For fifty years the Four Seasons restaurant in New York's iconic Seagram building has dazzled power brokers with its timelessly modern design by Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson. Julian Niccolini, the restaurant's co-owner, shares the secrets of its enduring popularity.
“There has never been a restaurant better keyed to the tempo of Manhattan than the Four Seasons,” wrote the food critic of the New York Times in August 1959. “Both in décor and in menu, it is spectacular, modern, and audacious.” Fast forward to 2009 and, as the iconic dining room celebrates its 50th anniversary, those words still ring true. For timeless design, exalting quality and, above all, consistency, are the hallmarks of the legendary Four Seasons.
Designed by Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, and located on the ground floor of the bronzed Seagram Building they designed, the Four Seasons revolutionized the traditional notion of what a restaurant should look like. Its soaring glass walls, French walnut-panelling and specially commissioned furniture were contemporary to the point of avant-garde and even today look startlingly modern. Every design detail was carefully considered, from the adaptations of Mies’s Brno chair in the bar area to the hundreds of pieces of silverware created by Garth and Ada Louise Huxtable, eighteen of which are in the permanent collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Modern art was integral to the experience, with paintings by Picasso, Joan Miro and Jackson Pollock still hanging on its walls. Mark Rothko’s Seagram Murals, which are now part of the Tate Modern’s permanent collection, famously never made it to the restaurant after he declared, “I hope to paint something that will ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch that who ever eats in that room.”
Steadfastly preserved as a tribute to Modernism, the restaurant was designated as an interior landmark in 1989 by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Powerful design draws a powerful crowd, and the Four Seasons restaurant is said to have invented the notion of the power lunch. Between 1pm and 2pm on weekdays, Town Cars purr outside the East 52nd Street entrance while waiting for their carriage of titans from the industries of finance, politics, publishing, fashion and advertising. Presidents Kennedy, Bush (both) and Clinton dined here; Vogue Editor Anna Wintour was once a regular; multi-million dollar deals are discussed over Cobb salads. There is a buzz about the place – in particular the restaurant’s Grill Room – that screams News is Being Made Here Today.
As we showcase the spectacular work of Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, we talk to Julian Niccolini, a co-owner of the restaurant, who discusses the importance of design, the changing notion of power, and shares the secrets to the Four Seasons’ enduring popularity.
Many restaurateurs have tried to replicate the success of the Four Seasons by commissioning famous designers to create dramatic dining rooms. What sets the Four Seasons apart?
The spectacular design is what sets it apart. The Four Seasons was built in 1959 by Philip Johnson and the building was done by Mies van der Rohe. I think that other restaurateurs attempt to duplicate the formula of great design because this place has lasted for so long – fifty years. For a lot of people, the Four Seasons is as important as a museum; to us it’s not a museum, it’s a place where we work on a daily basis and we absolutely respect the architecture and the history of the place. I’ve been here for 30 years and I think the restaurant looks exactly the same today as when it opened. That’s they key to its success.
How much do you think the success of the restaurant can be attributed to being located in the iconic Seagram Building and to the work of Philip Johnson and Mies van der Rohe?
As architects they are responsible for the design of the space and the look and feel of the restaurant. The architecture is extremely important; everything else comes after. It’s like if you design a perfect airplane, it will fly forever. Or a perfect boat will float forever. That’s why everything remains exactly the same. Nothing has ever been done to it. There is not even a single piece of wood panelling that has been replaced. The only thing we do is clean it and maintain it to the highest level.
As well as the architecture, art has always been an important feature at the Four Seasons. Whose work are you currently exhibiting and why?
I think it’s beautiful to have art in a restaurant. It’s wonderful to go out to dinner and be able to enjoy art and food at the same time. Right now we have some paintings by Roberto Matta, a famous South American painter who died a few years ago. For the first time we have four huge paintings by him that we added a couple of weeks ago – this is probably the only thing we have done differently.
Much has been written about the social hierarchy created by the different rooms at the Four Seasons. What is the difference between the dining rooms?
At the Four Seasons we have two main dining rooms and two different types of clientele, both of whom are very loyal. The Grill Room is where the so-called power people prefer to sit, the city’s movers and shakers. It has a very clubby atmosphere. In the Pool Room are the people who no longer have to do any moving and shaking. There, it is more relaxing because the dining room is much larger and there is a pool in the middle. There are also trees in there so it feels a bit more sophisticated. I remember that when I first started working here the most popular restaurant at lunchtime was the Pool Room. Then it eventually became the Grill Room, which is still the most popular. This is how things work in New York City.
If you were to rebuild the Four Seasons restaurant today, which architects would you consider for the interior?
There are so many great architects and designers today that it is very hard to say.
I think David Rockwell would be a great architect to use to build a restaurant. He comes here once in a while and I think he understands what a customer likes in a restaurant. I like his restaurant interiors. In terms of artists, I would commission pieces by Juno, an incredible glass artist from the West Coast. Because of the pool and the water in the restaurant, a Juno piece would look really unbelievable here.
The Four Seasons was instrumental in creating the notion of the power lunch. How has the idea of the power lunch changed over time?
The power lunch itself hasn’t changed much. But the powerful people at the power lunch have changed. I think the power lunch started out in 1977 and at that time important people were working in publishing and finance. In the 1980s, it became the power of fashion and celebrity. That was followed by publishing again and also advertising. Then all of a sudden the publishing people moved downtown. Now it’s more about people from finance, politics and fashion. Part of the success of the Four Seasons is down to the fact it is probably one of the most democratic restaurants in America. We don’t discriminate: if we have a table available, anyone can make a reservation.
Who have been your most memorable clients?
Philip Johnson dined here on a daily basis, so I would consider him a very memorable client. Another very memorable client was Alexander Liberman (a magazine editor and art director at Condé Nast). He was one of our most wonderful customers because he was such an impressive person.
Would you consider expanding the Four Seasons brand with outposts in other cities, like Nobu and Cipriani have done?
That would be wonderful if we were the only Four Seasons corporation and there weren’t the Four Seasons hotel company. Unfortunately, it would be extremely difficult to even think about something like that. We have considered it but it would be very challenging in terms of branding. There is confusion on a daily basis between the hotel and the restaurant. We are lucky to be mixed up with this hotel brand and not another. Fortunately, we both have a great name.
Restaurant critics always talk about the architecture and atmosphere at the Four Seasons. What about the food?
The success of the Four Seasons overall is not only about the architecture, it’s about the food and the service. This was particularly the case after 1974 when a new owner took over the Four Seasons. Until that time the whole New York City restaurant scene was dominated by French restaurants. The new owner totally revamped the menu and made it into an American restaurant by removing all the French dishes on the menu and making sure that the whole menu was in English. He also made sure that the kitchens used only the freshest food available, which meant more local ingredients. Now, we change the menu four times a year not because of a gimmick related to the name but because we serve seasonal food. That’s his legacy and the real success of the Four Seasons restaurant. It basically revolutionized dining in New York.
What are your favorite restaurants around the world?
Let’s start in Venice, where I like to go to a restaurant called Al Mascaron, a very small restaurant that probably serves the best fish in town. In New York, I like to go to La Grenouille, a French restaurant down the street from the Four Seasons that’s been there since 1961. When I’m in Florence, I like Cibreo because it’s a very old fashioned restaurant. Basically, I like to go to restaurants where I know the people and where they know me.
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