Tom Roston

Tall Tale: Looking Back at Windows of the World
By Tom Roston
Manhattan Magazine, August 2010
 

Tall Tale Looking Back at Windows of the WorldWhat would New York City be without its restaurants? How could we soldier on in these difficult times, without hotshots like Momofuku’s David Chang still in the trenches, inspiring and delighting us with culinary innovations, having recently opened up his Má Pêche? Or there’s restaurateur Keith McNally, the man responsible for Odeon, Balthazar and Pastis, who has yet another success with Minetta Tavern. And despite the general slowdown, the empires of Mario Batali and Danny Meyer are still going strong.

But there was a time when the field wasn’t so crowded—in fact, it was barren and strewn with dog poop and broken glass. In 1976, when Windows on the World opened on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center, it was like the Big Bang of restaurants: it helped launch the city’s dining culture that we revel in today.

At a time when no one went downtown, and when eating out was pretty much limited to trips to Chinatown or the few who patronized the city’s handful of elite restaurants, Windows dazzled patrons with an unrivaled wine list and a dizzying menu that sought to please everyone with everything, whether it was herring in dilled mustard, Cote de boeuf, Japanese noodle salad, or guacamole, all of which was served by eager waiters dressed in outfits cut from a cruise ship.

Windows was a beacon during dark times. And it was not only the most popular restaurant in New York City—it was the most popular restaurant in America. Long before he became Windows’ executive chef in 1997, Michael Lomonaco drove a taxi and, like many New Yorkers, aspired to eat there. “It was a mythical place for me,” says Lomonaco. “It had this grand reputation for modern dining.”

The men behind Windows, restaurateur pioneers Joseph Baum and Michael Whiteman, broke ground by creating the first go-to restaurant downtown, and by helping to introduce the notion of American modern dining, releasing the restaurant experience from the exclusive clutches of the French.

And, of course, there were those views. Will we ever be able to see our city in the same way again? It’s been nine years since Windows was destroyed; an afterthought when it came to the tragic loss of life and the breakdown in home security on September 11, 2001. But now it is high time that the restaurant got a proper goodbye. And we do so by recalling the life of Windows on the World, by those who knew it best.

Beginning at the Top

In the early 1970s, roof top restaurants, like Top of the Sixes, were a hot trend. The Port Authority, which was responsible for constructing the World Trade Center, had put Guy Tozzoli in charge. Tozzoli chose Joe Baum, who had had great success with restaurants such as The Four Seasons and La Fonda Del Sol, to set up the Center’s food service.

Gael Greene (New York magazine food critic, 1968-2002): Nobody went downtown. There was no “downtown.”

Florence Fabricant (New York Times food writer): This was before TriBeCa was happening.

Kevin Zraly (Windows on the World wine director, 1976-2001): These were bad times. And, all of a sudden, the Port Authority was building these gigantic towers? People were wondering, “How could this happen?”

Jules Roinnel (Director of The World Trade Center Club, 1979–2001): Guy Tozzoli had a vision that a restaurant would be a tremendous attraction. There were eight or nine food establishments in the World Trade Center, which [restaurateur] Joe Baum was in charge of, and he wanted to call the roof top restaurant, “For Spacious Skies.”

Greene: Everyone was loathing the World Trade Center. There were editorials saying that it was destroying the skyline and destroying the view of the harbor. No one knew what Joe Baum was up to.

Michael Whiteman (president of Joseph Baum & Michael Whiteman Company):
Joe’s objective, achieved with excruciating detail, was to create a terrific experience even when fog and clouds blocked the view. And we were determined not to be hampered by the traditional notion that the quality of a meal varied inversely to its distance from the ground.

Roinnel: Tozzoli and his team were down in Puerto Rico, looking at some building materials with the guy who did all of the granite and marble. They were at a restaurant and there was a show where Caterina Valente was singing “Windows of the World.” And this guy turned to Tozzoli and said, “that should be the name of the restaurant.”

Whiteman: Legend also has it, properly, that I added the “s” – even though I’ve never claimed it.

