One of my first memories of New York is of being taken out to lunch with my younger brother at the Four Seasons’ Pool Room by a family friend. I was about five, and he three. Upon seeing the burbling waters of the reflecting pool in the middle of the room, my brother and I immediately announced our intention to jump in when we had finished eating. The adults at our table, though tickled by the thought of two young boys splashing around while men in grey double-breasted suits (it was the mid-90s) tried to make deals, wanted to dissuade us from our scheme, so asked one of the waiters whether swimming in the pool was permitted. The waiter said that he had a better idea, and immediately headed to the kitchen. He returned bearing what to my mind is the most classic Four Seasons dish, a cumulonimbus tower of cotton candy surrounding a melting core of vanilla ice cream. Suffice it to say all thoughts of swimming swiftly fled our minds.
As I look through Victoria Hely-Hutchinson’s beautiful pictures of the Four Seasons, its kitchens and its staff and its staff, I remember just how much, even as a five-year-old, I was impressed by the space I was eating in. Phillip Johnson’s 1959 design for the space, nestled in the coxal region of the Seagram Building in midtown Manhattan, speaks to what a restaurant could be. Truth be told, the restaurant was always a little arch, even perhaps a little too much so at times: a 1960 piece in the New Yorker noted that a “Continental atmosphere” was so “determinedly maintained” at the restaurant that a bartender had, upon answering the phone, said to a colleague, “Joe, it’s pour tu.” But though the space it inhabited was grandiose and the manners it aspired to were even more so, dining at the Four Seasons was also an intensely personal experience, amplified by the attentive waiters and the delicious food, both of which never seemed to change. “You get that feeling that you’re in the Grand Canyon,” noted Regina McMenamin, who has worked at the Four Seasons for 22 years as a spokesperson. “You see people who walking in, and it’s like, ‘it’s little me,’ and then suddenly a switch flips and it’s like, ‘no, I got this, it’s big me.’”
Johnson’s design permitted this experience; every object at the restaurant felt carefully placed, from the chairs to the curved banquettes to the roiling fountain that we so wanted to jump into. My father would later tell me that it functioned as a white noise machine, to block out the conversations had by the business and political folk who filled the Pool Room. People who dined in the restaurant’s other area – the Grill Room – were often from the worlds of media, fashion and entertainment, and were always a little snooty about the greyness of the Pool Room’s occupants. Graydon Carter once called it “Siberia”.
I talk about the Four Seasons in the past tense because Hely-Hutchinson’s photographs also evoke a lost world. After a protracted battle over rent, art, and relevance, between the restaurant’s owners and the building’s landlord, the Four Seasons will close on the 16th of July. The landlord, the real-estate tycoon Aby Rosen, argued that the restaurant was paying less than a fifth of market-rate rent for the space and had become trapped in the past; the restaurant’s owners, Alex von Bidder and Julian Niccolini, said they were stewarding a great New York institution. An insider told me a deal was not done because of a massive clash of egos, and stubbornness on both sides. For many observers, the first casualty of the fight was the massive Picasso tapestry that had hung in the corridor to the Pool Room, which was moved out in 2014, and is now thankfully on view at the New York Historical Society. Rosen plans to open a new restaurant in the Seagram Building space, hung, it seems, with some of his collection of modern art; Niccolini and von Bidder plan to open a new restaurant nearby. 130 jobs hang into the balance. I spoke to someone close to Rosen’s renovation team, and it will come as some consolation to power lunchers that his team plans to hew very closely to Johnson’s original designs, and improve some parts of the restaurant, like the lighting system, which had fallen into disrepair.
The Four Seasons has always fascinated the city that surrounds it. In many ways it has mirrored the ebb and flow of New York across the 282 seasons it’s been open. It’s seen violence: in 1979 a pastry chef was gunned down after robbers tried to break in. It’s seen financial loss: William Sokolin punctured a half-million dollar bottle of wine in 1989. It’s been innovative: the restaurant was the first to use fresh wild mushrooms in its cooking, and in the 1980s, pioneered the softshell crab craze (a manager at the time said they were selling like “hotcakes”). But regulars will tell you the Four Seasons was not about the place, the scandal, or even the food, it was about the people. I once saw Charlie Rose grill Niall Ferguson at the restaurant on precisely why he had called Henry Kissinger an idealist in his latest book, and then, a few months later, at a Super Bowl party complete with giant screens, cheerleaders and t-shirt launchers, Dr. Kissinger himself; sitting close by was Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
One evening this February, I went to the Pool Room with an old friend to say goodbye. The room was almost empty and rain streaked the towering windows. As we were ushered through the courses of a delightful dinner, I realised that when all the famous patrons had left, the Four Seasons was mostly about the people who run it. Hely-Hutchinson’s photographs show the care and precision taken by the staff in preparing meals (and that delicious cotton candy). And it was always thus. After Jim Kelly, a much beloved bartender, was inducted into the Bartenders’ Hall of Fame, in 1987, he explained the ethos of the Four Seasons to a reporter from Nation’s Restaurant News. “Every day some of the finest people in the world come to this grand room with its magnificent setting to be with us,” he said. “We consider it a privilege to be able to meet them and to serve them.”