THE BARTON G. INTERVIEW: WITH JULIAN NICCOLINI OF THE FOUR SEASONS RESTAURANT
On any given weekday, half the patrons are billionaires. This is the rarefied arena over which Julian Niccolini—the favorite host of America’s plutocracy—presides. As co-owner and master of ceremonies of New York’s venerable Four Seasons restaurant, Niccolini acts as the rollicking, sometimes whimsical choreographer of this luncheon-as-theater, with many of the world’s most powerful people serving as his cast.
For 53 years, The Four Seasons has been at the center of a blue-chip vortex. Located inside Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s seminal Seagram Building on Park Avenue, it remains an inner sanctum for the barons of business, media and politics. As plate after pricey plate of the restaurant’s signature crabmeat cakes, chili-glazed double lamb chops and wild King salmon glide through the high-modernist Philip Johnson-designed rooms, hushed conversations take place that might alter the fate of anything from the Dow Jones to a mid-sized country. (Of course, sometimes it’s just a gossip-fueled catch-up.)
Today, the Grill Room is the preferred locale for captains of industry, while the elegant Pool Room—highlighted by the 20-square-foot Carrera-marble pool at its center—maintains its status as a Society staple. And bouncing from space to space, alternately greeting and humorously mocking guests, is Niccolini.
Born in a small Tuscan town still suffering the deprivations of postwar Italy, Niccolini remembers his father being a convivial host for friends and neighbors who might casually drop by, with their house serving as a rustic, unofficial social club, brimming with conversation, drink and food. In 1975, he moved to New York, and was summarily rejected for a job at The Four Seasons. However, after a stint at The Palace—famously known as the most expensive restaurant on the planet—he received a call from his initial choice, where he soon began as a headwaiter.
In 1995, Niccolini and his business partner, Alex von Bidder, purchased an operating interest in the legendary restaurant (the original developers, the Bronfman family, still maintain an ownership share, as well). This set the stage for the duo to join the ranks of millennial New York’s most prominent proprietor/hosts, alongside La Grenouille’s Charles Masson and Le Cirque’s Sirio Maccioni.
But if the Swiss-born von Bidder is low-key and behind-the-scenes, Niccolini is the reverse, an irreverent, peripatetic raconteur who keeps up with all the latest news about his illustrious clientele and runs his operations accordingly. And, in the manner of countless celebrated New York hosts before him, from Sherman Billingsley to Henri Soulé, he has achieved his own sizable slice of fame. A regular presence in the Manhattan gossip columns, he is also known as a wine connoisseur (producing his Julian of the Seasons Sauvignon Blanc, offered exclusively at the restaurant) and weekend beekeeper: His Bee Naughty honey, sold for $2 an ounce, features a witty caricature of Niccolini himself. Add to that a jam-packed who-was-who-at-lunch column he penned for The New York Observer and a cameo as himself in Spike Lee’s 2006 film Inside Man, and you have a personality befitting one of the world’s most renowned dining establishments.
Like many American restaurateurs, Barton G. Weiss was fascinated by the inner workings of The Four Seasons, but thought the institution would be shrouded in secrecy. But as he found out, when you sit down with Julian Niccolini, there are no secrets!
After so many years, you’re such an integral part of the identity of The Four Seasons. How do your loyal customers react when you’re not here for some reason?
JULIAN NICCOLINI: When I’m not here, they get mad. When Pete Peterson comes and I’m not here, he calls me at home. They do this all the time. Plus, I have a prince from Saudi Arabia who is unbelievable. He’s away on vacation now; he goes to Paris in the springtime. But I can call him up at any given time and he is anxious to know how things are at The Four Seasons. He was not too happy about what I wrote about him in the Observer, but it doesn’t matter—he doesn’t read English anyway. People have to tell him what was written about him. How nice it is to sit down—I feel like Bill O’Shaughnessy.
How did he feel about what you wrote about him in the Observer?
Bill O’Shaughnessy would like to be in the Observer on any given day, as well as the New York Post every single day, so he can make himself more famous than he is. Simple as that. There’s never enough fame for Mr. O’Shaughnessy.
All this fame because he owns a radio station in Westchester County?
Maybe two. Besides that, he’s a tremendous writer. And extremely friendly with both Governors Cuomo, Mario and Andrew. He’s very well connected, believe it or not. But he doesn’t come here as often as he goes to Le Cirque. It’s basically his favorite place because the color of his hair [an enormous ivory coif] doesn’t really match here as well as it matches at Le Cirque and other places.
At what point did he stop bringing his wife to lunch here and start bringing a handsome young Dominican?
I don’t know anything about that.
You don’t? You wrote about it in the Observer!
Oh, that’s right. He was telling me to write about it because the guy wanted publicity, too. This is real trouble, you know.
I’ve never understood why people like Le Cirque so much.
The original Le Cirque on 65th Street was a very beautiful place to be. And I didn’t mind Le Cirque when it was at the old Palace hotel, either.
The problem at the Palace was that there were two rooms and you never knew whether you were in the right one at that moment.
