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Crepe and Coffee Palace

This story is unpublished. It was written for a class while Molly was attending Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism.

Nighttime at Crepe and Coffee Palace

It’s 11 p.m. and Crepe and Coffee Palace is packed. Every table is taken and the windows are fogged from the inside, a sign that winter is roosting in Chicago again. I look around.

The cafe is full of couples – young gay men, an older fellow and his wife, me and my notebook. I hear Hebrew, Korean, Spanish and French. It’s also full of empty stomachs, the universal language. I hope the Arabic music from the stereo will cover up mine’s audible complaints.

Every scrap of space is covered – the place has texture. Algerian rugs, some prayer, some not, are hung at angles on the walls, which are pumpkin orange. There are bright blue squares of color, outlined with a Byzantine-style bell shape. Inside the bell are paintings, candle holders, metal ornaments. I think I see an image of Mata Hari in a back corner.

“I was trying to make an Algerian atmosphere. You know, combining the Middle Ages and elements of Spain, Istanbul, other things from the Islamic world. I wanted a Moorish type of feeling,” says owner Belkacen Belmetdmnani. “You know, mosques. Casbah. You know.”

There are mirrors, and not only mirrors, but scraps of mirrors — tiny squares mosaicked together or placed at the edge of each table. They reflect light and open up the space, which is small. It is cramped but comfortable, like visiting your old bedroom after moving away from home.

Chandeliers dangle dangerously, cockeyed and tilted because there isn’t enough room for all to hang plumb to the floor. They remind me of jellyfish, hovering close to have a look at what I’m eating.

And, with the jellyfish encouraging me, I order a Crepe Amar. It combines Nutella and strawberries, which Belmetdmnani says is the menu’s most popular item.

“American tastes,” he says, shrugging, then tells me the café goes through 20 pounds of Nutella each week.

While I sip my water – with two cucumber slices bobbing in it – I look at the other wall decorations. Belmetdmnani, 50, was born in Icosium (also known as Algiers, also known as Alger, also known as Al-Jaza’ir), the capital of Algeria. He attended culinary school there and moved to the U.S. to study mechanical engineering. In 1988, he opened Mamacita’s, a Mexican restaurant two doors down and started Crepe and Coffee Palace in 2003.

I strike up a conversation with a pretty girl sitting near my left knee (quarters this close encourage chatting with strangers). Her name is Julie Tillinger. She is 29 and waiting for her date to arrive.
“It’s a blind date, so I won’t know when he’s here,” she says, flapping the menu around. A friend sent him a picture beforehand so he could recognize her.

“It’s nerve-wracking because the picture she sent is of me a few years ago, so I’m worried he’s going to sit down and say, ‘Oh, I didn’t expect you to be so wrinkly.’”

Suddenly, a crepe glides onto my table, like some kind of edible UFO. The waitress doesn’t have room to serve from the front, so she lands the crepe with her arm hooked around from behind me. Centered in the middle of a white plate at least 15 inches in diameter is the crepe, golden and roped and folded over itself. It is stuffed with sliced strawberries and oozing hazelnut goo. It’s circled with squiggles of raspberry and chocolate sauce, interspersed with big, fat, generous gobs of whipped cream. A scoop of green pistachio ice cream melts quietly in the corner. I melt noisily onto my table, a mess of oohs and aahs and mmms.

It is delicious, and Tillinger’s date arrives with flowers.

Daytime at Crepe and Coffee Palace

Felix looks out the window. He is a stubby Latino with thick curls, a red bandana and a very clean apron. Felix is the primary cook at Crepe and Coffee Palace, and he won’t give me his last name. Or answer any questions. He is very amiable about this. He shakes his head no, smiles, and begins to squirt whipped cream onto a bald and waiting crepe. Krghhhh, says the can, shouting down my follow-ups.

Whipped cream is not listed as an ingredient but is present in almost every dish. Hot drinks drown in it. The crepes come surrounded by mounds of whipped cream that stick to the plate like starfish.

It’s 10 a.m. and I order a hot chocolate. It arrives in a glass mug: thick, creamy, just warmer than the room and insulated by four inches of shiny, slippery whipped cream. Felix is not a man who diddles around with dollops. I give him a nod of respect.

“People like the whipped cream because it tastes good, so we keep putting it on,” says Bailey Bartes, the daytime waitress. “It’s just better that way.”

Bartes is 21 years old. She was born and raised in Lincoln Park, in a brick apartment building about three blocks from the café. She studied communications at Iowa Wesleyan College but dropped out to recover from foot surgery and picked up the waitressing job to fill the time.

“I’ve got two pins and a plate,” she says. “I can’t do much else. It’s small here, so I don’t have to do a lot of walking, and the people are nice. I like it enough.”

Bartes says the day shift can be slow, estimating that she might seat 10 tables working from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. She and Felix pass the time by bantering with the regulars and each other (Bartes chatters, Felix listens). While I’m in the café, a friend of Bartes drops by and gets a free Turkish coffee. The postman walks in and has a brief but fantastic conversation with Bartes, with Felix silently interrupting to pass over a cup of tea or piece of fruit.

“How come you never called me, Bailey-girl?” the postman jives.

“I lost your number.”

“And what, you couldn’t find it somehow else?”

“Nope. My dog ate my phone, so I had to wait five days for him to shit it out again.”

“Maybe next week, Bailey-girl?”

“Maybe next week,” she says.

I lean over the counter to watch Felix making my crepe. He pours thin ribbons of batter onto a flat griddle. The surface looks cool to the touch, serene and greased, but when the drip hits, it bubbles and sizzles and pops. I feel like a sailor, leaning over the edge of a boat, looking into a black sea that could swallow me whole. I will swallow it instead.

“Looks good, eh?” Felix says, his first words to me.

“Oh, yes,” I murmur. “It looks very good.”

And it is. I eat it at the counter, looking out the window like Felix. Bartes is laughing loudly in the back kitchen. A couple comes through the door, cheeks red with the new fall chill. I wave goodbye to Felix and leave behind the cozy little Algerian world in the middle of Chicago.

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