Enter the Four Seasons restaurant on East 52nd Street, and you feel like you’ve stepped back in time. Soaring ceilings, chain metal curtains, a tapestry by Picasso and that dramatic pool haven’t evolved since the Mad Men era, when the space, designed by Philip Johnson and Mies van der Rohe, first awed diners.
There is one significant change, however. In place of the previous low-key owners, a puckish Julian Niccolini and his partner Alex von Bidder have overseen the grand restaurant since they purchased it with Edgar Bronfman in 1995. Tuscan born Niccolini has the gift of gab and breathes life into the elegant room as he works it masterfully, from table to table, speaking with irreverence and routinely playing pranks on his regulars. Now, after 17 years of honing his skill charming the Midtown power set, he has his eye on the downtown crowd and has been in talks to open a Meatpacking offshoot of the legendary restaurant.
“A particular real estate man has one building already up and another being built on 10th Avenue between 14th and 16th streets; he really wants us,” he reveals. “There are a lot of people extremely interested in our opening a place downtown.”
As soon as word got out, Niccolini was inundated with inquiries. Understandably, architects were among the callers. Who wouldn’t want to be seen as the new Philip Johnson?
“Believe it or not, I just heard last week from David Rockwell,” Niccolini confides. “He is a tremendous architect for restaurants and he said he would be interested in designing the new place. We need to have somebody famous.”
One man who is not excited about the expansion is Marc Sherry, owner of the Old Homestead, which has been in the area for more than 100 years. He told the Daily News, “If they come down here with an elitist attitude or thinking they’re going to reinvent the wheel, they’ve got another thing coming.” Niccolini laughs off the challenge with a touch of condescension. “The Old Homestead is fine with me. I thought it was cute when I was there about 10 years ago.”
In any case, he says he has no plans for an elitist establishment. “Up until now, many people opened restaurants for the one percent; we need to do something for the other 99. You have to make sure you are giving quality at the right price. The new place is going to be a very democratic restaurant: I think artists and architects will like it—the name itself. It will be dedicated to the emerging class from downtown; there are a tremendous number of people and companies moving there. It is going to be American food, but more casual, and we will call it the Four Seasons Downtown. If we called it Niccolini, nobody would come.”
He has been spending some time scouting the area. “Pastis is a goldmine; I also go to Soho House and I like Catch. The food is outstanding and there’s a lot of action.”
According to Niccolini, the new spot will be a 100-seat room, serving lunch and dinner. The décor, he says, will reflect the mothership, but have downtown sensibility.
That sensibility will be a transition for Niccolini, who knows how to finesse luxurious details and understands the art of high-end service. Even on a rainy summer night, he is dressed in a suit—with flair. “I only like Thom Browne; everything is Thom Browne, even my tie and shoes,” he announces as he shows off his jacket with Browne’s signature tags hanging off the back collar. “Look, it is short and very tight. The suspenders are not Thom Browne, but I wear them because my pants are falling down. I wear a tie because I work here; otherwise I wouldn’t wear one.” His watch is more of a classic piece—a striking gold vintage Rolex from 1962, a time when the restaurant was in its infancy. “My wife got it for me; I guess she decided to keep me around,” he smiles.
Though he sits down to dinner, he carefully monitors the other tables, sending gifts here and there, and finally taking a moment to bite into his food. “My quail are delicious!” he exclaims. “They look like Dick Cheney shot them. What happened to my glass of Sancerre? Did the waiter quit or go on vacation?” His eyes scan the diners with admiration, as if he is appreciating art in his own home, and settle on a brunette in a tight black dress. “She is hot!” Later he checks out a blonde. “Look at this one, she is cute!” Then he calls a waiter over and asks him to gift the tables to our right and left with truffle strewn risotto.
