Sunday, January 11, 2004

Maisonette looks toward the suburbs

Peter Bronson

Somewhere in the back, in a room full of cold stainless steel, blue flames and scalpel-edged knives, people are yelling and stressing like an ICU unit on a full-moon Saturday night. But all you see on the immaculate tablecloth is a dessert that could hang in an art museum, served by a tuxed waiter as cool as bib lettuce.

To the customer, the Maisonette is all roses, red velvet, tinkling crystal, soft Mozart and the illusion of living like Fred Astaire, surrounded by servants who salute with breadsticks at the twitch of an elevated nose.

It's a recipe for success that has won 40 straight years of five-star Mobil awards, a record unmatched anywhere in Cincinnati or the nation.

So what would downtown Cincinnati be without its most famous restaurant?

Owner Nat Comisar has been thinking about that lately as he considers "jaw-dropping offers'' to relocate in West Chester, Kenwood, Norwood, Blue Ash or - ouch - Northern Kentucky.

Comisar says he can increase business 75 percent in the first year if he moves. "I've been saying it's next month for eight months,'' he said. "The last thing in the world I want to do is move, but I can't stay in downtown and keep bleeding.''

The problem is that downtown is nearly as dead as a sauteed sea bass most nights. "A lot of folks are not comfortable coming downtown,'' Comisar said. Many of his faithful customers live in Indian Hill, Montgomery and other suburbs. Record killings, drug crimes, race protests, riots, parking problems - all are strong reasons to stay away.

Before 1984, conventioneers and visitors made up two thirds of the diners at Maisonette and LaNormandie. Now it's 18 percent, Comisar said.

He serves on several downtown committees, and believes downtown can be revived in three to five years. "But we can't wait that long. We're getting to the end of our rope.''

He's looking for help from the state, county or city. At least $4 million is needed to stay downtown, he said. But so far, it looks like nobody gives a candied fig.

Mayor Charlie Luken said he doesn't believe the Maisonette will move. "The idea of giving that kind of money to a restaurant, to get the same restaurant, I can't support it,'' he said. "I've spent hours and hours on it, and most of the reaction from council members is negative.''

Luken says that if Comisar is serious, he should bring a business plan to council. But Comisar says he has taken his plan to several council members and "a huge list'' of downtown business leaders. "I never bluff,'' he said.

Tom Blinn, interim director of the new Cincinnati Center City Development Corp., said his group has tried to help, but, "There's no obvious solution in sight.''

Unlike Kroger, Saks, Lazarus and Convergys, the Maisonette doesn't provide enough jobs to justify public investment, said Ohio Sen. Mark Mallory. "But we shouldn't just reject it. I'm more than willing to help'' with state aid, Mallory said, "but the city has to spearhead this.''

Mallory said some taxpayers may object to giving public money to a caviar-class restaurant, "But this is important to me because it's part of the cultural fabric of our community, and when you start ripping that, it can come apart pretty quickly.''

Behind the scenes, a few people are scrambling to cook up a way to save the downtown Maisonette. But don't be surprised if Cincinnati's cr╦me brulee of restaurants soon starts serving dessert at someone else's table.


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