Ed Driscoll

New York's Four Seasons Restaurant: Twilight of the Oasis of the Liberal Gods?

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Four Seasons Restaurant co-owner Julian Niccolini stands next to former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg at an April 2014 event honoring Bloomberg held at the Four Seasons. (Photo by Jonathon Ziegler/Patrick McMullan/Sipa USA via AP Images,)

“Four Seasons co-owner’s secret ‘sex assault confession’” screams the headline of a story that was on the front page of the dead tree edition of the New York Post today:

[Julian] Niccolini, who was charged Wednesday with first-degree sex abuse — a felony that carries up to seven years behind bars — allegedly persisted as the two sat in the bar area during a wine tasting.

Court papers say he forcibly kissed the woman and molested her so roughly that he ripped her bra while trying to remove it, leaving her scratched and bruised.

The woman attended the party with her father and stepmother, and didn’t want to make a “big scene” because of her dad’s ties to Niccolini, sources said.

She went to cops two days later, and Niccolini was busted when he surrendered to the NYPD’s Special Victims Division — despite efforts by defense lawyer John Moscow and a private investigator to block any charges, sources said.

The woman declined to comment Thursday.

Niccolini, who is free without bail, made good on his vow to return Thursday to the restaurant, where he said, “I basically have no comment, but I am not guilty.”

He barely cracked a smile while standing stoically near the front desk as dozens dined at the East 52nd Street “power lunch” spot.

The Four Seasons was nearly full for lunch, with a source close to the restaurant saying extra tables were set up near the stairs to accommodate all the diners who wanted to show support for Niccolini.

The crowd included business titans Carlos Slim, Barry Diller and Henry Kravis, as well as landlord Aby Rosen, whose recent rent hike has the Four Seasons looking to relocate.

The Post has been having a bit of feeding frenzy over the Niccolini story (pardon the food-related pun), and if you live in the New York area or grew up there, as I did (I’m in town this weekend on some family-related business), you’ll understand why.

The Four Seasons is one of those modern New York institutions that for decades was simply “there,” taken for granted as one of the city’s Great restaurants. It opened in 1959 in the then-new Seagram Building, which had been designed by Mies van der Rohe, with an assist from Liberal Fascism’s version of Woody Allen’s Zelig character, Philip Johnson. Mies, having returned to his home base of Chicago, was little interested in designing the interior of the building’s restaurant, so its then owners, the New York based high-end dining chain Restaurant Associates, turned to Johnson, who, with the assistance of R.A.’s in-house designer, did a magnificent job, staying true to Mies’s minimalist architectural concepts while creating a space that was both elegant and swank, and was endlessly ripped off by hundreds of restaurants that followed. Over a lengthy career that spanned the presidencies of Hoover through George W. Bush, Johnson produced many stillborn buildings; the Four Seasons’ interior is arguably his finest work.

A year or two after the Four Seasons opened, my parents took my grandmother there for her retirement party from the New York Central Railroad. For several years when I was a young kid living in South Jersey, my parents dressed me up in my best suit and took me up to Manhattan on the Penn Central/Amtrak Metroliner for my annual birthday lunch there. It was more of a treat for my parents of course, but years later in college, when I became obsessed with first modern art and then modern architecture, I had an incredible “aha!” moment learning that my favorite architect had designed the building that housed the Four Seasons, and I quickly resumed going back on at least an annual basis, including several special occasions. To bring things full circle, the night before my wife and I married, we arranged a meeting between her mother and my parents for the first time in the Grill Room. Good times. (Back in 2005, I organized the ultimately riotous pre-launch party for PJ Media in the Brasserie, the Seagram Building’s other restaurant, which can be called downscale only in comparison to the haughty Four Seasons.)

As John F. Mariani, the restaurant critic of Esquire, and Four Seasons co-owner Alex von Bidder wrote in their 1994 history of the restaurant, in the early 1970s, the Four Seasons began to be taken for granted as a cash cow for Restaurant Associates, and began to fall on hard times, not least of which, because native New Yorkers simply assumed the restaurant was a tourist trap for the bridge and tunnel crowd. (See previous paragraph…)

With profits declining, Restaurant Associates wanted to offload the restaurant, and it was purchased in 1973 by two former R.A. employees, Paul Kovi and Tom Margittai, who turned to two young European emigres to begin running the restaurant on a daily basis, Alex von Bidder and Julian Niccolini. The four men quickly made their mark on the Four Seasons, and by the late 1970s, while the Pool Room remained the popular destination for tourists, the Grill Room, became the power lunch spot in New York, where Henry Kissinger, Jackie Kennedy, Nora Ephron, Esquire editor David Granger, and rival GQ editor Art Cooper and many other prominent New Yorkers could be seen lunching regularly. When President Reagan’s reforms jump-started the American economy in the early 1980s, the Four Seasons cheerfully rode out the ’80s, ’90s, and pre-Obama naughts. Reagan himself once dined there, as did President Kennedy and Mr. Obama.

In more recent years, wannabe Obama advisor and accused plagiarist Fareed Zakaria was spotted there, and last November, Al Sharpton was feted at the Four Seasons by Bill de Blasio and Andrew Cuomo at a corporate fundraiser for the NBC anchor’s far left racial grievance advocacy group. The second to last episode of Mad Men prominently name-dropped the restaurant.

In early 2009, when CNBC produced a special celebrating the Four Seasons’ fifty years in operation, I had a similar level of mixed emotions watching it as the Right Pundits blog had after Bernie Madoff shook down numerous New York liberal grandees. One of whom was septuagenarian supermodel Carmen Dell’Orefice, who replied after being fleeced of millions by Madoff, “I am accepting that what I was experiencing was a projection of a person who wasn’t there.”

