The Four Seasons Restaurant
The Four Seasons was a New American cuisine restaurant in New York City. For decades, it was located at 99 East 52nd Street, in the Seagram Building in Midtown Manhattan. And then, briefly, from 2018 to 2019, at 42 East 49th Street in Midtown Manhattan.
The restaurant was owned by the Bronfman family, Alex von Bidder, and Julian Niccolini.
HistoryJoseph Baum of Restaurant Associates created the Four Seasons on the ground floor of the Seagram Building in 1959. The restaurant's managers enjoyed carte blanche to create what was then, at the cost of $4.5 million, the most expensive restaurant ever built in New York.
By 1973 the restaurant was considered to be past its prime. Restaurant Associates was overextended and was glad to unload the lease.
Tom Margittai and Paul Kovi acquired The Four Seasons in 1973.
In 1977, the book publisher Michael Korda proclaimed the Grill Room “the most powerful place to eat lunch in town”. A 1979 article in Esquire declared its Grill Room the setting for “America’s Most Powerful Lunch”. It is believed the term comes from this article.
In 1994 Margittai and Kovi passed the torch to their junior partners, Alex von Bidder and Julian Niccolini, who continued to run the restaurant in the Seagram Building until 2016.
FoodThe Four Seasons is associated with a number of milestone firsts in the hospitality industry. The Four Seasons is credited with introducing the idea of seasonally-changing menus to America. James Beard is considered founding father of The Four Seasons restaurant and a principal contributor to the development of its seasonal-food concept. He paired appropriate wines for each season, including offering American wines for the first time. It was the first destination restaurant to print its menus in English. The Four Seasons was also the first restaurant in the US to cook using fresh, wild mushrooms. The restaurant pioneered what later came to be called “New American Cuisine.”
Cotton candy was a specialty.
ClienteleMost reviewers came to think the menu was never really the point of the restaurant which became a stage for the high and the mighty.
The restaurant is known as much for its clientele as its food, with its Midtown location making it convenient for.
Anna Wintour, Henry Kissinger, Martha Stewart, Bill Clinton, George Lois, Bill Bernbach and Jackie Kennedy were regular customers. Philip Johnson had lunch there daily at a special table in the Grill Room.
Awards and honorsThe restaurant itself has been widely praised, winning the James Beard Award many times – for Outstanding Wine Service in 1997 and for Outstanding Service in 1998; It was called an "Outstanding Restaurant" in 1999 and a "Design Icon" in 2016.
DesignThe restaurant's interior, which was designed by the building's architects Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, remained almost unchanged since construction in 1959. The restaurant was designated by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission as an interior landmark in 1989.
The restaurant consisted of two separate 60 by 60 ft rooms with 20 ft high ceilings. The Grill Room featured French walnut paneling and two intricate wire and metal sculptures by Richard Lippold. A passage between the two rooms featured a large stage curtain which Picasso painted for the Ballets Russes. The Pool Room centered around a white, 20 by 20 ft marble pool with ornamental trees at the pool's corners. Four large planters at the corners of the pool held trees that were changed concurrently with the seasons. In both rooms the windows had metal curtains that rippled from the air released by hidden ventilating ducts. The east wall had a balcony behind a double row of walnut panels. The lower panels could be opened. The ceiling panels held specially designed lighting which could be adjusted to the day or season.
Over a hundred items of serviceware were designed by L. Garth Huxtable and Ada Louise Huxtable, everything from champagne glasses to bread trays. The work took over nine months. Today they and all of the Four Seasons Restaurant's furniture are part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art.
For the celebration of the restaurant's 50th anniversary, The Four Seasons hired Manhattan Architect Belmont Freeman FAIA for a full restoration of the ladies' lounge.
ArtThe artist Mark Rothko was engaged to paint a series of works for the restaurant in 1958. Accepting the commission, he secretly resolved to create "something that will ruin the appetite of every son-of-a-bitch who ever eats in that room." Observing the restaurant's pretentious atmosphere upon his return from a trip to Europe, Rothko abandoned the project altogether, returned his advance and kept the paintings for himself. The final series was dispersed and now hangs in three locations: London's Tate Gallery, Japan's Kawamura Memorial Museum and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. During the period in which Rothko worked on his murals, the Four Seasons rented Jackson Pollock's masterpiece Blue Poles from its then-owner, art collector Ben Heller.
From 1975 until 1985 four paintings by Ronnie Landfield from the collection of Philip Johnson were installed on the wall that had been initially planned for the Mark Rothko commission. In 1985 the artist James Rosenquist was commissioned to install a permanent mural on the wall; the Landfield paintings were returned to Philip Johnson. A major Richard Lippold sculpture is installed in the Front Bar, which hangs from the ceiling.
The large, 20 by 20 ft curtain designed by Pablo Picasso for the Ballets Russes ballet Le Tricorne has been hung between the Grill Room and the Pool Room since the restaurant opened. The curtain is a portion of a Picasso tapestry used as a prop for the ballet that was purchased in 1957 by Phyllis Lambert, the daughter of the Seagram founder Samuel Bronfman, and installed in the entryway to the restaurant for its opening in 1959. In 2014, the curtain was removed permanently from that location, and is currently in the New-York Historical Society. Controversy over the plans to remove the curtain existed and the Museum of Modern Art offered storage space for it if the outcome is removal.
In addition to the works on permanent public display there were other works and continuously revolving exhibitions in the dining rooms and the 52nd Street entrance walls which have included works by Joan Miró, paintings by Frank Stella, Ronnie Landfield, Robert Indiana, and Richard Anuszkiewicz, amongst several others.
DemiseIn June 2015, Aby Rosen, owner of the Seagram Building, announced that the restaurant's lease would not be extended. The Four Seasons’ rent went from $20 per square foot to $105. The Seagram Building location closed after dinner service on July 16, 2016.
In July 2016, the furnishings of the restaurant were sold at auction in New York. The sale carried a high estimate of $1.33 million but at the end of the day it had brought in $4.1 million. Four ashtrays were sold for $12,500.
In August 2018, The Four Seasons opened at a new, smaller midtown location at 42 East 49th Street. The new space was designed by Brazilian architect Isay Weinfeld and it cost $30 million to build. Many of the design elements evoked the iconic décor at the former location.
The Four Seasons was closed permanently on Tuesday June 11, 2019. This was due to decreased traffic from diners that had once frequented the establishment at the Seagram Building. After being closed for 2 years, the restaurant struggled to regain profitability. Legal issues involving the previous owner, Julian Niccolini, and a former executive chef, the name is not kept confidential, were also thought to have played a role in the restaurant's demise.
Two new restaurants are now located in the Seagram Building. In what was the Four Seasons' Pool Room is a restaurant called the Pool which is closed and reformed to the Grill. The former Grill Room is the home of another restaurant, called The Grill.
In popular cultureIn 2009, The Four Seasons was the subject of a mockumentary and a children's book published in August 2009.
John Logan's Tony Award-winning 2010 play Red dramatizes Mark Rothko's time working on the Seagram Murals.