Chapter -5The Story, the Way It Always Goes
early every story about the Four Seasons is told the same way, even if some tellings are better than others. When the restaurant opened in Manhattan in 1959, it was "expensive and opulent and perhaps the most exciting restaurant to open in New York," according to then-New York Times restaurant critic, Craig Claiborne. A $4.5 million, twin-chambered cathedral of mid-century modernism designed by architect Philip Johnson to occupy the ground level of Mies van der Rohe’s singular Seagram Building (built under the direction of Phyllis Lambert), it was intended as a rebuke of the French dominion over American fine dining — it served what Holiday magazine restaurant critic Silas Spitzer described in the restaurant's first year as "the New American cuisine," putting forward a pioneering philosophy that was simultaneously global and fresh and seasonal. The Four Seasons was a monument to postwar New York, the capital of the American century, exquisitely rendered with clean lines and vast open spaces, French walnut, and bronze.
The stories then proceed to the litany of bold-faced names, an epigraph of the regular crowd of lunchers and drinkers cultivated over decades: Henry Kissinger, Mary Boone, Peter G. Peterson, Mort Zuckerman, JFK, Barbara Walters, Sandy Weill, John Loeb, Richard Snyder, Mary Cunningham, Peter Duchin, David Dinkins, Calvin Klein, Phyllis Lambert, Michael Eisner, Norman Mailer, Norman Lear, Si Newhouse, Alexander Liberman, Truman Capote, Mario Cuomo, Oscar de la Renta, Albert Vitale, Ed Koch, Graydon Carter, Diane Sawyer, Gay Talese, Bill Blass, Barry Diller, George Pataki, Nora Ephron, Phyllis Grann, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Morton L. Janklow, Edgar Bronfman Jr., Lynn Nesbit, Lois Wyse, Jason Epstein, Michael Korda, Roger Straus, Sophia Loren, Philip Johnson, Warren Buffett, William Shawn, Betty Prashker, Martha Stewart.
The names are followed by a forensic dissection of how the men in charge — Paul Kovi and Tom Margittai, who became co-owners in 1973, then Alex Von Bidder and Julian Niccolini, who took over as co-owners in 1995 — arranged their patrons around the room, a Tetris of egos, constructing the architecture of the restaurant’s now-mythical power lunch. There’s usually a good quote about regulars and their tables. Lois Wyse, an advertising executive, once said, "They call me the goddess of the Bar Room. The center banquette is always mine — even Jackie O. can’t take it away from me."
Next come the anecdotes about idiosyncratic requests, indulged whenever possible — William Shawn’s cornflakes in milk, Warren Buffett’s Cherry Coke and Dairy Queen soft serve — and strict diets followed to the letter: The late fashion designer Bill Blass told Mimi Sheraton, the former Times restaurant critic who served as a recipe consultant for the first Four Seasons menu, that management wouldn’t let him "order fettuccine with cheese and butter and white truffles, although I can have crab cakes and stone crab and, at night, baked potato with caviar."
Then there’s the food itself, at first revolutionary in its seasonality — the culinary concept was planned in part by James Beard himself — and now, almost an afterthought: consistently inconsistent, it is consistently said, despite its great expense. "The food has been amazing, then mediocre, then amazing, and then not so good," Martha Stewart explained to New York magazine. "When the food is not so good, you order oysters or clams on the half shell and crab cakes, which are always good."
In the beginning, there were beefsteak tomatoes carved tableside and French woodcock flamed in Cognac and Dover sole and the extravagantly titled "YOUNGEST CARROTS in Butter"; in 1995, Buffalo steaks and Olympia oysters and Chinese egg rolls and French terrines and Dover sole and whole duck for two; the 2016 menu boasted tuna carpaccio and asparagus agnolotti and Dover sole, still. Forty dollars bought dinner for two, once; seventy-five today buys a diner a single bison filet. But the food was never the point, as the stories always say.
In some of the more recent tellings, as the tale draws to a close, a villain emerges: a German real estate mogul with a flowing mane named Aby Rosen, who became the Four Seasons’ landlord and bête noir in 2000, when his company RFR purchased the Seagram Building. After a protracted campaign against Von Bidder and Niccolini — most infamously, Rosen, a serious art collector, referred to "Le Tricorne," the Picasso tapestry that hung in the the passageway between the Grill Room and the Pool Room, as "a schmatte," and had it removed, ostensibly for repairs, though none were made and the tapestry never returned — he forced the restaurant out of its landmarked space and allowed its unparalleled collection of mid-century furniture and flatware to be scattered into the wind. If the Four Seasons is dead, the story goes, it's because Aby Rosen killed it.
But in the end, the Four Seasons’ "stubborn magic" is about something more than the room, the furniture, or the food. It’s about luxury, taste, privilege, money, ambition, and most of all, power. The story of the Four Seasons is almost always about power. Without it, there isn’t much of one to tell.
Chapter -4A 360° Tea Time with Martha and Julian
Chapter -3The Cathedral
Chapter -2One Final Lunch
Chapter -1The Last Man in the Room
Chapter 0Everything Ends
n its final years, the Four Seasons may have still held its position as the cafeteria of the elite, but there was something sclerotic about it, a faint perfume of musty eau de nil wafting through the chain curtains. To the extent that New York’s rich and powerful still flocked to the restaurant for mid-day replenishment, it was largely power of an older guard, an imperial order on its way out. At the end, the average age of a Four Seasons customer was 65; many of the bold-faced regulars, whether billionaires, bankers, or titans of 20th century culture, were likely unrecognizable to almost anyone currently under the age of 40. The Four Seasons may well have been the most important restaurant of the twentieth century, but even fifteen years past the line, it felt like it never quite left it.
