“Quiet for the beginning of September” is how Alex von Bidder, the co–general manager of the Four Seasons, remembered the restaurant’s Grill Room on Sept. 10. The restaurant would do a total of 52 “covers” (or meals) when 80 is closer to the norm, and no one was seated in the balcony area that overlooks what may be the city’s longest-running clubroom of prandial power.
“Quiet” is a relative term at the Four Seasons. For more than 40 years, the restaurant-which opened in the Seagram Building in 1959-has defied the realities of New York’s restaurant business. Its gently undulating chain curtains have stood like a force field against trendiness, casualness and the other corrosive forces of the city.
Within that spare, calming setting runs an institution built on three pillars: service, food and power-the meritocratic kind that crystallized the mid-20th century and still has some play left in it. The Four Seasons has a few flashy characters (like Condé Nast’s Steve Florio) who carry themselves like Diamond Jim, but most of its regulars, like the Grill Room’s French walnut walls, exude a patina of reserved elegance.
And those regulars come to be cosseted in this well-stocked, well-staffed Mies van der Rohe cocoon, which is orchestrated by the reserved, Zurich-born Mr. von Bidder and his gregarious Tuscan partner, Julian Niccolini, who work the restaurant with the wordless clairvoyance of a long-married couple.
The five smart navy blue booths that line the wall of the Grill Room closest to Lexington Avenue are long-standing symbols of status at lunch time, and on that quiet Monday afternoon they were all occupied.
Developer Jack Rudin, who eats at the restaurant several times a week, could be found at his usual booth, table 37. He dined with John Sexton, the dean of New York University’s Law School. “He’s an old friend of mine,” Mr. Rudin said. “We talked about everything from religion to sex to real estate.” Mr. Rudin said that he probably had the Nantucket Bay scallops and shrimp cocktail, but he wasn’t certain.
Dining to Mr. Rudin’s left, at table 36, was David Rockefeller. Less than 24 hours later, according to his spokesman, Fraser Seitel, the 86-year-old Mr. Rockefeller would watch from the window of his 56th-floor Rockefeller Center office as the Twin Towers that he pushed the city, the state and the Port Authority to build disappeared in a cloud of ash and smoke. On Sept. 10, though, Mr. Rockefeller would enjoy a quiet business lunch with an associate, financial adviser Richard Salomon, a principal of Mecox Ventures.
The doyenne of the Four Seasons on that afternoon, however, was the 99-year-old socialite and philanthropist Brooke Astor, who was escorted to table 35 by Mr. von Bidder, where she dined with her friend Dorothy Cullman. Estée Lauder cosmetics company chairman Leonard Lauder has also been known to frequent table 35, but on Sept. 10 he dined at the adjacent booth, table 33, with a guest.
Table 32, the booth closest to the windows that look out on East 52nd Street, is known as Philip Johnson’s booth. Mr. Johnson earned his booth when he and interior decorator William Pahlmann designed the interior of the restaurant. In the early years of the Four Seasons, when the adjoining Pool Room was the place to be for lunch, Mr. Johnson was one of the Grill Room’s few loyal inhabitants. Designer George Lois once recalled that, at lunch, he would often wave at Mr. Johnson across the empty space.
On Sept. 10, Mr. Johnson was not present at the Four Seasons, but he was represented by one of his alma maters, the Hackley School, an independent school located in Tarrytown, N.Y.
Hackley’s headmaster, Walter Johnson, was having lunch with two of the school’s trustees, whom he declined to name. (Mr. Johnson said that one of the trustees hosted the lunch.) He was also getting the royal treatment from Mr. Niccolini, whose daughter, Marusca, attends Hackley.
“We were talking about the future of the school and our plans for that future. It was very celebratory.” Given Hackley’s connections to the restaurant, Mr. Johnson said the Four Seasons “seemed an particularly appropriate place to be thinking about the future, and maybe that’s ironic in the context of events.”
Mr. Johnson said he’s “too much of an academic to be aware of the glitterati of New York,” and so was unaware that he was surrounded by the boldface names that pepper New York’s social columns. But others there took comfort in the power quotient.
“I remember when I saw David Rockefeller, Brooke Astor and Leonard Lauder, I was just in awe of the power of the place,” said restaurateur Drew Nieporent, who, as the owner of Nobu, Montrachet and Tribeca Grill, knows something about the subject. Ensconced at table 5-the first banquette to the right as you enter the Grill Room-Mr. Nieporent remembered, “The world felt pretty safe.” He had shed more than 100 pounds since the spring and was feeling pretty good about the accomplishment. “I didn’t have a worry in the world,” he said. “And that night I was going to see Roger Clemens win his 20th game.” (The game was eventually called on account of rain.)
Mr. Nieporent had come to the Four Seasons with his friend and mentor, George Lang, the dapper 77-year-old owner of Café des Artistes. It had been Mr. Lang who had gotten Mr. Nieporent to go for the fateful physical at the Mayo Clinic that had prompted him to lose all that weight and stick to ceviche for lunch on Sept. 10.
For Mr. Lang, the lunch at the Four Seasons was a homecoming of sorts. In 1967, Restaurant Associates, which had opened the Four Seasons, tapped him to run the restaurant, which he did for about three years before leaving to form his own consulting firm.