“It’s a fun night!” he proclaims. “Look, we have two beautiful people who just got engaged over here, and over there we have Jamie Dimon and his wife. A lot of people are going over to give him support and say ‘do the best you can.’ Stuff like that happens, what are you going to do?” He heads over to greet the beleaguered banker, then whispers to a waiter and a bottle of red wine appears at the table of the newly engaged couple: the woman illuminates when it arrives. “It’s from Paso Robles; that’s where I’m from!” she exclaims. He has done his homework. “Yes, it’s very dry there and produces great wine,” he notes.
But as he glances at the bottle, his eyes catch a few droplets of condensation: he quickly grabs his cell phone and calls the front to have the wine cellar’s temperature elevated. “Look at the foie gras on that bison,” he says, nodding toward a neighboring diner, “and the tableside carvings…we are not McDonald’s—yet.” The new place will have no such formal service, but it will have the famed Dover sole, he promises, along with extended hours. “Uptown, you see what happens. It’s 9:30 p.m. and everyone is going to sleep. Downtown we will stay open until 1 a.m., of course!”
Niccolini is fond of saying “of course,” as if everything he’s learned and perfected should be easy and obvious. He is confident and mischievous enough to toy with the biggest business players, leading CEOs past the Grill room’s VIP section lunchtime, and up the stairs to Siberia just to make them sweat a little, before circling back to a more coveted table. He has become an expert at juggling the Grill room’s seating chart, which changes daily and accommodates regulars like Ralph Lauren, Martha Stewart and Henry Kissinger. “There are 33 tables and they are taken every day,” he explains. “Only a few people have their own tables, like Mr. Bronfman and Pete Peterson. We move guests around to make the room look good. Sometimes it depends on who is doing better and who is doing worse. If someone is having a bad day, I will give him a better table. People are very concerned about where they are seated. They get upset and ask ‘do you know who I am?’ But it is totally impossible to satisfy all these clients. If I know someone is having an important lunch I am tempted to seat the person somewhere that is not so prized and sometimes I do. Then I think, ‘why did I do that?’ But just for a moment.”
With all the outsized egos, there is the occasional seating misstep. “There are sometimes I make a mistake and I say ‘sorry it didn’t work out today, lunch is on me.’”
Niccolini likes to satisfy a customer’s every whim, but also enjoys jabbing regulars in the process. “If a customer like Pete Peterson wants wonton soup, I will get it from the local Chinese place, put it in a nice bowl and charge $45; I also get a hot dog at the truck for $5 and charge $45,” he laughs.
He gets a thrill from playing host to boldfaces like Bono (“that guy from U2”), Drew Barrymore and Bill Clinton, who could apparently fill Niccolini’s shoes were they ever vacated. “Before Clinton sits down, he has to work the whole room,” he says. Who would he like to see as a client? “Beyoncé would be great, and Johnny Depp! He was here for a movie premiere and that guy has seven bodyguards—more than a president.”
The Four Seasons was the first restaurant in New York to focus on seasonal menus, and Niccolini remains true to the love of quality ingredients by bottling “Julian of the Seasons” olive oil, tomato sauce and honey—all come with a caricature of the restaurateur on the label. “It was a terrible year for honey,” he sighs. “People think it is easy to make; they are idiots.”
After 10 p.m., he is ready to head back to the small apartment he keeps blocks from the restaurant. “I am going to walk my new dog, Dutch. Can I show you a picture? Look at that nose! She is only five months old and she is wearing a Thom Browne jacket!”
Despite the side projects, the dramatic room and all the heavy hitters, 58-year-old Niccolini is yearning for another act. He and his wife are planning to give up their home in Westchester and move to the city full time—somewhere downtown, of course.
“A lot of restaurants in Midtown have music because otherwise there would be total boredom,” he says. “We don’t have any except for cocktails, because the diners in this area are more serious. But downtown, it is a different clientele. There will be music and it will be for people who want to stay a little longer. The look has to be very similar to what we have here, but if we had a pool I would have some naked women in it!”
And, Beyoncé and Johnny Depp might even show.