Food & Drink

July 19, 2016

Saying Farewell to New York’s Most Legendary Restaurant

Refinery 29’s Christene Barberich pays tribute to the Four Seasons, the ultimate place to power lunch.

  • Written by Christene Barberich
  • Photography by Jennifer Calais Smith

Just a few days ago, on July 16, many New Yorkers, like me, took a moment (or many) to pause, feeling a tiny bit of heartbreak as one of the city’s most iconic landmarks went the way of the fax machine.

The Four Seasons Restaurant, housed in the Seagram Building, one of the most elegant architectural monuments NYC has to offer, shut down last week (although it’s been recently reported that co-owners Julian Niccolini and Alex von Bidder have secured a nearby spot at 280 Park Avenue to begin the legendary restaurant’s next millennial era of moguls and martinis…but that’s another story).

We’re all sad about it. I haven’t spoken to Henry Kissinger or Gloria Steinem or Barbara Walters (just a few of the establishment’s many notable regulars), but I bet they’re just as downhearted about it as I am. Probably more so.

Businesses open and close in New York all the time—and for those of us who have lived here long enough, it’s become a way of life, returning to a side street somewhere Up- or Downtown and discovering, a little bewildered, that a favourite bar or boutique has up and vanished. Or worse, it’s now a Duane Reade. We feel sad, maybe a little abandoned; at least I always do. But we shake it off, chalking it up to progress and an ever-changing metropolitan landscape we can’t ever quite keep up with. New York, the city that never sleeps, never stays the same, either.

4seasons2

The Four Seasons closing down, however, is a big one. Designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (who also designed the Seagram Building) and Philip Johnson, then the head of architecture and design at MoMA, the establishment opened in 1959 and went down in history as the priciest restaurant construction ever (the equivalent of approximately $36 million today). In addition to the bold minimalist structure and striking mid-century features, the space was a rotating gallery of sorts, too, featuring works by Picasso, Joan Miró, Grace Hartigan, and others. And, not least of all, JFK ate his 45th presidential birthday cake here.

So, yes, it’s a landmark, in every sense of the word. But, it’s also the birthplace of the term “Power Lunch”, officially coined in an Esquire article by the future editor-in-chief of the title, Lee Eisenberg. “At twenty-nine or so tables, eighty-or-so diners dine on ideas,” he wrote. “Ideas for million dollar book deals, ideas for punchy new ad campaigns, ideas for eccentric new buildings in Atlanta or Houston, ideas for next fall’s haute couture…” But, “It isn’t the head of the company who lunches in the Bar [Grill] Room…it is the head thinker of the shop. Editors, creative directors, designers—these are the ladies and lords who lunch.” To me, these were the creative visionaries I wanted to learn from, be around, even become one day. I was 23 when I realised that power had nothing at all to do with money. It was creative conviction and living it. Completely.     

My first experience at The Four Seasons was dinner with my former boss. It was the mid-’90s, and I was working as the personal assistant to the then-CEO of Condé Nast. It was a dream job…sort of. Being so close to so many magazines I loved and editors that I had long admired was never not thrilling. And this particular boss, while demanding, egotistical, and given to temper tantrums, often treated me like a daughter or, occasionally, an indentured servant, depending on the day.

4seasons1

On this particular one, his nightly networking dinner had been cancelled, and did I have plans?, he wanted to know. While I was an insatiable junkie of all things publishing at that point in my life—Vogue, The New Yorker, Mademoiselle, Esquire, Q were my primary sustenance—I didn’t yet grasp the gravity of having dinner at a place like The Four Seasons. With the CEO of Conde Nast, nonetheless. And so, upon agreeing to the invitation, I did what I can only recall now as being utterly INSANE and asked if I could bring along my best friend, who happened to be working a few blocks over at EMI Records.

Bush league.

But he graciously agreed, and we drove by her office in his black car to fetch her on the way.

I wasn’t prepared for any of it, which began with a greeting by Niccolini, perhaps the restaurant’s most renowned character who initiated me with my first double-cheek kiss. This was the first of many rites of passage that evening, followed by another first of Dom Perignon, and another with caviar and beautiful bite-size potatoes. Imagining now what my friend Kelly and I must have looked like dining in the Pool Room with this imposing, sometimes loud, middle-aged Italian guy, he in an Armani suit and Gucci loafers, and us in pleated miniskirts and clunky Espace boots. Did the other patrons think we were relatives? Winners in the intern lottery? Prostitutes?

Who really cares. Because the whole experience was totally electric, and still very real to me—the feeling I had climbing up those breathtaking stairs, feeling everyone’s eyes registering who was arriving (we were), and gliding past the soaring Picasso into the Pool Room—something had shifted, I felt it. It wasn’t just a fancy dinner. It was a premonition of what was possible. The editor I needed to become.

Fast forward 20-something years later, and I did become an editor and have been allowed to exercise some of my greatest creative ambitions and fears. And, so, to commemorate The Four Seasons closing, I recently made a date for drinks at the bar with my three Refinery29 co-founders, toasting a good year (so far), and to say farewell to one of my favourite rooms in the world: A space that honestly made me believe that I could be somebody of creative consequence. A space where I first learned the dream was real.  

As we sat there, sipping our martinis and awaiting a plate of mini burgers, I began to think about how different the “industry” is today. Media companies and other creative powerhouses no longer flock together in Midtown Manhattan, where the Four Seasons was conveniently stationed. They are freely everywhere—from Fidi to Williamsburg to Silicon Valley and beyond. The new guard of history-makers and industry-disrupters rarely (as far as I can tell) “power” lunch over loin of spring lamb and asparagus soup—instead, they’re partial to green juice and convene at local coffee shops or on their own fully bulletproof caffeinated campuses around the clock. And, maybe most importantly, the biggest ideas and breakthroughs no longer sit exclusively with the veterans of the trade—they come from 25-year-old writers working out of Brooklyn wood sheds, and nobody engineers generating bidding wars over new social messaging apps.

Does it seem fitting that three 30-something restaurateurs who are widely known as New York’s coolest culinary squad are taking over The Four Seasons space? It does. On July 16, Mario Carbone, Rich Torrisi, and Jeff Zalaznick of Major Food Group (i.e. Santina, Carbone, and Dirty French foodie fame) in partnership with Aby Rosen of RFR Holding (owners of the Seagrams building) officially assumed the keys to the castle.

They said recently in The New York Times, “that their intention is to return the space to the glory of its 1959 debut.” I’m sure they will try. And, communicating with Rosen over email this week, a more personal approach to preservation seems to be the goal. “New York’s greatness is about embracing changing styles and taking the leadership to initiate innovation,” he wrote. “There are people who question the change of even a single item in the space. Almost 60 years since opening, it’s time for a thorough repair of the landmarked elements, a new kitchen with equipment that is current and allows for the preparation of healthier and more creative menus, and a culinary team with the vision and track record to make the restaurant a great New York cultural landmark again.”

It’s hopeful. But much of what imbued The Four Seasons initially with its own brand of fairy dust can’t really be resurrected. The era of Mies, media titans, and mid-day theatre, every day. It was perfect. And even if it all fell so completely out of style, it will always have been the coolest place to be someone.

Christene Barberich is the Global Editor in Chief and Co-Founder of the women’s media company, Refinery29

The Amuse Residency NYC was made possible by SIXTY Hotels

 

 

Topics:

Recommended on

More from

Featured on