February 8, 1988 | Vintage Insatiable
Over The Rainbow: Renaissance of a New York Classic

        Joe Baum looks frazzled, almost dazed. He smiles, slides into a little solo two-step on the edge of the dance floor, clicking in and out of consciousness. Yes, it's true that late one night last summer, Baum slipped in the entry to his apartment building and landed on his head, requiring 112 stitches, but that blow was nothing compared with the trauma of opening the new -- strike that -- newly restored Rainbow Room and David Rockefeller's dream club in the stratosphere.

        "We shouldn't be open at all,"  he confides. "We're still in construction." But the Rockefeller Group wanted the Rainbow opening parties timed to closely follow the annual tree-lighting in the skating rink below. Now, early in January, revelers hit the lobby of 30 Rockefeller Plaza at midnight as the carpenters call it a day.
        "You don't tell the Rockefellers that Christmas will be postponed," Baum observes. So some of the invisible systems are limping. The menus and wine list have not yet arrived. The waiters are still rehearsing. The thermostat is testy. But the Rainbow Room is looking spiffy. At its terraced silver-lamé-kilted tables, moonstruck New Yorkers are flirting and sipping prestige champagnes. Half past midnight -- on a less-than-romantic Wednesday -- they're still drifting in: earnest yuppies, possibly hearing an unamplified live band for the very first time, ad-libbing the mambo, faking the merengue.
        "We're bringing back Café Society," Baum's partner Michael Whiteman overhears a woman say. She is standing at the Promenade bar. Where they are drinking. Cocktails. Kicking the white-wine-spritzer habit for gin martinis, pink ladies, Long Island iced tea (rum, tequila, vodka, and Triple Sec), between-the-sheets, and Stork Club cocktails.
        Like a great born-again beauty reliving a glamorous youth, the Rainbow Room, at the age of 53, has been rescued from dowdy neglect by the century's master restaurant creator. A first glimpse of the stunning new skyscape architect Hugh Hardy has engineered is like suddenly discovering great cheekbones. And it cost only $20 million (officially) or perhaps $25 million ("We don't know yet," Baum confides).
        Everyone who knows and loves Joe Baum -- especially those who have survived his tyrannical perfectionism -- are thrilled he has found a landlord who can afford him. "In the Renaissance, the popes hired Michelangelo," observes lawyer and mediator Theodore Kheel. "Today, the Rockefellers have Joe Baum. And this is his masterwork." A bit premature, perhaps. But in a career of intoxicating highs and cruel lows -- he was once rudely bounced by Restaurant Associates, which claimed it could not justify his extravagance -- this could indeed be Baum's classiest coup.

        Everything is convertible. By day, the complex is reserved for the Rockefeller Center Club, with fresh-baked brioche and banana bread at breakfast. Members lunch at the Promenade bar or at tables in the Grill, looking south; collect all they can eat for $22 in the Buffet Pavillion, facing west; nitpick calories in the "fitness-savvy" Evergreen room, overlooking the park; or perhaps join David Rockefeller himself in the Rainbow Room. There is a members' wine cellar and humidor, $1 million worth of art, private meeting and dining rooms with state-of-the-art communications on the sixty-fourth floor. Plus a concierge to get club members tickets, reservations, a Wang workstation, access to a world of data bases -- or to remedy a missing button.

        From three on, the Rainbow goes public. Anyone can sip a $6.50 Manhattan, celebrate a deal, or fall in love at what has to be the most romantic bar in town. In the Promenade, "Little Meals" -- appetizer portions ($6.50 to $12) of tortelloni, steak tartare, and tuna seared rare, served on triple-tiered silver -- seem sane pretheater snacking. At 7 P.M., the Evergreen room turns into Rainbow and Stars, with cabaret, dinner, and supper promised later this month (prices have not yet been set). The Pavillion can be rented for private parties ($10,000 minimum), as can all the posh suites below. And in the Rainbow Room, revived traditions -- tango, mambo, rumba, lobster thermidor, and baked Alaska -- stir nostalgia. After pretheater dinner ($38.50, 5to 6:15 P.M.), the music charge clicks on ($8 per person weekdays, $12 weekends), and supper begins at 10:30 (entrées $18 to $42). Saturday and Sunday brunch begins at 11:30 A.M., and soon there may even be tea dancing. Drop by the Promenade for dessert and coffee, perhaps champagne or stingers, a shimmering view -- but no dancing. Want to rope off the Rainbow Room for yourself? The price tag starts at $45,000.

