A bit of old New York disappeared over the weekend. The Four Seasons restaurant, an icon that opened in 1959, served its final meal at 99 East 52nd Street.
After a protracted fight with landlord Aby Rosen, its impresario owners Julian Niccolini and Alex von Bidder were forced out for good (new tenants, the Major Food Group, will move in sometime next year).
Renowned architect Philip Johnson’s landmarked space will soon be stripped of all but its famous shimmering curtains, with everything from the plates to the chairs going up for auction next Tuesday.
But last Friday, the restaurant’s front Grill Room, home of the original Manhattan power lunch—complete with a rigid seating-chart hierarchy—was packed with boldface-name regulars, gawkers, and last-chance diners clamoring to say goodbye.
I arrived early, to catch every minute of the action. Here’s what unfolded.
11:30 a.m.: All quiet. A poster on the wall near the coat check announces the auction on Tuesday. Up the sweeping staircase, a bartender begins prepping for early walk-ins. A bargain bar meal is $48 for two courses, among them a Four Seasons burger with truffled gouda.
11:40 a.m.: Waiters begin setting bowls of chilled crudités on each table: crispy bouquets of radish, carrot, and celery, the traditional centerpieces of a Grill Room lunch (octogenarian captains of industry tend to watch what they eat). Niccolini fiddles in a corner with a white construction hat. It is emblazoned with “The Four Seasons, 280 Park Avenue” on the front. He plans to hand out the hats at the auction this week. Niccolini and von Bidder, who still own the Four Seasons name, will reopen the restaurant a few blocks away in 18 months or so.
11:45 a.m.: Von Bidder, standing sour-faced at the host stand, looks impatient for service to begin: “I’m just sick of it,” he says. “It’s like an endless funeral here.”
11:50 a.m.: Longtime head chef Pecko Zantilaveevan pokes his head out of the kitchen. Niccolini studies the day’s bookings.
noon: The first tables begin to arrive. Niccolini slides into a banquette beside a slim young woman, Kim Mancuso, a director of network operations at NBC. “It’s the end of an era,” she says. “I knew it was closing, but I didn’t realize it was tomorrow. I’m so happy to be here to say goodbye.”
12:15 p.m.: Inside the kitchen, tensions run high. A longtime waiter is reaming a chef at the top of his lungs, a fight about the union and the fate of the restaurant’s 130 employees that are all about to be out of work: “You’re a coward, you’re a fucking coward,” he bellows. “For 35 years I was in those meetings. I didn’t see you there. Everybody could have been there. Now they complain. You could have gone to the contract negotiations. You didn’t go!”
12:20 p.m.: Leo Hindery—former racecar driver, founder of private equity firm InterMedia Advisors, and Four Seasons regular—at his usual table in the center of the room: “I eat here more than I eat at home, three, four, sometimes five meals a week… This is my last lunch at the Four Seasons ever. I will never ever come into this room again with this new guy owning it. It’s just rude that this is happening.”
12:30 p.m.: Susan Rudin, wife of billionaire real estate magnate Jack Rudin, in a banquette along the far wall: “That corner table used to be our table; my husband sat there for 35 years. I guess someone else took it over.” The Saudi prince, who dines here whenever he’s in town, is expected at the table for his usual late lunch at 1:45 p.m.
12:35 p.m.: A young waitress, who’s been struggling to get a jewelry business off the ground: “For a few years, I’ve had the need to move on and do my own thing, but the money kept me here. I’m sad for this place, but I need the change.”
12:45 p.m.: Sam Waksal, founder of ImClone (the “guy that put Martha Stewart in jail,” as Niccolini describes him), in a prime corner banquette: “I’ve been coming here for probably 30 years. I don’t think there’s another restaurant in New York that’s lasted this long and been this iconic. I had a dinner for one of the big deals I was doing for ImClone and we all brought a bottle of wine to celebrate. Mine was a 1961 Petrus and I was pouring glasses for Julian throughout the meal. It’s a great memory.”
