By Karen Jurgens
Living in Texas—as I have for just over thirty years—I’ve cultivated a love for spicy food. Whether it’s flavorful Thai or delicious Tex-Mex, all I can say is, “Please pass the salsa and the jalapeño peppers,” and “Yes, I’d love some sweet tea!”
But it wasn’t always that way.
Ahh, Cincinnati cuisine. There was no place more delicious to spend my growing up years. For me, that was in the late sixties through the seventies when the Queen City boasted three—yes, three—Mobile Travel Guide five-star restaurants out of a total of ten in the entire country. Frequenting eateries like The Gourmet Room, Pigall’s, and The Maisonette was like taking a seat at a dining table in culinary heaven.
The Maisonette earned its coveted Mobile five-star rating for a remarkable forty-one years. Owned by the local Comisar family since 1948, it was most outstanding for its service, ambiance, and cuisine. Creamy butter on warm French bread, crusty with those oh-so-soft centers, melted in your mouth. Appetizers first, followed by crisp signature salads, hand-tossed with dressings created at our table. Delicate sauces ladled across flaky fish fillets surrounded by potato galettes and portobello mushrooms with spinach were a close tie to dining atop the Eiffel Tower’s Tour d’Argent. I can’t begin to describe the magnificence of the French pastry cart, so I’ll leave those delectable works of culinary art to your imagination. (Want some Maisonette recipes? Click here.)
Pigall’s offered intimate dining in a quite different setting. Picture a cozy Paris bistro, mirror-lined with long, red plush benches facing small tables. Its cuisine was superb, yet not too rich for the waistline. Not exactly Steak Frites, but the chef’s filet mignon with potatoes was wonderful. Just thinking about it makes my mouth water.
Within my fond memories of Pigall’s lives one amusing one. I enjoyed many a Saturday lunch there with my mother, who was a regular downtown shopper. Once, after picking up my fork to eat a salad, my hand froze in mid-air. I spied something brown wiggling out of the lettuce and inching across my plate, leaving behind a trail of oil and vinegar. I immediately stifled a screech, alerting the waiter who whisked up my plate without a word and marched to the kitchen. Somehow its replacement didn’t afford me much consolation. But to this day, the story still makes me laugh.
In my opinion, the Gourmet Room provided a unique dining experience. Its intimate dining room not only perched on the penthouse level of the old Terrace Hilton Hotel but also showcased a magnificent view of downtown Cincinnati. Henri Guglielmi, the maître’d for twenty years, welcomed and pampered his guests. I remember many pleasant conversations with him as well as the specialties he prepared at our table. Back in the day when Baked Alaska and Cherries Jubilee were the rage, I loved watching him ready and then light the flaming desserts, resembling an indoor Fourth of July. Tragically, the Gourmet Room’s final maître’d, Walter Herzig, closed the restaurant’s kitchen on July 4, 1992. The express elevator to the twentieth floor has been empty and still ever since.
My memories of these long-ago establishments are as bittersweet as Belgian dark chocolate, and they will forever live in my heart. Although Cincinnati currently holds claim to some fabulous Mobile four-star restaurants, I still dream of former days. Perhaps over time, the culinary world improves with age, like a very good bottle of Pommard.
Now for a treat. Please enjoy a special recipe from The Gourmet Room, which Henri Guglielmi personally gave to my family in the 70’s. In English, it’s called, “Veal, My Way.” It would make a spectacular appearance on your holiday table—perhaps this season it may even make an appearance on mine!
In the meantime, I’ll feast on my good memories while I say, “Please pass the tortilla chips and the guacamole,” and “Yes, I’d love more sweet tea!”
Writing Prompt: Make up a story using the picture below.
A hearty thanks to Nat Comisar, owner of the former Maisonette, for generously sharing his photos from the past.