        My stockbroker calls. "In the mood for good news?" she asks. It's a first time for us since Avalanche Monday. "Between Broadcast News and the Rainbow Room, you've got two hits." And that is how I discover I hold the mortgage on Rockefeller Center. Sort of. Being perpetually out to lunch, I hadn't noticed I own a share in Rockefeller Center Properties, Inc. -- which, in the year 2000, can trade the mortgage it hold for a 71.5 percent interest in Rockefeller Center.
        So I don't care what David Rockefeller spends to make Rock Center irresistible. The $200-million rehab budget doesn't cost me a cent. (It's already reached $250 million and will probably go higher, a Rockefeller Group spokesman predicts.) And the grand plan is working. The Center's new office leases average $41.30 per square foot, compared with the $38 midtow average: the occupancy rate is 98.3 compared with 90.9. This is not just a boast; it's disclosure. I think I can be coolly critical. But cynics can subtract an adjective or two.
        How to infiltrate the daytime sanctum of the club without alerting the resident sachems? I could join, of course. Rockefeller tenants pay a $750 initiation fee, plus $850 annual dues. Anyone working within 75 miles of Manhattan must pay $1,000, plus $1,500 in dues. But I like to taste first. So I am leafing through The Pleasure of Doing Business, the club's recruitment brochure -- a $100,000 seduction by design wizard Milton Glaser, promising woodland omelets, perfectly chilled Manhattans, 38 brands of mineral water, 144 calories of sautéed duck with asparagus, and teapots with silver cozies:

        "Imagine the most sumptuous and useful Club that was ever conceived at such an altitude. Imagine it as the cherry on a sundae called New York." Ted Kheel, I discover, has wine bin No. 1. He agrees to be my host.
        I'm sipping fresh-squeezed (before my eyes) grapefruit juice -- hopelessly coveting Norman Bel Geddes's sleek liner of the thirties berthed over the bar -- when Kheel arrives. Twelve years ago, we shared sushi and Chablis at the World Trade Center Club in Joe Baum's spectacular new Windows on the World, a triumph that made the city's threatened default seem like a silly nightmare. Kheel had reviled the Port Authority's sprawl into real estate, the fiercely despised twin towers. "But as long as they didn't tear this place down pursuant to my suggestion, I'm going to enjoy it," he had said, ordering "cellar bin No. 1." The investment paid off. "The 24 bottles I have left are worth more than I spent for all ten cases," he notes today.

        Now Kheel waves to Peter Peterson, who is dining with David Stockman, as we attack the spread on the granite sideboard in the Buffet Pavilion, with its giant handblown-glass forms, like so many exotic sea creatures. Not everything tastes as splendid as it looks. Hot from the warming cart, filet of beef and veal stew are particularly listless. But there is good sushi, sublime slices of tuna (near-sashimi with peppered edge), cold sesame noodles, spaghettini with salami and olives, two or three ambitious terrines, and shrimp in varying guises.

        Joe Baum stops by. "You two learning New Jersey?" he asks, saluting the vast sweep ahead, a view once hidden begins the granite parapet, now ours for the price of raising the floor.

        "You look like you swallowed the canary," says Kheel.
        "We have a lot more to chew before we can swallow," Baum replies.
        Touring the club (you don't know what obsession with detail can mean till you visit a Joe Baum men's room), Kheel spies David Rockefeller lunching on an elevated (I should hope) platform, and his own son-in-law at a window post in the Rainbow Room. "Joe has found his ideal mate," muses Kheel, "one with an unlimited checkbook. This is going to be the best club in the world."

