There are elegant restaurants and erotic restaurants, restaurants for business and restaurants for pleasure – and one that was all of these things, more beautiful than any other. But after six decades, the Four Seasons, as stately as ever in its glass box off Park Avenue, will complete its last service on Saturday. Then the restaurant – the place Jackie Kennedy called “the cathedral”, an acme of modernist design outshining any other space in New York – will be despoiled. The tables, the furnishings, and even the pots and pans will be flogged off at auction later this month. The season is summer. But for architectural preservationists, students of modern design, and lovers of New York, this is a winter of discontent.
The Four Seasons opened in 1959 at the base of the Seagram Building, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s city-reshaping black skyscraper on Park Avenue – a building that the late critic Herbert Muschamp, with slight but understandable hyperbole, once called the greatest work of architecture of the past thousand years. The architect Philip Johnson was tasked with designing the space, which he paneled in rich burled walnut; delicate window coverings made of aluminum beads made the light appear to dance. Diners sat in nimble, cantilevered chairs of Mies’s design; Eero Saarinen kitted out the women’s powder room with his well-known tulip chairs; and Ada Louise Huxtable, not yet the doyenne of New York architecture critics, had a hand in everything from the champagne flutes to the bread baskets.
For the writer Paul Goldberger, Johnson’s design of the Four Seasons substantiated a modernism that was more than mere functionalism – and proved “the notion that modernism could, in fact, deal in emotion”. That modernist commitment extended to the art on the walls. Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles, a syncopated abstraction now in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia, initially hung in the dining room. But the owners wanted a custom job, and called Mark Rothko. The painter got to work on a suite of murals, which darkened as he worked from Bordeaux red to near-blackouts. The more he worked, the angrier he got, until he finally said: “Anyone who will eat that kind of food for those kind of prices will never look at a painting of mine.” Rothko pulled out of the commission; the murals are now in the collection of Tate Modern in London.
In its early days, the Four Seasons staked its claim as a home for American cuisine cooked with the same ambition, and priced at the same altitudes, then still reserved for French restaurants. (Even its name was a statement of intent, decades before the brunching hordes got fixated on “seasonality”.) Upon its opening it was the most expensive restaurant in the city. The New York Times’ critic acclaimed its decor and its verve, though he huffed that the kitchen was not as “exquisite” as “la grande cuisine française”.
But the restaurant’s heyday was the 1970s. Outside, the city came within days of bankruptcy, and the streets were choked with crime. Inside, tycoons and socialites conducted a choreographed spectacle of dining and table-hopping worthy of France’s ancien régime. New York’s world of publishing gravitated to the Grill Room, as did magazine editors with expense accounts larger than the entire budgets of today’s viral content abattoirs. (“I’ve hatched every one of my deals in the booths over that swordfish and salad,” whirrs Tina Brown.) In 1977 two new managers, Julian Niccolini of Italy and Alex von Bidder of Switzerland, arrived at the restaurant – they’re now co-owners – and under their eyes the Four Seasons became the de facto canteen of New York’s elite, with a regular roster of bankers, fashion types, and at least one war criminal.
At the Four Seasons, lunch and dinner were profoundly different experiences. Lunch, unless you were a neophyte or having an affair, always took place in the Grill Room, the restaurant’s anterior chamber. Dinner, unless you were exiled to the Siberian tables, was in the Pool Room, the restaurant’s main dining area. The tables were arranged with ample space, nothing like the Tetris-style closeness we’ve since grown to accept. A quartet of trees framed the dining space, and in the center was the room’s namesake square impluvium, quietly burbling as diners laughed and gossiped in the golden light. As for the food itself … well, shall we say that it did not distract from the decor? Steak and vegetables, some grilled fish, a serviceable soft-shell crab: the tide had long gone out in the Four Seasons kitchen, but so what? Here the plates mattered more than what was on them.
In 2000 the Seagram Building was sold to the real estate maven Aby Rosen. Despite his prodigious collection of contemporary art – acquired in singular circumstances; last May he settled with the New York attorney general to the tune of $7m in back taxes – Rosen was never impressed with the heritage of the Four Seasons, and he spent years battling with the city’s landmark commission to remove a Picasso tapestry that hung between Grill Room and Pool Room. We should have known, when the Picasso got axed, that the end was coming. With its lease up, Rosen hiked the rent on the Four Seasons more than fivefold. The restaurateurs are moving on, and the new leaseholders will be an outfit called the Major Food Group. They specialize in theme park restaurants at which the young rich can pretend, Marie Antoinette-style, to be first-generation immigrants, paying outrageous multiples for matzo ball soup or veal parmesan.
Whether the new tenants hit or flop, it won’t be the Four Seasons any more. The restaurant was a Gesamtkunstwerk, and once you’ve sold off the furniture, junked the stately graphic design and driven away the clientele, it will have come apart. So last week I threw on a suit, poured myself into a cab and took myself to the Four Seasons for the last time. The night was hot, and in the Grill Room I had a valedictory martini under the shimmering mobile, designed by the artist Richard Lippold, that was suspended above the bar. In the Pool Room my partner and I ordered a duck, which was carved tableside without much finesse; half the carcass was left over, and the meat was as desiccated as bone. The wine was overpriced, the service was doddering. But it didn’t matter: the beaded curtains glistered like Titian’s shower of gold, and all around us was the soft, reliable murmur of contentment.
My word, it was beautiful. I stayed until midnight, when all the other diners had picked apart the cotton candy and headed home. No doubt the martinis helped here, but it was my last ever night in the Four Seasons, and so I took off my shoes and socks, rolled up my trousers, and then, after all those years, I jumped into Philip Johnson’s marble pool. I waded around, dragged my hand through the water, and looked at the loveliest room in New York from its very nucleus, from a vantage point I had never seen before. Then I walked out of the Four Seasons for the last time, dripping, and the history of modernism evaporated from my sodden trousers into the New York summer night.
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