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The Never-Ending Power Lunch

At the center of New York's mogul universe, the Four Seasons restaurant attracts a formidable crowd looking for the right table
Mitchell Fink
From the Print Edition:
The Best Places to Gamble, Sep/Oct 02

Barry Diller prefers an interior table, backed by another table and out in the open where casual conversation may be picked up and repeated in a gossip column the following day. On the other hand, the media mogul's wife, designer Diane von Furstenberg, normally chooses the northern-most booth, one of only five booths, where she may be seen but hopefully not heard. Then again, Von Furstenberg doesn't always have the luxury of sitting in that particular spot, especially if Edgar M. Bronfman is in the house. He always has first dibs on that table, and the former liquor magnate is quite comfortable there even though on any given day his son, Edgar Bronfman Jr., might be peering over him from his perch on the second-floor balcony. As for NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, he will graciously sit anywhere, even though his counterpart at CBS, Dan Rather, usually insists on eating in another room altogether.

Welcome to lunch at the Four Seasons, the midtown Manhattan restaurant where the pecking order is measured not by what you eat but rather with whom you eat and the direction you face. After all, they don't call lunch at the Four Seasons the "power lunch" for nothing. This is where the movers and shakers come to share the spoils of attitude and entitlement. Breaking bread just happens to be a necessary part of the ritual. It's also a ritual that's been going on for years. In the first paean on the power lunch crowd, published by Esquire magazine in 1979, the roster of names included James Beard, Bill Blass and John Chancellor, now all dead and some people who simply aren't regulars today, such as Calvin Klein, Oscar de la Renta, Roger Straus, Nelson Doubleday and Bess Meyerson. But a new generation of power brokers, from the worlds of high finance, publishing and the media, have taken their place. It may be Steve Rattner of the Quadrangle Group, or consulting guru Michael Wolf of McKinsey & Co, or Henry Kissinger, or Esquire's David Granger, or Art Cooper, the editor of rival GQ, or even, on some previously good days, Martha Stewart.

"Most of the people who come to the Four Seasons are not really here to overindulge themselves as far as eating and drinking is concerned," says Julian Niccolini, a managing partner and co-owner of the tony East 52nd Street monument to success. "People are really conducting business here. And if you're doing that on an everyday basis, you're not going to drink as much wine or eat as much food as you might like. Our customers like to use the restaurant to their best advantage. It's the name of the game."

For Niccolini, the game began in 1977 when Four Seasons owners Tom Margittai and Paul Kovi hired him to manage the Grill Room, which along with the more ornate Pool Room make up the restaurant's two main dining areas. Back then, the Pool Room was considerably more popular for lunch than the Grill Room and boasted a clientele that included advertising executives Jerry Della Femina and Marvin Sloves, Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione, movie producer Joseph E. Levine and theatrical agent Milton Goldman. According to Niccolini, Levine and Goldman each routinely tried to outdo the other by bringing along a bevy of starlets for all the other diners to see. This was easily accomplished because the bold-faced names usually sat at the best tables, and they were always the ones surrounding the pool, which was and still is in the center of the room.

But a change started happening in the late-'70s. As larger advertising agencies gobbled up smaller ones, the CEOs in charge soon closed their Madison Avenue offices in favor of cheaper real estate downtown. Suddenly, the Four Seasons was not as geographically desirable as it had been. Business didn't suffer, claims Niccolini, but the new faces in the Pool Room were not the kind of people you'd be reading about in the next day's papers. "Instead of having all these film and advertising executives coming in for lunch," recalls Niccolini, "we began to get more 'normal' people in the Pool Room. By that I mean instead of the same people coming in every day, now people were coming in once or twice a week."

Some of these so-called normal people -- or "civilians," as Daily Variety columnist Army Archerd might refer to them -- were critical of the Pool Room. A room that had once been anointed as sumptuous was now being quietly branded by the new crowd as "ostentatious, too grand," says Niccolini.

But rather than look for grazing rights at another local eatery, the movers began staking out new territory in the Grill Room. "The Grill Room was a little more clubby-like," says Niccolini. "As time went by, they started talking the Grill Room up in the press, and people started believing it. People started going around and saying, 'Can you imagine that here in the Grill Room of the Four Seasons we have 40 of the most powerful people in America for lunch on a daily basis?' Out of that, people picked it up and it came to be called the power lunch."

There are 33 tables in the Grill Room, 22 on the main floor and 11 on the aforementioned second-floor balcony. According to Niccolini, all 33 are sold out every day, or "every single day," as he proudly exclaims. Of course, not everyone likes being sent upstairs, which in a perceived power structure like the Four Seasons can be tantamount to being sent to Siberia. At the old Spago in West Hollywood, waiters used to refer to the back room as "the steakhouse," which is where all the yahoos and wanna-bes would be sent to celebrate their birthdays and anniversaries. At least the Grill Room balcony has a view of the main floor.

"When people make a reservation," says Niccolini, "they know if they're not a regular customer, they might be seated in the balcony. Some people complain. Some people don't complain."

The Bronfman scion is part of the latter group, even though as a longtime patron he would be perfectly justified in requesting a table on the main floor. The fact is, he has never had any qualms about his balcony location, and may very well be the leader of the second floor. "The Bronfmans have been coming to the restaurant since it first opened in 1959," says Niccolini. "Edgar Bronfman Jr. has been sitting in that last table upstairs since he was a kid. He is representative of a lot of people sitting upstairs who don't need the kind of ego massaging that other people need. They are sure of themselves. They know who they are."

