Empty Windows On The World?

It was lunchtime at Windows on the World, and Bryan Musso was ready to dine in style. "We were all pretty excited about it," he says. But just as the 22-year-old New Orleans native and his Dean Witter Discover & Co. cohorts sat down to eat on Feb. 26, a terrorists' bomb blew out the World Trade Center's parking garage, shutting down the twin-tower complex and its glassy restaurant in the sky. Musso spent the rest of his day walking down 107 flights of stairs.

Musso would like to go back, but he can't get a reservation. While most tenants in Tower One have returned to their digs, Windows remains empty, its renowned wine cellar corked. The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, which owns the Center, says it won't allow the top-floor eatery to reopen until major changes are made--probably including new management.

The problem? Windows on the World hasn't paid rent in at least a year, according to the Port Authority, which leases the dining space to Inhilco, a unit of Hilton International Corp. Under the terms of the lease, Inhilco pays rent only if it turns a profit--and it hasn't lately.

FALLEN SOUFFLE. Though it ranks as the third-biggest-grossing independent restaurant in the country, according to the trade magazine Restaurants and Institutions, Windows' sales have fallen like a bad souffle. In 1992, the restaurant pulled in $18 million, down from a peak of about $25 million in 1987, says the Port Authority. "After 18 years, it's outlived its life cycle," says Randall Hiatt, president of Fessel International, a consultant the Port Authority hired last year to try and revive the restaurant.

When it opened in 1976, Windows on the World reigned as Manhattan's restaurant of the moment. But by the early '80s, its food and service had slipped. Today, although more than 400,000 visitors revolve through its doors yearly, the restaurant is largely dismissed by savvy New York eaters. The Zagat New York City Restaurant Survey awarded Windows just 16 out of 30 possible points for food (Papaya King, a hot dog stand, got 17) and 19 for service.

Meanwhile, the multi-terraced decor seems as dated as an eight-track tape. "A restaurant with the visibility of Windows should be a trendsetter," says Michael Whiteman, a restaurant consultant and co-owner of rival Rainbow Room. "But for 10 years, it's been allowed to fritter away from the public mind."

Competitors speculate that management made matters worse by allowing staffing and overhead costs to soar. More than 260 of the almost 300 Windows employees, everyone from bartenders to captains, are unionized. And coping with rising costs of food and utilities while maintaining two floors of penthouse space seems a daunting task, even to Windows' own employees. "Thank God I don't run the place," says Garrett Vlad, a former floor captain.

Who will run the place remains a big question. "We're keeping an open mind and looking at all the options," says Robert Catlin, the Port Authority's manager of consumer and patron services. The agency is compiling a list of potential managers that includes Warner Leroy, who runs Tavern on the Green, and Alan Stillman, president of the New York Restaurant Group, which operates several well-known Manhattan eateries, including the Park Avenue Cafe. Hilton declines to comment on its discussions with the Port Authority.

Most analysts think there's enough cachet left on the 107th floor for someone to turn a profit. "If you're an out-of-towner with money, that's where you want to go," says one marketing consultant. Certainly, it's where Bryan Musso wants to go, still: "I never did actually get to try the food," he says. Someday, the food may be worth his wait.

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