Wednesday, June 9, 2004

Who is Nat Comisar?


And why is he threatening to move his restaurant from downtown?

By Chuck Martin
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo]
After more than a year of deliberation, Nat Comisar says he's going to move the Maisonette, Cincinnati's revered Sixth Street restaurant, out of the city.
The Cincinnati Enquirer/BRANDI STAFFORD
Tall, slender and suave, Nat Comisar glides through the Maisonette dining room on a Friday night, smooching cheeks, shaking hands and loudly asking, How have you been? He rivets his brown eyes on subjects and flashes a disarming smile he probably learned selling books door-to-door one summer long ago.

Before the first glass of Pouilly-Fuisse is poured, he hears the question: "What's going to happen to the Maisonette?"

Comisar, the sole owner and heir to his family's legacy, is ready - as always - with an answer. After more than a year of meetings, money-raising schemes, closed-door negotiations and headlines, he says he's going to move the Maisonette, Cincinnati's revered Sixth Street restaurant. His new location options include Covington, Norwood and near Kenwood Towne Centre. He's just waiting for the best offer.

Already on the table is the Commonwealth of Kentucky and City of Covington's offer of more than $5 million in tax incentives.

"Financially, I don't have the luxury to absorb any more losses," Comisar says. "I have to move."

But some doubt that Comisar, who loves to play guitar and sing at his downstairs La Normandie bar, has the focus and passion to pull off such a maneuver.

Is he like Nero, strumming while the Maisonette crumbles around him?

"Does he have the fire in his belly?" his father, Michael J., wonders aloud. "I think so. But only time will tell."

A history lesson

After their father, Nat, opened the Maisonette in 1949, Michael J. and Lee Comisar transformed it into a fine French restaurant. The Maisonette (it's always "the" Maisonette) has won five stars - the highest rating - from the Mobil Travel Guide for 40 consecutive years - longer than any restaurant in North America. The staff wears the golden stars on their lapels like military decoration.

NAT COMISAR
Age: 45.

Occupation: Owner, Maisonette and La Normandie restaurants, downtown.

Lives in: Plainville.

Education: BA., ancient Greek and recent American history, Cornell University, 1983.

Children: Cortney, 17; Reilly, 12; Robin, 16; and Christopher, 9.

Hobby: Playing guitar and singing the blues.

Philosophy: "Life is a banquet of choices. I choose love, respect, happiness, success and fun."

"NEW" MAISONETTE
Comisar is reluctant to discuss specifics, but no matter where he moves his restaurant, here is his vision for the new Maisonette.

• The restaurant will deliver the same quality of food, service and experience, Comisar says. "But it is vibrant, it is younger, and it has a life and energy more apparent."

• Comisar has contacted Jeffery Beers and David Rockwell in New York about designing the new Maisonette. Beers' restaurants include DB Bistro Moderne in New York and Aquillon in Cleveland. Rockwell designed Nobu restaurants in New York and Las Vegas and the Monkey Bar in New York.

• Although the design and decor of the main dining room will change, Comisar wants to replicate the look of the old main dining room in one of his new private rooms, possibly using the crystal chandelier and artwork by local painter Frank Duveneck.

• The food will be French, but "different." Menu prices will be the same. (Fixed-price three-course meal is $68.)

• Comisar may stop requiring men to wear jackets at dinner.

• The wait staff will change from tuxedoes to dark gray suits with ties.

• Live music will be part of the venue, whether in the adjoining La Normandie or the Maisonette.

• Comisar would like to regain his Mobil Travel Guide five-star rating (a restaurant loses its rating when it moves, according to Mobil policy, and is then re-evaluated). But he says the rating isn't a priority. "The caliber of service and the experience the guest receives is my priority," he says.

Chuck Martin

Through the years, thousands have celebrated in the cozy banquettes, relishing lobster bisque, Dover sole and flaming bananas Foster. Presidents and celebrities have dined there.

But the glory days are gone. Declining convention travel, downtown safety fears and keen competition - especially from former Maisonette chef Jean-Robert de Cavel at the new Pigall's, downtown - have withered business. Cincinnati's iconic restaurant hasn't made a profit since 2000, Nat Comisar says.

So he's the owner of an enviable restaurant in an unenviable position: To survive downtown, he thinks he must not only radically update the century-old building but buy two structures next door to open a 500-seat night club and carryout cafe.

The project would cost as much $7.5 million, he says. So far, he hasn't found funding - from public or private sources. Comisar says private investors are interested in lending only if he moves the Maisonette and its sister restaurant, La Normandie, out of downtown.

"My brother and I have both told him, 'Get the hell out of Cincinnati,' " Comisar's uncle, Lee, says. "It's unfortunate. You just can't get enough people downtown."

Others dispute the wisdom of leaving downtown, the Maisonette's home for 55 years.

"In my opinion, it's the kind of restaurant that needs to be in a panache location," says Jeff Ruby, owner of Jeff Ruby's, downtown, and other restaurants. "There's no panache in those other locations."

And if Comisar moves the Maisonette, he likely will break the unprecedented 40-year string of five stars. According to Mobil policy, a restaurant loses its rating when it moves and is re-evaluated after a minimum of six months.

"It's a very big decision," says Comisar's cousin, Michael E. Comisar, Maisonette managing partner with Nat from 1996 to 2003.

Started as busboy

In the Comisar family, the children started working in the restaurants at a young age. Nat began as a busboy at 13 and worked his way up to dishwasher and cook at the Maisonette.

