As a former resident of Atlanta, I often peruse the AJC website to keep abreast of what’s going on down there. I read today of the closing of the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton in the toney Buckhead area of North Atlanta. The Ritz had been one of the first, and now last, bastions of true fine dining in Atlanta. Genteel Southern families and businessmen and women had been going there to be pampered by tuxedoed Maitre’Ds and servers for 25 years. Its kitchen has given rise to many young chefs who have gone on to open restaurants and influence the food scene not only in the Atlanta Metro area, but also across the country. The family tree of the Ritz’s crew would be as expansive as the 40 year-old Pecan that used to bombard my back yard each fall. This comes on the heels of the announcement of the pending closure of the Carnelian Room in SF; and while the Carnelian Room hasn’t been anyone’s ideal of fine cuisine for years, losing these types of establishments is like the beginning of the end.
Our Wine Director has loaned me a DVD set of the first Season of Mad Men. I have Tivo’d the current season, but wanted to be a purist and honor the writers and producers by watching it from the beginning, so I have been avoiding jumping in uninformed. Being old enough to be someone who was in grade school and high school during the sixties and early seventies (where it looks like Season 3 is taking place, judging from the dress and the cars) I can really identify with this show as a period piece. The producers have gone to great lengths to give it the true feel of the times; the dress, the current events on the radio and TV (“CBS doesn’t have color yet…”) and the shitty attitudes towards women and minorities. And the smoking, my God, the smoking! Being someone who hasn’t smoked inside a building of any kind except a casino in 20 years or more, I am blown away (pun intended) watching this show and remembering the prevalence of smoking: three switchboard operators (all women, of course) sitting in a windowless 10×10 room, pulling and plugging their connection wires, puffing away on Old Golds in a haze like downtown L.A. in mid-summer. Pitchers of Bloody Marys sit next to ash trays on conference room tables, instead of laptops and plastic bottles of Fiji Water; the account executives pour themselves a Scotch from the full bar that sits on the sideboard in almost every office, then reach into the cigarette box that sits on almost every desk, then reach for the butane lighter that was a matching part of almost every desk set. Man, those were the good old days!
But the scenes I really enjoy are the restaurant scenes. The gigantic curved, button-tuck upholstered booths; waiters in tuxedoes pushing guerdons carrying silver-domed plates through the dining room, serving guests in ties and jackets and evening gowns; cold cocktails before dinner (“I’ll have another one of these while I look at the wine list” one of the bosses tells his waiter, lifting his empty martini glass); and the waiters dutifully tossing salads and boning fish tableside.
I feel like such an old geezer (“Now in MY day…”) when I read about the closing of places like the Ritz or the Carnelian Room, or about Tavern on The Green in New York filing Chapter 11. While none of these places has been a temple of fine cuisine for years, and are closing because the “times have passed them by”, the important contribution they made was in the area of defining high style and fine service. While no one these days wants a waiter to cook their food, the standards of service followed by any of today’s true fine dining establishments all have their roots in that past era, at places like The Ritz.
Our kids have grown up during the tail end fade-out of these types of dining landmarks; but their children and grandchildren may never get to have their Steak Tartare chopped and mixed tableside before their eyes. They will never get to hear the “whoosh” of the Grand Marnier igniting while a waiter in black bow tie and white gloves skillfully tosses the crepes in it, or have their broiled Turbot de-boned tableside. Doormen in long wool coats and Captain’s Hats will never usher them from curb to podium to be looked at down the nose of a snooty French Maitre’ D. No, they will only get to have a busboy’s elbow pushed into their nose while he clears the empty plate of fried zucchini sticks as they sit in a booth at T.G.I Fridays. The “Special Occasion” places are disappearing, and many occasions may seem less special because of it. I mourn the demise of the fish fork.