It’s lunchtime on a Tuesday, and I am in a black dress and black heels, at the host stand at the Four Seasons Restaurant in Manhattan. The ceilings soar. The Champagne fizzes. The room pulses with status and money and power. I’m terrified.
I am here to eat cotton candy with Julian Niccolini: owner, smooth-talker, New York City legend. We sit at a corner table in the Grill Room, and he tells me how this—the room of fancy suits and handshakes, and the deep pockets that come with them—was created. —Brette Warshaw
The Four Seasons Restaurant was here before anybody. It opened on July 20, 1959. The Bronfman family, who owned the Seagram Building at that time, gave the people building the restaurant whatever money they wanted—that’s why this restaurant is so huge. We have a tremendous amount of space. This is the Grill; the other side is the Pool, which is bigger than this room, and we have two private dining rooms upstairs. It would be impossible to open a restaurant of this size somewhere else. I’m sure the rent in this building during that time must have been maybe like five dollars per square foot. Now it’s two hundred dollars.
When the restaurant first opened, French cuisine was in vogue—so they were doing French food here, with lots of French words on the menu. They succeeded for some time. But Restaurant Associates owned the restaurant, and they were using this space as a showcase; it really didn’t matter to them whether it was making money or not.
It took until 1973 for the Four Seasons to be recognized as a trailblazer in regard to food. That’s when the restaurant was sold to Paul Kovi and Tom Margittai. From that moment on, things began to change. Everyone figured out that the only way to achieve success would be to cook American food: seasonal American food, and that’s it. The service began to change, and there was much more attention paid to the wine, the food, and to all of the little details. And then it took off from there.
James Beard had a lot to do with this place in the early days. He started coming when it first opened, in 1959. I remember him; he used to come in for lunch almost every day. And before he came in for lunch, he would go into the kitchen and do whatever he wanted to do in there, and then he ate his lunch and got up and left. The man never paid the check in his entire life.
INVENTING THE POWER LUNCH
I started working at the Four Seasons in 1977. During that particular time, everybody would only eat in the Pool Room. It was where all these fancy Madison Avenue advertising people would come for lunch. I think there used to be a hundred, hundred-fifty, hundred-eighty people for lunch every day—a hundred-twenty people on average. It was very, very hot.
We served the full menu in the Pool Room; the menu in this room, the Grill Room, was smaller and less expensive. And nobody was promoting it at all. So we started putting things on the menu that were good for you, things that you could come in and eat every day and not gain weight. No butter, no cream; everything was very healthy. And we chose things that were simple to make, so that people could be out of here in an hour and fifteen minutes. We got it down to a science.
We began attracting a very different clientele from the Pool Room. The Pool Room was basically advertising people and lawyers, and this room was mostly fashion and media people. And then eventually the Wall Street people caught on. The first time they called it the “power lunch” was in Esquire magazine in 1979. The power lunch was invented in this room. We have people that have been coming here almost every single day since then. At lunchtime in the Grill Room, I think 85 percent are regular customers.
But some things have changed dramatically since 1977. At that time, people in New York treated the staff here very badly. But since I came from the restaurant world—not the kiss-my-ass world of hotels—when people were mean to me, I would punish them. Let’s assume this character over here is a regular customer, this guy with the beautiful woman. And he says, Come over here, get me blah, blah, blah, gives me a hard time. I don’t pay attention to him at all. Sooner or later either the guest changes his attitude or gets out. Most of these people change their attitude. They want the attention. They want to look good.
I don’t think people go to a restaurant because of the food; I think people go because of the kind of attention that’s given to them. We pay a lot of attention to people; we give them whatever they want. There are a lot of people here that never see a menu. There was an interview the other day in the Financial Times with Barry Diller, who has been coming here for about four years. They asked why he doesn’t look at a menu, and he said, “I’ve never seen the menu at the restaurant in my life.” That’s what those people do. They never see a menu; they just come and say, What shall I have today? We have that character over there, directly across from us—he’s here every single day. This man shows up at 11:30 a.m. and he’s probably here until four p.m. Every single day. A lot of people like to have the same table everyday, which is impossible to do. Only this character has his own table, and Pete Peterson, the founder of the Blackstone Group.
