Saying Goodbye to 'the Most Important Restaurant in the History of New York City'
There are a lot of things to say about The Four Seasons — the iconic Manhattan restaurant that closed last Saturday night after 57 years of alternately dazzling, intimidating, and vexing New Yorkers and out-of-towners alike in a more-than-just-a-restaurant way — and they've all been said by now:
It was created by a man named Joe Baum, who was quite possibly the most influential American restaurateur of the twentieth century, with his colleagues at Restaurant Associates and input from people like James Beard and Mimi Sheraton.
It was arguably the first truly upscale American restaurant that wasn't French in inspiration (and didn't write its menus in French or Italian), the first to espouse "farm-to-table" principles (at least some of the time), and the first to focus — as its name would suggest — on seasonal ingredients.
It introduced such now familiar foods as fiddlehead ferns, ramps, and shad roe to diners and accented dishes with things like wasabi and soy sauce, then pretty much unknown outside the Japanese community. It was also probably the first American restaurant to regularly feature wild mushrooms (for a time foraged by the composer John Cage in upstate New York).
The dining rooms, the work of famed architect Philip Johnson and interior designer William Pahlmann, were stunning spaces — Jackie Onassis dubbed the restaurant "the cathedral" — with every detail of their monumental-scale modernist decor completely integrated, from the French walnut paneling to the tiny silver coffee spoons; everything worked together to form an elegant whole.
It was quite possibly — as Steve Cuozzo called it in the New York Post — "the most important restaurant in the history of New York City…indispensable in restoring the Big Apple’s iconic glamour that was being gutted [in the 1970s] by fiscal collapse and rampant crime."
The parties and banquets it saw were legend. (JFK celebrated his 45th birthday there, before repairing to Madison Square Garden for a much larger bash, where Marilyn Monroe sang him a breathy "Happy Birthday, Mr. President.")I once saw regular patron Henry Kissinger lunching there, two tables away from non-regular patrons Mick Jagger and Jann Wenner — and where else would Mario Batali come for lunch with Michael Stipe?
It hosted all the most important real estate tycoons, politicians, Wall Street czars, and media moguls in the city — some of them almost daily — and many other luminaries from around the country and around the world. (I once saw regular patron Henry Kissinger lunching there, two tables away from non-regular patrons Mick Jagger and Jann Wenner — and where else would Mario Batali come for lunch with Michael Stipe?)
It was well-known for its art, displaying stunning Miró tapestries in the vestibule, a curtain painted by Picasso for the Ballets Russes in the passageway between its two dining rooms, and a Richard Lippold installation of bronze rods suspended over the bar, as well as works by Jackson Pollock, Frank Stella, and other blue-chip painters on a revolving basis.
It was the birthplace of the power lunch.
All that speaks to the historical and cultural importance of the restaurant — but it had considerable emotional weight as well. Things that happened there, I've always thought, had added resonance simply by virtue of having taken place in such unforgettable and inimitable surroundings. Famous people got married there — sometimes on a Lucite platform over the luminous dining room pool — and got served divorce papers there, too. Affairs were ignited and extinguished at Four Seasons tables; people were hired and fired. The magazine editor Art Cooper, of GQ, who lunched there almost daily, died of a stroke at the restaurant, at his regular table, just after finishing his meal. I can imagine worse final acts.
I dined at The Four Seasons myself for the first time when I was in my early 20s, visiting New York from Los Angeles with my English girlfriend. Besides being awed by the interior — there weren't nothing like that out west — I remember three things about the meal: my main course was a carpetbagger steak, a ribeye stuffed with oysters (this may have been the first time I ever tasted those bivalves in any form); the wine I ordered was 1964 Château Mouton-Rothschild (which must have been stunningly expensive for its time — probably about what a glass of house merlot at your local bar and grill would cost today); and when he poured the wine for me to taste, the waiter let a drop fall into the open salt cellar, staining the salt red — and didn't notice (harumph! my young self thought; this is a classy restaurant?).
A few years later, on another visit to New York, I wanted to have another dinner at the place, but this time was traveling alone. Assuming that the restaurant wouldn't accept a reservation for one, I reserved for two, then showed up alone and told the young man at the podium that my date had canceled at the last minute. Could I still have a table? I asked. "Oh, I'm sorry," he began, "but I'm afraid we can't…" At that moment, Paul Kovi, who ran the restaurant in that era with his fellow suave Hungarian Tom Margittai, passed by and, quickly appraising the situation, interrupted to say, "Of course we can seat you. We're flattered that you'd choose to dine with us when you're by yourself," and led me to a good table — aha! my young self thought; this is a classy restaurant — where I probably spent as much on myself as most diners that evening did for two.
I'd estimate that I must have visited The Four Seasons roughly 50 times since then, eating lunch or dinner in one room or another — the clubby, masters-of-the-universe-filled Grill Room (originally the Bar) or the airy, glamorous Pool Room — or just having icy Martinis or a glass of good Sancerre at the bar. I got to know Kovi and Margittai, and later their successors, the coolly professional Swiss-born Alex von Bidder and the ebullient Tuscan Julian Niccolini (the latter famous for what writer John Mariani once called his "casual-to-the-point-of-danger" manner), and for some reason they nearly always gave me one of the best tables — alongside the pool in the Pool Room, or on one of the prime curved banquettes in the Grill. (Mariani's 1999 book The Four Seasons: A History of America's Premier Restaurant, co-written with von Bidder, is the definitive account of the place's first 40 years.)
