June 12, 2019

NEW YORK’S LEGENDARY FOUR SEASONS RESTAURANT SERVED ITS LAST MEAL YESTERDAY:

In 1996, the restaurant’s veteran managers, Alex von Bidder, a staid Swiss trained at the Hotel School of Cornell University, and Julian Niccolini, an churlish Tuscan trained in Rome, took over as managing partners, maintaining The Four Seasons’ eminence well into the 21stcentury.  Then, in 2000, real estate developer Aby Rosen bought the Seagram Building and said he would replace The Four Seasons with a new restaurant, forcing out von Bidder and Niccolini.

Because of the interior’s landmark status, Rosen could do little to alter anything in the original design. He changed the names of the two dining areas to The Grill and The Pool, and the restaurant received respectful reviews upon opening, attracting a few of the old regulars and a lot of curiosity-seekers.

But because von Bidder and Niccolini retained rights to the name The Four Seasons (which was always something of a problem when guests showed up thinking they were checking into the Four Seasons Hotel), they were able to attract investors to recreate, if not replicate, what had been a unique institution. The assumption was that the old-time regulars would return, bringing along a new generation of financial industry power brokers, even if many of the former had outgrown the trappings of what The Four Seasons once represented or just plain passed away.

The look of the new restaurant echoed some of the design elements of the original but, given its much smaller size, could never match its grandiosity or glamour; nor did it have anything distinctively New York about it, looking as if it could have been opened in any world capital.

There was also the widely reported issue of Niccolini’s behavior, which would once have been called “swinging” but which had led to two instances of harassment charges (both settled). Niccolini had always had the reputation of being Puckish, playing the commedia dell’arte jester, priding himself on his ability to rib and cajole some of the world’s richest men and women with mild insults. But last December, with von Bidder’s approval, Niccolini  was removed from his position as managing partner for his refusal to get treatment for his problems.

Then, a devastating review of the new Four Seasons by New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells appeared, spending nearly as much space on Niccolini’s reputation as on the food, service and new design. Thereafter it was clear that in the Me Too era, the new restaurant was not going to attract many professional women to a place that already had enjoyed a reputation as being emblematic of the city’s flagrant Mad Men past.

Hence this depressing paragraph in the Gothamist on Saturday:

While Pete Wells recently downgraded the restaurant to one-star, during a recent dinner at the bar (a beautiful centerpiece at the new space that is reminiscent of the iconic pool they left behind at the Seagram Building), I had a wonderful meal filled with classics like their crab cakes and lobster cocktail. While the whole evening felt like we had traveled back to the Mad Men era, knocking back old fashioned and Aviation cocktails, it was eerily quiet with absolutely no other customers in the place—the experience felt similar to “dining on the Titanic,” as my companion put it.

Who knows — in a few years, Rosen could acquire the rights to the Four Seasons Restaurant name and logos minus von Bidder and Niccolini, run a splashy “The Four Seasons Returns to the Seagram Building” ad campaign, and peace and harmony are restored to the New York restaurant world. He might even get a good restaurant review in the New York Times.

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