Bon Femme Cafe in downtown Valparaiso, Indiana announced its closing this week, to be renamed and reconceived as a southern-inspired restaurant. I note its passing as I would the passing of an adolescent friend. We were born the same year (1977), grew up in the same town (Merrillville), and we came of age together at the right formative moment, our teenaged years coinciding with the mid-1990s.
My mother probably introduced me to the place. My father wouldn’t eat there and once I was old enough to appreciate cuisine, probably age 16 or 17, her and I would dine there a few times each season and she would always comment on how dirty the place was, how dirty the chef looked, and how great the food was. And in those later teenage years sometimes I would smirk knowing I’d be back here in a few hours, after dark, smoking Gauloises and getting served. I really shouldn’t glamourize underaged drinking, but when moderated by chicken divan, beef bourguignon, fresh baked bread, and rich desserts… we are now talking life-affirming cultural experience, not the death cults of fratboys, grungers, alt-preppies, or punk rock shambles.
When the main hangouts of the local scene (Denny’s in Merrillville and Golden Bowl in St John) were too bright, too busy, too full with the affected, Bon Femme was a smoky, almost clandestine candlelit respite for our little group. We were broader-minded. One friend spent his junior year in Germany. Another lived nearby with his mother and her Dutch partner. He’d worn flannel since it was nerdy and wasn’t changing now that it was hip. Another ran a comic and hobby shop one plaza over. We discussed the latest films: Pulp Fiction, Four Rooms, Howard Stern’s Private Parts. And we were an exclusive group, rarely inviting ‘outside’ friends to join, this included even girlfriends and bandmates. Bon Femme in the evening was a step out of the bland Midwest suburbs, ‘disaffected’ or otherwise. We knew we didn’t want to ruin a good thing.
We didn’t know at the time it was the end of the world as we knew it. We just knew things were changing and Bon Femme in the evening was where we could discuss this. We weren’t on the Internet yet. Starbucks had not yet opened in town. It was a time before cellphones and finding Bon Femme in Merrillville could be tricky amongst the nondescript clumps of shopping plazas down Broadway. We never waited for or mourned those who couldn’t find the place. The only question about smoking in a restaurant in those days was which section you could do it. Bon Femme was too small to make any distinction. After the door was locked the chef would smoke a joint on his perch behind a screen.
I’m amazed the name and concept lived this long, and feel the name probably should have been retired in the last decade, when it cleaned up and became a destination. I’ll end with my favorite memory, one of the only clear and specific ones I have. An ‘outside’ friend, whom I’d known since the 6th grade, joined us one evening and ordered the french onion soup. Two spoonfuls in and a horrible revulsion came over his face. “There’s chewing tobacco in my soup!” We never again asked him to join us.