Just like at The Four Seasons. People get nervous because they never know whether they should be in the Pool Room or the Grill Room. Believe it or not, when I first started to work here in 1977, all the executives—which were at that time the advertising people and publishing—were eating in the Pool. They were not eating in the Grill at all. So the Pool Room was the place to be. Then, little by little, we encouraged people to move into the Grill Room and it got a different kind of clientele—the Michael Kordas of the world, the John Fairchilds. And John Fairchild was very instrumental in making the Grill Room a success, because he brought in all the fashion people like Yves Saint Laurent, who began eating here every time he came to New York, especially for lunch. And his business partner, Pierre Bergé, still eats here every time he comes to town. Saint Laurent used to be in love with the restaurant San Domenico but he was brought in by John Fairchild. And Bill Blass used to appear here smoking like a chimney on a daily basis. Perry Ellis—you’re going back quite a few years now—Oscar de la Renta, all those people used to be here all the time. Anna Wintour would also come in a lot. When Condé Nast had their offices on Madison Avenue, this was the company cafeteria. Alexander Liberman brought all the Condé Nast people here. And his wife Tatiana, she was really a lot of fun-she wanted everything to be perfection. This poor man, he did everything she wanted-when she was happy, he was happy.
Were you here the day PETA attacked Anna Wintour?
Of course. She was seated in the middle booth. The room was totally packed. There was a very young lady coming up the steps, very properly dressed. She told me she was here to see Anna Wintour. I thought maybe this lady was here to deliver a package or something, so I took her over to the table. But instead of delivering a package, she dropped a dead skunk on Ms. Wintour’s luncheon plate! So I picked up the skunk, and thank God it was frozen, probably from a laboratory. So I just carried it away. They were mad because Anna Wintour was wearing fur.
Back to John Fairchild: Didn’t he also popularize La Grenouille?
Yes. [Owner] Charles Masson is an exceptional restaurateur, no question about that. But after what you could call ‘the Fashion Affair,’ we started getting all these bankers—Wall Street, private-equity, hedge-fund people, from Stephen Schwarzman to Pete Peterson to Sandy Weill. Sandy Weill and Jamie Dimon had the same table here every day before they took over Citicorp. And we had all the architects like Philip Johnson, the man who designed the restaurant. He came here every day; his office was upstairs. All our regulars have a standing reservation. We call them in the morning to find out whether they are coming for lunch or not. If they say they are not, we just cancel them out. That’s why we are busy basically every day.
“Sometimes they say, ‘I must have this very special table.’ I make them cry until they finally get it. I torture them. they go bananas.”
Lately it seems a younger crowd is coming in. A very beautiful younger trend. Bankers, as well as fashion designers like Thom Browne—he likes to come here because he knows about architecture. There are some people who do not realize how beautiful The Four Seasons is because of the way it was designed by Philip Johnson. It is so comfortable once you are seated, once you have overcome walking up the steps and looking at the front desk and hoping to have these two guys smiling at you. We have great customers—Calvin Klein, Barry Diller, Michael Ovitz. We used to have Gianni Agnelli. Now we have John Elkann, his grandson. He was here last week; his office is also upstairs. Fiat has had their offices there since 1959.
What if someone walks in you don’t know and they want a table for lunch in the Grill Room?
If I have a table available, I’ll be more than happy to seat them. This is the most democratic restaurant in America. We don’t discriminate against anybody at all, even if you show up without a reservation. And if you don’t have a jacket on, we have a jacket for you. We try to treat everybody with the same respect.
Has anyone tried to bribe you for a prime table?
Not too long ago there was a lady here—she doesn’t come very often, but when she does she goes into the Pool for lunch. She’s a very young lady, probably about 30 years old, an American. So this day she says to me, ‘I want to give you this for providing a table for me in the Grill Room,’ and she hands me a hundred-dollar bill. And I said, ‘I’m very sorry, ma’am, the least I can take is a thousand.’ So she goes into the lobby and opens up her bag. And she probably has five or ten thousand dollars inside her bag. And she says to me, ‘Here it is,’ and tries to hand to me, like, five thousand dollars. And I said, ‘Oh, come on, I was only joking.’ And she meant it—she was so upset I wouldn’t take it.
Your partner, Alex von Bidder, has co-authored a book, Wiggens Learns His Manners at The Four Seasons Restaurant, about a chocolate Labrador who learns etiquette here. So it seems the restaurant is well disposed toward animals.
Yes. We also have a couple of regulars who have personal zoos. Michael Steinhardt has his own private zoo up in Katonah in Westchester County. Basically it’s larger than the Bronx Zoo. He was like the first hedge-fund guy in America. He has animals from all around the world, it’s unbelievable. I go there. It’s not open to the public but he lets people in because he enjoys it when guests visit his animals. Beautiful. You have to have wonderful caretakers for them.
How do you remember all the names and faces of the guests here?
That’s an easy job. Some people have it and some people don’t. But I remember everybody. Last week the president of Israel, Shimon Peres, was having lunch here with Mort Zuckerman. The night before, we had George W. Bush and Tony Blair in the Pool Room. Ralph Lauren was here last week, also. Kissinger comes a lot, Martha Stewart, Mayor Koch, Rudy Giuliani, Barbara Walters. Michael Ovitz comes here so that people will know he’s in town. This is the best place to be seen in New York. We don’t phone these things in to the gossip columns. If we said, ‘This guy was here with this guy’ every day in the papers, then the party’s over. Confidentiality and discretion are very important in this business.
