Diner: Survival, Post-Maisonette

How we got here and what we do now for a fancy meal

Oliver Meinerding

That sound of quiet downtown is the absence of fine whine that descended on the city when the Maisonette closed its doors in July. The Comisars have taken their complaints northward and are now blaming Sycamore Township's Board of Trustees for their problems instead of their former nemesis — scary, riot-torn downtown.

You and I might have noticed that the riots are ancient history, but they kept on bothering the Maisonette. Was it the post-riot boycott that cut into their business? Somehow I doubt it.

Anyway, something sent the five stars scurrying. The "build us a new place or we'll move!" act is getting old. The Bengals got away with it, as did the Reds, Saks, Convergys and Kroger. I think the city was just about to subsidize the Bay Horse Café when suddenly, out of the south, came a wake-up call.

Kenton County's ornery judge-executive stood up to a developer who wanted the county to pay him to make money at Crestview Hills Mall.

The developer stomped away, all indignant, and then came back and built the damn thing anyway — and any Tristate municipality that didn't learn a lesson wasn't paying attention.

That's the politics. But there's intrigue, too. Apparently there's a family feud among the Maisonette's investment partners that will be played out in court, starring Stan Chesley as Johnny Cochran.

Ah, but life goes on, and we still must eat. Can we manage without a five-star restaurant? Will we have to?

I wonder how many people will miss the Maisonette. I read through five pages of comments online from readers at a local newspaper site offering their "memories" of the restaurant. Most were from people whose parents took them once long ago. They thought it was very special. But I notice they didn't seem to go back on their own.

I ate there twice, and honestly I can't remember the food. I remember feeling awkward and more than a little intimidated. The best part of stuffy restaurants is becoming comfortable enough to feel like you might actually belong there. That never happened to me at the Maisonette.

I don't think Sixth Street caused the demise of this "dining institution," as The Enquirer called it. As a fellow foodie in St. Louis said when we discussed it, "Nah, a downtown location is fine for restaurants. I think people are more scared of the formality than they are of a mugging!" Interesting point. Does formal dining hold any appeal now?

Five-star restaurants are for grownups. How many adults do you know these days who can really be called grownups?

The business climate is radically different from the era when the Maisonette opened in the middle of the 20th century. There aren't "three martini lunches" anymore. Watch a rerun of Bewitched sometime: The Larry Tates of their era packed fancy restaurants at lunch. Today's achievers don't have time and, at least in my experience, their expense accounts are coming under increased scrutiny.

What's more, the Maisonette required a coat and tie. Do you dress like that for work?

My most chic friend recalls that he patronized the Maisonette during the go-go Reagan years — when he thought he had money, heh. The Maisonette fit right in during those eight years, when everything was over the top and so bourgeois.

I laughed when I read Mayor Charlie Luken's remark: "I don't think I've been there a dozen times in my life, but every time I have been there it's been a special occasion." For the mayor and all others who remember the Maisonette fondly, I ask: Where do they eat?

The way I look at dining out is that every dollar you spend in a restaurant is, in a way, a vote. It's an endorsement of the food or the experience. Some of my food dollars are distinctly political: I patronize places because I like what they do and I want them to continue to do it.

Where will we spend our fine-dining dollars now? The obvious choice is Jean-Robert at Pigall's. This is fine dining — French, but fresh.

Jean-Robert de Cavel loves what he does. He's not whining about downtown: He has two restaurants there, both popular, both busy. As a recent profile of de Cavel in CityBeat said, he's an optimist (see "Recipe for Good: Person of the Year," issue of Feb. 23-March 1).

And his food is fantastic! His wine choices are spotlighted at the Party Source, which demystifies that whole "crossing swords with the sommelier" routine, one that intimidates even sophisticated diners. Yes, a meal at Pigall's is going to set you back some serious bucks. But I'm certain you'll walk out satisfied.

Or, if you want the setting to be as memorable as the meal, there's Orchids at the Palm Court. As breathtakingly beautiful as a hall in a European palace, the Palm Court makes me feel like a princess and my date look like Prince Charming — even after the martinis wear off.

The Palace at the Cincinnatian is another distinguished downtown destination. It would be good to pull up to the valet parking here in a Bentley, wearing a fab faux fur. But even without a grand entrance, people at the Palace treat you like an honored guest. Start out by visiting the Cricket Lounge for happy hour some night: The food is from the shared kitchen, and it's a good introduction.

The Phoenix is another downtown gem, slightly further from Fountain Square but close to the Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival. It has the feel of a private club, and the servers have the polish of the Maisonette's staff. Again, elegant fare in a classic setting, with more moderate prices.

For pizzazz, there's Jeff Ruby's Steakhouse. Now here's a man who has made a splash all over town. Jeff Ruby's is Hollywood, Vegas and Cincinnati rolled into one, a place to wear your high heels and hairspray with panache. Is his food comparable to Jean-Robert's? That's like comparing Pamela Anderson to Naomi Watts; they're both beautiful women — personal preferences might vary.

The same Mobil Travel Guide that gave the Maisonette five stars gives three to the Palace, Jean-Robert at Pigall's, the Phoenix and Orchids. Sorry to be contrary, but I took a look at the rest of their list, and it's a bit bizarre. House of Tam on Galbraith Road is in there, and La Petite Pierre in Madeira is not? Hello? Where's the Tousey House in Burlington, a world-class dining experience?

I say phooey on their silly list, even though I agree with their recommendations of the Celestial and Primavista.

The Maisonette's building is for sale. Let's imagine that I could put my fantasy restaurant in there. It would have the respect for food that I love at Slims in Northside and Tousey House.

It would have the mischievous décor of Newport's York Street Café, the saucy barmaid from JeanRo Bistro, the outrageous maitre d' from downtown's Redfish and the music from Dee Felice on Covington's Mainstrasse.

It would have the eagerness of Otto's, the friendliness of the Oriental Wok, the fresh ginger martini that my friends bought me in New York.

People would laugh there, enjoying the experience, and they'd leave planning their next trip back. And it would never be called a "dining institution," because, like the old joke says about marriage, who wants to be in an institution anyway? ©

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