The scene itself was intensely surreal.

At a private, invitation-only fete at the doomed Maisonette restaurant, hundreds of the Queen City elite - Indian Hill power couples, sobbing Hyde Park matrons, and CEOs past and present who'd flown in from both coasts - were gathering for an emotional October farewell.

It was not the last meal served at the five-star institution, but it was the closest thing the Sixth Street legend had come to a formal final seating since the owners - the ruling Comisar family - posted the abrupt, plainly scripted sign in the door frame in July, announcing to both employees and diners that they were forever shuttering the Queen City legacy.

At the party - or, more accurately, wake - tearful clientele intermingled with stalwart corporate executives. One whispered, "I feel like I'm at a funeral." As longtime patrons nibbled shrimp toast and peeked into the once-off-limits kitchen, some searched for a last glance of ebullient owner Nat Comisar. He was not to be found.

A mix of gallows humor and reverential sentiment served the crowd well as the bittersweet evening wore on. "It's so sad," noted publisher Frank Wood, chairman of the national rock magazine TRACKS, joking that he wasn't above looking for a memento. "I'm looking at the engraved silver. Turn the 'M' around and it's a 'W'!," Wood morbidly laughed.

Gallows humor aside, the gathering of power brokers put a human face on the inside story of the Maisonette's demise. Glancing at the faces in the crowd, hearing the anecdotes of times and meals passed, even an outsider would learn this was the passing of something special. As one participant that night noted: "I thought this restaurant would NEVER go away, never would be ALLOWED to go away."

So what happened? How could a half-century dining institution - blessed by the power structure and the wealthy - fall so far, so fast? An institution, no less, that had been run all these decades by generations of Cincinnati's ruling culinary family, the Comisars - the same esteemed dynasty with family ties to Czar Nicholas and the last royal Romanovs.

And there's the Bigger Question. What does this stunning downfall speak of the downtown restaurant business, and downtown's prospects in general?

On the face of it, the story of how a dining legend tumbled is a story of bad luck, bad timing and bad press. However, those intimately connected with the family and the business - as well as other current and former restaurateurs interviewed for this article - suggest a confluence of unintended factors and unhealthy hubris worthy of Greek tragedy.

What the Fates Allow

Greek tragedy, in fact, is not too grandiose a term to apply. For what had Maisonette restaurant become if not a thing of Queen City mythology?

As America's longest-running "Mobil Guide" five-star restaurant (for 41 consecutive years), and as the Midwest's only entry on the prestigious list outside of Charlie Trotter's in Chicago, the restaurant enjoyed unique status: Mobil itself described it "as one of the few flawless dining experiences in the country."

Certainly few downtown restaurants can claim longer continuous operation under the same family. (Scotti's on Vine Street, opened in 1912, is the only family-run institution that came to mind of any of those interviewed. Arnold's has had a series of different owners, as has Palm Court.)

And that culinary staying power is, in itself, reason enough for the shock. The Cincinnati dining scene is nothing if not fickle - the only absolute is that NOTHING lasts absolutely. But the Comisar family had kept the doors open for 56 years and, more than merely struggling, had done so with panache and seeming ease.

The founder, Nathan Comisar, ran numerous restaurants in the 1920s, culminating with the opening of Maisonette in 1949. Nathan named his restaurant after the famed nightspot in the St. Regis Hotel in New York City where he had courted his wife, Vallie.

Maisonette then earned its first five-star ranking in 1964, while located on Walnut Street in the old Fountain Square Building. Sons Michael J. and Lee acquired the current structure - with its familiar black awning and facade with black-iron balconies - in 1966.

Maisonette flourished under a series of high-profile chefs, including Maurice Gorodesky, Pierre Adrian, Georges Haidon, Jean-Robert de Cavel and the final chef Bertrand Bouquin (pronounced Boo-cann), as well as the continued management involvement of family members such as Marc and Michael E. Comisar.

