Four Seasons Restaurant
When it opened in 1959 on Park Avenue in the Seagram Building, The Four Seasons restaurant was a financial flop. Today, sixty years later, its $30 million reincarnation in a nearby Park Avenue building will close its doors after less than a year in business. In doing so, its managing partner, Alex von Bidder, wrote in an e-mail, “We have been privileged to work with one of the finest culinary teams and outstanding staff that has stayed with us through some challenging times over the course of our history.”
The closing was, brutally, a question of numbers: The new restaurant was not bringing in enough customers to turn a profit, and investors saw little hope that it ever would.
Ironically, the original Four Seasons, under the benefaction of the Bronfman family that owned the Ludwig Mies van der Rohe-designed Seagram Building, didn’t start to make money until the mid-1970s and had largely been regarded not as a totemic New York restaurant but as one frequented by out-or-towners who came to marvel at the magnificence of its three-level design, its Picasso tapestry, a large, babbling pool in the middle of one dining room and the changing of foliage and colors—right down to the waiters’ cummerbunds and the printed type on the menus—each season.
(Photo by Christina Horsten/picture alliance via Getty Images)
Even after The Four Seasons evolved into the quintessential New York restaurant after a 1979 article in Esquire declared its Grill Room the setting for “America’s Most Powerful Lunch,” its fortunes were always tied to the booms and busts of the economy, enduring the deep recessions of 1987 and 2008 and reveling in the euphoric highs of the dot.com era and Internet Age. By any measure, 60 years is an extraordinary time for any restaurant to survive both changes in the economy, tastes and style.
Indeed, it was The Four Seasons’ unique style, created by Philip Johnson and the architects of the managing company Restaurant Associates, that exhibited a dramatic glamour in its soaring ceilings, glistening Richard Lippold hanging sculpture over the bar, rippling metal beaded curtains, museum-quality furniture, and table settings designed by Garth and Louise Huxtable. (In 1989 the restaurant was designated a local landmark by the city.)
Some regarded it as a kind of corporate cathedral, others a fantasy of a haughty New York attitude, in a day when Restaurant Associates had pioneered the modern “theme restaurant,” including its own Hawaiian Room and the Forum of the Twelve Caesars.
The resources and support of the Bronfman family’s fortune seemed limitless, not least when Sam Bronfman’s daughter Phyllis Lambert arranged for the Picasso tapestry to be hung in a hallway connecting the Grill Room and the Pool Room. Exuberant Restaurant Associates managers enjoyed carte blanche to create what was the most expensive restaurant ever built in New York—$4.5 million (about $40 million in 2019)—and the menu, with the input of James Beard, early on pioneered what later came to be called “New American Cuisine.” The restaurant was among the first to promote the new California wines and registered a trademark for “Spa Cuisine.” Oddly enough, before opening, when Sam Bronfman was asked what he’d like to see on the menu, he replied, “All I want is to be able to get a good piece of flanken, okay?”
By the 1980s The Four Seasons had taken on the dual aura of being the epicenter where the most powerful people in finance, media, the arts and politics staked out their territory each day in The Grill Room, while in the Pool Room a far more flamboyant atmosphere urged a more varied clientele to indulge in Page Six-worthy events, including several occasions when women jumped into the pool and when fashion designers held shows there.
In 1996, the restaurant’s veteran managers, Alex von Bidder, a staid Swiss trained at the Hotel School of Cornell University, and Julian Niccolini, an churlish Tuscan trained in Rome, took over as managing partners, maintaining The Four Seasons’ eminence well into the 21stcentury. Then, in 2000, real estate developer Aby Rosen bought the Seagram Building and said he would replace The Four Seasons with a new restaurant, forcing out von Bidder and Niccolini.
Photographs by Jamel Toppin for Forbes
Because of the interior’s landmark status, Rosen could do little to alter anything in the original design. He changed the names of the two dining areas to The Grill and The Pool, and the restaurant received respectful reviews upon opening, attracting a few of the old regulars and a lot of curiosity-seekers.
But because von Bidder and Niccolini retained rights to the name The Four Seasons (which was always something of a problem when guests showed up thinking they were checking into the Four Seasons Hotel), they were able to attract investors to recreate, if not replicate, what had been a unique institution. The assumption was that the old-time regulars would return, bringing along a new generation of financial industry power brokers, even if many of the former had outgrown the trappings of what The Four Seasons once represented or just plain passed away.
Photograph by Jamel Toppin for Forbes
The look of the new restaurant echoed some of the design elements of the original but, given its much smaller size, could never match its grandiosity or glamour; nor did it have anything distinctively New York about it, looking as if it could have been opened in any world capital.
There was also the widely reported issue of Niccolini’s behavior, which would once have been called “swinging” but which had led to two instances of harassment charges (both settled). Niccolini had always had the reputation of being Puckish, playing the commedia dell’arte jester, priding himself on his ability to rib and cajole some of the world’s richest men and women with mild insults. But last December, with von Bidder’s approval, Niccolini was removed from his position as managing partner for his refusal to get treatment for his problems.
Then, a devastating review of the new Four Seasons by New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells appeared, spending nearly as much space on Niccolini’s reputation as on the food, service and new design. Thereafter it was clear that in the Me Too era, the new restaurant was not going to attract many professional women to a place that already had enjoyed a reputation as being emblematic of the city’s flagrant Mad Men past.
(Photo by Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)
So, after lunch today, the new Four Seasons will close its door and, after six decades, finalize its long history, which began as a crucible of modernism unlike anything ever seen before.
Back in 1998, von Bidder asked if I’d be interested in writing a formal history of The Four Seasons, to be published by Crown. At the time I said I’d be very much interested but noted that I thought the restaurant’s food and menus no longer represented the best of what was being done in New York as of that decade. Von Bidder said that was fine, as long as the story of what the book’s subtitle—“America’s Premier Restaurant”—meant was chronicled. (A second edition appeared after von Bidder and Niccolini became managing partners.)
The strength of The Four Seasons was never really about the food or about unchanging, immutable stasis. Quite the opposite, its strength has always been its ability to adapt and lead, to change and modify in turn with the ways New York vibrates, with a clientele that has included as many visionaries as scalawags and as many egos as ids. The Four Seasons was a microcosm of New York exceptionalism and grandeur, and it’s now useless to imagine if it would have endured had the original restaurant never left the Seagram Building.