Sub out the restaurant name, and the tales of woe are the same at a hundred other places. A longtime family-run restaurant buckling under the weight of the economy, as it pursues every course to stay above water.
It's a familiar story. This time, the setting is Libertyville. Wedged in the corner of a strip mall is Cafe Pyrenees, the French bistro run by husband-and-wife team Jean-Marc and Mari Loustaunau since 1990. Jean-Marc came from the southwest of France near the Basque region, moved to the States in the '70s and worked under Pierre Pollin, the legendary chef at the late Le Titi de Paris in Arlington Heights.
Around the time Jean-Marc and Mari got married in 1989, they dreamed of venturing out on their own. Pollin gave the couple his blessing, and even allowed the Loustaunaus to take his best busboy, a man still employed as a waiter at Cafe Pyrenees. The Loustaunaus first opened in Vernon Hills, and in 2005 moved to more spacious quarters at its present location in Libertyville.
There are a lot of these cozy bistros dotted along the North Shore — Froggy's, Cafe Central, Mirani's — diners of a certain generation might remember Alouette in Highwood. Cafe Pyrenees is the type of French restaurant that proclaims its Frenchiness by being tres Francais: During a recent dinner, I sat at a table with a 3-foot-tall Moet & Chandon Champagne bottle and, on the wall, a drawing of three beret-wearing mustachioed Parisians holding baguettes while riding a tandem bicycle beneath the Eiffel Tower. On the menu: undeniable classics of French onion soup, escargots and steak frites.
Mari tells me their lifeline is in the generational customers, ones they meet as babies, then 10th birthdays, high school graduates and again at their wedding rehearsal dinners. If you ask any business that's stayed open for 23 years, that arc is surely a common refrain.
The Loustaunaus have a charming and humble back story, but the tide of progress is an awesome force.
To begin, the economy. When expendable cash dries up, the first to feel the hit is entertainment. No restaurant has been immune these last five years.
Cafe Pyrenees has been struck doubly hard. Since April 2012, Illinois Routes 21 and 137 have been undergoing a massive reconstruction project, turning traffic at Milwaukee Avenue and Buckley Road into a massive headache. Standing at the restaurant's front door, you can throw a rock at that intersection. Many times, the Loustaunaus have been tempted. Between June and December 2012, their overall business fell by half. The weekday lunch crowd dropped so low, Cafe Pyrenees is now a dinner-only restaurant.
But the greater impediment, one that's slowly become more apparent for bistros in the last 20 years, is the very idea of French cuisine.
Near where I sit at work are several interns in their early 20s. As an experiment, I asked them to name genres of fine-dining restaurants they'd enjoy. Their responses included sushi, Italian, Mexican, seafood, steakhouses. Not one considered French. For one, the fine-dining worldview of the millennials is rather loosely structured; Great Aunt Mary would never consider Shoyu ramen or foie gras hot dog as a birthday meal. Perhaps they see their parents, many of whom consider chicken paillard or beef bourguignon the apex of fine dining, as old hat and uncool. That the most visible ambassadors to French cooking are Jacques Pepin, a guy nearly 80, and Julia Child, who's dead, doesn't help in fighting the antiquated perception.
"It's difficult to attract a younger crowd," said Jean-Marc Loustaunau. "It's why we don't really say we're a French restaurant. I'd say French roots or French base."
Like a mother sneaking green peas inside a lasagna for her vegetable-averse child, Cafe Pyrenees offers quesadillas as an appetizer, except this version uses pulled duck leg confit with apple, cranberry and mango chutney. Sandwiched on the menu between escargots and moules mariniere are roast beef and barbecue pulled pork sliders. The restaurant is fighting both mindsets and economic realities; they figure French cooking isn't just a classification of dishes, it can be the approach to technique and care.
"When people mention the word French, they think expensive," Mari said. "They think complicated dining, food with heavy creams, very formal. And we're so the opposite. That's been the struggle that we've had the last 10 years."
Mari, the marketing mind of the two, runs down the list of creative promotions she's employed. Once she turned the spinning board from Twister into a prize game, where diners could win, say, free appetizers or a bottle of wine. She's printed her own line of currency on cardboard stock called "Pyrenees Bucks." During Fourth of July week, she ran a set dinner special for $17.76 where diners chose their allegiances with either a French or American menu. And in celebration of the Blackhawks' Stanley Cup win, there's a prix fixe for $20.13 that includes "Zamboni Salad" and a dessert shaped like a hockey puck. (I can attest to the excellence of the hockey puck — chocolate mousse atop a crispy almond cake, sealed in a dark chocolate ganache, shaped like its namesake.)
Like a thousand other restaurants around town, it's about getting over that hump. Hope springs eternal. They'd tell you few things are as satisfying as crispy fries soaking up the beefy pan juices from a grilled hanger steak as Edith Piaf warbles in the background. Or that sauteed calf liver with onions, apples and bacon are classics for a reason.
For now, the Loustaunaus patiently await for the road construction project to finish. Last they heard, the government told them next January.
"I have my own yellow hard hat. If I knew how to use the rig," Mari said, "trust me, I'd be out there."
1762 N. Milwaukee Ave., Libertyville; 847-362-2233
Known for: No-fuss French bistro cooking, duck confit, beef bourguignon
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