A Critic’s Last Look at the Four Seasons and Brasserie
The Four Seasons was New York’s hottest restaurant in the summer of 1959, with an opening cost of $4.5 million. It was one of the first to change its entire menu with the seasons—a theme restaurant devised by relentless hitmaker Joe Baum—and this menu wasn’t classic French but extravagant, modern New American. Before the end of the year, Craig Claiborne called it “the most exciting restaurant to open in New York within the last two decades.”
It’s not so exciting any more, but every now and then I meet someone’s grandma who goes there once a fortnight after a blowout, a couple that goes back each year for an anniversary, or a power lunch enthusiast with love for the Grill Room. I went to the Four Seasons last week for the very first time, knowing that real estate investor Aby Rosen wouldn’t be renewing the lease next year and that in a few months, one of the city’s most famous restaurants would have to pack it in.
Tableside service is still emphasized, but it's clumsy. The steak tartare was overmixed on a trolley, then presented in a dark, dangerous-looking puddle, the color of a fresh wound. It tasted exclusively of Tabasco. The caviar cost $190, and nobody knew where it came from. "Not Iran,” said the waiter, "Not Russia. Maybe somewhere in Europe?" This seemed highly unlikely. In any case, the caviar was a vaguely fishy mush. And the potato rosti underneath it simulated the texture of frozen hash browns but with the granular, thickly crisp exterior of a tater tot.
The food that followed wasn’t great, either—both pheasant and monkfish were dry and overcooked. So why, exactly, was I having such a wonderful time? It must have been the wave of fine golden chains suspended along the windows, sparkling like the back of an evening gown in motion. It must have been that the Four Seasons was designed by Philip Johnson and is one of the most stunning landmarked interiors in New York—one of the few that will make you comfortable while you visit—and bring you a cloud of cotton candy studded with candied violets on your birthday.
Half the pleasure comes from being in that coldly beautiful, resolutely elitist dining room full of suits, knowing that John F. Kennedy celebrated his 45th birthday there in 1962, with crab meat baked in a sea shell. That Norman Mailer threw his own 50th birthday bash at the Four Seasons (and charged $50 a head). Graydon Carter, Aretha Franklin, Anna Wintour, and Martha Stewart were among the restaurant’s longtime regulars. Diana, Princess of Wales, came for lunch in the late '90s, just after Alex von Bidder and Julian Niccolini took the ownership.
Brasserie, which is also in the Seagram Building, is also closing. There was a time when Brasserie never closed. Back when it was 24 hours, the French restaurant was included in New York Unexpurgated, a moldy little guide to getting laid in Manhattan, printed in 1966. The book nicknamed it "the bargain basement of the Four Seasons," which proved to be an unfortunately sticky label, and the author noted it was "worth attending occasionally, to observe what slithers down those stairs at dawn."
There was zero slithering last week. The soup was just all right, the whole fish wasn’t whole, and the seafood platter was business as usual. By 9:55 p.m., the restaurant was already winding down, getting ready for the morning rush of power breakfasts. A row of tiny screens above the bar, installed during the 2000 renovations by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, used to show images of diners walking through the entrance of the restaurant, so you always felt like you were in a moody drama about extra-marital affairs. Tonight it showed basketball.
Seymour Britchky reviewed the pleasures of what he called Brasserie’s suicide shift in 1978—raw clams and rare steaks at three a.m. in the company of insomniacs, post office workers, poker game losers, women still in the gowns they’d worn to the charity balls. It sounded good. But in New York, there’s always someone telling you how much better it was before. By 1978, according to Britchky, the food at Brasserie was already in decline. It had been better before.
Gael Greene, writing about the Four Seasons for New York said in 1980: “I love the Four Seasons although I have never had a great meal there.” Maybe the greatness of the Seagram Building’s restaurants was never in the food. Maybe it transcended the food a long time ago.
I review restaurants for a living, but I know that sometimes, what you eat is beside the point. Sometimes you step into a restaurant as you would enter a grand cathedral; there's no intention of praying, but you want to be in the way of an absurd amount of beauty—to feel something.
This is easy at the Four Seasons, if you sip freezing cold gin under the tines of the Richard Lippold sculpture. Chances are, you’ll be taken care of by someone graceful and efficient who knows how to wait a table, and you’ll see how the regulars are greeted.
It’s hard to deny that these restaurants run on nostalgia, too. The partners behind Major Food Group, who will take over the Four Seasons and Brasserie spaces next summer, are good at nostalgia. They specialize in it. They have built an empire with the dark arts of nostalgia—waiters in tuxes and tableside service and extinct dishes revived with emphatic kitsch. They are sure to greatly improve the food and increase the prices and present something glamorous and massively theatrical, just the way New York’s hottest restaurant did in the summer of '59.
But I know now what I’ll say if the glass and walnut panels ever come down, the comfortable chairs are replaced, and the weird squishy padding under the tablecloths is pulled out. When the men don’t have to wear jackets and come for dinner in Shkreli hoodies. When the service trolleys are upgraded and new wine cellars built-in. When the room Johnson designed disappears and the Four Seasons is replaced. And a bit of New York is really and truly lost. I'll say it was better before.