“THE MOST SPECTACULAR RESTAURANT IN THE WORLD”

The opening of the restaurant met with major obstacles, including troubles with the liquor license that meant Zraly worked initially under a day license, forcing him to remove all of the alcohol from the premises each night. But 1976 was also the year of the highly touted bicentennial celebration, which helped make Windows a destination place with a front row seat on the festivities in the harbor.

Roinnel: We opened the second week of April, and there were 6 reservationists. Gael’s New York magazine article, “The Most Spectacular Restaurant in the World,” hit the stands May 31, 1976. When it came out, they opened up a whole new space and hired another 20 reservationists.

Zraly: Windows took off. You couldn’t get in. When you’re called the greatest restaurant in the world in New York magazine by one of the greatest food critics, people listened.

Roinnel: It created this incredible buzz. New Yorkers are star f--kers. They will chase the hottest restaurant and the hottest show. The wait was three, four months for a table.

Greene: You know that article was a puff piece? Milton Glaser, who was the art director of New York magazine, persuaded [editor] Clay [Felker], and rightly so, that the food service at WTC should be a major cover story. Glaser was the art director of Windows and of New York magazine—so we did the story. It was a major phenomenon at the time, when the city was down, so it was right to put on the cover.

Fabricant: This was long before Odeon—ten years before Marche opened. Everything about it was unique. There was nothing more exciting than gasping and looking all the way down.

Ed Koch (NYC mayor, 1978-1989): There was no question that they would sit me by a window. If the clouds were out, it would be a waste of money. I ate in all of Joe Baum’s restaurants, probably. But I don’t know if he did anything for downtown.

Zraly: $17 million of public money was being spent on this extravagant restaurant. And this was during the fiscal crisis.

Koch: I wouldn’t say it was bleak.

Greene: It was the year that Ford said to the city, ‘Go to hell.’

Roinnel: Windows became a celebrity place, but we made it low-key. There was Katherine Hepburn, Reggie Jackson, Henry Kissinger . . .

Zraly: Everyone wanted to be there. Presidents, the governors of New York, Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Dolly Parton . . .

David Dinkins (NYC mayor, 1990-1993): I went there when it first opened. Percy Sutton took me to lunch. Afterwards, I would go about ten times a year.

Phillipe Petit (Artist who walked on the wire between the towers): I went there many times. The lobster was fantastic. And they treated me like a son of the house, always seated at the same spot—not looking where I had walked, but facing Manhattan.

Zraly: Dustin Hoffman was asked to leave because he had sneakers on.

Petit: I didn’t look for the restaurant when I walked the wire. I would have had to focus on counting the stories, and I didn’t want to do that.

Dinkins: When my daughter said, “Daddy, Jay and I are going to get married.” I said, “That’s nice. Where will the wedding be” She said, “Oh, we think we’ll do it at a little church in Mt. Vernon.” I asked, “Where will the reception be?” She said, “Nothing ostentatious, daddy.” I said, “Oh, OK, what about in the basement of . . .” And she said, “Oh no, Daddy, that won’t do.” We ended up at Windows on the World.

Zraly: Think about all the people who went there to get married, think of the bar mitzvahs, the marriage proposals, the anniversaries, the 50th birthday parties . . .

Dinkins: We did it up. Soup to nuts. It was beautiful. I tell people I made the last payment last week—and the building isn’t even standing any more.

Zraly: We were the number one grossing restaurant in the country. That was true in the beginning and certainly at the end.

Whiteman: No one had ever attempted anything on this scale – remember, Windows was “only” about 50,000 sq.ft. and we had put into operation some 250,000 sq. ft. of restaurants and support spaces in the Trade Center, including one of the world’s first food courts. Restaurants typically are rolling disasters waiting to happen and we spent enormous energy keeping everything together, improvising as we went.

Michael Lomonaco (Executive chef of Windows on the World, 1997-2001): In any other place, it would have been a cruise ship: so many people doing so much: food, wine, bars.

