Seven years ago today Dallas' grand old fine dining destination was in its death throes. The Riviera would close for good in February of 2003, leaving as its legacy some of the finest chefs, restaurateurs and managers in the city.
David Holben (now at Del Frisco's) and Lori Finkelman served as the opening team back in the spring of 1984, after founder Franco Bertolasi assembled a couple dozen investors to dress up an old Steak & Ale in upscale French colors.
The owner had enough front room finesse and enough kitsch--while in Liverpool he hobnobbed with John and Paul--to woo patrons. Meanwhile, the Provence-inspired creations of Holben and Finkelman not only drew rave local reviews, but also a spot in the Nation's Restaurant News Fine Dining Hall of Fame.
It was a special destination. Even today, people approach Holben and reminisce about proposals, anniversaries and other life-marking events celebrated at the Inwood and Lovers location.
After a successful decade, Bertolasi, Michael Caolo and others formed FoodStar Restaurant Group, opening spin-offs such as Mediterraneo in Plano and Toscana on McKinney. And the demise of Riviera--and the group--began.
It was a messy demise, involving ego, greed, meddling, lawsuits and unpaid liquor taxes. Bertolasi was battling Parkinson's and backed out of involvement. Before the year 2000, Holben and other chefs split. Yet The Riviera somehow managed to press on for a while. The year before it shut down, the restaurant's management even gave the space a much needed sprucing, repainting walls, updating fixtures and such--but nothing stave off the inevitable.
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A new restaurant--George--took over location. Then it closed, Urban Bistro opened and, finally, Tristan Simon's Consilient turned the grand old place into a branch of Fireside Pies. But what The Riviera (as well as its sibling restaurants) left in its wake changed dining in this area for the better.
A roll call of their former chefs and line cooks includes Michael Marshall and Tom Fleming. Gilbert Garza and Jeffery Hobbs, now of Suze, both worked in those kitchens. So did Dan Landsberg of Tillman's Roadhouse. Kevin Maxey, who last year moved from Craft Dallas to Craft Atlanta is another alum. Mickie Crockett moved on to win good reviews at Trader Vic's before accepting the post as manager at Cadillac Ranch.
There are many more. In fact, the last manager of The Riviera was none other than Hector Garcia, now owner of Hector's on Henderson.
Without The Riviera in our past, Dallas would be a much different place.