Café de France
Marcel Keraval was born in a small city in Brittany, on the west coast of France. His granduncle was a chef, and from the time he was 10-years-old, he knew he wanted to be a chef too. He attended the Culinary School of Tours in the Loire Valley, and then worked in restaurants throughout France and Switzerland before coming to New York, where he worked for three years at The Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Center.
In 1976, Keraval came to St. Louis, where his brother-in-law, Jean Claude Guillossou, was the chef at Westwood Country Club. The two chefs, who had married French Canadian sisters Monique and Rachel, decided to become partners and open a French restaurant in Chesterfield at the corner of Olive and Woods Mill Road – L’Auberge Bretonne.
Their West County restaurant flourished, but the brother-in-law chefs wanted a venue closer to downtown. So three years later, in December of 1979, they opened a second restaurant at 410 Olive Street, on the ground floor of the Merchants Laclede Building. They called their new venture Café de France. Marcel and his wife Monique went downtown to run the new restaurant, while Jean Claude and Rachel stayed behind to run L’Auberge.
The atmosphere at Café de France was simple but
elegant. The 70-seat dining room,
with its double-high ceiling, beautiful crystal chandeliers and
tasteful oil paintings, was filled with well-spaced tables set
with linen, silver and fresh flowers. The lighting was soft, but
bright enough for one to inspect the dessert table loaded with
raspberry tarts, pear tarts, cheesecakes and assorted French
pastries, all baked at Café de France.
Monique was "the boss," according to her husband Marcel. She was maître d’ and bartender and answered the phone. She greeted diners with a "bon jour" or "bon soir" in the small reception area.
Keraval described his cuisine as "light and
elegant French gourmet." Lunch was served from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.
and dinner from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. – until 11:30 p.m. on Friday and
Saturday. Both meals featured an à la carte menu and a prix-fixe
menu du jour.
Although Café de France was basically a classic French restaurant, elements of nouvelle cuisine crept in, and often French techniques were applied to American foodstuffs for a new approach. "I do my own cooking," said Keraval, "my own idea of French cuisine. Some dishes are very traditional, very classic, but sometimes there is some nouvelle influence."
Café de France emphasized artistic presentation of
its dishes. One of the most popular soups was the fresh seafood
seasoned with saffron. It arrived crowned with a puff pastry “lid.” Keraval’s trademark
was another stylish touch; he presented food with
two-color swirls of sauces. Entrees arrived with vegetable or meat
sauces in pools around the dish. Desserts were ringed with intensely
flavored fruit sauces.
In 1990, Café de France stopped serving lunch year-round, only serving the midday meal during the Christmas season. Many of the city’s gourmet restaurants had an on-again, off-again lunchtime existence. Partly because iced tea had replaced the more profitable alcohol as the preferred beverage at noon, restaurateurs found it difficult to make money at lunch. But two years later, at the urging of longtime customers, Café de France was back in the lunch business again.
In August of 2001, Café de France closed while its
space was demolished as part of Charles Drury’s plan to renovate the
otherwise empty 110-year-old Merchants Laclede Building into a
Hilton hotel, to include a bigger, better venue for the French
restaurant. But after Keraval had put the restaurant’s furniture
into storage and temporarily dismissed his 16 workers, Drury told
him the project would be delayed, possibly a year or longer, due to
the sagging economy. It was unclear if the 22-year-old restaurant
would reopen in the Merchants Laclede Building – or anywhere else.
But Café de France did reopen. In June of 2002, the Keravals took over the space in Clayton at 7515 Forsyth Boulevard that had formerly housed Fio’s La Fourchette and, before that, the Leather Bottle. But the Keravals never seemed to hit a good stride in Clayton. In 2003, Marcel Keraval suffered a stroke, and in September of 2006, the Keravals closed Café de France for good.
Keraval completely recovered from his
stroke and went to work at the Chase
hotel. And then, in 2010, Leon Bierbaum called looking for a chef for
his restaurant Chez Leon, which he had relocated to Clayton. So Marcel and Monique went back to
Clayton . . . to another Lost Table.
Copyright © 2016 LostTables.com