In 1959, the year the Four Seasons opened in Philip Johnson’s Seagram Building on Park Avenue and 52nd Street, New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne hailed the restaurant in terms that later critics would echo: “There has never been a restaurant better keyed to the tempo of Manhattan than the Four Seasons.” The restaurant, which grosses $25 million annually, is set to close this week. While the quality of the food fluctuated over the years, the Four Seasons always managed to send its wealthy customers away wanting more.
From its inception, the Four Seasons had a certain brassy self-confidence. Its airy, vaulting space in the Seagram Building was designed by Johnson and then cutting-edge International Style architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The overall style of the restaurant took the energy and newness that had characterized Jazz Age New York and gave them a sleeker, more sophisticated sheen. But that was the extent of its historical pedigree. Like the clientele to which it principally attached itself over the decades, the Four Seasons always had a soft spot for the self-made, the irrepressibly nouveau riche.
Whether titans of industry or cynosures of celebrity, regulars at the Four Seasons could often see their commercial standing reflected in their standing at the restaurant. Leonard Lauder, chairman emeritus of Estee Lauder, captured something of this at once inscrutable and yet unmistakable calculus when he observed: “If I were a great choreographer, I would do a Four Seasons ballet.” Though it had its fair share of old money patrons—Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was a fond habitué —the Four Seasons would always make power, not social standing, the focus of its pricey ministrations. More recently, owners Julian Niccolini and Alex von Bidder managed to attract a lively mix to its Lucullan repasts: Vernon Jordan and Donald Marron, Michael Korda and Si Newhouse, Martha Stewart and Pete Peterson, Barry Diller and Tina Brown, Tom Wolfe and Iman, Henry Kissinger and Jack Rudin, Jann Wenner and Nora Ephron, Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger.
If the city itself is an arena in which ambitious men and women are forever scrambling to be seen as arbiters of their respective industries, the Four Seasons would replicate that scramble day after day, night after night, by seating the rich and powerful in two elegant settings—the Grill Room and the Pool Room—where the exercise of power and wealth could be most brilliantly, enviably displayed. “The highest luxury of all, the supremely expensive thing, is constituted privacy,” said the great novelist Henry James. Well, nothing could have refuted poor James more insistently than the spectacle of plutocratic exhibitionism staged daily by the Four Seasons for nearly six decades. Some of the restaurant’s clients might tout the peculiar privacy that the place afforded them—if they were interrupted in their power lunches or dinners it would only be by their peers taking advantage of the restaurant’s hallowed custom of allowing diners to table hop—but true privacy at the Four Seasons was impossible.
When I stopped by the restaurant for lunch last week, I was taken aback by how frazzled and, indeed, forlorn the place looked. The acoustics were still wonderful: I could hear everything my guest was saying and nothing of what anyone else was saying, which is as it should be in any properly appointed restaurant; the soothing susurrus of the old white pool still gave the illusion of being far from the madding crowd. But the waiters were sleepwalking, the décor was drab, the diners were lusterless, and the crystal-clear acoustics only accentuated how little festivity remained in a place that once had made unforced festivity its stock and trade.
Most significantly, the food was atrocious. The artichoke salad tasted as if it had been left out on the plaza in front of the Seagram Building for a day or two; the halibut was as dry as old rye toast; and the sorbet tasted as though it had been scooped from a tub that had not been opened since the days of Marco Polo. Still, knowing as I do from the New York Post that the wait and kitchen staff will be given severances of $600 and $1,200 respectively, even in those cases where employees have been with the restaurant for ten, 20, or 30 years, I understand why the food and service weren’t what they might have been. Leaving the place for the last time, I looked forward to returning to my favorite New York restaurant, Antonucci’s, on East 81st Street, owned and operated by that inspired Venetian Francesco Antonucci.
Niccolini and von Bidder plan to reincarnate the Four Seasons at 280 Park Avenue. Making sustainable institutions of places that thrive on the vanity of human wishes is never an easy proposition, but if the plucky, undeterrable souls behind the Four Seasons brand cannot make it happen, no one can.
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