Owner of two lauded Chicago bistros dies in pile-up crash on Ike

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Jean-Claude Poilevey (Photo courtesy Chicago Sun-Times)

CHICAGO (Sun-Times Media Wire) - South Loop resident Angela Marti pulled up outside French restaurant La Sardine Saturday evening, expecting to enjoy a chocolate soufflé for her birthday.

Instead she was greeted by dimmed lights, stacked chairs and a locked door — the bistro on the Near West Side was closed for the night while the restaurant staff mourned the death of its founder, Jean-Claude Poilevey.

Poilevey, a chef and restauranteur at the forefront of French cuisine in Chicago beginning in the ‘70s, was killed late Friday night in a 15-vehicle crash on the Eisenhower Expressway. He was 71 years old, the Chicago Sun-Times is reporting.

A note fixed on the door of La Sardine read, “Merci, Jean-Claude. Rest in peace.”

“It’s disgusting what happened,” said Marti, 45.

Marti recalled meeting Barack Obama the last time she was at the restaurant, while he campaigned for U.S. Senator. Poilevey’s restaurants were among the Obamas’ favorites.

Poilevey, of Oak Park, was outside his car about 12:40 a.m. Saturday when he was struck by another vehicle during the crash, according to Illinois State Police. He was taken to Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, where he later died.

The chain-reaction crash was liked caused by black ice on the Eisenhower’s outbound lanes near Central Avenue, police said.

A longtime employee of Poilevey’s praised the chef for his inventiveness, humility and pioneering spirit.

Poilevey entered the Chicago-area dining scene after being recruited out of France to helm the kitchen of the Playboy Club in Lake Geneva, Wisc. He opened La Fontaine in 1973 on Clark Street, “when there was no French in the city,” said Dan Luebbe, who had worked as a waiter with Poilevey for 17 years.

In 1993 the restaurateur opened Le Bouchon in Bucktown, and five years later La Sardine.

Both restaurants were closed Saturday.

“He never cared about getting recognition,” Luebbe said, “But this guy should be known. He was great.”

Luebbe recounted speaking with a regular patron last Friday who marveled over Poilevey.

“Jean-Claude is like an artist,” the patron said, according to Luebbe. “He invented this place where we could all have this nice, comfortable meal.”