New York's Four Seasons to close after 57 years of operations

The Four Seasons restaurant, which opened in 1959, set in motion many trends that still dominate restaurant culture in the United States.
The Four Seasons restaurant, which opened in 1959, set in motion many trends that still dominate restaurant culture in the United States.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

The Four Seasons restaurant, a nexus of talent and money, will close this Saturday after 57 years

NEW YORK • In New York, a restaurant that lasts 10 years is old. Most fail to make it to their first birthday. When the Seagram Building turns the lights out on the Four Seasons restaurant next week, it will end a run that began in 1959.

The Four Seasons will serve its last meal on Saturday. On July 26, Mr Julian Niccolini and Mr Alex von Bidder, the partners who took over the restaurant 21 years ago, will auction off its contents, from the Grill Room banquettes down to the last fork and spoon.

They have promised to open a new Four Seasons within a five-minute walk of the present location, on East 52nd Street at Park Avenue. But the Four Seasons of old will vanish.

Its closing will mark the end of an era. The Four Seasons, probably the most important New York restaurant of the 20th century, Americanised fine dining and set in motion many of the trends that still dominate restaurant culture in the United States.

In its time, the restaurant was the most modern, the most daring, the most New York restaurant the city had ever seen. Defined visually by the confident modernism of Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building, it expressed, through its menu, decor and clientele, a vision of Manhattan as the nerve centre of the postwar era: a nexus of talent, money and ambition.

When the city faltered in the 1970s, the restaurant remade itself. Hoping to appeal to a new generation of up-and-comers, it scaled back its extravagant menus and created a stage for the city's prime movers in publishing, advertising, fashion and finance.

In the overhauled Bar Room, a cavernous, often empty space where patrons stopped for a drink or took a table when the Pool Room was full, the power lunch was born. Every weekday at noon, Page Six names descended on what was now being called the Grill Room, took a seat at their customary table and dined - abstemiously.

For food was not the attraction. "Powerful people eat in order to be seen with other powerful people," Mr Michael Korda, the former editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster, and a Four Seasons regular, wrote in the New York Times in 1977.

The choicest dish was not on the menu: the validation that came with being seated and served with an important client, surrounded by elite company.

When the Seagram Building was under construction, the ground floor and lower level were 2,230 sq m blanks to be filled in. There were plans to turn the rooms into exhibition spaces or lease them to a bank or a car dealership.

Enter Restaurant Associates. The company, originally an operator of coffee shops and cafeterias, developed a fine-dining division under Mr Jerome Brody, an executive with a sharp eye for real estate and an adventurous palate.

Once he convinced Mr Samuel Bronfman, chairman of Seagram, that a restaurant would reinforce the company's image and add value to the building, the inventive Mr Joseph H. Baum, a graduate of Cornell's School of Hotel Administration, was turned loose.

Mr Philip Johnson, chairman of the architecture department at the Museum of Modern Art, was assigned to handle the architecture, with Mr William Pahlmann responsible for the interior design.

What sort of restaurant would it be? Mr Baum was clear on one point: It would not be French, "because we are not Frenchmen, we are Americans", as he later put it.

This was radical. French cuisine epitomised fine dining in the United States, especially in Manhattan, where restaurants such as Le Pavillon, Le Cafe Chambord and Voisin set an uncompromisingly Gallic tone.

Mr Baum was a great admirer of the Vier Jahreszeiten (Four Seasons), the hotel in Munich. He was also taken by "shibui", the Japanese concept of restrained elegance.

"He offered a very simple explanation: New York as crossroads of the world, the place where everything is happening, the capital city of modernity," Ms Mimi Sheraton, a former restaurant critic for The Times, said in a recent interview.

The restaurant's name was chosen from a long list of dubious candidates: the Four Seasons of the Zodiac, the Time Table, Season-o- Rama, among others.

Albert Stoeckli, Restaurant Associate's Swiss chef, who had an uncanny knack for making Mr Baum's ideas edible, fed the research and recipe-testing team, working from a mandate that emphasised fresh ingredients supplied by small producers around the US, seasonal changes and a contemporary, international slant on flavour combinations.

In the end, Mr Baum created the most expensive restaurant in the city's history. The Four Seasons cost US$4.5 million to open, nearly US$40 million (S$53.8 million) in today's dollars.

Mr Craig Claiborne, then the food news editor of The Times, reviewed the Four Seasons two months after its July 29 opening.

"Both in decor 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.

However, he found the menu difficult to comprehend and, in some way, not right.

The restaurant had never made money and, by the late 1960s, it was running on fumes, subsisting on the patronage of curious tourists.

Mr Baum was eased out in 1970.

In 1973, Mr Tom Margittai, a vice-president of Restaurant Associates' fine-dining division, and Mr Paul Kovi, director of the Four Seasons, put down US$15,000 to buy the restaurant and set about transforming it into a club for young executives.

The Four Seasons lunch scene, and the fine art of accommodating New York's biggest egos, fascinated journalists. 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.

In 2000, the German-born real estate developer Aby J. Rosen bought the Seagram Building with his partner in RFR Holding, Michael Fuchs.

The Four Seasons' lease was set to expire this year. Mr Rosen made it clear that he was going to let it go.

"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.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 11, 2016, with the headline 'The power lunch moves on'. Print Edition | Subscribe