There are few New York City restaurants more storied than Windows on the World. The restaurant made its debut on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center’s North Tower in 1976, offering sweeping views of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and New Jersey — the earth itself peppered with the buildings, the bridges, the Statue of Liberty; the sky with tourist helicopters. “Windows was a shining ambassador for New York, an escape from a city that was, in decades past, drug addled, dirty, and crime-ridden below,” Eater NY’s Ryan Sutton reminisced in 2014. “Even if you didn’t know much about fine dining, you knew such a dream-like place existed, and you knew that it came tumbling down on September 11, 2001.”
On that day, 73 Windows on the World employees lost their lives, and the stirring prologue of Tom Roston’s The Most Spectacular Restaurant in the World focuses on that day: both the seeming averageness of it among the employees heading into work, and the still-palpable ache as New Yorkers look back, 18 years later. “Many New York restaurants hold a special place in the hearts of the people who cherish them,” he writes. “Windows on the World was one of them, but it was something more. Not only did it become the highest-grossing restaurant in the country during its 25-year existence, it also became a landmark that embodied the city’s greatness.”
In this excerpt, Roston travels back to the early 1970s and the restaurant’s earliest days, when restaurateur Joe Baum — who had created the legendary Four Seasons in 1959 — was still trying to make his sky-high dream a reality. — Erin DeJesus
Standing a quarter of a mile in the sky with a god’s-eye view of the curvature of the earth can have a strange, mind-altering effect. For most, there’s an instinctive reaction to recoil, a self-preservation impulse that pits the body against the brain. The primal self says, I should not be here. The earth is too far below.
The light is different, higher contrast. Real-life chiaroscuro. And sound is muted, still, almost absent. Except when the wind is kicking up a tremendous, otherworldly, howl. And the city looks so small, innocent, like a child’s train set, the Statue of Liberty a tchotchke in a tourist shop. Sixty-mile views that reach the Hudson Highlands up north, the Atlantic Ocean to the east and south, and, much closer, planes landing and taking off at three major airports.
These bracing impressions were coursing through the minds of Joe Baum’s ad men — George Lois, Ron Holland, and James Callaway — as they ran on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center, their collective, giddy excitement propelling them, like schoolboys, forward through the raw construction space toward the far windows to get a closer look at the views. Most of the windows were coated with construction dust, workers’ fingerprint smudges, and grease pencil markings, but there was one, off in the distance, that was clear.
When they reached it, Callaway nearly fell through, because, in fact, there was no window yet in place. It was just open space. Lois grabbed him by the arm, and Holland took hold of his belt, and all three men tumbled backward in a heap on the concrete floor.
Lying in construction dust, in a state of breathless exhilaration, they looked back toward the footsteps approaching them. “What the fuck are you guys doing?” asked Baum with a rascally grin. “Stick with the dirty windows, Jim, if you want to be around for the opening.”
The trip up the rickety construction elevator — just plywood nailed together, really — to a top floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, followed by a perilous ascent up a concrete staircase without railings, past the gaping holes where the building’s elevators would go, was Baum showboating. But it was also his way to galvanize his team to envision the wonder of the restaurant that would be there. Baum would lay his blueprints out on the ground and envision the kitchen, the bar, and the restaurant’s various spaces.
When the North Tower topped out on December 23, 1970, tenants began moving in, but the highest floors remained raw, open space for years to come. In the South Tower, which would host the observation deck on its roof, occupancy would begin in January 1972. And the official ribbon-cutting for both buildings wouldn’t be until April 4, 1973.
Baum’s mind-boggling task was to figure out how to feed a projected 50,000 employees working in the building, in addition to their 80,000 guests. Every day. But before he could spawn his big ideas, he needed two things: more information and a team.
Baum’s modus operandi at Restaurant Associates, all of his success, was marked by a process in which he gathered the best and brightest; harangued them with ideas and directives and, alternatively, charm and abuse; and then micromanaged them to tears as they put his plans into effect.
“Joe needed good people to make tangible what he could just barely verbalize. And he had a belief that if he surrounded himself with the right kind of people, they wouldn’t know what couldn’t be done,” Michael Whiteman says. “So they’d go ahead and do it.” Whiteman was an out-of-work editor from the Nation’s Restaurant News when Baum asked him to join his new consulting company, Joseph Baum Associates, Inc., which was composed of Harold Simpson, a crusty old former sailor and chef who had overseen purchasing at RA and had been looking forward to retirement before being hired by Baum. “Joe’s brain trust was primarily people who were not necessarily fit for the job but tangentially so,” Whiteman says.
