Ohio's Only Four-Star Restaurant To Close

Pigall's is shutting its doors at the end of the month after seven years. Owners of the Cincinnati bistro say it's a money issue, but Chef Jean-Robert de Cavel says it's because the owners wanted to revamp the menu along simpler lines.

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ALEX COHEN, host:

This is Day to Day from NPR News. I'm Alex Cohen. The only four-star restaurant in Ohio is closing this month. Pigall's is the only fine dining option in the three-state area, including the Buckeye State, Kentucky, and Indiana. As NPR's Celeste Headlee reports, residents of Cincinnati wonder what else they'll lose when Pigall's closes its doors.

CELESTE HEADLEE: At one time, Cincinnati was a gourmand's paradise.

Mr. JEAN-ROBERT DE CAVEL (Co-Owner, Pigall's): Cincinnati was definitely a bastion of fine dining in America, of exceptional dining in America.

HEADLEE: Chef Jean-Robert de Cavel points out that an earlier Cincinnati landmark, the Mazonet(ph), held Mobil's five-star rating longer than any other restaurant in the country. And in the mid-1960s, three of the eight top-rated kitchens in the U.S. were located in Cincinnati. New York had two. But as of February 28th, the era of fine dining in the city will end.

Mr. MARTIN WADE (Co-Owner, Pigall's): The day we had to announce to the staff that we were closing, when I walked into our beautiful, beautiful, I started crying.

HEADLEE: Martin Wade owns six restaurants in Cincinnati, including Pigall's. It had been a decades old tradition when it closed the first time in 1990. Since Wade and de Cavel reopened the restaurant, it's earned five consecutive four-star ratings. Maitre d' Richard Brown says eating at Pigall's is an event for people in the city.

Mr. RICHARD BROWN (Maitre d', Pigall's): With people who came 45 years ago with their French class to have lunch and still remember that. That's what a special occasion it was. Or people who are dining with us because they were here the night they were engaged.

HEADLEE: But Martin Wade says the restaurant was losing about $1,000 every day it was open.

Mr. WADE: As wonderful as this product did and as wonderful as this restaurant is if the public itself says we can support it, my wife and I decided we can't underwrite it for our community any more.

HEADLEE: Wade says Pigall's hasn't turned the profit in two years. De Cavel disputes that, and it's impossible to know what the truth is since the account books aren't public. But Shane O'Flaherty, president of the Mobil Travel Guide, says four-star restaurants are expensive to run.

Mr. SHANE O'FLAHERTY (President, Mobil Travel Guide): Typical four-stars will have an executive chef, a pastry chef, a smellier, a wine cellar, (unintelligible) higher staff ratio to guests.

HEADLEE: O'Flaherty says the travel guide actually added several new five-stars to the list this year, so fine dining is still viable even in a tough economy. And he says these places are civic treasures.

Mr. O'FLAHERTY: They're institutions on to themselves, in the community itself. I mean, a lot of the chefs in those specific marketplaces, they incorporate a lot of the local ingredients, the produce.

HEADLEE: While chain restaurants purchase food nationally and don't usually support local merchants. And that's certainly true of de Cavel. He creates new dishes using the produce he could get from local farmers.

Mr. DE CAVEL: Apple, and then, you know, you get all of the chicken raised from different people. Here, we got some rabbit. We can get some quail. We can get some buffalo. There's a wonderful buffalo farm in town.

HEADLEE: The menu at Pigall's offers duck, elk, and black cod with chestnuts, parsnips, pumpkin, and red cabbage fondue. There's quails stuffed with dried fruit and pistachios, and crab with green apples and endives topped by ginger sorbet. And there's caviar from Kentucky paddlefish. You heard right, caviar from Kentucky. Bill Basket(ph) is sitting at the bar with his wife having a glass of wine.

Mr. BILL BASKET: This is our date night. We come here once a week to - for kind of our night out.

HEADLEE: Basket says he couldn't believe it when he heard Pigall's will be closing.

Mr. BASKET: We're very depressed, and we are still depressed.

HEADLEE: Basket says de Cavel has become a beloved figure in Cincinnati, and he hopes the chef can open another restaurant soon.

Mr. BASKET: Maybe it's the times. I don't know. But it's a shame because it's something that's hard to recapture after it's gone.

HEADLEE: De Cavel vows he won't abandon Cincinnati diners. He says no matter what happens on Wall Street, people still want good food and a place to go eat where the service is outstanding. And he says he's grown to love this Midwestern town and the people in it.

Mr. DE CAVEL: They adopt you extremely well. You know, they open their arm, and sometime, you know, you always look for something, and you realize it's right here.

HEADLEE: After Pigall's closes on the 28th, Martin Wade says he'll reopen it within six weeks under a new concept that he calls high-class casual. But Jean-Robert de Cavel will no longer be in the kitchen. And for the time being at least, there will be no four-star restaurants within easy driving distance. And if you're hoping to get a reservation, chances are slim to none. When we checked, they were booked solid right up until they close. Celeste Headlee, NPR News.

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