The Demise of Sky-High Dining

oneill shepard at rainbow The Demise of Sky High DiningIt was Friday night on the revolving 48th floor of the Marriott Marquis, and an elevator had just vomited a handful of tourists onto the solid core of the restaurant there—a minor miracle given how difficult it is for even the directionally adept to navigate the hotel’s devious elevator system.

From the center, one could watch parents with litters of children on red leathery chairs chomping on buffet food as the floor beneath them slowly drifted clockwise, a revolving ring of tackiness carried along a river whose view was surprisingly beautiful. To the southeast, the Bank of America Tower at One Bryant Park rose in gradual, almost feminine curves to its 945-foot pinnacle. As the floor revolved west, the riotously colorful Westin came into view. The New York Times’ fortresslike scraper rose in the distance. So too did the near-complete 11 Times Square. The Intrepid. The cloud-wreathed sun setting over the Hudson River. The copper dome of Worldwide Plaza. And, finally, the GE Building’s Top of the Rock, site of New York’s last truly glamorous skyscraper-top restaurant, the Rainbow Room, which was closed by the Cipriani family on July 31.

Its landlord, Tishman Speyer, is currently looking for a new tenant. “The Rainbow Room is a great restaurant in which Rockefeller Center takes great pride,” said a spokeswoman for the company, in a statement. “We have not yet named a new operator.”

We wish them well. For if the real estate giant fails, New York’s selection of glass-enclosed, skyscraper-top restaurants will essentially have been reduced to Marriott’s one revolving circle of hell.

There was a time, before the recession, before Windows on the World came crashing down, before open-air restaurants on mid-rise buildings became all the rage, before this became a town of wealthy foodies, when New Yorkers still loved to regard their skyline from cloistered, glass-walled nests far, far above.

Gershon Resnik began working as a waiter at the Rainbow Room in 1988. “It was like working in a Hollywood musical,” he said in a recent phone interview.

The legendary Joe Baum and the Emil family still owned the restaurant, bar and banquet hall atop 30 Rockefeller Center. The kitchen was located on the 64th floor, which was usually given over to private events. On the 65th floor were the more famous elements: the revolving dance floor, the tourist-friendly bar, the grill, the cabaret.

Ladies wore dresses. Men wore jackets and ties. And, oh, the celebrities! Mr. Resnik and his colleagues served Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney; Billy Joel, Henry Kissinger, Walter Cronkite, Beyoncé, Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake when they were still a virginal item. 50 Cent. Steve Tyler. Alice Smith. Tom Petty. And Jackie Mason—Mr. Resnik’s personal favorite, “’Cause I was one of the three Jews who worked there,” he said.

But the key to everything, Mr. Resnik said, was the view.

‘You could see Don Draper and his friends going there.’ —Jeffrey Roseman, Newmark Knight Frank retail broker and frequent power luncher

“If you were in the Rainbow Room, you could see the whole city, facing east and west,” he said. “You went up on the tier, you could see north and south. The only thing you couldn’t see from the Rainbow Room was the Christmas tree.”

 

IN 1999, after the Ciprianis took over, they made some changes, as new owners are wont to do: They converted the cabaret to a reception area; they instituted dinner-and-dance nights on weekends; they changed the menu from French classical to Tuscan, filling plates with carpaccio, prosciutto di parma, salame, mortadella, tuna tartare, gravlax, lobster and crab claws. The space was mostly given over to private functions.

“It was no longer the ambience of the Broadway musical or nightclub—that was definitely gone,” said Mr. Resnik, who hopes to get his unionized job back under new management. (He said that up until the end, business remained strong. One of his last guests was Prince Harry: “His party came after the polo match. They were very, very nice.” )