While the majority of patrons on the main floor probably know who they are, too, they are not immune to the gamesmanship and all the jockeying for position involved in securing one of those prized 22 tables. According to Niccolini, only the Bronfmans and Philip Johnson, the 96-year-old architect, insist on eating at one specific table and no other. For them, there is no game: the elder Bronfman encamps himself in the northern-most booth -- coveted also by von Furstenberg -- his son sits above him on the balcony, and Johnson gets the last booth closest to 52nd Street.

"Philip has also been coming here since 1959," says Niccolini, who became a Four Seasons managing partner in 1994 along with restaurant manager Alex von Bidder. "When Philip comes in, he goes directly to his table. When he doesn't come, I can definitely seat someone else at his table without any problem. But if he comes, he gets preferential treatment. It's that simple." Not so simple is the ego-driven game of musical chairs played by nearly everyone else. And naturally it is Niccolini who decides when and how the music stops.

Without any lack of self-confidence, he says he could seat the room "with my eyes closed." For example, when Edgar M. Bronfman is not there, von Furstenberg gets tabbed. If Johnson is not coming in, his table might go to GQ editor Art Cooper, who recently had lunch in the Grill Room with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

Another Grill Room regular, gossip columnist Liz Smith, sat at the Johnson table recently with her pal, director Joel Schumacher, and investment banker Pete Peterson, who was celebrating his birthday. During the customary singing of "Happy Birthday," Niccolini presented Peterson with an enormous helping of cotton candy and the goo was all over Peterson's hands as he accepted congratulations from well-wishers. This is about as down and dirty as it gets at the Four Seasons, unless, of course, people start fighting over tables, something Niccolini, the referee, makes sure never happens.

The middle three booths, from left to right, will often go to Condé Nast president and chief executive officer Steve Florio, Simon & Schuster editor Michael Korda and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. If Korda is not around, Barbara Walters may get the nod, or perhaps the ageless partygiver Brooke Astor. If Florio is out of town, Niccolini says you might look for Donald Trump to take his place.

Of course, all this is subject to change. On the day von Furstenberg lunched at Bronfman's corner table, Korda's middle booth was occupied by the duo of New York gubernatorial hopeful Carl McCall and Bill Clinton buddy Vernon Jordan. Former football great Frank Gifford didn't appear to be seated anywhere, but he sure worked the room that day, stopping to say hello to all the familiar faces, including designer Arnold Scaasi and singer Beverly Sills, who were seated at an interior table next to the one normally occupied by Diller.

On another day, New York Daily News owner Mort Zuckerman found himself being led to one of the lower echelon tables across from the bar. Niccolini doesn't see the area as a slight because that row of tables on the western-most side of the room could just as easily accommodate the likes of designer Ralph Lauren and YES network chief Leo Hindery. He also says he has some delicate issues, like when both Cooper and Granger arrive for lunch; Granger used to work for Cooper, and they've sparred politely in the media ever since.

In Niccolini's not-so-humble opinion, each of the Grill Room's 33 tables is a "quality table."

"We are not like that old established restaurant down the street," he says, dissing 21, which is also on 52nd Street but a few blocks west. "Over there, people have to have their own special place. We are very democratic. When people are very kind to us and loyal to us, if we have a booth available that day, we're more than happy to seat them there. Not everybody actually needs to be at the same table every day. We change people around all the time."

The Four Seasons staff does that, Niccolini says, by calling their regular customers on a daily basis. "People don't normally call to say they're not coming," he says. "So we call them up every morning and we ask, 'Is such-and-such coming today?' They say, 'Yes, no and goodbye.' We have to remind them. They cannot remind us because otherwise every afternoon we'd be half empty. This is a service business, and we have to go after them. Also, you have to realize that people who come to this restaurant, especially in the Grill Room at lunchtime, they never see a bill because they have their own house account. For them, it's like a club."

But with a finite number of tables and only so many days in the week, it is a club that not everyone can get into. And another thing: it's pricey. Niccolini likes to say that a typical lunch in the Grill Room can cost $55 per person, with a typical lunch in the Pool Room costing $20 more because people tend to languish there longer. The menus suggest otherwise. In truth, it's probably closer to a C-note per person in both rooms.

But that surely hasn't stopped the flow of customers who seemingly want to be there in practically any economic climate. "Do people who can't get in get angry?" Niccolini asks rhetorically. "Most of the time when they get upset, it's because they're here for the first time, or the only time, and they heard about the Grill Room at lunchtime, and they want a reservation and they want to be seated downstairs. And most of the time I have to tell them I'm really sorry. If I have a table, I'm more than happy to give it to them. And if I don't, that's the way it is. I would hope they understand, and if they don't, it's too bad."

Of course, there's always the Pool Room with all the "normal" people and Dan Rather, whom Niccolini also places in the Grill Room from time to time. This spring, the water was removed during New York's serious water shortage, but it was restored in early summer after the rains came. Water or no water, the aesthetic inconvenience didn't stop former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley from having a quiet lunch in the Pool Room while McCall and Jordan were busy being big shots in the Grill Room.

As for Niccolini, he never even bid farewell to Bradley that day because he was too busy thinking about New York Jets owner Robert Wood Johnson. "I have to give him a good table," he says. "Last week he brought in Bush, the father, the former president. I'll put him in a booth, absolutely."

In the end, it probably makes little or no difference where any of these people sit. Deals are made every day in the Pool Room and in the Grill Room. Even on the balcony. On one recent day, two businessmen -- both of whom were decidedly more "normal" than famous -- walked together down the balcony steps after lunch. Each man was smiling with obvious satisfaction until one of them said, "Remember, happiness can't buy you money."

The great thing about the Four Seasons is that it appears to be brimming with both, although in reality it's probably a little less of one and a lot more of the other.

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