Rick Walhstedt: An Ace in the Restaurant Industry (& on the Squash Court)

Rick Walhstedt
Rick Walhstedt
Courtesy Rick Walhstedt

It was athleticism that led Rick Wahlstedt to his career in hospitality. The Swedish-born restaurateur first came to New York in 1984, when he was invited to play professional squash in the U.S. Open. While there he began teaching the sport, and one of his students was legendary Keith McNally, the creative force behind The Odeon, Nell’s and Café Luxembourg (and later Balthazar and Pastis, among other places). He also modeled briefly and worked with supermodel Linda Evangelista.

“He was a squash fan, and when I told him I was too tired to play and to teach, he said, ‘Why don’t you work for me?'” recalled Wahlstedt, who became a bartender at both the Odeon and Café Luxembourg.

“I was hopeless and got fired a couple of times,” he laughed. But his charm and ease with patrons far exceeded his skill with mixing cocktails, and he soon moved to a front-of-the-house position.

And, as a testimony to his diplomacy, he remained friendly with Keith McNally, even though he left to work for his brother Brian at Indochine, another red-hot restaurant. It was there he began to build a following among New York’s A-listers, and had his first exposure to Vietnamese cuisine.

“Everyone was there — Andy Warhol, Julian Schnabel — and I was the maître d’,” he remembers. “I was like a gossip columnist, knowing all the secrets, and Brian was in charge of who sat where. When you worked the door at Indochine, you made a lot of friends.”

Wahlstedt became so popular with the boldface crowd, that several customers offered to back him in his own restaurant, and since some of them were from the ballet world, it was natural for him to open it near Lincoln Center.

The place: a French-Scandinavian restaurant named Punsch, and his partner was Ulrich Trojaborg, a dancer with New York City Ballet.

“It was uptown, but we ran it like a downtown restaurant,” he explained. “Half the tables had movie stars, but we made every mistake in the book. It was a life lesson, and I never made those mistakes again.”

One such misstep was focusing on those celebrities rather than the neighborhood patrons. “I learned how to put a glamorous room together, but after a year they are off and you have no base of locals. It was a terrible feeling to lose it,” he says. “A restaurant needs to have a mixed bag as clients — i.e. young, old, locals, celebrities, businesspeople, ladies who lunch and travelers.”

The Le Colonial dining room Rick Walhstedt
The Le Colonial dining roomCourtesy Rick Walhstedt

His next restaurant was Le Colonial, a massive hit that he opened in 1993 on East 57th Street, together with Jean Denoyer, the fabled owner of many restaurants including La Goulue.

“There were no other fine dining Vietnamese places except for Indochine,” he notes. The bar became so busy that they decided to move it upstairs to keep the dining experience peaceful, and they transformed it into a lounge. It was instantly so popular that Valentino threw a party there.

Wahlstedt went on to open much lauded Provençal French restaurant L’Escale in Greenwich in 2002, and he and Denoyer rolled out outposts of La Goulue in other cities, including Bal Harbour. He also partnered with Denoyer rival Philippe Delgrange in offshoots of social New York bistro Le Bilboquet in Atlanta (2014) and Denver (2019).

Wahlstedt transformed Le Colonial into a hugely popular brand, with locations in Chicago, Atlanta, Lake Forrest and Houston, and a new stellar site on Delray’s Atlantic Avenue, that opened in February. By the end of next year, it will also be unveiled in Naples and Scottsdale.

The Le Colonial parrot room Rick Wahlstedt
The Le Colonial parrot roomCourtesy Rick Walhstedt

“I am surprised at how many people have come to the Delray restaurant already familiar with Le Colonial,” says Wahlstedt.

The Atlantic Avenue space is a thoroughly updated, chic take on the concept, with mosaic tiles, gold leafing and oversized black and white photographs.

Though some dishes remain from the original menu, the team, led by national culinary director Hassan Obaye and cookbook author Nicole Routhier, has expanded the kitchen to include Cambodian flavors and created new dishes such as crispy yellowtail snapper carved tableside and a wild halibut seasoned with tamarind sour, lime and pickled mustard seeds.

Despite all his restaurant industry success, Wahlstedt hasn’t given up competing on the squash court. “I am playing in the U.S. Masters Singles National Championship in Philadelphia. I hope to win since I was in the doubles 55+ age group a few years ago! There is so much pressure in the restaurant business, but squash keeps me going.”