Over the decades, frankly, I had some pretty mediocre dining experiences at the restaurant. I remember leaving one evening, after a particularly pricey dinner, muttering something about "airline food;" another time, I watched a surly waiter obliviously letting a towel in his back pocket drag through a bucket full of melted ice, then dripping water across the dining room floor as he headed for the kitchen. On the other hand, I also enjoyed some of the best food I've ever had in New York there — delicate Olympia oysters, no bigger than a quarter; opulent pumpkin bisque with toasted pumpkin seeds; flawless risotto generously carpeted with shaved white truffles; seared tuna with tamarind glaze that turned a ‘90s cliché into a modern masterpiece; darkly crispy roasted duck, skillfully carved at the table, with the fat magically removed…
Whatever I ate, though, and whomever I was or wasn't with, the occasion was always memorable. You couldn't sit in either dining room and not feel special, not feel as though you had somehow been admitted to an extraordinary place and by virtue of that fact were somehow part, if only for a few hours, of the cosmopolitan New York City elite.
The Four Seasons closed last weekend because the German-born real estate tycoon and contemporary art collector Aby Rosen — owner since 2000 of the landmark Mies van der Rohe Seagram Building, whose ground floor the restaurant mostly occupied — opted not to renew the lease held by the Bronfman family (founders of the Seagram liquor empire), along with von Bidder and Niccolini. I suspect that he just didn't get the place, just didn't understand (or care about) everything it had represented over the years. Anyway, he's more a Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons kind of guy than a Picasso and Miró sort — and is turning the space over to Major Food Group, whose restaurants include the trendy Carbone, Dirty French, and Santina. (The Bronfmans own the Four Seasons name and von Bidder and Niccolini will open a new version of the place next year, four blocks to the south, at 280 Park Avenue. They have tapped top Brazilian architect Isay Weinfeld to design the 20,000-square-foot interior, and like his predecessors he will create furnishings and tableware to match their surroundings.)
I said goodbye to The Four Seasons four times. In early July, I took my elder daughter, Madeleine, to a pay-to-play valedictory cocktail party in the Grill Room, complete with church-carnival-style drink tickets (two per person) and roving hors d'oeuvres (button-size crabcakes, small spheres of mozzarella, curls of salami, hamburger sliders, tiny baked potatoes dotted with caviar), and what looked to me like a miscellaneous crowd of both frequent and occasional Four Seasons customers.
A week later, two nights before the place served its final dinner, there was an invitation-only party, this time in the Pool Room, with fairly ordinary wine and fewer passed appetizers but a slightly more illustrious crowd, including Martha Stewart, Ruth Reichl, restaurateurs Drew Nieporent and Danny Meyer, Gossip Girl star Kelly Rutherford, former NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly, 94-year-old interior designer and fashionista Iris Apfel, and professional poker player Beth Shak — who ended up heading to the emergency room after she went wading in the pool and stepped on a champagne glass.
Earlier, I'd had two final sit-down meals there. My wife and I celebrated our 10th anniversary at the restaurant in May, sitting next to the pool, eating asparagus agnolotti with peas, fried softshell crabs, and rabbit with zucchini flowers and prosciutto. In mid-June, we played hooky on a Friday afternoon and had lunch in the Grill Room, at one of the curved banquettes, eating artichoke salad, a ribeye burger (me), and Dover sole meunière (her) — unexpectedly and opulently preceded by a gift from Julian: big rösti potato cakes topped with sour cream and not dotted but heaped, and I mean heaped, with caviar.
As we ate, I remembered that Madeleine and I had sat at that same table many years earlier, when she was 7 or 8. I'd agreed to take her out for a "fancy" lunch on an expedition into the city from our suburban home, and couldn't think of anyplace fancier. Unfortunately, her tastes at that point were, shall we say, limited, and there was nothing on the menu that she'd even remotely consider eating. Luckily, I told her, this was the kind of restaurant where you could have pretty much anything you wanted. Anything? she asked. Yes, I said. Which is how she ended up sitting at one of the most sophisticated restaurants in America eating pasta with butter and cheese as an appetizer, followed by a main course of…French fries — a whole big plate of them, which she devoured down to the salt crystals scattered around the plate.
I'd never realized what an impression that lunch had made on her until that farewell cocktail party I took her to a few weeks ago, at which she told me — and Alex von Bidder — that that had been the best meal of her life. "It's not just because I could have anything I wanted," she later explained, "but also because I was always ashamed of my picky diet, and at this lunch, not only did no one roll their eyes at me, they were actually happy to provide me with this meal that was so clearly the most delightful thing on the planet to me. That experience defined fine dining for me to this day, because despite the fact that I had ordered one of the most ridiculous meals possible, our server made me feel as if I were the most special girl in the room, the city, and, quite honestly, the world."
That's why The Four Seasons was so good.