The Comisar family - with its royal links to the last emperor of Russia, Czar Nicholas II - seem well-suited to cater to the social elite and politically powerful (including six American presidents). On any given day at Maisonette, Procter & Gamble's Vidal Sassoon might brush shoulders with a Susan Lucci or Jerry Lewis. Visiting media maven Andy Rooney might sit across the room from touring rock star Rod Stewart. And on any given Saturday evening, by the Comisars' own posted odds, the President of the United States might boast 1-to-2 chances of nabbing a table without a reservation, while Ohi'™s sitting governor wouldn't earn even odds.

The Comisar family philosophy focused not on providing East Coast glitz or West Coast glamour, but on assuring solid service along with standout French entrees. The restaurant never claimed to compete with the creme of Paris. The family simply brought the Cincinnati work ethic into the mix.

In the Comisar tradition, the children started working in the restaurant at a tender age. The last proprietor - Nat Comisar - observes that he began as a busboy at age 13 and worked his way up to dishwasher and cook at Maisonette.

All seemed well, in fact, until the dining scene began to change.

A series of restaurant failures plagued the Comisar family, including the Newport Beach floating barge on the Ohio River, Bistro Gigi (named for Nat's wife) in Mariemont, and Chester's Road House in Montgomery. All those Comisar ventures closed.

But then there was Maisonette. The familiar lighthouse in the culinary storm. Unmovable. Reliable.

What Happened?

In many business circles, the downfall of a competitor is reason for celebration. Among Cincinnati's top restaurateurs, the demise of Maisonette elicits sighs of regret.

No chefs - not even the most competitive ones in an increasingly competitive business - were seen to take pleasure in the news. If champagne toasts were called for, they served to express honor, even gratitude. Not jubilation.

Many restaurateurs took pause to reflect on the struggle they all experience: to be creative, artistic, even romantic about their craft, while also having to be practical, savvy business operators.

The fall of the Maisonette served up myriad reminders of economic and social realities — to owners of upscale establishments AND to the business leaders who dine there. Be prepared and agile enough to adapt to changing markets, social trends and customers' expectations. Figure how to effectively counter competition. And remember, awards or accolades don't pay the bills.

Maisonette is among many renowned restaurants that fell to fundamental social changes in recent years. In Manhattan, the Rainbow Room, Le Cirque and Lutèce are gone. The Russian Tea Room reopened in 1999 after a $32-million investment and total renovation, then collapsed in just three years - sold for only $16 million.

"It's so sad," David Falk observes of Maisonette. To Falk, owner and chef of the popular Boca restaurant in Oakley, the Maisonette "was a classic, like a great black-and-white movie, like 'Casablanca.' It seemed timeless."

Falk's concept of fine dining is shaped by his experience working at Maisonette in the mid-1990s with chef Jean-Robert de Cavel and maitre d' Richard Brown. He loved the fact that generations had dined there in the same rooms, at the same tables, surrounded by the same décor. He laments: "It's unfortunate that there's not a restaurant like that in Cincinnati anymore."

More of today's affluent diners in the 25-45 age range want hip and trendy - tradition, decorum and fastidiousness have lost their appeal, Falk says.

"People are looking for quality and value, not formality," adds veteran Maisonette maitre d' Brown. "Gone is the day when you wrestle a jacket on to a man at the (restaurant) door."

Brown has seen it all, with 30 years in the business and stints as maitre d' at the old Pigall's, the Palace at the Cincinnatian Hotel and Maisonette. Brown left Maisonette and joined chef Jean-Robert when he reopened Pigall's.

One of the business lessons to learn from Maisonette, Brown says, is to know your market. "Dining is just like fashion," he quips. "You're not going to hold onto an outfit from 1987."

Nat Comisar counters that he was more than willing to change:

"Part of the plan all along was to rejuvenate and stay — or to move," he says, pointing out that the "casualization" of Maisonette was inevitable. "(Diners) want a finer product, but they don't want to put on a tie and jacket to do it."

