Robert et Fils, the French restaurant bringing a Parisian dining experience to Lakeview, has had its share of pandemic challenges. It debuted as takeout-only in August 2020, later opened patio space and eventually started offering indoor dining last December.
About three months in, the staff is keeping up with shifting mask and vaccine guidance, dealing with staffing shortages and adapting its menu night after night, depending on the supply chain.
“The challenges can feel endless,” says general manager Rami Ezzat. He tells us that staff has had to run around the city to find chives, for instance, due to supply-chain issues and that the restaurant has had to close due to COVID exposure, a huge loss that forced a move from a tasting menu to a la carte to avoid wasting costly ingredients.
Still, the reviews are glowing, and guests seem delighted with the experience. This is the first restaurant from Chef Rob Shaner, previously at The Royal Grocer and Kennison. Shaner went to high school in France, where he met Ezzat, who is French. The Parisian dining experience gave shape to Shaner’s life.
“In France, you find the importance of everything on the plate, greens and vegetables and everything else,” Ezzat says. “But you’re not there simply to eat. You’re there to be with family and friends and break bread.”
Robert et Fils is named for Shaner’s father, an avid hunter who informed his son’s view of the food cycle. In normal times, Shaner worked with pastry chef Cati Molnar to create an eight-course tasting menu built around the season. As the pandemic continues, though, it is often an a la carte menu, which at Robert et Fils is subject to availability of ingredients and stays fluid.
“Our unique way is to not guarantee anything that will be served at the restaurant,” Ezzat says. “Exploring new types of foods with our guests allows us to be creative while addressing last-minute out-of-stock situations. In exchange, there’s always a new dish for our guests to try. Consistency is vital in a restaurant, so we strive to always be consistent in delivering a dish that guests will enjoy; we’re making the best of the situation.”
One thing that is consistent is the attention to embracing food and camaraderie.
Ezzat says French people embrace food differently than we do in the United States. “Every meal is important. The idea of an eight-course tasting is just to keep the guests seated for the length of time that we believe a French meal lasts: three hours,” he says. “No one has dinner in an hour.”
Wine pairings are available, as well as a spirit-free pairing. Shaner doesn’t drink, and he thought that going without alcohol shouldn’t affect someone’s dining experience, so beverage director David Mor worked on spirit-free flavors that complement the restaurant’s menu.
“As much as I love wine, if I were going to sit down and enjoy this menu, I would absolutely do spirit-free pairing,” Ezzat says. “There are a lot more components that play a part.”
The space seats up to twenty people and has an open kitchen, and offers the feel of a traditional French restaurant. “It feels like being home. It is very small, very simple,” Ezzat says. “What we consider mom-and-pop here, a lot of that is just the everyday lifestyle of a restaurant in Europe.”
Chicago’s lifting of the mask and vaccine mandate could help restaurants fill tables. The challenges will continue, but Ezzat says transparency is key.
“We don’t hide our struggles,” he says. “There is so much that goes on behind the scenes, but in such a small restaurant, we choose to step aside and let the guests see what’s going on for themselves. They have graciously adapted with us.”
He says running a restaurant is “like putting on a theater show,” and he hopes guests understand everything behind the scenes that allows a restaurant to open at 7pm and serve a delicious meal with great service. To provide that service, staff is, of course, one of the most vital components and those shortages remain a major issue. Ezzat has one plea for guests: “The industry is vastly behind on standards such as healthcare and time off. So, if you see a three-percent surcharge on a bill for the restaurant to pay for the staff’s healthcare, it’s because margins are so thin that most places cannot afford coverage costs for their staff. If you would like your favorite restaurant to remain open and fully staffed, understand that we all need a little help getting there, with zero subsidies from the government to assist with costs.”
So go forth and make reservations at Robert et Fils, tip generously, and try to be understanding when something on the menu is 86’d. Oh, and take your time because dinner at Robert et Fils is going to take more than an hour.