The couple had a dispute over the lease with owner Jean Banchet, who opened Le Francais in 1973 and made it a bastion of formal French cuisine. Now, Banchet is planning to reopen the restaurant in September with a lighter decor, a glassed-in kitchen and a "classic Mediterranean" menu.
"It's my last time having a restaurant," said Banchet, 59. "I want to use everything I have learned. I want to lighten things up, put the waiters in suits instead of tuxedos, open up the kitchen. It will still be haute cuisine, but it will be less expensive, with more Mediterranean flavors."
Banchet is not worried about building up a new wine cellar from scratch. "We will have some good wines," he said. "Wine is easy if you have the right connections and enough money. Food is harder."
To handle that area, Banchet has a young partner and chef, David Sanders, 29, who worked with him in Atlanta. He is currently working in several big-name restaurant kitchens in New York "picking up new ideas," said Banchet. Sanders, he said, "is like a son to me. I'm doing this as much for him as for me."
For the past 10 years, Banchet has focused his efforts on Atlanta, where he launched and ran Ciboulette and later Riviera. However, he retained ownership of Le Francais.
The first harbinger that something new was afoot at Le Francais came last fall. Sharp-eyed diners noticed that the menu cover no longer carried the restaurant's name; instead, it read "Roland Liccioni -- Cuisinier." Indeed, the Liccionis had requested that Banchet remodel the place before they would renew the lease, and Banchet had refused. "I leased two restaurants in Atlanta, and I put my own money into remodeling them," Banchet snorted.
The Liccionis are now looking for a site in Chicago to house a fancy French restaurant -- and their large wine cellar, which they've let shrink from 20,000 bottles to about 14,000 prior to the move. Representatives from one of the hotels under construction downtown have approached them but, Roland said, "They haven't said anything real yet. We're still looking."
Meanwhile, the Liccionis continue to own and operate Les Nomades, a casual French restaurant in downtown Chicago. If no new deal has been signed before the couple closes the doors on Le Francais on July 24, Roland said, "We'll just go to Les Nomades until something comes up."
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