Recipe for Disaster

Some suggest, as is the way in this town, the Maisonette downslide can all be traced back to either Procter & Gamble, or to Carl Lindner's corporate empire, or to Federated, or all of the above. Certainly it's no secret that the tightening of purse-strings at those multinational companies inspired cutbacks on the traditional expense account lunch - or at least caused company bean-counters to eye twice any executive's bill from Maisonette.

For his part, third-generation owner Nat Comisar wasn't reluctant to tell anyone wh'™d ask that he hadn't made a profit since 2000. Comisar would point to a confluence of factors: the 2001 race riots, 9/11 and an accompanying slump in tourist and convention delegates.

Comisar himself - no less than the vice chairman of the 2005 board of directors of the Greater Cincinnati Convention & Visitors Bureau - blamed his troubles largely on downtown. It's a momentous irony that the man in charge of promoting downtown visitor traffic to the world found himself saying he was a casualty of that same working environment.

Let's not stop the irony checklist. All this was occurring during the birth of the Backstage District — literally at Maisonette's doorstep. Once a blighted block, the Walnut Street strip between Sixth and Seventh thrived with new customers after the construction of the Aronoff Center for the Arts. Of course, new customers also brought new competition to Maisonette — particularly in the form of a restaurant juggernaut named Jeff Ruby.

Ironic, too, is the fact the newly renovated convention facility, the Cinergy Center, is completing its $160 million expansion and remodeling in June, assuring even MORE new downtown traffic. (Already, a huge convention of 5,000 - more than Cincinnati could ever have reasonably thought to attract - is expected for the weeklong National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives in the first month of the new facility's operation.)

Plenty of new potential customers, it would seem, but too little, too late.

Tracking the Tumble

"The restaurant business isn't about food," comments one veteran Cincinnati restaurateur. "It's an argument over money."

That said, no one can seem to point to the one moment, the one instant, where Maisonette began to unravel, when it began losing the "argument."

Comisar certainly prompted gossip and innuendo when he raised anywhere from $850,000 to $1.2 million from his most loyal customers with a 10 percent discount "pre-selling" program, customers who paid $22,500 up-front for $25,000 personal accounts at the restaurant.

As Maisonette tumbled down the borrow-and-spend slide, racking up some $600,000 in extended loans this year alone, the world-class kitchen never halted preparation of its lamb tenderloin with purple mustard crust, or the roasted monkfish. The Dom Perignon flowed by the flute. It seemed matter-of-fact to all involved that, as security for these loans, Scott Street Partners, the primary creditors, had filed liens on all of the contents of the Maisonette building. Strictly business as usual.

Options seemed to abound for the seemingly flourishing operation. First came word the restaurant would move from its Sixth Street digs to Northern Kentucky in exchange for tax breaks and other financial considerations involving public monies and incentives. That prompted rumors that the City of Cincinnati would bail out the restaurateurs, to the tune of $4 million, if they'd only remain inside the city limits. But absolutely No Go. Mayor Charlie Luken issued a statement saying Maisonette business had declined at a time when other new restaurants had opened and succeeded downtown.

"Most of that money would have gone to pay off debts to Comisar family members," Luken told the press. "That is not a wise use of taxpayer dollars." (Luken did go on to wish Maisonette well in its future endeavors.)

Along the way, Comisar toyed with various concepts, including opening a nightclub and carryout joint next door. Later, Comisar would announce a move to a new retail/condo complex planned for Kenwood/Sycamore Township - directly next door to one of its primary customer bases, the ritzy village of Indian Hill.

Business plans were devised and then abandoned. Press conferences were held with glee, pointing to equity investors and contingency options. And the band played on.

If you dined in that final week at Maisonette, you might have ordered the restaurant's most popular drink, the Maisonette Cocktail (champagne and framboise), the Hawaiian snapper seviche, the braised rabbit legs, crab bisque, or the most called-for dessert, the signature white chocolate mousse.

