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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."


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