The restaurant had shaken off a torpid crowd and a humbled reputation once before, following a period of decline in the late sixties and early seventies. When Paul Kovi and Tom Margittai took over in 1973, they revived the restaurant’s fortunes in part by catalyzing the phenomenon that would come to be known as the "power lunch," a phrase coined dually by publisher Michael Korda in the New York Times and Lee Eisenberg in Esquire. ''We don't get semiretired chairmen of the board," Margittai told Eisenberg. "They go to '21.' We don't get fashion people or the fast-lane crowd. Fashion designers come, but not the people who wear their clothes. We get hard workers, achievers — the editors, the publishers, the architects.’’ Eisenberg reiterates the vibrance of the scene: "Understand that it isn’t the head of the company who lunches in the bar room; more likely, it is the head thinker of a shop. Editors, creative directors, designers, wine aficionados—these are the lords and ladies who lunch. ‘Do not look for the "BP"s,’ says a Four Seasons press release, ‘but the "achievers."’"
In other words, for a long portion of its life, the Four Seasons, its customers, and its food, were dynamic and modern and forward-thinking; it was not in the embalming business. Aby Rosen, its landlord and executioner, as questionable as his taste and motives may be, perhaps had a point in noting that the city’s most storied dining room was ready for a new generation of clients, even if there may have been a more delicate way to phrase it than the words he used in the New Yorker: "You want to have the guy coming to the Four Seasons who has the ripped jeans… because the guy with the jeans, I promise you, has a lot more money."
Soon, the former space of the Four Seasons will be occupied by what promises to be the most extravagant theme restaurant of New York City, operated by the greatest theme restaurateurs of our time, Major Food Group. At establishments like Carbone, ZZ’s Clam Bar, Sadelle’s, and others, the trio of Rich Torrisi, Mario Carbone, and Jeff Zalaznick have excelled at parting their customers from gobs of money in exchange for a few hours inside their meticulously designed, tightly executed palaces of kitsch and showmanship. In their Four Seasons replacement, a two-restaurant set whose names have not yet been revealed, they’ve promised that the venue occupying what was known as the Grill Room will function as a pure Mad Men pantomime, complete with the dishes and atavistic gender attitudes of the era; the Pool Room will be a serene space of pure luxury, focused on seafood.
The choice of Major Food Group to take over the Four Seasons space did not go without a few howls, but it is an oddly appropriate one: The creator of the Four Seasons, Joe Baum, was the master of upscale theme restaurants in his day. As historian Paul Freedman recounts in the forthcoming book Ten Restaurants That Changed America, Baum preceded the Four Seasons with the Newarker at the Newark Airport (destination fine dining, with a signature "three-clawed lobster" and dishes flamed tableside), the Hawaiian Room (a "Polynesian" restaurant, with dishes flamed tableside), and the Forum of the Twelve Caesars (an Ancient Rome-themed restaurant, which also probably had dishes flamed tableside). After the Four Seasons, he was responsible for the Rainbow Room and Windows on the World. As over-the-top as Torrisi’s bespoke trolleys for tableside service in the new Pool Room might sound, consider that at Joe Baum’s original, everything from the uniforms to the flatware were specially designed and fabricated, while the menu advertised multiple flambés, a sausage tree, and a roving farm basket for picking out vegetables. And people loved it.
Chapter 1Nothing Ever Ends
he final days of the Four Seasons were surreal. An "endless funeral" and an undying rager. A parade of former regulars demanding one last seating, a stream of first-time gawkers in cargo shorts armed with camera phones. A celebrity charity gala for Citymeals on Wheels and a dreamlike final night of service, the crowd both mildly electric and naggingly subdued, as if the room had already given up the ghost during the previous night’s party, a rager for the real VIPs at which Daniel Boulud lead his fellow celebrity chefs Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Thomas Keller, Michael White, and Cesare Casella into the pool after toasting to how the Four Seasons laid the groundwork, in their imaginations at least, for their own highly acclaimed restaurants.
And then it was all torn apart: At auction, the viscera of the restaurant, its furniture and custom glassware and flatware, its signage and accessories, were sold, piece by piece, bringing in some $4.1 million. A set of four ashtrays went for $12,500; Barcelona chairs designed by Mies van der Rohe, the architect of the Seagram Building, sold for up to $21,250 per pair; bread baskets designed by Garth and Ada Louise Huxtable sold for between $3,000 and $10,000 per lot; and the restaurant’s Emil Antonucci-designed sign went for some $120,000 to an anonymous call-in buyer. What is a great room, even the world’s greatest, with nothing inside of it?
The bulk of the auction’s proceeds are going toward a new restaurant, to be run by Von Bidder and Niccolini and also to be called the Four Seasons, which will open at 280 Park Avenue. The promise is that, along with the same faces at the door and the same name, it will also have most of the same people and at least some of the same sensibilities. It might even, in a technical sense, be the same restaurant. But it won’t be the same institution.
Photography, video, direction, and development by Gary He
Words by Matt Buchahan and Gary He
Video graphic design and additional editing by Carla Francescutti
Additional reporting by Vanita Salisbury
Special thanks to Helen Rosner, Kainaz Amaria, Tyson Whiting
Edited by Matt Buchanan
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