Friday, June 26, 2009

Michelís mainstay hits half century

Ketchum restaurant has long, rich history


By SABINA DANA PLASSE
Express Staff Writer

Michelís Christiania restaurant is one of Ketchumís most popular dining haunts. Here, Mackenzie Harbaugh readies the dining room for a night of customers. Photo by David N. Seelig

In 1959, Don Siegel and the late George Kneeland realized their vision of opening a new restaurant in Ketchum. They called it the Christiania. The name is a skiing term (a graceful downhill turn) and also the name of an old Ketchum casino.

It's been 50 years, and Michel's Christiania is still making graceful turns, this time into the next generation.

But it didn't start out with such grand notions.

In the late 1950s, Kneeland says he was one of three practicing attorneys in town. He and Siegel, a businessman, built the Christiania because they wanted a good place to eat.

"There was no place to go," Siegel said with a laugh. "It started with a French chef, but the chefs were not always French."

They got their eatery. They also got a history filled with wild nights and convivial dining, usually accented with high-tone dress and high-class ingredients.

In the early days, the restaurant would close around midnight. Patrons would come through the back door for drinks, Siegel said. During dining hours, Kneeland would hold court with bold-face names at the large, round table centered in the dining room.

"Everyone always wore a jacket and tie for dinner," Siegel said.

The fancy dress didn't always lend itself to too-serious dining, Siegel is quick to add. Customers, he said, also took to walking on the wide ceiling beams that are still a centerpiece of the restaurant's interior.

Known affectionately as "The Christy," the restaurant was a place to see and be seen. Author Ernest Hemingway would read his mail at the bar. It's also said he ate his last meal at the Christy before he took his own life. Actor Gary Cooper was a regular customer, as were the Atkinsons and many other longtime valley residents, some of whom still frequent the restaurant today.

The wall of the Olympic Bar and the Christy dining room are filled with images of some of skiing's greatest athletes, including Christin Cooper, Abbi Fisher-Gould and Tamara McKinney. Skis signed by Picabo Street and Alberto Tomba are also used as decor.

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"In the 1950s, it was different," Siegel said. "Everyone was very relaxed and there were many celebrities around, but people were normal. We didn't make any money—it was a labor of love."

Their labors meant a night spot filled with unique touches, all of which find their provenance in the Wood River Valley.

The interior wood in the restaurant came from rancher George Purdy's sheep trough. Siegel said the restaurant smelled like sheep for two to three years. Purdy's wife, Ruth, said that if the wood was to be removed she would like it back.

"It was the only building on the block," Siegel said. "I purchased the lot for $5,000 and then purchased the lot next door from [former Sun Valley Co. owner] Bill Janss for $17,000. I liked that the integrity of the building was kept all this time."

Proprietor Michel Rudigoz, originally from Lyon, France, and a former U.S. Women's Olympic Ski Team coach, was a good friend of Kneeland and Siegel. Kneeland and Siegel asked Rudigoz to come run the Christy in 1995 and the restaurant became Michel's Christiania. Rudigoz had been working at Chandler's, which closed its Ketchum location earlier this year.

"A few nights ago a couple came in and brought their bill from a dinner 46 years ago," Rudigoz said. "The restaurant is an institution, and over the years there have been many good people working in it."

Siegel said most people couldn't imagine what the community was like back when he started the restaurant, compared to what it is now. Some people worked at the restaurant for more than 25 years, such as manager Chris Bender, and they left only because they had been working at the Christy for so long.

"Waitresses would wait on 10 to 12 people at a time and would never write down the drink order because they knew what everyone was drinking," said Diane Kneeland, George's widow.

The restaurant has served lamb shanks since the day it opened. Rudigoz said the recipe has changed some but is still as popular as ever.

Although the Christy retains its old charm, improvements have been made. Rudigoz added the patio and the upstairs for parties. This year, Siegel replaced the restaurant's original chimney and roof, which have been a noted landmark for the past 50 years.

"It was the place to be," Siegel said. "Everyone knew everyone else's business."

Sabina Dana Plasse: splasse@mtexpress.com




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