Whiteman: Joe wanted to serve live trout at Windows. First time our fish supplier sent them up, half were dead. General manager refused shipment, sent them back. Fish supplier tried again, this time making sure all were alive, but again half were dead by the time they reached 107. Next time they tried packing them in ice, with same result. Nothing worked until someone figured out that, because of extreme differences in altitude, the poor creatures were dying of the bends! Took trout off menu.

In November 1976, Greene wrote a follow-up article in New York in which she again lauded Windows, but she added, “perhaps there are too many rings in this glorious circus for transcendent cuisine.”

Zraly: Too many rings in the circus? I’m not sure I like her analogy. I never had a bad meal there. Maybe they didn’t go to the highest level. Sure, you couldn’t get the same food you’d find at Lutèce.

Greene: I don’t think that anyone ever said that the food was glorious. Sometimes, you would have a good meal. And sometimes you would have a great dish. And, certainly, the desserts were extraordinary. Their Mango Macadamia Sundae—oh, my god. It was one of the great dishes of all time.

Fabricant: If you knew how to navigate the menu, you could have a really terrific meal.

THE DECLINE
Hilton International had created subsidiary Inhilco to run Windows with the Port Authority. The Port Authority put up 93 percent of the capital construction of building the restaurant, and Hilton chipped in 7 percent. Port Authority got 85 percent of the net profit and Hilton received the rest.

Whiteman: [Hilton] had neither a sense of humor nor the faintest understanding of what we were doing, nor did they know how to operate entrepreneurially. They were most concern about “making the budget” rather than pleasing the customer. That’s why the restaurants all went downhill as the years went on. We turned the places over to Hilton International in 1979 and went back to being global consultants. The three-star Market Bar & Dining Rooms, which we opened in the bowels of the Trade Center, was a ballsy, macho, meat-eating place and when Hilton added calf’s liver with blueberries to the menu we knew the game was lost.

Roinnel: Things started to change in the mid-1980s.

Lomonaco: The dining scene was changing. The view wasn’t enough of an attraction.

Roinnel: Hilton international sold its share to a company in England named Ladbroke, which runs second-class hotels, motels and dining parlors. And revenue started going down. Ladbroke started taking out their top people. We were getting a lousy reputation for our food. The carpets and furniture were getting worn. They were cutting back on everything…no more fresh flowers.

Fabricant: It had lost its luster. And it struggled with its reputation as a tourist destination.

Zraly: If you can go back to 1987, black Monday, all the way up to 1993, those were tough years. And then, in 1993, there was the bombing.

Roinnel: We were able to evacuate the restaurant with no problem. The receiving area and some kitchen facilities downstairs were destroyed. We could have reopened but we saw this as an opportunity to get rid of Ladbroke. We said to them, “You don’t want to be here. We don’t want you to be here.” And they agreed.

Zraly: It was bid out to Warner Leroy of Tavern on the Green, Alan Stillman of Smith & Wollensky, David Boule and Joe Baum—I don’t think Joe wanted to do it, but his partner, Michael Whiteman, wanted the challenge.

Roinnel: Joe had to be convinced. He didn’t have a lot of money. He went to Arthur Emil, a lawyer and a businessman, and he said, “I’d like to do Windows again,” and Arthur agreed. The Emil family put up the money.

Zraly: It gets a little tricky here. The clashes were pretty early in the reopening. There were many issues with egos; no different than dealing with theatrical egos. The restaurant business is theater. The guru was Joe Baum. The investor was the Emil family.

Roinnel: When we reopened the restaurant in 1996, who comes down to be Joe’s boss, but David Emil, Arthur’s son. It’s like getting a little league manager to tell Joe Torre how to manage the Yankees. David is very bright but he’s not a restaurant man. Joe got fed up with it. He negotiated a buy-out.

THE RENAISSANCE
The reopening was a rough year for Windows. The new restaurant did not get the reviews that its owners would have wished for. At the time, chef Michael Lomonaco was a rising star at the 21 club. Windows, which had tried to hire him before, set its sights on him again.