What happens when a man who usually comes in with his wife all of a sudden shows up with his gumar?
That’s not a problem at all. See, a guy who brings his wife to a restaurant, and then the following day brings his girlfriend to the same restaurant, is very smart. But if you bring your wife to one restaurant and the next day take your girlfriend somewhere else, you’re not smart at all. Because at least with the first way everybody knows what you are doing. And that’s why people enjoy The Four Seasons. It creates the sense that you have nothing to hide, and at the same time others really do not know if this is the man’s actual girlfriend or not. At least you can have fun. And you can probably charge it to the same house account.
The Miami audience is somewhat different than New York.
Well, your clientele is probably better than ours because they are more fun, they are more young, and they are more alive. Sometimes I say to some of these people, ‘You have to wake up, come on.’ But our people are very loyal—if you give them what they want. It’s so easy to develop a relationship with people you really like. It’s an art. And if you really like what you are doing, that’s the best part.
“Pretty soon we may be opening another restaurant. Some people would like us to open downtown. Others would like it in India.”
You’re close friends with fellow restaurateurs Charles Masson and Daniel Boulud.
Charles is very special. Of course Daniel Boulud has become a huge restaurateur, with places all over the world. In New York, he has Uptown, Downtown, the West Side, everywhere. He comes here to The Four Seasons. But Charles Masson is a restaurateur much more in the style of what we are doing here. He never opened another restaurant; he always stayed with La Grenouille. But he could have opened one.
Have you ever thought about expanding?
Pretty soon very likely we may be opening another restaurant. Some people would like us to open Downtown. Others would like us to open a restaurant in India. That might be fun. In New York, a second restaurant would have to deal with the original name—you would have to give it a variation. We have one real-estate man who comes in here on a daily basis who is extremely interested in us opening up Downtown, very close to the Meatpacking District. But if you went even farther Downtown, it would be successful, too. Anything’s possible. But it’s hard for me and Alex to be in two places at once.
And the customers are not as happy on the rare days when you are not here, when you are traveling or something. They still love the experience, but it is not the same experience.
Because basically they love when I kick them around a little bit. There is constantly a little bit of a tease that is involved. And at the same time I know what kind of button to push in different kinds of people. Some of them are extremely sensitive and others are not so sensitive. A lot of these people really do not know what to expect. Sometimes they call me up and say, ‘I must have the very special table.’ I just make them cry until they finally get it. And even when I take them to the table, I make them go around and around. I torture them. They go bananas.
Has anyone ever gotten offended?
Not really. Only John Fairchild got offended one day. His art was really to make people and to break people, to make them successful and then knock them down. He did it to a lot of fashion people, you know—Geoffrey Beene never appeared in any of his publications [Women’s Wear Daily, W magazine]. He would put people on the black list for about a year or so and then go back to them. And that’s what he did to me; I was on his black list for about three years. I don’t remember what I did [to cause that]. My name was never in Women’s Wear for a couple of years. Then he would tell people I did something very nasty to him, which was not true. But after all that, he took us out to lunch at La Grenouille. We had the best time and then he came back to The Four Seasons.
“The biggest mistake people make in the restaurant business is when they say no. And I know people love to say no. But you always have to say yes.”
Have you ever turned away anybody famous?
We’re not in the business of turning people away, and that’s not my nature. When I first started to work here, I used to do the front desk at night, as well. Sometimes on a Saturday night, when we were probably doing 400 to 450 people in both rooms—oversold to the top—the phone would ring at eight o’clock: ‘This is Gregory Peck. Can I get a table?’ So what are you going to do—say no? You always have to have a table for somebody. What happens if the President wants to show up for lunch? You can’t refuse. A lot of people would like to use their so-called power to say, ‘Oh, it’s impossible.’ But not me. The biggest mistake people make in the restaurant business is when they say no. And I know people love to say no. But you always have to say yes. Even for Valentine’s Day, when you are totally sold out, when a wonderful regular customer calls you up and you think, Oh, my God, I have to say no to these people, you can’t! You have to say yes, because believe it or not, it always works out. Because we have so many tables, and we are so lucky, it always works out. And when it doesn’t, I set up a table outside, in the seating area by the stairs. And people don’t mind sitting there. I do it all the time.
Do you remain at a distance from your customers?
I always remain at a distance. Some of these people have invited me for lunch or dinner but I always maintain my distance. I don’t go past that.
Even with the Bronfmans?
The Bronfmans are a different story. They are family, of course. They own the building, they own part of the restaurant. They eat here every day. They’ve been here longer than we have. If it weren’t for them, the building would not be here and The Four Seasons would not be here. Edgar Bronfman, Sr., will be here today. He has eaten lunch here almost every weekday for 50 years.
Acknowledgements to Richard Turley, who was present at this lunch and participated in the conversation—hence some of its social intricacies.