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.
 

Marcel Keraval in the main dining room at Café de France
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 4, 1984

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.
 

Café de France Menu, 1984
(click image to enlarge)

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.
 

Café de France 10th Anniversary Menu – December, 1989
(click image to enlarge)

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.
 

Marcel and Monique Keraval, 2001 Marcel and Monique Keraval, 2003

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.
 

Marcel and Monique Keraval with Leon Bierbaum at Chez Leon, 2011

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