The Restaurant de la Conversation or Conversation Haus, where Ritz hosted the dinner that gave him world renown, a colloquial phrase, and a musical.
In college on a crazy whirlwind backpacking trip of Europe, I made a stopover in the historic resort town of Baden-Baden near Alsace-Lorrain and in the Black Forest. Baden is the German word for bath, and man did I need one ! It was a quick stopover and lookabout after a long train ride from Amsterdam on the way to Freiburg. This had been the resort area where the rich and famous – among them the court of the Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm (after whom my grandfather was named) – came to take their cures (a mineral bath) and party their newly hydrated asses off. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to partake that time, but did get an interesting offer of some hallucinogens from Uri, the German Hippie who was looking for stupid American kids to sell to. I declined. I had just come from Amsterdam.
Me and Uri the German Hippie, Baden Baden.
A little over 100 years before my stopover – the Summer of 1888 – a dapper, well dressed Swiss hotelier was hosting a dinner in Baden-Baden for Polish Prince Ferdinand Radziwill, who was part of the German Parliament – the Reichstag – and the Berlin court of Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm. The hotelier’s name was Cesar Ritz (1850-1918). Many of his guests had arrived from the same train station I had – although they certainly smelled and were dressed better than me. Prince Radziwill told Ritz he wanted to host a dinner for his Berlin friends that would be remembered. Ritz was to host it at his newly opened Restaurant de la Conversation, in Baden-Baden, and his chef, a talented Georges-August Escoffier (1846-1935) , was to pull off the elaborate menu.
Escoffier was in the process and would revolutionize cheffing. He shortened menus and invented the hierarchy in the back of the house and chefs with specific duties that we know today- chef, sous chef, pastry, fish, sauce and meat chefs. He also started the tradition of naming dishes after famous celebrities, like the dish Peach Melba, named after an actress of the day.
Cesar Ritz, 1897. Georges-August Escoffier
At the time Prince Radziwill’s family had about 300 years to amass great wealth and a ton of castles around what was the former Holy Roman Empire. It had been in 1518 that his line had been granted the rare title of Prince from the Holy Roman Emperor. They had a castle in Gdansk, in what is now northern Poland, where they had ruled and only about 25 miles from where my maternal Grandmother’s family were just leaving a small village called Stary Targ, to emigrate to America, for a better life.
Prince Ferdinand Radziwill.
Challenge accepted and this was the type of challenge Ritz loved – creating a spectacle. This would not only be a dinner but the event of the season. And Ritz would market the crap out of it, making sure all of Europe’s aristocrats and America’s wealthy travelling robber barons knew of it. Ritz was born into a family of 12 siblings to poor peasants in Switzerland. He was sent off to a Jesuit monastery and found work early as an apprentice sommelier. He worked his way up and through some of the most opulent hotels in Europe.
Ritz came up with a theme to bring the outside in. He covered the entire floor of the restaurant with grass and had the walls covered with hundreds of roses. Potted trees were dispersed amongst the tables. He brought in a stone fountain and filled it with exotic goldfish. Ritz even rented a giant fern to be the centerpiece, surrounded it with tables and covered them in more flowers. A wonderful orchestra serenaded the guests through their lavish multicourse menu.
The scene of the dinner was magical, transporting guests into sort of a Midsummer Night’s Dream. And despite all the difficulties in pulling it all together, it was a phenomenal success. It was so successful that one guest, the owner of the Savoy Hotel and Savoy Theatre in London, a Mr. Richard D’Oyly Carte, asked Ritz and his chef Escoffier to come work for him at his hotel. D’Oyly Carte had made his money in the 1870s and 1880s by staging Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas in London like Pirates of Penzance and the Mikado. After a visit, Ritz and Escoffier took up his offer and made the Savoy the most modern, over-the-top, luxury hotel in the world from 1889-1897.
Ritz would go on to open the famous Ritz hotel in Paris in 1898, which would increase his brand and his fame and coin the slang term of the Jazz era, “putting on the Ritz.” The phrase would also inspire a song written by Irving Berlin in 1927 that was introduced in 1930 in a musical of the same title, and later made famous in Fred Astaire’s dance to it in Blue Skies.
The Hotel Ritz, Paris, founded in 1898 by Cesar Ritz and August Escoffier.
The Royal Radziwill family, like my maternal Grandmothers’ family would move to the U.S. Prince Ferdy’s grandson, Prince Stanislaw “Stash” Radziwill married Caroline Lee Bouvier, the sister of First Lady Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis. Ferdy’s great grandson, Anthony Radziwill married Carol DiFalco, who was an accomplished journalist, author, and 8 year cast member of the Bravo Reality Series The Real Housewives of New York City. Apparently Radziwill men liked women named Carol. And we have Prince Ferdy Radziwill to thank for all of this culture.
Caroline Lee Bouvier Radziwill and Carol DiFalco Radziwill.