That statement also neatly sums up the mass hallucinations most patrons of the Four Seasons had the previous year regarding the confidence man currently residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The CNBC special seemed to be celebrating many of the same people who enabled the rise of Mr. Obama, who once in office was quickly attempting to destroy the economy that made the Four Seasons possible and sustained it. (I have no doubt there’s a pretty wide shared circle in the Venn diagram between regular Four Seasons patrons and Madoff’s victims.)

A few years later, these would be the same people who masochistically cheered the rise of Occupy Wall Street and their attacks on the so-called “One Percent,” despite it being an entirely blue-on-blue attack, given that the vast majority of that “One Percent” are left-leaning Obama voters on Wall Street, in the Beltway, and in Hollywood.

Over the past couple of years, a series of unfortunate stories regarding the Four Seasons began to accumulate in short succession. The centerpiece of the Four Seasons since its inception was the giant 19 by 20 foot curtain Pablo Picasso created “in 1919 for Sergey Diaghilev’s legendary Ballets Russes, Le Tricorne,” as Vanity Fair noted last October. As that article mentioned, in 1989, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission designated both the Seagram building’s exterior and the interior of the Four Seasons restaurant, “along with almost everything in it, would be landmarked. Except—because it was a freestanding work of art, unattached to the structure—the Picasso curtain.”

Last year it was removed from the Four Seasons and eventually moved to the New York Historical Society for a series of convoluted reasons as described by the New York Landmarks Conservancy:

The Conservancy gave the Curtain to the Historical Society following a court approved settlement. The Conservancy sued the current owner of the Seagram Building seeking to keep the Curtain at the Four Seasons, where it had hung since the restaurant opened in 1959. It was specially selected for the space by architect Philip Johnson, who designed the restaurant, and Phyllis Lambert, who convinced her father, Samuel Bronfman, to hire both Johnson and architect Mies van der Rohe, who designed the Seagram Building. A later building owner, Vivendi, gave the Curtain to the Conservancy in 2005 when they sold the Seagram Building to the current owner. It was meant as a “gift to the City,” and the Conservancy’s task was to care for the artwork and keep it in place. When it became clear that the current owner would not renew the Four Season’s lease if the Picasso remained, the Conservancy worked to ensure that the Curtain would remain on public view.

In its new home at the Historical Society, the Curtain remains “New York’s Picasso.”

But the Four Seasons without its Picasso seems like a person who has lost a limb; it’s no longer whole.

Recently, it was reported that Seagram Building owner Aby Rosen proposed several bizarre changes to the landmarked interior of the Four Seasons. As Forbes noted in an interview with Niccolini at the start of the month, “On May 19, the Landmarks Preservation Commission ultimately rejected the renovation proposal. But Rosen immediately countered by announcing that the restaurant’s lease isn’t going to be renewed.”

The brusque and mercurial Rosen told the New York Times that von Bidder and Niccolini’s “lease is up in July [2016], so they’re out…I’m going to restore the Four Seasons back to its glory. I love [Niccolini and von Bidder] but their time has passed, and sometimes something great needs to go.”Perhaps as a negotiating wedge, at the start of this month, von Bidder and Niccolini emailed the restaurant’s customers that they would “take the show on the road” if necessary:

For 18 months we’ve tried everything we can to remain in our beautiful home of 56 years.

Knowing a new lease is never guaranteed, we’ve also been exploring once-in-a-lifetime opportunties to take the show on the road and create the next generation Four Seasons.

A bold adaptation of the “spectacular, modern, and audacious” oasis that the New York Times raved about when we first opened, the Four Seasons 2.0 is the most exciting opportunity of our careers.

Soon as we can, we’ll announce where we’ll land.

Until then, please plan to join us in celebrating the future– right here in our landmarked space in the Seagram Building – until the end of July 2016 when we take the show on the road.

But that was before this week’s charges against co-owner Niccolini, which read like a script from a Law & Order: SVU episode — and very likely will be one next season. The accusations against him are occurring against the backdrop of the Socialist Justice Warriors’ endless cries — Obama approved — of the American college campus “rape epidemic.”

In The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe talked about the media-legal-industrial complex’s quest to find the perfect “Great White Defendant” to publicly destroy — and guilty or innocent, Niccolini as a suspect certainly fits the bill perfectly. I have no idea Niccolini’s personal politics, but reading Mariani and von Bidder’s history of the restaurant, which was sold by the Four Seasons to customers for years after its publication (and may well still be available there), it’s clear that restaurant caters to the Northeast Corridor left-liberal establishment elite, and very much looks askance at any conservative upstart who dares intrude on their power structure.

Which could well be in the process of devouring one of their own elite institutions. But given that the restaurant was born of original sin, what with Philip Johnson’s strange Depression-era pro-Nazi salad days, and now this scandal, and given that ever since it was acquired from Restaurant Associates in the mid-’70s, Niccolini has largely held himself and the restaurant as being intertwined — “le Four Seasons c’est moi,” one might say — is it possible to separate the restaurant from the man? Is it ethically to do so?

In September of 2013, on the eve of radical chic Bill de Blasio’s election as New York’s mayor, knowing that he would begin overturning the reforms instituted by Rudy Giuliani and largely kept in place by Mike Bloomberg, my wife and I dined at the Four Seasons, and I spent much of the week of our visit wistfully soaking in a city that was likely on the edge of plenty of what Glenn Reynolds and Robert Heinlein would call “bad luck.”

A great deal of it entirely self-inflicted by the city’s self-described “Progressive” elites. But then, nothing lasts forever, possibly not even the Four Seasons.