AN ONLINE AUCTION, FIVE-STAR STYLE

Maisonette, founded in 1949 by Nat Comisar and located on Sixth Street in downtown Cincinnati since 1966, ranked as the height of sophisticated dining in Cincinnati for decades. It earned a national reputation as well. The place claimed to be America's most-honored restaurant, and had the plaques on the wall to prove it.

Even in 2005, the restaurant's food and service were still every bit as sophisticated as they had been a generation earlier. The honors were still flowing, too: Mobil inspectors had again awarded the Maisonette five stars, a ranking it bestowed on but 14 restaurants in the country. However, the flow of customers who wanted to get dressed up (coat and tie required for gentlemen), go downtown and dine in what some referred to as a stuffy atmosphere had gradually begun to dry up.

What to do? Third-generation owner Nat Comisar's choice was to meet customers halfway by moving out to the suburbs and changing Maisonette's service style to one he described as "contemporary interpretation of relaxed sophistication." Plans were drawn, but it turned out that suburban politics could be as vicious as those of the big city. "Delays in zoning approval have led to delays in construction," Comisar said. "We came to the difficult business decision that continued operation downtown would not be feasible.

"Today is a sad day for our employees, our families and many friends," he continued. "While we remain optimistic about the future, we have to be realistic about the present. We are saying goodbye to an era."

Indeed, and it should be pointed out that Maisonette went out while still serving top-notch food and hewing to service and amenity standards most restaurants can only dream about. Tablecloths were replaced every six weeks. The annual budget to replace the Maisonette's china crystal and flatware was a hefty $104,000.

Which, in turn, made for a dandy auction.

Described as a "Once-In-A-Lifetime Chance To Own A Real Piece Of Americana" by auctioneer firm Great American Group, the Maisonette auction was a two-day affair. Furnishing and kitchen items were put on the block during the first day, the bigger ticket items--the restaurant's extensive art holdings and its notable wine collection--went up on day two. The auction was held at the Westin Hotel in downtown Cincinnati, and drew roughly 140 bidders on the first day. Another 150 buyers signed up to participate over the Internet.

The bidding action was lively, perhaps because it was all first-rate stuff. Oversized wineglasses brought $15 apiece, all 90 champagne glasses went for $18 per glass, chairs from $50 to $75. It all went--the carpet, the lockers from the changing rooms, even a rolling rack full of waiters' tuxedos. Also sold was a signed photo of Liberace, and assorted lots of cartoons of favorite guests who ranged from Merlin Olsen to Marge Schott. Wine offerings ranged from a 1924 Chateau Petrus Pomeron to five magnums of 1986 Chateau Lafite-Rothschild Pauillac to a 1994 Chateu d'Yquem to, at the other end of the price spectrum, four bottles of the 2001 Fess Parker Syrah.

If you ran a restaurant, or wanted to, this was the auction opportunity of a lifetime.

The prize item of the day turned out to be ownership of Maisonette's name and logo. After five rounds of spirited bidding, Maureen Haney, an attorney of the Frost, Brown & Todd law firm, purchased it. She declined to reveal the name of the client on whose behalf she had made the winning bid, or what the client's plans were. We can only wish that the new owner will have a run half as distinguished as that of the three generations of the Comisar family who operated Maisonette.