Baum hired John Cini, a food service consultant based in Maryland, to work on the development of the World Trade Center kitchens, among other duties. Cini sent one of his number crunchers, Dennis Sweeney, to New York to work under Baum, joining Simpson, Whiteman, a secretary, and a Port Authority man who was in the office as a liaison.
As the monolithic World Trade Center buildings rose in the sky, daily headlines covered different aspects of the project, whether it was a tugboat strike that slowed down delivery of parts or other construction snafus. Plus, a lot of press was given to how the complex might change the city, such as the expansion of Manhattan thanks to Guy Tozzoli’s decision, which struck him one morning while shaving, to use 1.2 million cubic yards of excavated earth, rock, and other materials to create Battery Park City along the Hudson River.
There was also great interest in what Joe Baum was dreaming up. In 1970, he told the New York Times he was planning 20 restaurants in the WTC, mostly housed in the concourse, which was beneath its open plaza, as well as private cafeterias for the Port Authority, the United States Customs House, and New York State employees. He also said that the restaurants included a “luncheon club” on top of the North Tower, with exclusive access for its one thousand members during the day. At night, the restaurant would be open to the public, which could use the World Trade Center’s 2,000-car underground garage for free.
“This will not be a tourist trap,” Baum said, perhaps a defensive impulse that the Times reporter ran with when he highlighted the irony that the creator of the Four Seasons was now setting up snack bars — which he very much was: about 60 of them and other small-food operations throughout the complex.
But Baum positioned his task as just as impressive as any of his previous grandiose projects. He emphasized the international flavor of the restaurant, which people would want to go to, he suggested, before heading uptown to the theater. As for feeding the masses, he was thinking big, conjuring carefully planned eating aeries that would form “vertical neighborhoods... little cities, each with a life of its own.”
It was flowery language for a series of restaurants and food courts that had little culinary context. This was before food courts such as the Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston, which would open in 1976, existed. The closest comparisons were smaller eateries Baum had set up with Restaurant Associates in Montreal building complexes Place Bonaventure and Place Ville Marie, both of which had restaurants and shops.
What went unsaid in the Times was the name of the main restaurant, a subject that had become an obsession for Baum. He asked everyone he spoke with to weigh in. Hundreds of names were considered. Tozzoli even set up a contest within the Port Authority to come up with a winning name. Baum thought he had a good one. It was evocative, patriotic, American, and grand. “For Spacious Skies” was his front-runner. In honor of it, he began signing his letters with, For Gracious skies.
In 1971, Baum commissioned Harris, Kerr, Forster, the accounting firm where he first got his start in New York City, to produce an analysis of the most efficient and cost-effective way to run food services at the WTC. It issued a report that championed a centralized system to take advantage of the economies of scale and mass production. It used terms “major profit centers at key points of demand,” “convertibility of selling space,” “volume purchasing,” and “bulk preparation” that provided the foundation for one of Baum’s big ideas: that food services should be run by a single operator. He brought the concept to Guy Tozzoli, who liked the idea. A single company operating all of the WTC’s food systems meant competing businesses wouldn’t overwhelm the loading bays, elevators, and garbage disposal. Baum wanted to construct a central commissary for food delivery, processing, and storage in the basement.
Baum would have liked to be the one running this system, but, according to Whiteman, “Enough people at the Port Authority said, ‘Number one, he doesn’t have an organization. He’s got three people. Two, he doesn’t have financial backing. Three, he has no history running large projects. So you’re going to have to put this out for an RFP (Request for Proposal).’ Joe was in the difficult position of considering potential operators for a project that he wanted to run.”
Of the innumerable challenges facing Joe Baum and his team, one of the most troubling was the size of the windows themselves. World Trade Center architect Minoru Yamasaki had developed an unprecedented design for the pair of 110-floor buildings that were to be the tallest in the world. Yamasaki created an inside-out structure: a framed tube made of relatively thin steel columns on the perimeter anchored by a central core that housed the elevators, stairwells, and 47 tapered steel columns.
Yamasaki designed the perimeter columns to be 18 3/4” wide, interspaced by windows that were 20” wide. From the outside, the windows virtually disappeared, giving the buildings a nearly seamless, silver appearance. From the inside, the narrow windows were less than ideal, blocking views and creating a shutter effect or the appearance of a large venetian blind. Yamasaki’s windows were at least partly inspired by his own fear of heights. Near the roof, at the 108th and 109th floors, where the building’s mechanical equipment was, Yamasaki had designed the columns to be wider, as a subtle flourish to top things off, but on 107, where the restaurant would be, the shutter was in full effect.