Roinnel: When we reopened, there were three chefs; one for the a la carte, one for the banquets and one for the Greatest Bar in the Sky. That didn’t work out.

Zraly: It was time to get rid of everybody. Michael Lomonaco was going to be our guy.

Lomonaco: When I got there, “global cuisine” was the phrase they used: the menu had a dish from Holland, Hong Kong, South Africa. . . It didn’t have a personality. I thought what we had to do was get back to Joe Baum’s original vision, and to spotlight American cooking, ingredients that were grown and raised and caught here.

Zraly: He brought Windows back to glory. He brought the food back. Thank God, those last four years were as strong as the first four years.

Greene: I don’t know that anyone was going there at the end. Windows was a destination for tourists or people who brought tourists or people who worked in the financial area for those final years after the bombing.

Lomonaco: I’m sure people would say that, “Oh that was a tourist restaurant.” But it’s an historic fact from our credit card records: The number one diner was from the 212 area code. After that, it was customers from the tri-state area. And, after that, it was Californians. And people from California appreciate good food.

Roinnel: The last three years, we were doing $38 million dollars a year. Business was doing phenomenal. People weren’t going for the view. They were finally coming for the food and wine.

Lomonaco: We were slated to have a 25th anniversary party in October. It was going to be a big soiree; invitations were about to go out. Veuve Cliquot had created a 25th anniversary champagne.

Zraly: I had ordered 500 cases that were bottled for Windows. On the back was the logo by Milton Glaser. It said, “Windows on the World, 1976 to 2001.” But they were not there when it happened. They were in a warehouse.

Roinnel: On Monday night, I said, “I’m going to come in for dinner tomorrow.” I walked out of there at 5:00, and I woke up the next morning and it turned out to be the worst day of my life.

Lomonaco: I typically started my day at 8:30 at the health club and I would be in my kitchen by 9:30. That day, 9/11, something had broken on my reading glasses so instead of going upstairs at 8:15 in the morning, I went to the plaza level to a Lens Crafters. I sat for an eye examination. They checked my eyes. We were just about finished when I felt the building shake. There were 102 food service workers who died. Windows lost 79 people. Nobody got out.

Dinkins: Like everybody, I lost someone. And, as a restaurant, this was a loss that we will never forget. I like the Four Seasons and the Regency for breakfast. I think that The Tavern on the Green will be a loss to a lot of people, particularly tourists. But Windows was extra special.

Zraly: You know, the word “restaurant” means restore. Maybe that’s why they’re putting a restaurant in the Freedom Tower. I wish them well. But it will be different.

Joseph Baum passed away in 1998. He was remembered as “American dining’s high stylist,” in his New York Times obituary.

David Dinkins is Professor in the Practice of Public Affairs at Columbia University. He has a radio show on WLIB called “Dialogue with Dinkins.”

Florence Fabricant continues to write about food for The New York Times. She has written and edited numerous books, including the Park Avenue Potluck series.

Gael Greene wrote her memoir Insatiable: Tales from a Life of Delicious Excess in 2006. She maintains a website (www.insatiable-critic.com) and can be seen as a regular judge on Bravo’s Top Chef.

Ed Koch is a partner at the law firm, Bryan Cave. He has written numerous books, including his most recent, Buzz: How to Create It and Win With It.

Michael Lomanoco opened Porter House New York in the Time Warner Center in 2006. Esquire magazine named Porterhouse “one of America’s best new restaurants” that same year. Lomanoco can often be seen on television, starring as a celebrity chef or host.

Phillipe Petit is an artist-in-residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. He is planning another major performance in New York City in 2011.

Jules Roinnel went on to manage Oheka Castle on Long Island and retired in 2005. He now lives in Virginia, where he is social director of the Brandermill Men’s club.

Michael Whiteman continues to run Baum + Whiteman, the restaurant consulting firm. TK current project.

Kevin Zraly recently published the 25th edition of his bestselling Windows on the World Complete Wine Course. He also continues to teach at the Windows on the World Wine School, which he founded.