“We’re in Henry’s booth, in case you didn’t know,” the longtime regular whispers, as we sit down to lunch in the famous dining room on the ground floor of the Seagram Building, with its cathedral ceilings, its polished wood walls, and waves of metal curtains shimmering on the tall windows. The “Henry” in question is Henry Kissinger, of course, and the booth in question is the middle one of five on the east side of the old Grill Room, which is where the restaurant’s previous proprietor and front-of-the-house man, Julian Niccolini, used to array his most prominent regulars, every weekday at lunchtime, like walruses on a rock.* “Philip Johnson was always at the far southern end, that was his booth,” says the regular, who used to order the famous house crab cakes and platters of crispy duck, and who didn’t wish to be named in this story for fear of incurring the wrath of Niccolini, along with the other embittered power brokers who’ve vowed, with the unceremonious changing of the guard at this storied midtown restaurant, never to set foot in the place again.
The old Grill Room at The Four Seasons is now called the Grill, in case you haven’t heard. The new owners — Jeff Zalaznick and his chef-partners in the Major Food Group, Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone — have gotten good early reviews for their posh and tasteful renovation of Johnson’s landmarked space (“Everything’s a little more glittery now,” says the regular), and for their elaborate interpretations of ye olde Gilded-era cuisine (“I’ve never seen such a soft dinner roll”). But in terms of those more amorphous measurements that can float or sink a high-stakes dining establishment, especially in the challenging waters of midtown — buzz, heat, chatter, what people back in the regular’s day used to call “the Zeitgeist” — the real test may well come at lunchtime. “This used to be a club, and the club always met at lunchtime, not at dinner,” says the regular, as he spreads his soft dinner roll with a pat of scallion butter, and scans the room looking for the next generation of power-lunching bigwigs.
Of course, the ritual of the power lunch isn’t what it used to be (the next generation is more likely to nibble a sprout salad in their cube than fritter away a couple of hours at a restaurant), and many of the traditional fat cats are probably off sunning themselves in the Hamptons or Cap Ferrat. Which may be why a few of the tables are actually empty at 12:45 on this pleasantly sunny afternoon, and others are filled with a random assortment of not-quite-famous-looking diners, many of them peering idly at their phones. “That guy over there in the lumberjack shirt does not exactly reek of power and wealth,” the regular says, pointing to a gentleman sitting not far from where the legendary GQ editor Art Cooper famously expired from a stroke. In Niccolini’s day, many of these people would be sitting “upstairs,” he says, a reference to the dreaded Siberia colony of tables on the mezzanine above our heads, where the former regime used to banish unknown stragglers and tourists who stumbled in off the street.
Presently, lunch arrives. A gentleman dressed in full black-tie regalia serves an elegant rendition of Crab Louis salad, and when the $36 house crab cake appears — made with fresh Dungeness, capped with a crispy wafer of pommes Anna — we stare at it in wonder. We take one bite and then another. “I can actually taste the crab,” the regular says. The wine list is not overly expensive, especially by midtown standards, and more eclectic than before (“Julian only liked the Italian stuff”), and the things power-lunchers don’t tend to care much about — presentation, the quality of ingredients, the taste — are generally impeccable. We examine the architecturally impressive cheeseburger (presented with gold-rimmed bowls of ketchup and mustard, which you spread with a silver butter knife), and a $41 plate of perfectly poached salmon, which is almost worth its impressive sticker price.
As we taste the desserts — fresh strawberries served in a chilled coup, the famous house grasshopper pie — a tall gentleman looms by, dressed in a banker’s suit, and sits in the next banquette. “This guy looks like he might be somebody,” says the regular, hopefully, as he helps himself to a few more strawberries. Watching him, I get the feeling he might even return for dinner — just as long as Julian doesn’t hear about it.
*This story has been edited to reflect the fact that Niccolini was not the restaurant’s original owner.