Mr. Lang-who’s currently a partner with Ronald Lauder in Gundel, a restaurant in his hometown of Budapest-said he hadn’t been to the restaurant in years. But, he added, his return was “a wonderful homecoming.
“Going back to a place which either you’ve taken part in its creation, or worked there, is a very difficult thing for me, because many times I go back and I feel like a father must feel who hasn’t seen his daughter for X years, and when [they] finally meet he finds that she became a prostitute,” Mr. Lang said. “But thank God the Four Seasons has remained a very virtuous lady.”
Mr. Lang said that he “intensely” dislikes table-hopping when he’s a guest at a restaurant, but he did say hello to Mrs. Astor (“I admire her, and you don’t have a long enough space in your article to enumerate all the reasons,” he said), and embraced his good friend Mr. Rudin, whom he called “the first citizen” of the Four Seasons.
Mr. Nieporent and Mr. Lang had come to the Four Seasons on a mission. After their lunch, while Mr. Niccolini covered the Grill Room, Mr. von Bidder sat with the two men and discussed putting together a benefit dinner to start a scholarship fund in honor of former Four Seasons co-owner Paul Kovi, who died in 1998.
Sitting in the Four Seasons on Sept. 10, though, Mr. Lang said he felt grateful to “live in the center of the world, which is the United States, the heart of that center, which is New York City,” and then to be at “the Four Seasons, which is, in more than one way, an essence that my late, very dear colleague and friend Joseph Baum created.
“That was his dream,” Mr. Lang said. “To have something that is-without using red color, exclamation points, spotlights or loudspeakers-without any question, the center of the world. And I was lucky to be there.”
At the center of the Grill Room, Earth Times president and editor in chief Pranay Gupte dined at the large, circular table 25 with his wife, Jayanti Lal; Professor Klaus Schwab, founder and president of the World Economic Forum, and his wife, Hilde; and Theodore W. Kheel, the labor lawyer, and his wife, Ann.
Mr. Kheel is also the publisher and a founder of Earth Times , and Mr. Gupte wrote in an e-mail that “the occasion was to honor Mr. and Mrs. Kheel for their continuing generosity to our newspaper. Professor and Mrs. Schwab were in town from their home base in Geneva, Switzerland, to accept the annual Candlelight Award” that was to be presented that evening by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
“Our lunch was quite lively,” Mr. Gupte wrote. “The Schwabs were recognized by several diners in the Grill Room, including David Rockefeller,” and also Mr. Gupte’s old boss, former New York Times executive editor Abe Rosenthal, with whom he’d worked for some 15 years.
Mr. Rosenthal was dining at table 25 with three acquaintances from China. He declined to identify his tablemates, however, because he has often been critical of China in his Times columns. “If you’re Chinese and they [the government] find out you’re going out with the likes of Abe Rosenthal, who is not known for his enthusiasm for the Chinese government-I just don’t want to take the risk,” Mr. Rosenthal said. His voice took on a combative edge, the way it must have sounded when he was running the newsroom and someone called on deadline with a dumb question. He sounded even more annoyed when asked to recall what he had eaten that day, but he said that it was probably crab cakes or sole.
At the other tables were mostly men, guys who were once in a hurry to conquer the world in their thin-lapeled two-button suits and skinny ties, but now were ambassadors and board-member trustees and could afford to tarry over a long, expensive lunch in the lush quiet of the Grill Room. Banker Lionel Pincus sat at table 13; former Ambassador to Slovakia Carl Spielvogel at table 26; attorney Joel Ehrenkranz, president of the trustees of the Whitney Museum of American Art, at table 11; attorney Charles Mandelstam at table 4; Donald Gilbert, managing partner of the advertising consulting firm Gilbert Taney Farlie Inc. at table 12.
Mr. Gilbert was dining with an old friend and client, Steve Harty, the co-founder and former president of the agency Merkley Newman Harty & Partners, who had just left the firm. Mr. Gilbert had bison; Mr. Harty had the halibut. “It was just two old war-horses,” Mr. Gilbert said. “We spent much of the lunch talking about the state of the advertising industry, which has a lot of problems right now.”
Mr. Gilbert also remembered that the balcony at the Four Seasons was empty-a subtle reminder, in this culinary citadel of power, that the city was not in a robust state.
“The numbers up to that point weren’t stellar; certainly not as good as the year before,” Mr. von Bidder said. “But there was a feeling of expectation-an expectation that everything would be fine in the fourth quarter.”
On that crystal-clear Sept. 10, the last day of the old age, it was still possible to think in those terms. The Four Seasons had been born in the age of modernism, created as a sleek, disengaged reaction to the suffocating red-velvet restaurants that dominated the 40’s and 50’s. The men and women who loyally decorated its tables had grayed and slowed, but here at the center of the world, in this ageless, unsentimental room where every step of the ballet imparts a sense of well-being, it was still possible to have another glass of Pinot Noir and believe that life as we knew it could go on forever.
“It was a beautiful day. It was warm and people were having a good time, and we were looking forward to having a busy fall,” Mr. Niccolini remembered. “The rest is history.”