And if you were in the know, you would've reserved one of the most popular tables, number 50 or 51, front and center, for high visibility. (Those seeking solitude favored the three secluded alcove booths.)

It was, to paraphrase one pundit, comparable to the final banquet served aboard the R.M.S. Titanic: A sumptuous feast prepared for all, but delivered in an atmosphere of ever disquieting tension. Diners - and investors - were left with a vague feeling that it was high time to leave the table in search of a lifeboat.

A stunning stumbling block in the proposed suburban township move came in the relatively mundane arena of governmental minutia: zoning. The devil, they say, is always in the details. The issues of zoning, intersection "setbacks" and parking garage concerns at the new facility eventually proved the final recipe for disaster. Succinctly put, once it became evident that zoning issues would delay the start of the project, the investor cash set aside to fund operations downtown was jeopardized.

"We pushed the envelope downtown," agrees Comisar, adding that it all came down to the zoning issues. If they'd been able to move June 1, the cash flow problem would not have become an issue.

"Is there a right or wrong here? I don't think so," continues Comisar. "We stayed open downtown two years longer than we should have. If we closed the doors two years ago, would that have been called noble?"

At least some reports suggest money for a move to Kenwood/Sycamore Township was also snared in an unrelated corporate lawsuit. Comisar was depending on aid from two brothers, David and Jared Davis, who control Scott Street Partners, apparently were committed to helping finance the $7-million Maisonette shift to the suburbs. But the money dried up as the result of a very public lawsuit involving their father, former Provident Bank president Allen Davis, who with his sons control a company that runs Check 'n' Go pay-day lenders around the country. What's on the record: A fight over the family company led eventually to Judge Norbert Nadel ordering a temporary halt to the company cash flow. End of the bail-out notion.

After multiple delays in getting any development plans approved, after every deal collapsed, Comisar finally - and without fanfare - shuttered his downtown doors July 25.

How sudden was the shutdown? Employees say it was a surprise to them; up until the day the place closed, they were still selling gift certificates, confident that all would be well. (Six of the restaurant's hundred employees had worked under the black awning for more than 30 years.)

All hopes had apparently been stacked upon what was the given "sure thing" at any single moment: No one - surely - would allow this treasured legacy to go under. Not the city fathers controlling the taxpayer gravy train, not the salivating suburbs that wanted the Comisar business, not the ever-loyal corporate mainstay customers. Again, close observers contacted about the dining debacle return to a single word: "Hubris."

Going Once, Going Twice "¦

Even given all the unexpected upsets and chaos, the spiraling roller-coaster ride was destined, by all accounts, for a single if inglorious rescue: a white knight would surely emerge. To employ more brutal hash-house language, someone would undoubtably arrive to haul Comisar's fat out of the fryer. No one would totally abandon the brand name that Maisonette had become, no, not in this city that knows a thing or two about brand marketing. The alternative was, well, simply unimaginable.

Well, not quite. Scott Street Partners, which had lent Comisar some $600,000 to keep his restaurant in black ink since the beginning of the year, tired of waiting for repayment. The partners contracted the services of a Los Angeles liquidation specialist, the Great American Group, and the carnivorous feast began.

Every fixture not nailed down, and some things that had been, were hauled to the auction block. In late October, the Westin Hotel ballroom was crammed with voyeurs, gawkers and vultures picking at the remains.

This dysfunctional finale included a fire sale of the nuts-and-bolts of the once famed kitchen - dough-rollers, dishwashing sinks and other items never intended for public purview. Bidders came to bid piecemeal on fine fixtures and furniture. A Mississippi casino snapped up dinnerware. The 20-foot-long bar was sprung for $2,000. The oil painting "Iola" by Bessie Hoover Wessel went for $22,000. Five magnums of Chateau Lafite Rothschild '86 went for an undisclosed amount.