I know places are getting more and more casual, but there are still a lot of business people in New York City that need a place like this, or like Le Cirque, La Grenouille, or Daniel. You still need places to take your clients to. But if people show up without a jacket, I’m not going to throw them out. Of course I’m going to serve them. What am I supposed to do? Oh, you must have a jacket to come to the Four Seasons Restaurant? Well it’s up to them. They decide they don’t want a jacket. I don’t care. As long as they come to the Four Seasons and spend money, I don’t have any problems. There are still restaurants in New York City where they won’t let you in if you’re not wearing a jacket and tie. Bullshit. What kind of nonsense is that?
I remember many, many years ago, maybe twenty years ago, Mick Jagger came in for lunch, and he was not wearing a jacket. Everybody said, Are we going to let Mick Jagger in without a jacket? I mean, come on. Of course! What seems to be the problem? Well, everybody’s got a jacket on. So what? So what. So what. He came in, he wasn’t wearing a jacket, end of the story. We sat him.
YOU NAME IT, WE’VE DONE IT
The Four Seasons is a beautiful restaurant. It’s part of the fabric of New York City. We’ve done parties here for, I don’t know—you name it, we’ve done it. We have done every major wine event since 1972. We have done fashion shows. Bar mitzvahs. We have frozen the Pool Room for ice skating.
I wasn’t here in 1962, but this was the place that Kennedy had his birthday dinner with Marilyn Monroe before he went to Madison Square Garden. The current owner of the building, Aby Rosen, got married here. His son got bar-mitzvahed here. I’ve done parties for every president except Richard Nixon. I did a party for Elton John; he sang in the Pool Room for an hour and forty-five minutes without stopping. We made a party for Prince Harry last year when he came to New York. I’ve done parties here for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Rolling Stones. Everybody was here.
That guy across the room, the one with his own table. Every year we do the Super Bowl party for him, for 250 people. And guess what they are drinking? For Super Bowl party? Chateau Latour 1964.
A LOT OF TABLES TO FILL
To be in the restaurant business is not like being in real estate. It’s not like being a bank. The restaurant business is a tough business. We’re dealing with people; we’re dealing with food; we’re dealing with costs that constantly go up.
This place is very expensive to run. It’s a lot of covers, a lot of tables to fill. I don’t think there are many people downtown interested in running a four-hundred-seat restaurant. If you have a week when you have a snowstorm everyday, instead of doing two hundred reservations a night, you might do one hundred. That’s not a problem with the Four Seasons; that’s a problem with the weather.
But things are changing; of course things are changing. I don’t think people are fooling themselves about money. I know there is a lot of wealth in New York City, but the wealth is not very, you know, distributed. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer; there’s not really something in between. And because of that, we have too many restaurants catering to the rich. Sometimes I check on OpenTable, and you can eat at twenty different restaurants in midtown on any given night. That’s a problem.
We are also planning on moving to a different location maybe. And I think that’s terrific. Honestly speaking, I would love to be here for the next twenty-five years. But we’ll have to bring in a lot of money to bring this place to the same level that it was when it opened in 1959. This place has never been touched. A renovation would cost between ten and fifteen million dollars—you need new air conditioning, you need a new heating system, you need a new lighting system, you need a new kitchen. But are American people going to appreciate it? I’m not sure. I think a lot of people are forgetting about architecture; they’re forgetting about beauty. They even forget the architect of this particular building. Think about how many people living in New York City go to a museum. Very few—it’s all the people from outside. We live in a city with more than twelve million people. What are these people doing?
The restaurant has been here since 1959, and people are dying. We have to get new customers; it’s a fact of life. But as somebody who’s been here for a long time, I’ve seen a tremendous evolution. The old people are passing, and new people are coming in. I think this restaurant could be here for hundreds of years.