I’ll Have the Crab Cakes With a Side of Four Seasons Nostalgia

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The first person I recognized, as he strode to his table, was Donald Marron, the private equity investor, art collector and former chairman of Paine Webber. Then came former presidential candidate and Forbes Media chairman Steve Forbes. Ian Bremmer, the founder of the political consulting firm Eurasia Group, sat at the table next to mine, his brow perpetually furrowed as he discussed America’s deteriorating relationship with China. Marie-Josée Kravis, wife of Henry and New York power player in her own right, sat two tables over. Lynn Nesbit, literary agent to the stars, was in the house. So was the investment banker Paul Taubman, and the business consultant Bill White, and … and … .

Which is to say, three weeks after the reopening of the Four Seasons restaurant, it seemed at first glance as if nothing had changed. New York’s power brokers, after having to fend for themselves the past two years, were returning, oh-so-happily, to their cafeteria, the midtown Manhattan restaurant where the power lunch had practically been invented, a place where the $65 crab cake and the $75 Dover sole was comfort food.

But, of course, a lot had changed. The Four Seasons was no longer in that great modernist masterpiece, the Seagram Building, where it had been from 1959 to 2016. At one time, it had been “the most modern, the most daring, the most New York restaurant the city had ever seen,” in the words of William Grimes of the New York Times. But in 2016, the building’s owner, Aby Rosen, concluded that the Four Seasons was no longer either modern or daring, and declined to renew its lease, bringing in the younger, hipper New York restaurant company, Major Food Group, to reinvent the space.

The Four Seasons had been always been a two-room restaurant: the Grill Room, where the regulars all had their own tables, and the Pool Room. Major Food Group turned the two rooms into two separate restaurants — The Grill and The Pool — and that wasn’t the only change. The crab cake had been replaced with honey mustard duck breast; the Dover sole with larded squab in bittersweet orange sauce.

When the Grill opened last summer, the Times’s influential restaurant critic, Pete Wells, described it as “confident, sharp, theatrical and New Yorky” — the kind of description critics once showered on the Four Seasons. Twisting the knife a little further, Wells wrote that in recent years, the Four Seasons had become “a mess,” and he labeled a meal he’d had in 2013 as “a disaster.” He gave the Grill a coveted three-star rating.

All the while, Julian Niccolini and Alex von Bidder, who had run the Four Seasons since the late 1980s, fumed. Although both men were in their 60s and could afford to retire, they hated the idea that they were considered passé by the fooderatie, a theme that was sounded repeatedly in the breathless coverage of Major Food Group’s move to the Seagram Building. Compounding their problems, Niccolini was charged in 2015 with groping a 28-year-old woman at the Four Seasons bar. (He pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault in 2016.) This landed him in a place no New York celebrity ever wants to find himself: on the front page of the New York Post.

When I spoke to him late last week, Niccolini insisted he and von Bidder had nothing to prove. They did, though. Even before the Four Seasons departed the Seagram Building, the two men vowed to reopen. It was much harder, and took much longer, than they expected.

A space they were counting on a few blocks north of the Seagram Building — Niccolini even had Norman Foster, the famous British architect, design the dining room — fell through when a hedge fund took it at the last minute. They looked downtown, but concluded that was too far for their core clientele. Finally, they found a space in a high-rise on 49th Street and Park Avenue, a five-minute walk from their old quarters. Thirty million dollars later, they had their restaurant back.

To my eye, at least, it’s $30 million well-spent. Like the old Four Seasons, it is a two-room restaurant. One room is dominated by a gorgeous sunken bar that replicates the feel of the central feature of the old Pool Room. The other, larger room has a handful of plush, rounded banquettes, in addition to the tables, that are reminiscent of the Philip Johnson-designed Grill Room. The light fixtures alone — geometric showstoppers — cost millions. Niccolini and von Bidder even replicated the silver bowls originally designed by Garth Huxtable and his wife, Ada Louise Huxtable, the legendary New York Times architecture critic. Although I was hardly a regular at the old Four Seasons, the new place did seem to me to capture the feel of the original.

As for the food, it is a definite upgrade. Niccolini and von Bidder have lured two young chefs with big reputations: Diego Garcia, 30, who had been the executive chef at Gloria, and at Le Bernardin before that. His chef de cuisine is Brandon Lajes, 26, who also cut his teeth at New York’s most famous fish restaurant.

When I ate there the other day, I had one of the old standbys, the crab cake, which was moist and tasty. My companions ordered the roasted organic chicken and the charred squid. We were happy. Niccolini helped things along by pouring champagne we hadn’t asked for, but which we drank anyway. Pete Wells is unlikely to give the restaurant three stars, but does that really matter?

So far, Niccolini told me, Steve Schwarzman, the chairman of the Blackstone Group, has been in a handful of times, and so has Henry Kissinger and many of the regulars who used to frequent the restaurant when it was in the Seagram Building. Ruth Reichl, the writer and former editor of Gourmet, came on opening day. “The old crowd is back,” Niccolini crowed. When I noted that his clientele was getting older and that he would need to cultivate a new generation of power players, he claimed to be unworried. “People will discover this place,” he said. “They have to get comfortable here.”

In the late 1970s, the publisher Michael Korda wrote of the Four Seasons, “Powerful people eat in order to be seen with other powerful people.” So long as that’s true, the Four Seasons will do just fine.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Joe Nocera is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He has written business columns for Esquire, GQ and the New York Times, and is the former editorial director of Fortune. He is co-author of “Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA.”

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