Passion Play

Beloved Gold Coast restaurant Le Colonial changes its address—but not its passion for authentic French-Vietnamese cuisine.

By Lisa Shames

Photos by Anthony Tahlier

April 05, 2019 10:00 AM

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On paper, a tenth of a mile doesn’t sound like a great distance. But when it involves moving an iconic Gold Coast restaurant with a devoted local following, that number takes on greater significance. It’s a notion that wasn’t lost on the operating partners of Le Colonial, Rick Wahlstedt and Joe King, as they prepared to move their beloved restaurant after 22 years from its original home at 937 N. Rush St. around the corner to 57 E. Oak St.

“When you have something that you’ve become used to for so long and you love, to think of it changing is hard,” says Wahlstedt. “We’ve tried to instill the fact that we’re not going away; it’s just a new evolution.”

That evolution was first put into motion when the restaurant’s landlord announced their rent would be going up substantially. With the decision made for them that a new location was needed, the plans began to take shape with one item that wasn’t negotiable. “What was brutally important to us was that we stay as close as possible to the existing Le Colonial,” says King. “Our customer base is here.”

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The beautiful terrace at the new Le Colonial, dubbed the Bird’s Nest, features accordion windows as well as Vietnamese tiles and lanterns.

When that clientele includes a lengthy list of Chicago’s movers and shakers who dine at the restaurant on a weekly basis, at their usual tables, with their favorite dishes placed in front of them by their favorite servers, the stakes become even higher.

And herein lies the magic of Le Colonial. While it’s never been the trendiest restaurant in town or served hyper-cutting-edge food made with fancy culinary techniques, it has always been consistent—with the quality of its French-Vietnamese cuisine, heartfelt service and warm ambience. Other Chicago restaurants have come and gone, but Le Colonial has remained, providing more or less the exact experience it first created in 1996.

At its new location, scheduled to open in late February at press time, much of what has made Le Colonial great will make the move with some twists added in to keep things interesting.

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The fireplace nook in the lounge is chicly appointed with with an eye-catching photo of a Vietnamese woman as well as artifacts and collectibles.

For the menu, Executive Chef Quoc Luong, who worked at Le Colonial for seven years when it first opened before coming back in 2015 to take on the head kitchen position, will include many of the restaurant’s signature dishes, such as shrimp and pork spring rolls (cha gio), monkfish on sesame crackers (ca bam xuc banh trang), grilled scallop salad with garlic noodles (goi bun so), and lemongrass chicken with crispy shallots and cabbage (banh uot). “In the past, we’ve gotten resistance when we’ve taken some dishes off the menu,” says King. “Our regulars are very vocal about what they love.”

But don’t expect a carbon copy of the old menu, says Luong, who has updated the plating of dishes as well as introduced items that tap into his Vietnamese heritage. (Luong moved from Vietnam to the U.S. when he was 9 years old.) The chef has also collaborated with Le Colonial’s Culinary Director Nicole Routhier, the country’s foremost expert in Vietnamese cuisine, who worked with Wahlstedt on the original menu in the early 1990s for the first Le Colonial in New York. (There are also Le Colonial locations in Houston and San Francisco, as well as a fifth location that’s opening in Atlanta in May.) “We’re sticking with the classics, but we also wanted to make the food a bit more up to date,” says Wahlstedt. To go along with the new presentations, the plates and silverware have been upgraded. New menu highlights include a spicy beef carpaccio salad (goi bo), a duck noodle soup with bok choy, shiitake and beech mushrooms, and scallions (mi bit quay), and a new presentation for the crispy whole red snapper with a spicy garlic glaze that’s served head-on and filleted table side (ca chien Saigon). 

For architect Mark Knauer, finding that balance between the old and new was never far from his mind when he took on the project of transforming the third floor of a new building, situated above Chanel’s recently opened flagship, into Le Colonial’s new home. “Part of the charm of Le Colonial is that historic environment that takes you to a different place and time,” says Knauer. “In the new space, we tried to create some of that patina without overdoing it and making it look fake.”

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Vietnamese shaking beef with farm greens, caramelized, filet mignon, sweet onions, watercress and a lime-pepper vinaigrette

Part of that was achieved by incorporating items that were actually made in Vietnam, including some of the furniture and millwork. The black-and-white photos that hung in the original location have been reframed and rehung. Also helping to recapture the 1920s French Colonial Vietnam ambience the restaurant has become known for are expansive murals, paintings and wall finishes indicative of that time period created by Swedish artist Jonas Wickman.

With the new location came the opportunity to create things they didn’t have previously. There’s now a spacious bar and lounge area seating 60 that includes cushy red booths, a fireplace and a wood-topped bar sure to attract a whole new set of regulars. (Look for Le Colonial’s monthly Tuesday-night guest bartending event benefitting a local charity to resume soon.) Nearby a private tasting room for 10 is enclosed by French doors and decorated with colorful floor-to-ceiling, jungle-inspired murals. In the main dining room, which seats up to 80, a beautiful decorative tiled floor is underfoot. Then there’s the all-season terrace overlooking Oak Street. The space, dubbed the “bird’s nest,” can seat up to 55 and when its accordion windows are open, guests will feel like they’re sitting outside, perched above Oak Street.

But Le Colonial has always been more than just its food and interior design; the people who work there have always been a big part of its allure, too. That includes Maitre d’ Rafael Lopez, who has been a fixture at the restaurant for most of its 22 years. (Lopez and Luong recently were made partners at Le Colonial.) His old-school style of hospitality—“We never say no and we always try to make it happen,” he says—has endeared him to the thousands of guests who have walked through the restaurant’s doors, including celebrities such as Mick Jagger, Billy Joel, Sting and Eric Clapton. Clapton once came in for three consecutive meals, recalls Lopez proudly.

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Signature cocktails at Le Colonial

The importance of the staff, some of whom have been at the restaurant for decades and have brought on their children to work alongside them, was a big part of King’s and Wahlstedt’s decision to have the original location remain open three weeks beyond its original closure date.

“We saw this move as a great opportunity to bring us forward for the next 20 years, but in doing so we wanted to make sure we didn’t lose what made Le Colonial successful in the first place: its warmth, romance, soul and food,” says Wahlstedt. “It’s been a great journey for us.” And for us, too. 

Le Colonial, 57 E. Oak St., 312.255.0088. lecolonialchicago.com

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Above: Chilled shrimp roll with rice noodles, lettuce, bean sprouts, aromatic herbs and peanut sauce
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Duck noodle soup with sliced roasted Long Island duck, egg noodles, duck consommé, bok choy, shiitake and beech mushrooms, and scallions