It wouldn’t do. “We were building a view restaurant with a limited view,” Tozzoli told New York magazine’s Gael Greene. Tozzoli argued for widening the windows on the 107th floor, but Yamasaki wouldn’t budge. The integrity of his design was at stake.
Yamasaki threatened to quit over the prospect of disrupting his uniform design for better restaurant views. Tozzoli didn’t believe he would, telling Austin Tobin, “There’s no way the son of a bitch is going to quit.”
The PA refused to back down. It was paying for the building, and it needed the restaurant to be a success. So Tozzoli ordered his architect to change the windows. And, to maintain symmetry, he’d have to do the same with the South Tower. Yamasaki conceded. He agreed to increase the width of the windows on the 107th floor. It was only by about half a foot, but it would make a world of difference to the human eye.
It was Guy Tozzoli’s job to reign in Joe Baum to avoid accusations of Port Authority profligacy. In particular, criticism was building about how a private club was being constructed with public money. Politically, it didn’t look good. To mitigate the bad impression, Baum needed good marketing. Instead of an amorphous, nameless eatery, Tozzoli and Baum needed an exciting restaurant with a name that would attract New Yorkers, deflect opponents, win over the media, and draw potential tenants. After Tozzoli’s naming contest produced some two thousand possibilities, there were no sure winners. And “For Spacious Skies” had waned for Baum. But a jewel surfaced. It had come from the quarries in Puerto Rico, where Tozzoli and his team had been acquiring building materials. The stone guy who was showing Tozzoli the granite and mar- ble took him to a restaurant where Caterina Valente was singing. The Italian entertainer did a melancholy version of “Windows of the World,” first sung by Dionne Warwick and written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. The quarry guy turned to Tozzoli and said, “That should be the name of the restaurant.”
After changing “of” to “on,” it was perfect. It was grand. It was inviting. Especially to tourists. And it was a literal description of the restaurant’s greatest attraction. Windows on the World would function as an umbrella name for the group of eateries and bars on the 107th floor, most of which, other than the main restaurant, had unique names as well. There was the City Lights Bar, the Statue of Liberty Lounge, a smaller restaurant called Cellar in the Sky, a casual, small-plate restaurant — the Hors d’Oeuvrerie — and Hudson River Suites for private catering.
It was a great relief to Baum to have a name. It gave shape to his vision while he was mired in the details. For the main restaurant alone, he would need to hire dozens of companies to provide the different necessary elements, from upholstery to the gold ceramic tile in the main dining room; from the fabric on the handrails to the crystal and silverware.
While those elements were in their earliest stages of procurement or production, Baum was also overseeing the essential task of creating a kitchen 109 floors below, on the B2 level of the World Trade Center, that would streamline food production through an efficient system that took advantage of economies of scale. There were to be 20 or more different food service operations. On the 107th floor were the five restaurants and bars, plus catering, that fell under the Windows on the World rubric. On the 44th floor would be a high-end cafeteria. In the concourse, there would be Market Square, which would include a full restaurant called Market Dining Rooms & Bar as well as a coffee shop called the Corner, and then the Big Kitchen, which itself contained a variety of stations; one of the nation’s first food courts would house the Rotisserie, Grill, Seafood Market, Nature’s Pantry, the Bakery, the Deli, a Fountain Café, and the Coffee Exchange. And there was also the Observation Deck Snack Bar in the South Tower.
Baum wanted all of these eateries to share a central commissary, called Central Services, on the B2 receiving dock off Barclay Street. Most restaurants have a porter who works an early shift and opens the door, receiving the sunrise deliveries. At the World Trade Center, Central Services would be a vast receiving and processing station for everything bought in bulk. There would be a cold kitchen where produce would get washed, peeled, and chopped and dressings mixed. Meats and fish would be cleaned and cut to size. There would also be a hot kitchen where, on one side, stocks, sauces, and stews were made, and, on the other, a bakery baked all the breads and most of the desserts.
Windows on the World would do a greater share of its preparation work in its own kitchen, but the rule for the restaurants and food stations below the 107th floor was to have Central Services, which covered 27,000 square feet, provide almost all the initial preparation of raw materials. For instance, cabbage would be sliced and slaw dressing mixed, and then the food services employees in the separate sites could mix the two together.
As Baum described his future food Shangri-la to a journalist: “The only difference between us and a high-school cafeteria is care.”
From the book The Most Spectacular Restaurant in the World, by Tom Roston. ©2019. Published by Abrams. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.