It’s pretty much impossible to overstate how much of an icon the Seagram Building is. Suffice to say that the Times’s then architecture critic, Herbert Muschamp, deemed it in 1999 to be “the millennium’s most important building”. Designed by two giants of 20th Century architecture, Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, its elegance borders on perfection; it is undoubtedly a masterpiece, inside and out.
Ever since the building opened, its grand piano nobile has been home to the Four Seasons restaurant, as much an gem of mid-century Modernism as the building itself. It’s hard to imagine one without the other — except, now, that’s exactly what’s going to happen. The Four Seasons’s owners, Julian Niccolini and Alex von Bidder, are reportedly “scouting out a new location downtown”, while a new restaurant, with a new name, will open up in the Seagram Building, to be run by an organization named Major Food Group. (Geddit?)
The midtown destination might become Major Food Group’s flagship, but it will hardly be their only restaurant: the owners, Mario Carbone, Rich Torrisi, and Jeff Zalaznick, already have five other places in Manhattan alone, plus a concession at Yankee Stadium. And no one expects them to stop there. Their job, along with landlord Aby Rosen, will be to come up with a modish and lucrative formula, wind it up, and set it ticking along.
Expect changes. “You want to have the guy coming to the Four Seasons who has the ripped jeans and a T-shirt,” Rosen told the New Yorker, with a statement seemingly calculated to alienate as much of the current restaurant’s power-broker clientele as possible. Rosen explained that “the guy with the jeans has a lot more money” than “the guy with the Tom Ford suit”, but the fact is that the guys with the Tom Ford suits aren’t going to the Four Seasons, they’re going to Aby Rosen’s Casa Lever, across the street. The Four Seasons is more home to billionaires who have their tailors come to them.
To run a restaurant in the Four Seasons’ fabled rooms, you need to be able to understand when and how to step back. Lunch customers, for instance, are given a choice: the Grill Room, with its constant smattering of billionaires, where one can schmooze and catch up in a very clubbable setting; or the glorious Pool Room, where the sunlight streams through the double-height windows and reflects off the ridiculously extravagant marble pool in the center. (Nowhere else in Manhattan would such prime interior square footage be devoted to an immovable water feature.) In either case, whether the prime attraction is the people or whether it’s the architecture, the restaurant knows better than to try to show off with its food. Is the food at the Four Seasons Italian? Is it French? Is it American? The answer is: nobody really cares. There’s more than enough reason to dine at the Four Seasons already; the last thing it needs is foodies.
The Carbone/Torrisi crew, by contrast, specializes in theatre, in being over the top in almost everything they do. They’re loud, they’re brash, they’re in your face, they’re expensive. Once you encounter them, you won’t easily forget them. There’s one word which sums up their food, their flavors, their whole attitude: big.
These younger restaurateurs taking over the Four Seasons space are New Yorkers through and through, and they thoroughly deserve the huge success that they’ve achieved in just a few short years. No one would object if they, say, took over the space at Eleven Madison Park, New York’s other great double-height restaurant space. (Daniel Humm will attract the gastrotourists wherever he cooks.) But the Major Food Group crew are entirely the wrong people to run a restaurant in Philip Johnson’s Modernist temple.
The Seagram Building, along with its restaurant, is urbane, elegant, luxurious, sophisticated, understated. You can happily add “quietly” to any of those adjectives. None of those words can be applied to the restaurants of the Major Food Group — places which appeared out of nowhere and were forced to make a splash on the strength of their food and service alone.
A restaurant like Carbone has attitude; its owners have achieved fame and fortune by creating loud, cocky, downtown alternatives to the staid and boring midtown lunch spots of 50 years ago. Good for them. Carey Jones even says that their Parm at Yankee Stadium “is beloved for its roast turkey sandwiches”.
But they’re the last people you want being entrusted with the legacy of Mies van der Rohe. Torrisi, Carbone, and Zalaznick epitomize a culture of success-through-excess, of “more is more”. Mies, of course, is the man who famously said that “less is more”. And preserving his legacy is much more important than any trendy restaurant.