        There has always been a club atop 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Its more than 500 original members have been invited to etch their signatures into the "enduring metal of The Founders Table" (whenever it arrives). And it was in the thirties that the Rainbow Room was a social imperative -- the Hollywood vision of a nightclub. Titled swells did the rumba to Eddie Le Baron’s band, and Noël Coward sandg an impromptu duet with Bea Lillie. Later, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong played.
        Generations of New Yorkers own a piece of the memory. A diamond engagement ring slipped into a saucer glass of champagne. Proposals and propositions. David Rockefeller courted his wife, Peggy, here. He remembers winning a polka contest and, "not really needing the prize, a turkey," giving it to the orchestra leader, Ruby Newman. Rockefeller's command: The Rainbow Room must be restored to its original glory. Bulder John Tishman recalls his orders: "Quality. Quality. Quality."
        Will spoiled and sophisticated new Yorkers of he eighties rediscover ballroom dancing, supper at 1 A.M., cabaret, the mambo, pigeon en cocotte?

        A ghostly wind ruffles your hairdo as you step out of the express elevator (at 1,200 feet a minute, it takes 45 seconds to reach the sixty-fifth floor). Cast-glass-and-rosewood columns march you south, the Empire State Building dazzling in white dead ahead. Only a Grinch could resist the instant high.
        Tonight is an early moment in the Rainbow's renaissance, much too soon to engrave opinion in stone. But it's clear New Yorkers are splurging. Wednesday's dancers couldn't be happier. Some of them look as if they've been twirling here since 1934, inexhaustible white-haired munchkins, peppy and stylish, two moving as one. There are fluttery gowns and sweaters perfect for a football game and amazing shoes: iridescent turquoise with multicolored bows, black silk pumps with mirrored spiked heels. A plump brunette with shiny letters on her tunic shakes the alphabet in a knowing Latin rhythm. The mood is contagious, innocent and happy. Just what New York needs.
        The adventurous sneak up to the catwalk over the bandstand, once a roped-off stair to nowhere. Now they nuzzle or wave or dance silhouetted against Dan Dailey's cast-glass sculpture Orbit. Sit too close to the music and go home hoarse from shouting. Every night, the crowd is different. Thursday, it is slightly younger, better dressed, and there is Ted Kheel again, on the revolving dance floor. A Jacqueline de Ribes look-alike catches the eye on Friday, ditto a woman in a vintage boa, an animal biting its tail. By the calm of day, the staff is so polite they say thank you if you sneeze. In the crush of evening, all is a bungle.

        The kitchen creeps. Our quintet has already put away two bottles of wine (from an oenophile-friendly wine list full of treasures and real bargains -- the Simi Cabernet is a beauty at just $22). Only the splendid, chewy sourdough rolls, still warm from the bakery, stand between us and starvation. "Are you having a wonderful time?" the cigarette girl asks. She is surely part of Baum's floor show. "The cigarette business isn’t that wonderful," she admits.

        Vague memories of floury-sauced lobster thermidor fade. Tonight's revival is delicate and elegant, perfectly cooked. The Colony's resurrected pigeon is juicy and rare, and the fillet of sole Marguery with shrimp and mussels is equally modern in its lightness, though ever so slightly oversalted. Perhaps the kitchen's turtle pace reflects caution at feeding a critic, and chef André René's turning cartwheels. But the leek soup is a winner with its small Paris-Brest, a bagel of a pastry oozing salmon roe and crème fraîche. Oysters Rockefeller (well, I would hope so) are graceful, too, with barely wilted spinach and fennel sticks in an ethereal glaze. And good sevruga caviar icing steak tartare blurs the insult of our too-long wait.
        Intensely flavored, slightly rare tournedos of salmon, good venison, and excellent grilled sirloin with béarnaise are all better than unremarkable duck, not crisp as promised, lamb that is tender but undistinguished, and lackluster pheasant. The salads are soaked to a sog, and the pommes soufflés, the inflated balloons of potato almost no one does anymore, may arrive cold and greasy.
        Baum has vowed to bring back tableside flaming. For my $100 (that's what our checks averaged per person on two visits, including the music charge, wine, tax, and tip), I welcome the theatrics, but one evening's baked Alaska is too boozy. Try the frozen praline soufflé or "mirrors of cassis and lemon drops." You may get petits fours and chocolates with coffee -- we did once. For now, no promises. Friends tell me they waited 45 minutes just for the check.
        The chaos is three-dimensional. The maître d' is talking to himself, throwing his arms into the air, hissing orders, cursing the heavens. Baum looks bedraggled but happy. He hasn't changed clothes since breakfast. And Alan Lewis, who left Windows to open Rainbow (he's been with Baum since they were students at Cornell's hotel school), is gentle, whimsical, and stunned, as if he's been run over once or twice a day by a truck. "I've never had so much fun," he says.

