It is July 14th, 2016 and The Four Seasons Restaurant is closing its doors having been kicked out by mega-landlord Aby Rosen after residing at 99 East 52nd Street for 57 years. The funereal air in the room is quickly alleviated upon the arrival of owner Julian Niccolini who enters with a bright smile in his hot pink Four Seasons jacket. It is my first time meeting the notorious Julian who is both friendly and flirtatious; his generous attitude permeates the space as the crowd finds him irresistible.
|Julian and Lisa Niccolini|
Julian, along with owners Alex von Bidder and The Bronfman family, had achieved legendary status amongst New York’s social set for accomplishing the nearly impossible feat of producing unparalleled success in the cutthroat restaurant business for almost four decades. The press went wild reporting the rift between Rosen and Julian and the closing of a historic eatery as items were auctioned off at stratospheric prices. Martha Stewart, Leon Black, David Dinkins, and dozens of others came to say goodbye and mark the end of an era of one of the most important gastronomic destinations in the world. Every United States President had dined at the eatery and icons such as Elton John, Mick Jagger, and Aretha Franklin had held legendary birthday parties in the restaurant.
|Julian taking reservations in the dining room|
The vast dining room and infamous pool, where drunken socialites swam naked, had been tirelessly documented by gossip columns for years. I wondered if the restaurant would be able to emerge from the ashes and regain its stature as the number one power lunch space in the country. Initially, I was dubious, despite Niccolini’s undeniable charm raising exorbitant funds to restart was an insurmountable task in the fickle restaurant world. Each time I saw Julian and inquired as to the restaurant’s opening date I was met with the ambiguous response, “soon.” And then a year passed by and sixteen months and still no word. Finally, I am sitting on the beach in Southampton in August 2018 and receive a phone call from Julian’s best friend, Joanna Fisher, with the message “Hi it’s Joanna, I just wanted to let you know Julian’s restaurant opened today and he would like you to stop by.”
|Julian in his wine cellar|
I am astounded that Julian was able to raise $30 million to open a destination that far surpasses the former. The new location, which is four blocks away from the old, resides at 42 East 49th Street. As I enter, I can feel my heart racing with excited anticipation. There is no large sign outside, or conspicuous entrance – the food, ambiance, decor, and service speak for itself without the fanfare associated with fly-by-night hyped up chophouses. Julian greets me at the door with a contagious enthusiasm as he shows me the sultry sunken bar with tops made from gold and glass that took three months to construct. The nearby wine cellar that can hold up to 1,000 bottles; the tiled floors assembled in Italy and reassembled at the restaurant; the mesh walls accompanied by a $10,000 serving table; the lighting system designed by a famed English designer; and the state-of-the-art marble bathrooms with materials imported from Florence, Italy.
Brazilian Architect Isay Weinfeld was chosen from a list of 16 competitors, and the painstaking detail given to each facet of the space was readily apparent. Julian says spending upwards of $30 million was necessary to ensure the comfort of his customers noting the enormous sums spent on insulating the space from the rumbles of Grand Central Station which lies underneath. The 19,000 square foot space which can seat around 110 people is noticeably smaller than the old 30,000 square foot space, and yet Julian says he prefers this venue since there are no bad tables near the kitchen like the former space. Niccolini feels zero nostalgia for the old abode remarking that “it was time to move forward without any grudges or negativity.”
|Julian shows off the marble bathroom|
Julian is dressed in head-to-toe custom Thom Browne, the only designer he wears, with his staff outfitted by Joseph Abboud. The Tuscany born Julian, recalled arriving in the United States at age 18 as a waiter and becoming headwaiter at the Four Seasons in 1977 and partner in 1995. He remarked that America was the greatest country because it was the only place where achieving the impossible was possible due to its capitalistic system. Julian said most of his customers “just want to be treated fairly” and vowed to accommodate all those who show up despite lacking a reservation.
|The Champagne Room|
The restaurant’s hours are nearly round the clock with Monday through Friday starting from 11:45 AM-11:00 PM with the bar open until 1:00 AM, and Saturday’s hours from 5:00-11:00 PM-quite remarkable for a midtown location. The upstairs contains a sexy blue champagne room that is open “until necessary” and a private dining room that can seat up to a hundred people. Julian shows me around the kitchen which is impeccably clean and yet rather small for a New York hotspot. Deciding what to order is a challenging endeavor as I choose the truffles, which arrived earlier in the day, and the tomato salad which Julian’s wife, Lisa, had handpicked from a farm in Mt. Kisco that morning.
|Julian’s wife Lisa arrives with fresh tomatoes|
Julian and Lisa are an inseparable couple with Lisa providing invaluable input into all aspects of the restaurant. Le Bernardin chef Diego Garcia prepared the fish, which is delivered daily, with the delicate professionalism that was scrumptious without being overly gluttonous. I found myself licking the plate, something I rarely do when fish is involved, only to be further overcome with ecstasy by the blueberry souffle prepared by former Obama pastry chef, Bill Yosses.
What I found most noteworthy about the ambiance of the restaurant was the manner in which Julian greeted each, and every customer-there were no favorites each individual was a celebrity. While Julian concedes that Michael Douglas, Henry Kissinger, Leon Black, Martha Stewart, Steve Schwarzman, and Don Trump Jr. have been recent customers, he says he is not overly impressed with anybody remarking, “give me a break what are we separated at birth or something.” Finally, Julian admits being slightly awed years back by the presence of Jackie Kennedy who arrived at her table to a stunned dining room and thanked Julian by name for seating her. “When you are that powerful,” Julian remarks, “you don’t care what table you sit at.”
– Lieba Nesis