In Boston, Summer Diners Say, `Meet Me Atop the Ritz'

FOR summertime dining on a clear and balmy evening, it's hard to beat a sidewalk cafe setting. Unless, that is, the alternative is to sit at a table perched 17 stories above street-level on an open-air rooftop with captivating city views in almost every direction, the soulful sounds of swing beaming from a nearby bandstand, and a bountiful buffet awaiting your visit.

Welcome to the Ritz Roof, at The Ritz-Carlton hotel, Boston's recently reopened warm-weather restaurant. Originally opened in 1933, it closed 13 years later after being ravaged by a hurricane. To celebrate the Ritz's 65-year presence in this New England city, executives at the famously refined hotel chose to re-create a dining experience that touched the lives of many during its heyday.

Simon Devine, a former regular at the Roof Top Restaurant, as it was called then, remembers it as the "top date spot" in Boston. "It was elegant and exciting. You always met interesting personalities there - ball players, celebrities, musicians...."

Ana Costa of Winchester, Mass., also has glowing memories: "Going there was a highlight of my youth ... it was subtly beautiful, simply spectacular," she says. Mrs. Costa spent many "starry-eyed" evenings dining by candlelight and dancing under the moonlight with her then-boyfriend Manuel, whom she later married.

Reminiscent of the days when Manuel led his lady to the big-band beat of Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, and Eddie Duchin, a jazz ensemble now entertains Friday and Saturday - currently the only nights the restaurant is open. Also familiar to old-timers is the blue-and-white-striped awning that, along with a shoulder-high glass panel, wraps around the L-shaped space to provide partial protection from the elements.

Prices on a 1938 menu are a bit of a jaw-dropper. An entree of broiled tenderloin steak, french-fried potatoes, and string beans was only $1.75. Two of the highest-price items on this summer's menu (excluding dishes for two) are $24 for the seafood buffet and $17 for roast prime rib.

Even more remarkable, however, is the change in atmosphere between the two roof-top settings. Whereas the old roof's owner, Edward Wyner, was notorious for fostering a clubby exclusivity, admitting only the East Coast's high-society set, the new roof reflects today's more democratic tone, welcoming anyone who meets the dress code (jacket and tie for men, pants OK for women, no denim, shorts, or sweats) and pays the $7.50 cover charge.

The only hitch might be making a reservation; by early July, space was booked through late August. But hotel manager David Dolquist says the demand, which is "greater than we ever dreamed," is making them extend their hours. The roof will open on Thursday evenings beginning next month.

Patricia Cutler, a spokeswoman for the Ritz, attributes the enthusiastic response partly to the snowy winter that confined Bostonians to their brownstones longer than usual this year. Now that the weather has warmed up, they're relishing being out in the open.

Martha Walters, who grew up in Boston's Back Bay, spent many blissful evenings atop the Ritz after her debutante party in the 1930s. Last month, she hosted a private party on the new roof and sums it up this way: "If you can't get away from the city and go to Maine, New Hampshire, or the Cape, you can at least travel 17 floors up in an elevator for a bit of the outdoors."

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