He was a precocious child, his father says - talented, musically inclined and enjoying the limelight. In high school, he sang in a barbershop quartet and played guitar. He sang often with his maternal grandfather, Albert Vincent Stegeman, a jovial businessman whom Nat Comisar always admired because people loved him "for what he was" - not for his success.

But by the time he was a high school junior, Comisar realized music would not be his career.

"I think it was assumed I would go into the business," says Comisar, who has a sister, Tucky, a year younger, and a half-sister, Annabelle, 20.

He went into the hospitality program at Cornell University for a year before changing his major to ancient Greek history and recent American histories. While he was in college, he came home one summer to sell high school and Bible study guides door-to-door in Pike County, Ky. He was a natural.

After Cornell, Comisar worked as a manager at the famed Pump Room in Chicago and at a hotel in Orange, Calif., before returning to the Maisonette in late 1984.

He soon left the Maisonette to manage other Comisar-owned restaurants: Chester's in Montgomery and Newport Beach on the Ohio River in Northern Kentucky. In 1993, the family promoted him to managing partner at the Maisonette. In 1999, he and his cousin, Michael E., bought their fathers' interests in the restaurant. Early last year, Nat bought Michael E.'s share to become sole owner.

Writing on the wall in '97

As early as 1997 - before recession, riots, 9-11 and the economic boycott that rocked many downtown businesses - Comisar says he saw the beginning of the end.

"I believe in downtown," says Comisar, who next year will be chairman of the Greater Cincinnati Convention and Visitors Bureau. "I believe people will come back downtown. But not in time for us."

In December 2002, Comisar went public with the Maisonette's woes by announcing a 10 percent discount "pre-selling" program for customers. If a patron gave him $22,500, he would credit $25,000 to the patron's account. The money, along with funding from the city of Cincinnati and other sources, would be used to pay for the Maisonette's renovation and purchase of buildings nearby.

Comisar stopped the pre-selling program when the Iraq war began. In more than three months, he says he raised $1.2 million - about a third of his goal. (He says most of that money is still in the bank.)

After more than a year of meetings and sales pitches, Comisar also failed to win financial help from the city of Cincinnati and other public sources.

"I don't see anything in the business plan that gives me hope for the long term," Cincinnati mayor Charlie Luken told the Enquirer in March. Luken failed to return phone calls for this story.

Comisar, 45, constantly spins the positive. He doesn't have "problems" at the Maisonette; they are "opportunities." Seven years ago, he was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder, but that condition - for which he takes medication daily - can be an asset, he thinks.

At age 38, Comisar lost 30 pounds in a month while giving up alcohol and cigarettes at the same time. "I just realized certain things didn't work in my life any more," he says.

Kids not interested

As the owner of a visible business, especially one who has publicly lobbied for financial assistance, Comisar is not above criticism - although few in Cincinnati share it for publication. Some think that he should be utilizing his dining-room charm more often at the Maisonette. He says he works the dining room every day at lunch and at least three nights a week during dinner. Others remember there was once a Comisar at the door every night to greet guests.

His La Normandie musical performances are an easy target for critics. Several nights a week, Comisar goes downstairs to the bar to play guitar and sing back-up on soft-rock hits. Behind the microphone, he appears out of place in his tailored suit and tie, yet he looks relaxed, having escaped the Maisonette and its practiced smiles and awkward small talk.

"Music is like going to church for me," he says.

Comisar dismisses the criticism that his performances are distractions. The only way to give more time to the Maisonette is to give less time to his children, he says - and he's not going to do that. He shares joint custody of his four children - ages 9 to 17 - with ex-wife, Gigi, who lives in Terrace Park.

"I got tired of sharing him," Gigi says of their marriage. "I wish he had more time for us."

She met Comisar in 1984 when he was working in California. They were married and living in Cincinnati six weeks later.

"Gigi didn't know about my big-fish-small-pond celebrity here," Comisar says. "I loved that."

After three separations, Nat and Gigi were divorced in December. (Comisar's father and mother, Holly, were divorced when he was 20, but he never resented the breakup.) So far, none of Nat and Gigi's children has expressed interest in the restaurant business.

"I wouldn't encourage them," Gigi says. "Absolutely not."

Miscalculations

Despite successful years at the Maisonette, Nat Comisar admits past mistakes by his family. They grossly underestimated the cost of insurance, he says, for Newport Beach - a barge restaurant on the river - which closed in 1990 less than three years after it opened.

Comisar blames design flaws for the failure of Bistro Gigi (named for his wife), which opened in 1997 in Mariemont. The Comisars closed it in 1999.

"It was a disaster," he says.

But there are no comparisons between those miscalculated ventures and his planned move of the Maisonette, he says.

"I'm going to hate leaving," he says, looking out over the main dining room with its tasseled burgundy drapes and expansive crystal chandelier. "But we can't do this all over again in another location. There are so many bones, so many ghosts to this place."

Moving the Maisonette will allow him to "rebrand" the restaurant, he says. He seems resigned to losing his Mobil five-star rating.

"It's not a heavy burden," Comisar says of his role to carry the Maisonette standard - once again spinning the positive. "I can't wait to get to that point on that day in the press conference when I can say, 'Look at these drawings, these pictures, these conceptuals, this whole thing that has been brewing in my head.' "

It will be perhaps the most important performance of his life.

E-mail cmartin@enquirer.com




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