Why the Four Seasons Restaurant revival never stood a chance

By | June 9, 2019

Few New Yorkers under the age of fifty will care much when The Four Seasons restaurant serves its last meal — a less-than-power lunch — on Tuesday.

The plodding revival two blocks south of the once-great institution’s original home in the Seagram Building never had a chance. Its formal style and cuisine were long past their expiration date and its clientele had since moved on. A festering sexual-harassment scandal lent the killing stroke.

But the demise of its name should sadden anyone who cares about New York City. The original Four Seasons lasted nearly sixty years until Seagram landlord Aby Rosen pulled its plug-in 2016, but its glory years were from the late 1970s through the 1990s.

The place was at its best when the crumbling, crime-ridden, near-bankrupt city was at its worst. Its unique architectural, culinary and social mystique outlasted the decay pressing in all around and vindicated the hope it lent of better times ahead.

Owners Alex von Bidder and Julian Niccolini ought to have called it a day in 2016. Instead, they tapped investors, including original backers the Bronfman family, to refloat the boat at 280 Park Avenue.

But the result wasn’t The Four Seasons 2.0 — it was 1.02, a feeble simulacrum despite having a $ 32 million design and a talented young chef, Diego Garcia.

The era of the $ 40 baked potato, a Henry Kissinger favorite, was over. So was the need for a “power lunch” mecca of the kind The Four Seasons once was.

Dealmakers, showbiz boldfaces and even society types were gradually migrating far from once-almighty East Midtown. The diaspora started with Balthazar in 1996. Today, some wheeler-dealers would as soon break bread at Tamarind in Tribeca or at Adda in Long Island City. Those who stayed in Midtown sought out the livelier food and atmospheres of Gattopardo, Fresco and Nobu 57.

The Four Seasons ironically helped bring on its own demise. By helping see the Big Apple through its dark era, it contributed to the whirlwind transformation that brought safe streets, new life — and fine new restaurants — to once-remote precincts.

But its short-lived revival had other problems as well. The two-year buildout dragged on so long that long-time habitues lost interest. Meanwhile, the landmarked original venue was revived as two separate restaurants, The Grill and The Pool, which were so gorgeously restored that many customers — myself among them — can’t help referring to them as “The Four Seasons.”

In 2016, Niccolini pled guilty plea to an ugly third-degree misdemeanor assault charge. He escaped a felony conviction that could have sent him to prison. The case’s stench in the #metoo era, and memories of earlier non-criminal sexual harassment claims involving Niccolini, made the new Four Seasons a stumbling elephant with a bullet in its brain. Another, unreported case of alleged abuse that involved an employee who was neither Niccolini or von Bidder might have killed the place before it opened had it come to public light.

Von Bidder and his partners finally booted Niccolini in December 2018, but it was too late. Young women didn’t want to go there. Nor did many others of any age or gender. A shocked friend emailed me a few months ago that “there were only four tables [with people] at lunch.” I wasn’t surprised; a friend who took me there in September paid $ 265 for her single plate of pasta with white truffles.

It’s tragic that the Four Seasons’ second coming did no justice to its predecessor. Younger New Yorkers may never know how wonderful it was — and how much it meant to the city it played no small part in saving.

Living | New York Post