Once there was a bastion of excellence, in Manhattan, called The Four Seasons.
People think it was all about the food. And, to a high degree, it was. In that faraway year of 1959, when I moved to Manhattan, here was regionality and seasonality, and therefore savor and freshness and beauty such that no other cuisine could equal. Not even Caravelle and Cote Basque. Nowhere.
Now, The Four Seasons is no more. Several farewell nights took place, and many articles have appeared. Nothing conveys the exquisite uniqueness that was our constant experience in every family meal at the hands of Four Seasons staff, from owners, through maitre d’, through waiters, and those invisible magnificent chefs. All hands created that museum masquerading as restaurant, appropriately the jewel in the crown of the Seagram Building.
The farewell articles go on and on about power lunches and billionaires and of course the movers and shakers of Manhattan. The focus on guests splashing in what, –to us–, had always been, that sacred reflecting pool. Seeing that pool room in vivid memory, I realize that its astounding simplicity and tranquility generated the air of haven in the middle of Manhattan’s notorious bustle. Entering, it was as though a shawl of silence lightly descended upon our shoulders.
It cannot be true that all the superb art was reflected in that barely rippling water — yet that is how its multiplied beauty appears in retrospect. Seeking images on the internet, nothing satisfies. I am SURE there were Picasso tapestries hanging on stairway walls. They appear nowhere today. As Four Seasons appears nowhere today. Progress and mercantilism dominate this century. So are we deprived of this sanctuary whose aura to echoes the interiors of Chartres, Ste. Chapelle, the mosic-rich glittering basilicas in Ravenna on sunny days.
A major aspect of family meals at Four Seasons was the silken warmth of everyone’s welcome. Come with Diane and Catherine, Werner and me, on a scintillating early autumn Saturday. Settle in at a capacious table, carefully far enough from others so that privacy is maintained. Hear the girls gently order their beverages; as Werner, their Swiss father, discussed wines with the sommelier. Watch the girls’ tall gleaming glasses arrive with one waiter, as towering menus are settled silently into our hands. See Catherine, –the younger but taller, with her long blonde Swiss hair–, open that menu and knock over her Coke. Empathize with the horror on that young girl’s face..
See a brigade of waiters and busboys dash to our table. Watch as though each had been Blackstone, the Magician. Whisk! off with the stained cloth and whatever had been so artfully arranged upon it. Whoosh, floated the impeccable new one, like linens for an altar.
Hear the empathy in the voice of the headwaiter as he soothed our chagrined daughter: “That’s nothing!,” he’s exclaiming. “At night, we have grown-ups who catch their menus on fire!”
Laugh with all of us, and see Catherine’s shame erased. Understand that this gentility was the hallmark of that restaurant. We were not movers and shakers. We were suburbanites, –upon whom I knew, as twice-former Manhattan resident–, that town looks askance. We even dared to bring young girls, who happened to adore rituals and would eat anything (well, except petite friture in Villefranche, Provence, because, “Daddy, they have eyes!”
Werner knew, and we would come to know, that the poliltesse that suffused The Four Seasons was in the best European traditions, –as in Claridge’s of London, the Plaza Athenee and the Ritz of Paris. But we weren’t in Europe — we were in America. And for those few savory scintillating Four Seasons hours, we were experiencing the best of our country. As with those legendary hotels and their sublime restaurants, what we took place at table rivaled beauty and majesty and tradition we had spent all morning absorbing in the world’s most important museums.
The Four Seasons was not a museum. It was alive, and its excellence could be counted on, time after time after time, no matter the origins of our guests
IS no more.
So I must mourn this loss.
America is the less for this finale.
My words are so feeble. I need Will to give me lines such as “Take and cut [it] out in little stars, and all the world shall be in love with night!”