An NYC Icon Closes the Curtain: Saying Goodbye to The Four Seasons

Chefs look back on the historic restaurant's importance
July 15, 2016
by Kelly Dobkin

I'm standing in the center of The Four Seasons Grill Room on one of its last nights of service. Some of the best chefs in New York (Humm, Boulud, Keller, Vongerichten, et al.) are here to cook a spectacular last meal for guests paying upwards of $1,250 a head just next door in the Pool Room. The Grill Room, known for its power-lunch scene, has been cleared out to make room for a cocktail reception. Dom Pérignon is flowing like water, and I'm surrounded by the likes of Martha Stewart and Charlie Rose, none of which are out of place inside the iconic room, which over the last half century was a bastion of glamour, and a place of serious deal-cutting, whether it was in publishing, Hollywood, real estate or finance. Here, CEOs were fired, corporate executives were hired, financial windfalls were toasted and dozens of power players had daily standing lunch reservations. "Every time I call to make a reservation at the Grill Room, I feel like I'm at an auction and I'm being outbid," according to our own Nina Zagat. Sophia Loren and Henry A. Kissinger have both sat at these tables. Bartender Greg Connolly, who has worked here for 25 years, has memorized more than 300 standing drink orders. This truly is the end of an era.

Chef Michael White; Charlie Rose; Martha Stewart; Citymeals on Wheels Board Co-President Robert S. Grimes, Photo: Eric Vitale

On Saturday, July 16, the iconic Four Seasons Restaurant in Midtown will close its doors after 57 years in operation inside the landmarked Seagram building. The owner of the building, Aby Rosen, has installed Major Food Group as the new operators of the space — they're known for their trendy (and pricey) throwback cuisine at spots like Carbone and Dirty French. Longtime co-owners Julian Niccolini and Alex von Bidder will reopen the iconic restaurant at 280 Park Avenue, just down the street in 2017 and will take many of the current senior staff with them. The new Major Food concept will also debut in 2017, although principals Jeff Zalaznick, Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi won't be able to change much inside the landmarked interior. Still, new furniture, a new name, and an entirely new menu full of throwbacks can be expected when the spot reopens. "This restaurant means so much to NYC," Noel Robichaux, a 12-year employee and captain tells us at the Citymeals on Wheels "Last Supper" dinner as he fills my glass. The restaurant was the vision of restaurateurs Joe Baum and Jerome Brody, and when it opened in 1959, design-wise it was unlike any other restaurant in New York. 

The First Restaurant to Change With the Seasons
Charles Baum, son of co-creator Joe, points out that the seasonal approach that's de rigueur with trendy restaurants today originated here. "The uniforms changed, the arborists would come in and every season. It really goes back a long way to eating locally and seasonally. So much of how we eat now really started here." Both the decor and menus changed with the seasons, which was unusual for the time. In Craig Claiborne's 1959 famed New York Times review of the restaurant he wrote: "An admirable feature of the restaurant is its extensive use of fresh herbs. Although herbs are used increasingly throughout America, they are not employed frequently in a fresh state." Later the restaurant became famed for Grill Room items like the burger and crab cakes, and in the dining room, the duck and the violet-studded cotton candy.

Photo courtesy of The Four Seasons

Opulence and Decor
The innovative design by Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson featured, of course, the iconic pool with trees that changed with the seasons, walls bedecked with art from (at various times) Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Joan Miró, and Mark Rothko, and a sculpture that remains in the bar area by Richard Lippold. In the history of the Zagat Guide, the Four Seasons has won the Top Decor award at least five times and is consistently in the top 10 each year. Aside from the permanent aesthetics, the restaurant housed extraordinary moments in history including John F. Kennedy's 45th birthday party (the night in which Marilyn Monroe performed "Happy Birthday" to the then-President at MSG). It has also been home to rare and expensive bottles of wine as well as countless extravagant wine dinners over the years.

(From left to right) Chef Cesare Casella; Chef Michael White; Chef Thomas Keller; Chef Daniel Boulud; Julian Niccolini, co-owner of The Four Seasons Restaurant; Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Photo: Eric Vitale

Saying Goodbye
We asked some of NYC's most notable chefs to share some of their favorite memories at both the Citymeals event and over email:

"I had just turned 21 and we were having drinks at the Four Seasons bar before going to Daniel. We had two drinks, all of the sudden the bill comes, and it's $9 a piece! And I thought, how do these people do this? We had spent $50 on drinks, my conservative Midwestern father was especially shocked." - Michael White, chef-owner Altamarea Group (Osteria Morini, Ai Fiori, Marea, et al.)

"When I was coming up in the restaurant business in the '80's, The Four Seasons was the epitome of the classic American restaurant. It was at the center of New York cultural and business worlds in the press and it was aspirational to have drinks in the Grill, dinner in the Pool room, lunch in the Grill Room — all things I did as soon as I could in 1989 when I was appointed head chef at 21 Club — it's where I went to celebrate the occasion." - Michael Lomonaco, chef/partner at Porter House Bar and Grill

"My favorite Four Seasons memories involve their giant cotton candy with candied violets, washed down with lots of champagne and white burgundy. The Four Seasons could make you forget your cares with that perfect combination of extravagance and fun. I had some of the best times of my life there." - Jimmy Bradley, chef-owner of The Red Cat in Chelsea