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Virtual bayou offers Chicagoans a taste of Louisiana fare

More than just a menu filled with such southern Louisiana fare as Po' Boys, crawfish and Croq de Jacques transports diners at the Original Crawdaddy Bayou restaurant to Cajun country.

Thanks to extensive research, plus some special fixtures, lighting and sound effects, the decor of the Original Crawdaddy Bayou restaurant, located on Milwaukee Avenue in Wheeling, Ill., bridges the gap between the Chicago suburb and the Louisiana bayou.

To add a fun touch to the swamp mural, artist Vincent Darby included the owner: John Liautaud has been immortalized in the mural paddling in a pirogue (canoe). The sprawling 344-seat restaurant, set to the sounds of Zydeco or Cajun music, features a general store, a miniature 3-D swamp (minus the water) populated with stuffed specimens of bayou wildlifeand a wall mural with changing lighting effects.

To provide authenticity, owner John Liautaud Jr. researched Cajun-Creole restaurants in Louisiana for two years, taking thousands of photographs of southern Louisiana culture, including shacks and restaurants. Repeatedly during his research, Liautaud found murals by muralist Vincent Darby featured in restaurants throughout Louisiana. Liautaud, therefore, commissioned a swamp mural to be one of the most eye-catching design elements in the restaurant. After nearly four months of collaboration, the 90-foot-by-8-foot mural was painted on canvas and mounted on the dining room wall.

"I studied wildlife as a game agent and always enjoyed painting swamps," Darby says. "But this mural was intimidating at first, because it is the largest mural I have ever done."

To draw emphasis to the realism and depth of the mural, Ben White, of White Light Design, Chicago, created special environmental lighting. Called "painting with light," 28 different natural colors bathe the canvas, allowing diners to experience sunrise, midday, sundown and a starry night. In less than 90 minutes, diners can experience a 24-hour bayou cycle.

Diners also can hear wildlife cries from the bayou. Speakers positioned throughout the restaurant amplify cricket, frog and alligator sounds as they bellow through Crawdaddy Bayou. Just about everything in Crawdaddy Bayou is direct from southern Louisiana, including posters, signs and a collection of indigenous bayou wildlife (alligators, nutria, raccoons, turtles and snakes) that have been tamed by Louisiana taxidermist David Spies.

However, a large portion of barn wood was donated by Wisconsin residents who supplied the wood from 21 old barns to build a bayou shack in the dining room and to add other accents to the restaurant.

To further capture the essence of southern Louisiana, Liautaud had a mold made of a real Cypress tree that was found in a swamp in Louisiana. A fiberglass Cypress tree now fills the center of the dining room.

A native of Chicago, Liautaud moved to Louisiana when he was 21 years old, returning to the Chicago area 15 years later. "I wanted to offer a high-action dining experience that has never been experienced before in Chicago," Liautaud says. His goal was to create a fun, visually authentic southern Louisiana restaurant. "One of the basics with the Cajun way of life is Southern hospitality -- doors wide open and everyone feels welcome.

"We are doing our job to preserve the history, culture and cuisine of Louisiana," he says. "We do our best to support everyone in Louisiana and tell the true story of Acadians."

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