        I'm definitely a candidate for the Evergreen room, where club members will punch their diet needs into a laser computer and it will spit back personalized menus for the day. Imagine getting thin, with Central Park, "looking like the biggest salad in the world" (to quote the brochure), directly below. Consulting editors from American Health (editor T George Harris just happens to be married to a Rockefeller and loves beans) will feed Evergreen fans the latest nutritional findings in the club bulletin, "even scooping ourselves," Harris predicts. Unfortunately, the Evergreen isn't open yet (it's slated for mid-February).
        Masquerading as a member, I'm settled in the sun-filled Rainbow Room, silver lamé traded for pale-gray linen, the captains a bit less Fred Astaire and not at all frantic. Since David Rockefeller has insisted that this is not just a club for businessmen but a club for business, he would be pleased to see the papers spread over a nearby table. Serious work is in progress, grounds for eviction form certain old-line clubs.
        For $120, I can treat my agent to lunch and memories of how he was wooed here long ago to work for Simon and Schuster. How complex the view has become, now that we are almost eye to eye with the Chrysler Building, Citicorp, and Philip Johnson's witty Chippendale AT&T.
        I hesitate to give the kitchen too much credit -- the room is less than one-quarter occupied, after all -- but short ribs of beef, clearly cooked before anyone knew I was coming, are moist and wonderful. I like my celery rémoulade lethally rich. This version has been Evergreened, but it's good with its plump, perfect mussels. Oysters are freshly opened and handsomely mounted on seaweed and ice. The seafood terrine has exceptional flavor, though its studding of salmon is a bit dry. Overcooked liver, an elegant Cobb salad, a tasteless burger (my request for "very rare but not blue" is interpreted as "mostly raw") on good country bread with a peppery pineapple chutney I'd happily eat on anything…the kitchen is having its ups and downs.
         An apple pie determined to be old-fashioned sacrifices flavor. And it's hard to believe that the great pâtissier Albert Kumin (promised as consultant by the brochure_ has been within miles of the hand that baked the primitive crust for this raspberry tart. Better choices are the sedately gingered crème brûlée and rum-touched rice pudding.
        "We call this our happy kitchen," says Baum, leading the way down the escalator, a $350,000 gesture to pamper the waiters. And who wouldn't feel cheerful snapping beans or sculpting tortelloni with this magical view of the park blanketed in snow?

