I’ve only been to France once, when I spent a few days in Paris in 2015. All it took was a single apéritif at a café in the historic Marais district for me to fall in love with the French approach to everyday dining—the inviting storefronts, the tin-print ceilings smudged with decades of cigarette smoke and the honest cooking served on no-frills plates.
This intoxicatingly egalitarian vibe is immortalized in framed old photographs near the entrance of Café Cancale and homaged through its nautical-lite decor and deliciously simple cooking. Perched at the elegant zinc bar awaiting my date, I envisioned Cancale similarly aging into what it’s supposed to be, even as it sits on the fast-corporatizing intersection of Milwaukee, North and Damen Avenues.
This Wicker Park eatery lived several lives before assuming its inviting current form. Most recently it was One Off Hospitality’s Publican Anker, a moody pub that served a lengthy beer list and a fantastic burger from chef de cuisine AJ Walker. Anker called it quits earlier this year, but Walker stayed on and seems right at home cooking pricey, unfettered French fare starring expertly cooked seafood.
A jewel-like quenelle of trout tartare with buttery brioche toast arrived first. Its succulent, coral flesh—lightly redolent of horseradish and cucumber—was a blissful study in subtlety, washed down with Mirth in the Afternoon, an understated sparkling wine cocktail mixed with absinthe, anise-flavored liqueur, lemon and fruity Pineau des Charentes.
On that note, bar supervisor Scott Kennedy’s 1920s Paris cocktail menu may be my favorite in the city right now: clean, sophisticated and perfumed with French liqueurs, aperitifs and digestifs. Honeyed Lillet Blanc lends complexity to the Negroni-riffing Pablo in Paris, with rum, absinthe and bitter suze.
A tannic, bracing orange wine from Georgia paired beautifully with a reimagined lyonnaise salad of bitter escarole dressed in mustardy vinaigrette with bacon lardons, a poached egg, anchovy-like smoked eel bits and oversized potato chips.
A single octopus tentacle braised in sweet piquillo peppers and tomatoes delivered the comforting, slow-cooked familiarity of ratatouille, elevated by the meat’s luscious texture. Fat Maine mussels bobbed in tangy broth seasoned with wine, celery and cream. My Francophile date and I were delighted to see both golden frites and half a baguette soaking in the broth with the succulent bivalves.
The only dish I didn’t love was the trout amandine. Though cooked well, the fatty fish in under-browned brown butter and sprinkled with truffled dwarf peach slices was overly unctuous—wanting for a bracing spritz of citrus.
Service was attentive and gracious, if at times over-eager. On my first visit, despite protests from our server, my three dates and I ordered several repeat cocktails and opted for our own entrees instead of sharing, including—most egregiously—two orders of steak frites.
“Are you sure you don’t want something different to share?” She asked. “I don’t want you to miss out.”
You couldn’t fault her earnestness. The menu shifts constantly according to produce and seafood availability, and dishes here come out as ready, so servers encourage sharing. Still, it reminded me of what’s often missing from our casual dining culture that I so appreciate about French bistros. The food, while nearly always excellent, is secondary to the experience of dining out in chosen company. We didn’t need nudging; if anything, it was a distraction to worry about the mix of dishes we’d selected.
Nitpicking aside, I plan to return often enough to get acquainted with the entire menu in my own time, and to watch Café Cancale hopefully age into an elegantly timeworn fixture, an increasing rarity for this stretch of Wicker Park.
Atmosphere: A fresh coat of paint, plush blue banquettes and sophisticated new light fixtures have transformed the space from dark and masculine to breezy and welcoming.
What to eat: The tangy steamed mussels with fries are an instant classic, and the seasonal fruit sundae, with sea salt ice cream and lavender crumble, tastes like summer on the French coast.
What to drink: Ponder the menu over a pour of French wine from One Off partner Eduard Seitan’s well-curated list before diving into the Parisian-inspired cocktails like the ambrosial Mirth in the Afternoon.
Where to sit: Grab a barstool or high top in the lively bar area for $1 oysters and $8 martinis during happy hour (4–6pm Monday through Friday), or snag a perimeter booth in front for hipster-watching on Milwaukee Avenue.