Meanwhile, the prime Maisonette property — including the sister chophouse La Normandie downstairs - was put up for sale, listed for $2.5 million.

Nat Comisar did not attend the public auction of his restaurant's contents in late October. Little wonder, since the sale - handled by his creditors and an out-of-town auction company - represented the dismantling of a family legacy.

As the gavel struck, the history was dispersed to the winds. The artwork, stripped from the walls, included paintings by Roger Muhl and Julie de Forest estimated at $20,000 each. Mere menus flew off the block for $175. Sketches of Cybill Shepherd and Nancy Lopez, both regular diners, went for a song. Gone too, the final indignity, were the decades' worth of Mobil five-star plaques that hung in the kitchen.

Perhaps most humiliating was the raiding of the restaurant's rare wine cellar, itself a large contributor to the place's world-class status. Wine merchants eyed some 500 vintages up for grabs, including a bottle of 1924 Chateau Petrus valued at $5,000,

A particularly bittersweet moment came as Jean-Robert de Cavel, the chef who left Maisonette a decade ago to open his own successful eateries (including Pigall's, JeanRo Bistro and Pho Paris), joined the throng, apparently waiting for any particular sentimental favorites that might come along.

The very name of Maisonette itself was on the auction block - sparking speculation the landmark could return one day soon in another incarnation. The moniker fetched a $35,000 bid from the Frost Brown Todd law firm, representing an unnamed client. (A restaurant reopened under the Maisonette name could not, by Mobil rules, qualify for consideration for five-star status for at least a year.)

What's To Be Made of This?

David Cook, chef and co-owner of Daveed's at 934 in Mount Adams, apprenticed at the Maisonette. He credits the Comisar family for giving him the experience and opportunity to become an acclaimed chef and restaurateur. In his mind, there was simply too much for them to overcome.

"They stuck to their guns. I truly believe there wasn't much they could do," Cook comments.

Facing bristling competition from both chain restaurants in the suburbs and new fine dining options, Cook says independent restaurants have to appeal to customers in other ways. "Today, you can get good food almost anywhere. Food is overrated. Service is number one."

Other factors certainly came into play. Chefs have become celebrities, with restaurants named after them. Jean-Robert left Maisonette. It folded. His revitalized Pigall's quickly became acclaimed as the heir apparent to Maisonette, well before it was awarded a four-star rating from Mobil in October. Pigall's also proves a premier restaurant can still succeed in downtown Cincinnati.

Restaurant personalities can make a difference, according to David Falk of Boca. "The Maisonette died the day Jean-Robert and Richard Brown left," he remarks. "It took a while, but it was a terminal illness. So many people came to see them."

Brown downplays the celebrity aspect and points to economic forces. As in other American cities, changes in retail business affect downtown restaurants. "During Cincinnati's retail heyday in the 1970s and '80s, people came to the Maisonette from Louisville, Lexington, Columbus ... and every one of them were here for the shopping," Brown recalls.

To some extent, Brown says by way of an epitaph, the Comisars were trapped: truly unable to adapt in ways they knew were necessary. A renovation was essential, but by some estimates that could have ended up costing several million dollars. "What do you do?" Brown asks. "How do you change or re-invent yourself, especially when money is tight? Do you close for six to eight months?

"The building was a disaster," Brown continues. "Any changes would have forced radical changes to bring it up to code. They really did have to move.

"Nat wasn't playing games about that."

Falk recognizes he may be witnessing the end of classic, five-star formal dining for the foreseeable future-in Cincinnati or any other American city. He's regretful. "There is a changing of the tide. And frankly, that style of dining is not appreciated by the younger market. But I do like it. For me, it never lost its luster."

Finally, an obvious question for Nat Comisar, the 46-year-old proprietor: What's his future?

"What's next? I don't know. Maisonette will never be replicated," observes Comisar. "It's a very sad passing. My family was very lucky to be an intricate part of Cincinnati for 70 years."