        It is Saturday afternoon, the winter sun turns the Promenade's aubergine walls slightly lavender. Architect Hugh Hardy, who did the interiors, too, stops by to check progress. Workmen must wait till the kitchen staff departs at 3 A.M. before moving in to adjust bollixed systems. Baum looks fresh. Hired as a consultant by the Rockefeller Group to plan the restoration, he would be earning a royalty if his team had not won the management contract. "It's our money," he says. "We pay the rent" -- "we" being himself, longtime teammates Michael Whiteman and Dennis Sweeney, and lawyer Arthur Emil, the financial partner at his own restaurant, Aurora. (Since Baum and his team have been virtually camped out atop 30 Rock for weeks now, rumor has it Aurora is suffering. And for sale. "Not so," says Baum. "I won't have many more children in my life, and Aurora is one of them.")
        "Was it fun working with bottomless pockets?" I ask.
        "These are not your typical landlords," Baum agrees. "Their sensitivity and taste extend into every detail." No, Baum did not get everything he wanted. They nixed enclosing the west terrace for a garden. And plans for a revolving bandstand got vetoed, too. But if there are scars from stretching the budget -- it's almost doubled -- they don't show.
"Remember, you're talking about constructing a building  one block long and two stories high, at a height of 850 feet, using elevators 8 feet wide, without disturbing tenants," the architect points out. Hired for his expertise in restoring historic buildings, Hardy "wasn't ready mentally" to do interiors, Baum says.
        Hardy, who has the tweedy New England elegance of a John Updike, sighs. "Yes, you could say we spent a ludicrous amount of time discussing how people move and what we wanted the rooms to be. That's absolutely crucial before you can start ordering tables."
        When working for Baum, he says, "there is nobody else. It's hell because of his demands. But I have great respect for his tenacity. His take on the abstract is extraordinary. And he is also brilliant on the details. It's rare to find both sensibilities in one person."
        Survivors of the Baum Academy -- "He is suspicious of new people at first and needs to have the old team with him," observes his favorite graphic artist, Milton Glaser -- finally learn to read his mind. For often, when he speaks, it might as well be Zulu. "I walk out of his office without the slightest idea of what he said," marvels rainbow P.R. chief Jessica Miller. "But after the sixth time, I finally get it."
        "It wasn't just the Joe Baum factor," says Hardy. "It was pleasing the landlord, getting structural change approved -- twice as much effort but not necessarily twice as much time." It couldn't be a literal restoration. Too many rooms weren't right to begin with.

        Ungainly private rooms had to be reshaped. And David Rockefeller had made it clear that he wanted the Rainbow Room of memory. "That's why the chairs are leather," says Hardy. Never mind that they cost $800 apiece. "When the room was closed for construction, they were Naugahyde. No physical sample of the original carpet existed."

        Peeling layers of paint from the walls, like archeologists, workmen found "ghastly orange-yellow Naugahyde at the bottom." So Hardy went back to press releases and news stories of the period -- and found aubergine. "All the motifs here are found somewhere in the Center, except that we changed the proportion or the color or fragmented it." What looks like meaningless squiggles applied with abandon turns out to have momentous significance for these detail-obsessed fanatics.

        And don't call it Art Deco. It's American modernism, Hardy explains. "Art Deco is surface unleashed from structure. The elevator doors of the Chrysler Building are a perfect example. American modernism uses embellishment to make something clearer about the architecture. Rockefeller Center is about horizontals and verticals. They wanted the buildings to soar, and they do. Remember, there wasn't much being built in America in 1932."
        John D. Junior's decision to build anyway, ignoring the crash of '29, "with the definite knowledge that I myself would have to build and finance it alone," expressed incredible optimism. Rockefeller Group president Dick Voell's ambitious capital-improvement plan -- the American Festival restaurant complex was just the first step -- may seem equally optimistic now, but it upholds the family tradition as John junior decreed it: "The Center must be beautiful and it must make money,"
        "Today the phones are acting up," Baum moans. "Eighteen lines and no one can get through. And the réchauds are not hot enough." He pulls out a courturier warming stand. "Don't tell me it's the altitude. It's the design. They have to be redone."
        "I guess I'll be going home," Hardy announces, half his Saturday gone now.
        "Are we ever going to get the propeller fixed on that boat?" Baum asks, gesturing toward the bar.
        "It's on the punch list," Hardy replies. "To think there was ever a time when I didn't know Joe Baum." Both men smile.
        In the heated countdown to opening, more than 300 workmen and 64 contractors crowded into the site, with at least 30 portable radios tuned to different stations. Stripping the space to its shell revealed costly surprises: support columns obstructing important views, a fire-safety system that had to be rerouted, the air conditioning for the entire building hidden above the Rainbow Room ceiling.
        Wherever possible, contractors who had done the original work were called back -- Rambusch, Inc., to refresh the famous glass globes of the Rainbow Room; Greene Lighting, to restore the crystal sconces it delivered 54 years ago; Roger Berk, to duplicate the revolving floor his grandfather installed and his father replaced in the fifties. Anything that didn't fit the eight-foot-wide freight elevators had to come apart or be rethought. Otis designed the escalator in a jigsaw of pieces. Refrigerators had to be bolted together in the kitchen. The moveable panels that can divide the Pegasus Suit into sixteen possible configurations and then disappear into the walls had to be delivered in five-foot widths.
        More than half the money spent went for items no one will ever see: new plumbing lines, electrical wiring, two kitchens, replacing windows and terraces, raising the floors, audio systems, emergency lighting - handling the surprises. "Bringing a 55-year-old building up to code," as Hardy puts it.

