Cafe Marie-Jeanne, the cozy French all-day restaurant and wine bar that served legions of loyal followers for five years in Humboldt Park, will close Tuesday at the corner of Augusta and California. The neighborhood spot, adored by the city’s critics and its hospitality industry, just can’t carry on without financial support from the government, chef and owner Mike Simmons tells Eater Chicago.
“We feel so honored that Chicago was so open to us and it was beautiful while it lasted,” Simmons writes in a text. “We hung on as long as we could but at the end of the day it wasn’t long enough. And we won’t be the last. It seems the city, state, and federal government would watch us wager death and disease to squeeze a few nickels out of an impossible situation rather than help us out. But! The wheel keeps turning.”
The restaurant’s creativity and relaxed vibe kept loyal fans who stopped by for a glass of wine, a Chicago-style lobster roll, or calf brains and foie gras. For those who aren’t adventurous, the burger was also among the city’s best. Simmons, his wife Valerie Szafranski, and partner/wine director Jamie McLennan, opened Cafe Marie-Jeanne in 2015, across the street from the now-shuttered California Clipper. Simmons moved on from Rootstock, the nearby wine bar, to open Marie-Jeanne.
They funded the project in part via Kickstarter, waxing poetic about the cultural and social role of cafes, “where coffee and sandwiches meet with the musings of poets and philosophers, the animated debates over politics and sports, and the rhythm of idle banter among friends and lovers.” The fund raised more than $21,000.
That groundswell of grassroots support grew over time into a dedicated following. The team made its emphasis on wine apparent, as Marie-Jeanne refers to the first bottle size larger than a magnum (2.25 liters). The spot also developed a reputation for its baked goods like fresh doughnuts and a cherry peach goat cheese crostata.
While other restaurants, many of them owned by larger companies, continued indoor dining, Simmons has been adamant and outspoken about keeping his restaurant’s dining room closed. During the pandemic, the cafe’s team raised funds for local social justice organizations like Brave Space Alliance and Grocery Run Club with a short pop-up series, Taste Jam (so named for the 1996 cinematic classic, Space Jam). The collaborative events featured local chefs including Rafa Esparza (Evette’s). Though there won’t be any more Taste Jams this year, Simmons is open to future events: “I think it was a three-picture franchise but I’m hearing talks for a reboot in 2021,” he says.
Simmons first announced the closure in an Instagram post Thursday, writing that while the team strove to keep the cafe operational, it was time to acknowledge the cafe wouldn’t survive due to the pandemic and accompanying restrictions.
“We hung in as long as we could and it’s time to let go,” Simmons writes. “Everything must end. WE WILL MISS YOU ALL! I can’t express fully how much of an impact this restaurant has had on my life... After the 23rd we will be taking some time to figure out who we are.”
The cafe’s many fans can make their last visits Friday through Monday for a final cheeseburger or special. Staff will be offering deals on wine.
The restaurant was especially loved by Chicago’s chefs, who turned to social media to share their sadness. Here’s a sampling of reactions:
Andrew Brochu, former Roister chef, writes on Instagram: “This was one of the best, most inspiring restaurants in Chicago. In the industry! I’m so sorry to hear this news.”
Brian Fisher, executive chef at Michelin-starred Entente, comments: “Fuuuuuck. I’ve been dreaming of the day I could go back for a plate of calves brains and a bottle of pet nat. I love you all so much. Thank you for everything.”
Won Kim of Kimski in Bridgeport writes: “Jesus. This is the worst news.”
Mickey Neely of Ludlow Liquors agrees: “Worst fucking news ever,” he writes. “I’ll follow you wherever you end up.”
Top Chef champion Joe Flamm:
Jeff & Judes owner Ursula Siker:
Paulie Gee’s owner Derrick Tung:
Former Band of Bohemia chef Soo Ahn:
The closure was also felt outside of Chicago, as the account behind Sister Pie, Detroit’s beloved bakery, also shared a response, writing, “Feeling so grateful for the perfect breakfast I enjoyed two years ago. My favorite corner in Chicago! Thanks for inspiring from afar. Sending love.”