12:50 p.m.: Charlotte Hunt, travel manager at Blackstone, at a small table added to accommodate overflow near the host stand: “Every lunch I have at the Four Seasons is the last lunch at the Four Seasons because I usually stumble out of here and say never again.”
1:00 p.m.: Mitchel London, head chef at Gracie Mansion under Mayor Koch, owner Mitchel London Foods, clearly emotional, lingering near the host stand: “There’s no better place, no more beautiful place to sit and eat. I’ve been here for the past two weeks just about every day. It’s crazy, I feel like someone died.”
1:10 p.m.: A waiter announces the specials: “Lemon herb risotto with lobster as an appetizer and also ceviche of octopus with avocado. Main course is softshell crab almandine and the fish of the day is halibut with an eggplant caponata.”
1:15 p.m.: Guthrie Collin, a senior manager at Amazon, and his wife Jennifer, with the International Council of Shopping Centers, sit side by side picking at pink cotton candy. The young couple, who were engaged here nine years ago, walked in early hoping for a table and scored: “We’re going to the auction on Tuesday just to get something to remember this place. We kind of took it for granted that it was always going to be here.”
1:20 p.m.: Gabriellus Glemza, management consultant, celebrating his 26th birthday with coworkers at a big round table in the middle of the room: “I’ve never been here before, but I still have a sentiment for this place. I mean I read about it, it’s iconic, there’s humongous history, it’s on everybody’s bucket list.”
1:25 p.m.: Bethany Frankel, Real Housewife married at the Four Seasons, strolls up the stairs, looks at the Grill Room, marches on into the Pool Room (Siberia at lunch). She shreds her divorce papers into the pool.
1:40 p.m.: Peter Eisenman, architect, professor at the Yale School of Architecture, friend of the late Philip Johnson, at a table on the edge of the room: “Some of my most memorable moments with Philip [Johnson] were here. We always used to sit at that end table and Henry Kissinger used to sit at the round table next to us. I was on a flight on first class on Lufthansa after Peter died and I happened to be sitting next to Kissinger. I was doing a project he didn’t like and he always used to remind me, ‘You know, I really don’t like your project.’ I didn’t say, ‘I don’t like your politics.’ Anyway, he was very excited and he said, ‘I have something very exciting to tell you.’ I said, ‘What is it?’ He said, ‘I’ve got Philip Johnson’s table now.’ How about that? He moved up.”
1:53 p.m.: Paul Wentworth Engel, historian, preservationist, curator of Harkness House, Four Seasons regular, wearing black velvet slippers with red devils stitched into the fabric: “I am protesting Aby Rosen and his Satanism, because he is the devil.”
2:15 p.m.: Eli Bronfman, grandson of Edgar Bronfman Sr., whose family founded the Four Seasons (and continues to be part owners), on his way out after finishing lunch: “My grandfather ate lunch here twice a week for 57 years. My brother had his bar mitzvah here, my wife and I were married here—six months ago. So it’s tough, it’s really tough. I wish they were able to keep it going.”
2:30 p.m.: John Morton Morris, dealer of Old Master paintings at Hazlitts in London, in New York with his family to celebrate his birthday at the Four Seasons, finishing lunch: “I’ve been coming here since 1978, and whenever I’m in New York I come for lunch… I think you can describe it more as a club. A club, which isn’t a club. People want to be here. They stop coming because they die.”
2:45 p.m.: A waitress sends her favorite new dessert—milk chocolate mousse with salted caramel and brown-butter ice cream—out to a couple finishing lunch.
3:00 p.m.: Lunch service is wrapping up. A few stragglers linger. In the kitchen waiters and cooks are lining up for staff meal, working their way down a kitchen-sink chow line, hotel pans filled with hot dogs, hamburgers, chicken fingers, halved avocadoes, white rice.
3:15 p.m.: Niccolini and von Bidder say their farewells to regulars on their way out for the last time. Tearful hugs are exchanged. After the auction, von Bidder plans to spend time on the beach in Mexico. Niccolini is hoping to escape up to Maine.