When the Summit Theatre opened at 17th Street and Summit back in 1913, not even the fanciest dining room in town — the marble- and gold-leaf-bedecked Pompeian Room in the Hotel Baltimore, which actually held more patrons than the 660-seat Summit Theatre — offered anything as exotic as crepes.
The paper-thin griddle cakes began appearing on local menus decades later. Bretton's served the intoxicating dessert known as crepes Suzette, prepared tableside in a flaming chafing dish, in the 1960s and '70s (as did the original Jasper's Restaurant, well into the '90s). In the 1970s, the flagship Houlihan's Old Place on the Plaza served savory crepes, including the Neptune, made with shrimp, crabmeat and poached oysters. Just around the corner at Seville Square, the Magic Pan (part of the restaurant chain owned by Quaker Oats) offered a whole menu of savory and dessert crepes, served while diners watched a pretty girl in a dirndl dipping crepe pans into batter.
But the crepe trend evaporated by the end of the 1980s. All 110 restaurants in the Magic Pan chain were gone by 1998.
In December, though, a different kind of creperie — more in the spirit of a Paris bistro than the Magic Pan — opened in the old Summit Theatre building. After local realtor Ellen Trakas and her husband, Anthony, turned the old picture house into a combination restaurant space and condominium complex (the building had screened films well into the 1950s and years later was an antique shop), she teamed with baker Chelsea Williams to create Chez Elle, a cozy crepe café that currently serves breakfast and lunch.
The restaurant's name, apparently, is a conflation of Chelsea and Ellen; the French preposition chez, however, can mean a few things, including "at the house of." And Chez Elle is a variation on the old International House of Pancakes concept, jacked up many notches with a Greek-inspired crepe; a spicy Spanish number with salsa verde and pepper-jack cheese; and, on the limited breakfast menu, a cheese blintz, which actually has more in common with a good New York delicatessen than a Rive Gauche bistro.
I'd like the restaurant a lot more if there were table service. Instead, customers order at the counter in the claustrophobic foyer that, during the busy lunch rush, can be a pain in the âne. Not that the employees, all young and vivacious, aren't friendly and accommodating; it's just that there's something more comforting and sophisticated about being served rather than taking a number and waiting to have your meal thrust at you by a harried food runner.
My friend Truman, who worked at the old Magic Pan, predicts that Chez Elle will someday drop the counter-service concept. "It's so fast-food," he sniped. But neither Truman nor our dining companion Carol Ann seemed to mind standing in line to order at the counter; in fact, they engaged in a chatty conversation with the people standing behind them.
Besides, Truman had a bigger complaint: "I think it's ridiculous that I can't get a glass of wine with my lunch. What kind of creperie doesn't serve wine?"
Chez Elle is open only for breakfast and lunch, I reminded him, so a liquor license is likely the least of Trakas and Williams' worries (though Trakas says she plans to start experimenting with serving dinner on First Fridays this spring). Looking around the small lemon-colored room — several different dining areas wrap around the kitchen — I noticed that most of the patrons were drinking tea or coffee. And while Chez Elle might disappoint midday drinkers, it's likely to win the hearts of health-conscious eaters: It serves buckwheat, vegan and gluten-free crepes along with the regular ones.