then this place will be here another seventy-five years. If my grandkids do, maybe it’ll be here for two-hundred years. Yasmina, before you know it, it will be you sitting here giving interviews!
Yasmina: About how everything has changed into some New Age, futuristic rocket-launching site?