In the old Four Seasons space—now run by the hot-shot Major Food Group team—today’s power brokers, plutocrats, and masters of the universe can still enjoy their three-martini lunches
This is not about pleasure. There is so much pleasure to be had at the Grill, tremendous pleasure, huge pleasure, pleasure like you’ve never seen. There’s the joy of the glass doors opened gingerly by a big man and the big cars outside idling and the blast of air-conditioning that turns every season into late spring. There’s a Miró in the lobby and a Twombly too and the tokens at the coat check are brass octagons. And that’s just downstairs at the entrance.
For nearly six decades, as the Four Seasons, the space had been the preferred natural habitat of the masters of the universe, who gathered in midday conclave and late-night covfefe. In Knoll chairs and a layout optimized for privacy, men like Henry Kissinger and a pre-virtuous Michael Bloomberg, plus fiduciary gigolos like Robert Rubin and Blackstone’s Pete Peterson, felt at home. Power came in many flavors. Anna Wintour, and other editorial pooh-bahs (but her, mostly), held court at tables whose seating charts were obsessively Kremlinologized. Vernon Jordan was a regular, too, so much so that Julian Niccolini, the co-owner, thought it was a good idea to send over a stripper on his birthday. Shortly before the restaurant closed in 2016, Niccolini, unrelatedly, was arrested and charged for felony sexual abuse. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor assault.
Be quiet and the echoes of power past ripple through the room like the fluttering curtains. Or just fuck it. And walk up the stairs because, after a short layoff, the party has resumed. This space, once great, is now made great again. Dishonest or dopey is anyone who claims the Philip Johnson–designed room isn’t — and hasn’t been since it opened in 1959 — one of Manhattan’s most beautiful enclosed spaces (itself housed in Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s landmark Seagram Building). When the new restaurant opened in May, after a thorough restoration by the Major Food Group — anything more would run afoul of the Landmarks Preservation Commission — the mantle of time had been shrugged. Through eyebrows woollier and eyes rheumier, those who once frequented the Four Seasons, sepia-toothed progenitors of the two- and three-martini lunches with strong enough livers to still be alive, saw the tumescence of their youth swell again. Everything shimmers. It’s groovy, brassy, curvy, and fine.
There are three men involved in the Major Food Group. Two are the protein: Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone, the culinary wunderkinder. At least that’s what they were when they started back in 2009; now they’re just übermenschen. (The third man, business guy Jeff Zalaznick, provides the dough and thus, I suppose, is grain.) Serially, Major Food Group has reinvented Italian food in America at Torrisi Italian Specialties; Italian-American food at Carbone; Italian-American sandwiches at Parm; the ballsy bistro at Dirty French; and coastal Med at Santina, among a handful of other genre-busting crowd-pleasers. Each venture is, to some extent, a rescue mission, though as the group has grown more major the mission has become somewhat beside the point. But in its diamond heart and at its best, what Major Food Group does is restore unto glory that which had fallen from favor.
At the Grill, Torrisi and Carbone turn their brilliance to the “historically based American chophouse set in mid-century New York” — which is how they describe the place. “We thought, wouldn’t it be great to live that time period through the restaurant?” says Carbone. To that end, the menu has been extruded through Carbone’s and Torrisi’s ingenious spin cycle. Carbone drew inspiration from Toots Shor’s Restaurant, the Stork Club, the 21 Club, and from Albert Stockli’s original menu at the Four Seasons. Where else, in all of Manhattan and perhaps the world, can one find a menu this weighty that includes ham steak with pineapple on it, or guinea hen Claiborne or lobster Newberg or mock turtle soup? Where else but here, thanks to the terrifying talent of Carbone and Torrisi, would each app slay and every entrée seduce? But I’ll leave the particular panegyrics to guys like spendy Pete Wells, who will award the restaurant three stars or, if he’s feeling woke, two.
For there are two types of pleasure: relative pleasure and absolute pleasure. One is admiring the finery of the dining car, the sensuous fat ankles of one’s companion, and the steadiness of the porter on a speeding train. The other has to do with where the train is headed.
And so, though the pleasures and merits enumerated above are no doubt real at the Grill, they are also relative. To answer the question of whether the Grill offers absolute pleasure, one has to examine how what goes on within that reborn landmark relates to what goes on without. And this yields a markedly different answer.
As Alice Kessler-Harris, a history professor at Columbia University focused on gender and labor, tells me, the Four Seasons, in particular, was always an exclusionary place. “That room was not only an exclusionary environment,” she says, “but one that supported and even promoted the worst male characteristics, bravado, power, and Trumpian blindness to the world.” But one needn’t be a historian to realize that the very era to which the Grill pledges allegiance and pays homage is one premised on the supremacy of the white man.
One easy way to instinctively see the problem is to ask yourself how likely it would be for a person of color or a female chef to open a “historically based American chophouse set in mid-century New York.” The answer is “not bloody well likely,” and the reason is because the American chophouses of mid-century New York only let a certain type of person through the (front) door. It isn’t a matter of visiting the sins of the father upon the child. The child too bears some responsibility when he erects monuments to his old man to bow down before.
There can be no doubt that mid-century New York, like mid-century America, was a world of red lines and colored lines and lines one needn’t even be told not to cross, which are the most insidious of all. Those lines, as clean and clear as van der Rohe’s, were the social architecture by which the Four Seasons was built. Not only because the former GM was accused of such, but you can’t truly detach the three-martini lunches from what Kessler-Harris calls the impulse to grab pussy. That we still yearn to experience that world at places like the Grill — to Hoover up all the privilege of that era while deluding ourselves that we are not also condoning the weaponized power on which it relies — shows we still just don’t get it.
The season for that has passed, and passed for good.