There is a slight hump of the carpet at the entrance to the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead, and in the more than dozen times I’ve eaten there in the past five years, maitre d’hôtel Claude Guillaume has never failed to mention it to me as a caution for how I step. He usually takes my hand for a moment, and then leads me to one of the tables in the quiet, plush room, with its odd mix of hunt-club portraits and Oriental silks.
After the lights are dimmed tonight, when the last Riedel wine decanter is washed and put away, each kitchen whisk hanging in its perfectly pristine place, The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead will close after 25 years of service to Atlanta. It almost needs to be said twice to understand the magnitude of what this means to our dining scene: The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead closes tonight.
We have suffered the loss of Seeger’s and Soto; Joel has lost its namesake and morphed from fine dining into a brasserie to survive. Quinones at Bacchanalia, now the city’s only bastion of fine dining, is open only on weekends. It’s easy to blame the closing on the recession, and certainly hard times are what made this grand old girl draw her last breath, but the loss of the Dining Room says more about dining preferences than it does about the economy. Formal service of this kind has waned in Atlanta; in 2009 we want the kind of casual experience that doesn’t require a tie, nine-courses of nibbles and a valet.
“There’s something so lovely about this kind of formal service,” said Sandra Ryder, area director of public relations for the Ritz-Carlton. “It’s so sad to see it go.”
Some of the servers – a small team of well-trained personnel who possess the rare skills of the dying art of table service – have been with the dining room for 20 years or more. They never failed to recognize return patrons, and worked with the precision of the Marine Corps Color Guard, delivering bread and butter, filling water and wine glasses, serving one of the many cheeses from a Christofle serving cart, opening and decanting wine. Most important, they never failed to make the experience personal, warm and inviting – a grand trick, since the room itself, even with its fine collection of 19th century European art and antiques, was always austere and a bit chilly.
Guillaume, who will remain with the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead as assistant director of food and beverage, had a knack for taking on the personality of the chefs he worked with, filling the dining room with whatever elegant air each possessed, whether it was the technical German precision of Guenter Seeger or the more playful attitude of the Dining Room’s current chef, Arnaud Berthelier (who announced his resignation just a week before the news that the Dining Room would close).
And for all the Riedel crystal, the Hepp silver and the European art, the Dining Room will be remembered most for its chefs: Guenter Seeger, Joel Antunes, Bruno Ménard and Berthelier. The opening chef, Jean-Pierre Maharibatcha, was barely there a year; he left when Seeger was hired to replace him. Berthelier will move on to be the chef for the Peninsula Shanghai, a new hotel property opening this fall on the historic Bund in Shanghai.
Their collected talents are what gave the Dining Room its personality, and garnered for it what seemed almost routine James Beard award nods and the coveted five-star rating from Mobil Travel which the restaurant has maintained since 1997. Seeger won a James Beard award while helming the Dining Room’s kitchen, and was the chef with the longest tenure, from 1985 to 1996.
Each gave the Dining Room a significant style, and each was different in his approach, from Seeger’s streamlined technicality to Berthelier’s playful turn at foams and sous vide dishes. Having the Dining Room on your resume became a “pass go” card for many Atlanta chefs – Gary Mennie and Shaun Doty both worked in the Dining Room’s beautiful open kitchen; even “Top Chef” contestant Kevin Gillespie “staged,” or worked for free as an apprentice, under chef Bruno Ménard. Even a day’s work for free under one of these chefs is something an up-and-coming chef will brag about.
But over the course of the last five years, the Dining Room was never at full capacity whenever I visited. Our current trend in casual dining made the magnificent experience seem almost outdated, even though the staff and kitchen never lost their sense of professionalism. Now, the room will become a private dining room for small parties of 70 or less.
Ryder said the room is fully committed for this evening, though, a fitting finale for the end of an era.