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The French Café had the kind of old-school romance that can't be faked.
Hundreds — maybe thousands — of couples got engaged there, over a candlelit table and a dish of crème brûlée.
Girls in floaty dresses filled the place during prom season. Champagne could have been the official house beverage.
It was the spot for first dates, engagements, anniversaries and birthdays.
For many Omahans, the restaurant was the ultimate destination. There was none better.
“I think you could talk to countless people around town and not find too many who don't have some connection to that place,” said Ron Samuelson, co-owner of M's Pub.
But in spite of all those memories, owner Tony Abbott — who has been involved with the French Café since it opened — said he decided to close the 42-year-old Old Market restaurant Sunday night.
“Something tells you it's time to go,” he said. “Maybe I've outlived my audience.”
Abbott said the restaurant wasn't doing enough business to remain open. He also cited parking in the Old Market as an ongoing challenge.
The French Café in 1969 became the first restaurant in the Old Market, and one of the first businesses, setting the tone for later development.
M's Pub and the Souq import store opened in 1972. Nouvelle Eve opened in 1973. V. Mertz opened in 1977.
Samuelson said the French Café inspired him to get into the business.
“It was places like that that made it seem so intoxicating,” he said. “I don't think the Old Market would ever have been as successful without the French Café.”
Paul Kulik, the chef and owner at the Boiler Room who worked at the French Café in the late 1990s, agreed.
“The thing that's really seismic about it is that it was the first,” he said.
Anne Boyle, a longtime Old Market resident, said she and her husband, Mike, ate many special occasion dinners at the French Café.
“It's a negative for the French Café not to be there,” Anne Boyle said. “But it's a prime space on the hottest street in the Old Market. I know there will be something there soon.”
The French Café faced challenges in recent years and made many changes, including new chefs, a new wait staff, a less expensive dinner menu and an in-restaurant bistro menu with most items less than $20.
Keeping a restaurant fresh when it has been around for so long is a challenge, Samuelson said. M's Pub celebrated 40 years in business this year.
Restaurant owners walk a fine line, he said, between losing their regulars with too many changes and turning off new diners by being too traditional.
“There is no formula. It's just a crap shoot at best,” Samuelson said.
Kulik remembers nights when 400 diners or more would come through the French Café's door. He also remembers a vibrant scene in the restaurant's east bar, divided by a glass wall from the main dining area.
“When you were in the fireplace room with a drink or a glass of wine, that was nice,” Kulik said. “It was romantic. You felt good. You felt attractive.”
The historic building, in the heart of downtown Omaha, was home to the Galinsky Fruit Co. from 1906 to 1941. Old Market developer Sam Mercer saved the building from demolition in 1968 and opened the French Café there about a year later. Abbott and partner Michael Harrison started as managers in 1970 and bought the restaurant in 1971.
Abbott and his wife, Valerie, co-owned and managed the restaurant in recent years.
The restaurant is bejeweled with stained-glass accents and wallpapered with larger-than-life black-and-white photos of European markets and cafés.
Tony Abbott said he wasn't sure what would happen in the space and that he still had to work out the details with the Mercers. Calls to Mercer Management on Monday were not returned.
Abbott said the restaurant is contacting any customers who had reservations to let them know the restaurant has closed. If a reservation was made through OpenTable.com, customers will be contacted through the site.
“People are understanding,” he said. “And others are distressed. There's a lot of memories here. A lot.”
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