Four Seasons, Lunch Spot for Manhattan’s Prime Movers, Moves On


With Sylvia Schur, a food consultant who went on to develop Cran-Apple juice, Ms. Sheraton formed part of a research and recipe-testing team assembled for Mr. Baum by James Beard.

“Every day, from one to five in the banquet room of the Hotel Lexington, we would go through 35 dishes, starting with appetizers,” Ms. Sheraton said. Albert Stöckli, Restaurant Associate’s chameleon-like Swiss chef, who had an uncanny knack for making Mr. Baum’s ideas edible, fed the team, working from a mandate that emphasized fresh ingredients supplied by small producers around the United States, seasonal changes and a contemporary, international slant on flavor combinations.

The idea of seasonal change was carried through almost fanatically. Four times each year, new trees and floral displays would be trucked in; the waiters would get new uniforms; the menus would get a makeover; the ribbons in the typewriters would be changed; and the banquettes would be reupholstered.

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Philip Johnson, who shaped the architecture of the Four Seasons, celebrated his 95th birthday there in 2005. The restaurant was defined visually by the confident modernism of the Seagram Building, where it was located.

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Bill Cunningham/The New York Times

In the end, Mr. Baum created the most expensive restaurant in the city’s history. The Four Seasons cost $4.5 million to open, nearly $40 million in today’s dollars. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, which opened the same year, cost $3 million.

Craig Claiborne, then the food news editor of The Times, reviewed the Four Seasons two months after its July 29 opening. “Both in décor and in menu, it is spectacular, modern and audacious,” he wrote, en route to calling it “perhaps the most exciting restaurant to open in New York within the last two decades.”

He expressed admiration for the lobster mousse and the lavish use of fresh herbs and mushrooms, rarely seen in American restaurants. He admired the appointments: paintings by Jackson Pollock and Joan Miró; a giant Picasso stage curtain; tableware designed by L. Garth and Ada Louise Huxtable; flowers and ficus trees matched to the season. Anchored in the verities of French haute cuisine, however, he found the menu difficult to comprehend and, in some way, not right.

Food historians now see it as the starting point for a series of trends that came to define American dining: the cult of freshness and organically grown ingredients, which Alice Waters embraced at Chez Panisse; the inventive interpretation of regional American dishes, which became known as New American cooking; the international blending of styles and ingredients, later described as fusion.

“In 1959, they were naming the places where the ingredients came from,” said Jeremiah Tower, the chef at Chez Panisse in the early 1970s. “They would write: ‘Handpicked tomatoes from Long Island, carved tableside.’ They were the first to pick up on farm-to-table.”

The Four Seasons was not just an expensive proposition. The restaurant had never made money, and by the late 1960s, it was running on fumes, subsisting on the patronage of curious tourists. “Quite clearly, there are not enough people, even in New York, to regularly underwrite first grouse from Scotland, fiddlefern from Maine, haricot from Paris, and nubbin carrots from Oregon,” Michael Whiteman, the editor of Nation’s Restaurant News, and later Mr. Baum’s partner at Windows on the World, wrote in a letter to New York magazine

Restaurant Associates, no longer interested in the fine-dining business, eased Mr. Baum out in 1970. Mr. Brody, who had committed the cardinal sin of divorcing the boss’s daughter, was out too. “In every sense, the Four Seasons was losing its soul, its personality and its allure,” John Mariani wrote in “The Four Seasons: A History of America’s Premier Restaurant” (1994).

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From left, Mr. Niccolini; Fabio Trabocchi, a former chef at the restaurant; and Alex von Bidder, an owner, in 2009. Mr. Niccolini and Mr. von Bidder took over the Four Seasons 21 years ago.

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Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

In 1973, Tom Margittai, a vice president of Restaurant Associates’ fine-dining division, and Paul Kovi, director of the Four Seasons, put down $15,000 in cash to buy the restaurant and set about transforming it into a club for young executives, the kind of people they called “the doers.”

Part of the plan was to turn the Bar Room into a grill, a less formal alternative to the Pool Room with simple, quickly prepared dishes like skewered shrimp with chipolata sausages, chicken paillard, gravlax with dill mustard sauce.

The new owners made shrewd hiring decisions. They brought in Seppi Renggli, another versatile Swiss chef, to re-energize the kitchen. Alex von Bidder, 26, a young Swiss hotelier, was hired to build up the banquet business, and Julian Niccolini, a Tuscan with solid hotel experience in Europe, was handed the sensitive task of managing the Grill Room. He proved to be a rare combination, both diplomat and court jester.

