Originally published Oct. 1, 2009
In the Buckhead Ritz-Carlton’s lobby lounge, a guy in shorts and tennis shoes perches at the bar like a praying mantis, a Bluetooth earpiece stuck to his head. A call comes in and he talks and paces, like a pickup basketball player walking off a leg cramp.
One floor above, Richard Flint sits in a silk and wooden cave, waiting for a quarter-century of elegance to end. For one more night he will serve exquisite food in the Dining Room, a clubby haven where cellphones are banned and no one would dare walk in wearing shorts and tennis shoes.
“We used to require a coat and tie, ” he says, propping a bony elbow on the table, then straightening, aghast at what his mother would think if she saw him with elbows on the table. “Now we request a jacket.”
When Atlanta’s only five-star rated restaurant called a staff meeting recently, Flint figured he would learn who might be replacing departing chef Arnaud Berthelier.
Instead Flint and fellow servers Michael Lueptow, a 24-year veteran, Maggie Sinatra, 22 years, Flint’s serving partner Charles Hurston, 14 years and Ann Crawford, 6 years, were told the restaurant would close after 25 years. Tonight is their last night.
“It was devastating, ” Flint says. “None of us saw it coming.”
He is the only staff member to work in the Dining Room from start to finish. A meat and potatoes man from Columbus, Ohio, he studied sociology in college, then glided on a white lie into a restaurant career. He worked with the opening chef, who once presented him a whole turbot to be deboned tableside, sort of like a commanding officer handing a private a ticking hand grenade to detonate on the fly. He endured the raving genius of chef Guenter Seeger, who once shouted at Flint not to touch a plate until he was ready for it to leave the kitchen, lest he drain the energy from the chef’s food.
“He was a little weird, ” Flint says.
Seeger once fired Flint, who returned the next night as if nothing had happened. He has not eaten in the Dining Room since chef Joel Antunes was in charge, but well remembers the celery root ravioli with truffles and duck breast he savored as part of an employee perk.
“It was phenomenal coming in and sitting down for dinner, ” Flint says. “It’s a memory maker. It’s not just a meal.”
And he isn’t really supposed to talk about famous diners, like Rod Stewart, who came in seeking privacy but instead drew attention by wearing sunglasses in the windowless restaurant, or Paul Newman, who dropped in with his wife Joanne Woodward and her mother, then decided to split and go get a hot dog somewhere. Comedy actor John Cleese once yanked a pork chop bone off another diner’s plate and pretended to gnaw on it, and Bonnie Raitt was too gracious to complain about her crummy table. Mick Jagger seemed more like an accountant than a rock star in his subdued business suit.
“One night, we had an actress come in, a star. My [serving] partner had just been on his first trip to New York and saw her on Broadway. He was beside himself to meet her, ” Flint says. “Over the course of the evening she accused him of trying to kill her, told me I was nothing but a liar. She was being so mean. Everyone’s been very nice except that one night I tried to kill Lauren Bacall. Oops. I wasn’t supposed to say that.”
Slender as a champagne flute, Flint isn’t sure what the future holds. He cannot bear the thought of serving in a chain restaurant where servers wear stupid uniforms and sing happy birthday, not after working at the Ritz-Carlton.
Walking into the hotel, perched on the platinum corner of Peachtree and Lenox roads, is like sliding into a warm bath. Ask anyone where the restroom is and he or she will walk with you to the facilities. Crested slippers await overnight guests in their rooms. The water in the health club is sweetened with fresh fruit slices, and little fans tucked discreetly here and there circulate a spicy floral scent.
The Dining Room is the gem in the center of this towering jewelry box. Appointed with 18th- and 19th-century oils and shimmering silk banquette seats, it is one of two restaurants in the state of Georgia to earn a five-star rating from Mobil Travel.
Emory public health professor Kirk Elifson has been visiting the Dining Room over the past two decades. He and his wife have always requested Flint.
“He has the most unimposing style, ” Elifson says. “He knew the menu and the wine. He had this sense of when to approach a table, when to stay away. He’s one of the finest waiters I’ve ever encountered.”
Flint, who got his start when a friend believing he had serving experience hired him at a Perimeter area restaurant that closed shortly thereafter, lives alone in Roswell. He usually grills a steak for himself when he gets home about 1 a.m., although he pulls out Seeger’s recipe for lamb and shredded potatoes with thyme on occasion.
“On Friday, I’m going to go home, decompress a little bit and figure out what I’m going to do, ” says Flint, who is ready for tears and hugs from longtime patrons tonight. “It’s hard to imagine we won’t be coming back the next day.”