A Bite of Paris
Tucked away just off the Mag Mile sits Alain Sitbon's hidden gem of a French restaurant
June 13, 2011, By Rick Kogan
If you are not looking for Le Petit Paris, it is unlikely you will ever find Le Petit Paris. It sits off the main lobby of the handsome high-rise at 260 E. Chestnut St. in the neighborhood known as Streeterville.
There are no other businesses on the block and just a few on surrounding streets, and so on most days and nights the sidewalks contain only some neighborhood residents leisurely strolling or walking their dogs.
On summery days, you might also find a few others making their way to and from the beach.
But there it is, a bastion of traditional French cooking and one of the best and most pleasant restaurants in the city.
Alain Sitbon is the proprietor, a lively personality with the most lilting and still heavy French accent, which he acquired long ago growing up in a suburb of Paris. He came to Chicago more than 30 years ago, beginning his local restaurant life as an 18-year-old in the kitchen of the legendary Maxim's de Paris at Astor and Goethe streets.
He later worked at such snazzy bygone places as Sage's East and Eugene's and was for many years a general manager of the still thriving Rosebud operation. "I learned a great deal about restaurants and customers, so it had long been my dream to open my own," he says.
He did so in 2002 in the space that had for a couple of decades been Zaven's, a spot serving what my colleague, restaurant critic Phil Vettel, referred to as "classic continental cuisine." He also called the place "a hidden gem for those looking for a quiet and romantic evening."
It is still that, updated by lovely design work and a striking mural painted by artist Betty Sitbon, but, Alain being French, its menu became French. It currently features such items as escargots en croute, onion tart, duck with Grand Marnier sauce, oven roasted rack of lamb, short ribs, boeuf bourguignon and creme brulee. Plus, an extensive and reasonably priced wine list. "It is what I like to call traditional but bistro style," he says. "And affordable for everyone."
The place is small but airy; the bar at the front tiny but very cool. It opens every day at 5 p.m. and closes when the last customer leaves. It is the sort of place one lingers over dinner, and it only costs $6 to park. It serves a fine Sunday brunch and has a special Father's Day deal next Sunday.
The renowned chef Michael Foley of Printers Row restaurant fame worked for a couple of years as a consultant to Le Petit Paris. He called Sitbon "one of the hardest-working guys I ever met." "I am up at 6:30 at the market buying what we will later cook that day," says Sitbon, lauding his longtime chef/collaborator Javier Guzman.
The crowd is a nice mix, and to all who might sniff derisively at "French cooking," know that Dick Butkus dined here once or twice a week for years and still visits when he is in town.
At a time when many restaurants feature trendy cuisines and flashy settings, Le Petit Paris stands apart. There is great comfort to be had in the traditional and to know that the city still has secret little places, like this gem, just awaiting your discovery.