Crofton on Wells, a longtime if little-talked-about fine dining restaurant in River North, closed after service on Saturday to reconcept. Eater reports that chef-owner Suzy Crofton said that “last year we had a good year, but this year has been painfully slow” and she plans to “reconcept the restaurant to make [it] more accessible.” What happened between last year and this year to change things so dramatically for a restaurant open since 1997? Part of it, of course, is the pace of new openings, which makes it easy for older ones to fall off the radar of diners. But the other thing that happened is that Crofton on Wells is, quite probably, Chicago’s first Michelin victim. In Michelin’s first year, Crofton on Wells won a Michelin star; the next year, ignominiously, it was the only restaurant to lose its star without a major life event like changing chefs or downscaling. For the loyal, probably older dining crowd who pay at least some attention to such things, Michelin’s demotion, just or not, was probably a call to shake things up a little and try a few new spots.
Suzy Crofton’s career goes to the beginning of our current generation of fine dining; in the 1980s she worked at Sinclair’s in Lake Forest with kids like Charlie Trotter and Carrie Nahabedian, and during the 1990s she headed at different times two of the best-liked French restaurants in the area, Cassis and Montparnasse in Naperville. She opened Crofton on Wells in 1997 and enjoyed a solid reputation throughout the 2000s for subtly well-crafted American food with a French influence and local sourcing. Jeff Ruby returned to the restaurant in a 2011 Chicago magazine review:
One might be tempted to call this approach horribly out of step with the times, but Crofton’s creative French-accented American cooking exists apart from trends. A perfect example is an appetizer of caramelized veal sweetbreads with a hash of raisins, onions, and cabbage: luscious, lovely, and utterly guileless. Instead of playing up the spectacle of modern food, Crofton speaks softly and carries a big whisk.
If the wonderful cranberry-maple tart with pink peppercorns, brown butter-pecan brittle ice cream, and homemade cinnamon granola came from some hip Britishy pork palace with an ampersand in its name, we’d be calling it the best new dessert of the year. Instead, it’s just another forgotten treasure on a menu packed with them.
But even he tacitly acknowledges that the air of time passed by hung over the restaurant. Blogger Ken Zuckerberg was more cutting on Twitter when Michelin took away Crofton’s star: “With ouster of Crofton and addition of Courtright’s, there has been no net change in the number of suburban restaurants on Michelin’s list.”
More than talk about whether the restaurant was out of date or not, the fact simply is that nobody much talked about Crofton on Wells at all; its LTHForum thread has managed a wan 22 comments since 2005, and it rarely turns up mentioned here, outside of Michelin. If Crofton’s cooking is as admirable as Ruby says (we can’t say; we haven’t been there since the previous millennium), this should be an opportunity for her to reinvent how it’s packaged and reintroduce herself to an audience that, in large part, doesn’t know her food.