The makeover worked. Nora Ephron found the location convenient and began turning up for lunch. The grandees of publishing followed her lead: Richard E. Snyder and Michael Korda of Simon & Schuster, Phyllis Grann of Putnam, Alexander Liberman of Condé Nast, Jason Epstein of Random House. John Fairchild, the publisher of Women’s Wear Daily, became a regular, as did the literary agents Morton L. Janklow and Lynn Nesbit. Financiers like Peter G. Peterson, the chairman of Lehman Brothers, staked their claims, along with the fashion designer Bill Blass and the advertising executive Lois Wyse.

The Four Seasons lunch scene, and the fine art of accommodating New York’s biggest egos, fascinated journalists. What the tribes of the Amazon were for Claude Lévi-Strauss, the culture of the power lunch was to New York’s growing army of trend writers.

Credit for the term “power lunch” usually goes to Lee Eisenberg, who, in a 1979 Esquire article titled “America’s Most Powerful Lunch,” decoded the Grill Room and, as a service to the reader, offered an annotated seating plan matching diner to table.

But conceptual ground had already been broken, from an insider’s view, two years earlier by Mr. Korda, in an article for The Times headlined “Le Plat du Jour Is Power.” Mr. Korda understood the fine points and perverse politics of powerful eating, which valued conspicuous nonconsumption. “The most powerful person is the one who can order the meal with the lowest number of calories,” he wrote. Catering to this philosophy, the restaurant would introduce an irreducibly plain dish: a baked potato served with a bottle of olive oil on the side.

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A menu from 1959, the year the restaurant opened. “Both in décor and in menu, it is spectacular, modern and audacious,” wrote Craig Claiborne, then the food news editor of The Times.

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Benjamin Norman for The New York Times

The power parade continued through the decades, and the Four Seasons became, for the first time, a profitable restaurant. Whenever attrition threatened to thin the ranks, new recruits turned up. Henry Kissinger, after leaving Washington, added his clout to the daily seating chart.

When book publishers began cutting costs in the 1990s, a phalanx of financiers and real estate developers rose to take the seats once reserved by editors. An army of Condé Nast editors descended, turning the Grill Room into a company canteen. Art Cooper, the editor of GQ, occupied a corner booth and spent about $200,000 a year at the restaurant. He ate his last meal at the Four Seasons, suffering a fatal stroke at the age of 65 while eating lunch in 2003.

Over time, the lively dance of the Four Seasons became a frieze, the daily power-lunch ritual an arthritic display.

In 2000, the German-born real estate developer Aby J. Rosen bought the Seagram Building with his partner in RFR Holding, Michael Fuchs. It did not take a crystal ball to predict the future. Mr. Rosen, a fan of contemporary art and experimental theater, looked at the restaurant’s time-honored rituals and its older clientele with a cold eye.

In 2013, he told the New York Landmarks Conservancy that he intended to move the Picasso curtain, “Le Tricorne,” to carry out repairs on the wall behind it. The conservancy, the owner of the artwork since 2005, when the French entertainment giant Vivendi donated it after having acquired Seagram five years earlier, said the curtain, measuring 19 by 20 feet, was so fragile that it would crumble “like potato chips” if moved.

Picasso had created the curtain, which depicts a bullfighting arena, for a 1919 Ballets Russes production and sold it in 1957 to the Bronfman family for about $50,000. When the Seagram Building, including the interior of the Four Seasons, was granted landmark status in 1989, the curtain was excluded from the designation because it was not part of the building’s structure.

The conservancy took Mr. Rosen to court. The issue was resolved when the conservancy agreed to donate the curtain to the New-York Historical Society and Mr. Rosen offered to pay for its restoration and removal. It is now on display at the museum.

The Picasso contretemps had sent an unmistakable message. The Four Seasons’s lease was set to expire in 2016. Mr. Rosen made it clear that he was going to let it. “I love the guys, but their time has passed, and sometimes something great has to go,” he told The Times last year.

He hired the young partners in the Major Food Group, responsible for the buzzy restaurants Carbone, Dirty French and Santina, to come up with a replacement for the Four Seasons. Like Mr. Baum, they will have to start from scratch. After 57 years, it is 1959 again.

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