Food News

As the French Room Closes For a Major Overhaul, Longtime Staff Fear They'll Be Left Behind

The French Room in Dallas’ historic Adolphus Hotel is special. If your family ever made a reservation there, there was a good chance it was to mark a celebration.

The grand chandeliers, preserved murals and perfectly set tables — knife rest included — all made diners sit up a little straighter and take in every detail. The opulence and superior service are part of what make this dining room an icon in North Texas. But now the dining room has closed for renovations through the rest of the year, which could take until early 2017. Other work involves renovations in the lobby and the area serving tea. 

Whether longtime employees — many of them employed there more than 20 or 30 years and well known to the restaurant's devotees — will be able to return is unclear. It's also unclear what the next iteration of the French Room will look like. 

On Thursday night, just before closing for the remainder of the year, the service was still exceptional, the wine list excellent (though extremely expensive) and the lamb phenomenal. Toward the end of the meal, several members of the staff started sharing more about what was coming up in the restaurant, discussing what the new decor might entail. (Will the paintings of small babies go away? Will the Murano glass chandeliers remain?)

But as the restaurant prepares to for its face-lift, employees fear they may not be a part of the French Room's next chapter. Instead, staffers were discussing how they have been aggressively searching for new work. After serving for so many years in the grand dining room, they don’t know what they’ll do next.

“The French Room is all I know,” one staff member said.

Tony Cournia, general manager of food and beverage operations at the hotel, explained how management approached the staff.

“We created a comprehensive list of all the jobs that are available at the hotel, and we sat down personally, literally with every single member of the staff and offered other positions the hotel. Some have decided to take them, some have decided to move on,” he says. “Some of them have said, ‘Hey, I’m going to relax for a bit.’”

The wait staff's take on these meetings differed, and several said they were not confident they would have a place after the renovation.

“What they said is that we would need to reapply,” a former employee said on the condition of anonymity, “and they don’t know if we’re going to be accepted. They said we might be, they’re going to put in consideration, but there’s not a guarantee.”

Cornea said the final staff for the future French Room hasn't been decided.

“Obviously, the plans for the restaurant are vetted out, the concept is vetted out and we have a great idea of what we intend to do, but some of the specificities of what that team looks like, you know, just aren’t clear yet,” he says. “We haven’t made promises to people as far as guarantees of employment, that is just not a business practice that we employ here, but we’ve welcomed everyone back and we will have a spot on the team, provided what that team looks like.”

Staff said these options didn’t leave the team feeling well.

“I feel like they don’t want us, they don’t need us anymore,” a staff member said. “Right now people are looking for a place to work. People feel so bad about what happened, I don’t know. We’re going to split for now.”

When asked about this, Cournia made it clear that he respects this staff for the experience they continually created in the French Room.

“Their tenure, their loyalty, their dedication — the people that have worked in that room, they’ve maintained a five diamond, AAA rating for more than two decades. None of that is lost on us,” he says. “We would be fortunate to have that entire staff back, no ifs ands or buts about it. But again, it depends on the complexion of the team, who’s interested in coming back and what all the pieces are.”

The hotel’s next chapter is the final phase of remodel for the 1912 structure.

A press release from June 7 — four days before the final meal was served in the French Room — states the renovations will offer “modern sensibilities, including a transformed lobby, fresh public spaces, new restaurant concepts and exciting retail options.”

The hotel is waiting to release details of what the new space of the French Room will look like beyond what's in the press release, stating that the French Room "is slated for a complete reimagining, with an updated menu and new bar and salon that at once celebrates the space’s rich history while respectfully evolving the experience and aesthetic.”
Despite mention of "complete reimagining," changes will not be drastic, Cournia said.

“There will be aesthetic changes, nothing architecturally significant,” he says. “But as far as the menu, that will be a work in progress that will evolve; we’ve been expected to be, again, honoring the tradition, the legacy that’s been created here to this point. We can expect it to be seasonal and driven by local ingredients, utilizing some creativity, and some of the preparations will be happening table-side, which will be adding to that experiential component.”

Part of this beloved dining room's charm was its lack of updates — the opulence and high standards that remained unchanged as dining trends came and went. But the French Room could be going through the same experience shared by other institutions — many fine arts organizations, religious organizations, country clubs and newspapers are seeing their customers age and are trying to find ways to attract the younger crowd while serving their existing clientele.

Perhaps the management is trying to do just that. If so, let's hope the French Room manages to move forward while still embracing the magic of the original.
KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Taylor Adams has written about the restaurant industry for the Dallas Observer since 2016. Now the Observer's food editor, she attended Southern Methodist University before covering local news at The Dallas Morning News.