        Well, perhaps the complex was just a bit dowdy. "Dull maroon, dull brown. Maybe 'subdued' is a better word," says Milton Glaser (who did the graphics for Windows, the design for Aurora, and is credited with the "stylistic references" in graphics and decorative elements here). He was recruited, he says, to "add a kind of liveliness. Not to harmonize but to create accent."
        The startling berry-shocking-pink-and-coral service plates, the wonderfully frivolous piping on the waiters' jackets, both logos (day and night) are Glaser's touch. As overlord of the Arts Committee, he had $1 million to spend on arts and crafts, contemporary and historic -- Arman's sliced-up Athena, Thurman Rotan's photomontage of skyscrapers (commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art in 1932), a recasting of Paul Manship's heroic Pegasus (his Prometheus guards the skating rink), the wall of Bakelite radios in the Radio City Suite, Dale Chihuly's blown-glass floral and marine forms in the Buffet Pavilion, Ed Moulthrop's hand-turned tulipwood bowl, John McQueen's woven-bark baskets.

        Major pieces needed a nod from David Rockefeller himself, who donated Stefan Hirsch's painting of a view from Rockefeller's own boyhood bedroom on West 54th Street, with St. Patrick's as tall as the Empire State Building, and Rockefeller Center yet to be built.
        It was Glaser who realized Baum needed a theatrical-costume designer instead of a fashion designer to do his uniforms. With six months to go, Carrie Robbins took on the job, borrowing Glaser's design motifs -- the Rainbow buttons, the embroidered tattoos that mimics the roof's frieze, the word RAINBOW woven into satin stripes, black-on-black. Although Robbins is used to nutty deadlines, her Rainbow experience has left her "frayed," Glaser notes. Especially when the pants arrived the day before opening all size 34, requiring nonstop refitting.
        "We were the only restaurant in town with a resident dresser," Baum boasts, leading the way to the wardrobe vault, past a presser and a woman fitting a waiter for his custom-cut garb. "We're looking for a certain neatness and crispness. We want our women to look like women, not like soft boys."
        From the way he caresses a rose-hued pillbox hat, it's clear he treasures the muted palette of costumes, a rainbow seen through fog -- celadon green, powder-puff pink, grayed coral, old ivory -- like a little girl with designer costumes for her Barbie doll.

        Joe Baum loves showing visiting firemen his princely turf. He is especially proud of the Radio City Suite, a private space that's "perfect for weddings or all-day meetings." "Our homage to Deskey," Hardy calls it. Original pieces by the celebrated industrial designer have been collected, including four steel-and-ebony floor lamps -- one sold last year at auction for $55,000.  And the mahogany paneling, the brand-new custom-crafted cherry-and-ebony credenzas tucked under the windows, play on Deskey's style.
        "The doors alone have to have cost $10,000," one restaurateur whispers to another.
        "Fifteen thousand," Baum corrects him, leading the group through several suites in progress. "As of today, we've got the punch list down to 100 pages."
        Soon they will be able to laugh about all this. Now they can actually smile. "Even if there was something available, we had it custom-made," Michael Whiteman admits, possibly kidding, possibly not. Baum flashes his cuff links -- Milton Glaser's abstract rainbow -- and says, "To think God is even in these details."
        Such fine madness -- and the optimism symbolized by the multi-million-dollar Rainbow couldn't come at a better moment.