The Most Spectacular Restaurant in the World
One minute I was just the everyday me… mildly optimistic, sedately enthusiastic, benignly paranoid, wholesomely cynical. And then zonk! Epiphany. A revelation. Suddenly I knew – absolutely knew – New York would survive. As Joan of Arc knew she would save France, as St. Theresa knew, and Charles Colson… I knew. If money and power and ego and a passion for perfection could create this extraordinary pleasure…this instant landmark, Windows on the World…money and power and ego could rescue the city from its ashes. What a high. New York would prevail. Forget about Acapulco gold. This is Manhattan green.
But that is what happens on the 107th story of the North Tower of the Port Authority’s fiercely despised World Trade Center. Intoxication. A dizzying post-industrial enchantment. Layers of jaded veneer peel away. Every view is brand-new… a miracle. In the Statue of Liberty Lounge, the harbor’s heroic blue sweep makes you feel like the ruler of some extraordinary universe. All the bridges of Brooklyn and Queens and Staten Island stretch across the restaurant’s promenade. Even New Jersey looks good from here. Down below are all of Manhattan and helicopters and clouds. Everything to hate and fear is invisible. Pollution is but a cloud. A fire raging below Washington Square is a dream, silent, almost unreal, though you can see the arc of water licking flame. Default is a silly nightmare. There is no doggy doo. Garbage is an illusion.
From 11:30 in the morning until three, this is The Club at the World Trade Center. Not much of a club, frankly. No squash courts. No tennis. No swimming pool or crisping in the sun. No billiards; so far, no serious gin rummy. Yes, there are showers and a sauna. A masseur is promised, a valet, a resident hairdresser. The concierge will get tickets and reservations. There is a walk-in humidor (empty so far), a library (quite bare), a wine cellar (members may buy and store their own at 25 percent below cost plus $1.50 per bottle corkage). At heart it is a lunch club, a dazzling stage for that midday ritual where we woo and con each other in tax-deductible splendor.
Anyone can join. No sponsor needed, no pedigree, no old-school tie. Just good credit and money: $360 a year dues for World Trade Center tenants, $420 for downtowners, $100 if you work north of Canal Street, $50 outside the port district. After three o’clock the 107th floor is no longer The Club; it becomes Windows on the World, and no one needs a membership. Anyone can stop by for tea or a drink. At three, the lunchtime Grill becomes the gracelessly named Hors d’Oeuvrerie. The public is welcome for an appetizer or two or twenty, drinks, dancing. And dinners in The Restaurant: à la carte, $13.50 table d’hôte, or the grander Monticello dinner for $16 (In honor of Thomas Jefferson, one of the country’s first gourmands); on weekends, unchecked gluttony at the $9.75 buffet.
One week before the opening, nothing is really ready. The staff is willing but mostly green. The kitchen is shaking down. At this moment the sound is still unbalanced, the lighting not yet choreographed, artworks still arriving, doorknobs missing. And yet Windows on the World is already a triumph. No other sky-high restaurant in New York has quite prepared you for the astonishment of these horizons. Tentative, unproven, still in rehearsal, Windows is the most exciting restaurant in town…a spectacular exhibit in the long, tortuous comeback of its creator, Joe Baum.
No one ever suggested that Baum was less than a genius. But Baum himself often seemed bedeviled by doubt. Restaurant Associates’ mighty $100-million feeding empire was staggered by the reeling economy of the late sixties. Joe Baum’s taste and drive and showmanship, the capacity to terrorize and inspire, to create such feeding smashes as the Four Seasons, the Forum of the Twelve Caesars, Charley O’s, the Fountain Café, and Zum Zum were deemed obsolete. Baum was bluntly axed, heavily in debt and near death with peritonitis. Lashed with tubing, he lay in New York Hospital, forbidden to smoke, flicked an ash from his cigar, and said, “Oh well, easy come, easy go.”
There was a gloriously excessive wake at Stonehenge Inn and Baum declared himself a restaurant consultant – a security blanket that can mean anything. Even when, in December, 1970, he signed a contract to design the entire feeding system of the World Trade Center at $125,000 a year, it rang of compromise, a comedown, farewell to elastic expense accounts. Sometimes seeing Joe was like spending time with a burn victim – his skin was gone. “He would talk as if he were a man with no success,” a friend recalls. “As if success had been ripped out of him.” He worked out of the Port Authority’s dingy old building on 8th Avenue…its only virtue, proximity to the Trattoria da Alfredo. He seemed mired in endlessly impossible dreams. He would unfold intricate blueprints, describe delicatessens, seafood bars, brasseries, old-fashioned soda fountains, rotisseries, ethnic bazaars selling sake, couscous, scungilli, chitlings. God know what…everything converting at night into retail shop. And a sublime restaurant in the sky.
Years dragged on. Got so you didn’t want to ask Joe how things were going.
There were lawsuits and strikes and great outpourings of sheer loathing for the Port Authority’s autocracy. All of government’s disdain for people seemed to be symbolized in those two outrageously relentless $950-million towers…dwarfing their neighbors, glutting the real estate market, taxing the subways, emitting 2 million to 3 million tons of sewage a day, guzzling tons of fresh water, devouring more electricity than Stamford, Connecticut. Inflation. Recession. Construction delays. Endless justification for Baum’s plans. Legislative hearings. Blueprints. Revisions.
Suddenly it all came together. So quickly, from wet concrete to dry martinis, even the faithful were astonished.
Lunch, the fifth day after The Club’s opening. The North Tower lobby is sheer 2001. Gothic arches seven stories high…purple carpet already fading. The story goes that a student once asked the architect, “O master, why did you build two 100-story buildings instead of one 200-story building?” And he answered, “Ah, to keep the human scale.” The velvet-rope keeper expects us. The elevator is one and a half Clint Eastwoods tall, very deep, and very fast – 58 seconds for the ascent (62 on a windy day).
Doors open. Everything is tawny, subtle…beige, white and gold. An army of attendants, pages, hostesses, a concierge. Pamela, a visiting niece from a provincial suburb who starred in my New York experiment “How to Introduce a Child to Haute Cuisine” at ten, is sixteen now. “It’s like a mental hospital,” she whispers. “All those attendants in white coats waiting to sign you in.” Pam has just seen One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. And she’s right. But then Pamela has never sailed first class on the S.S. France. And Windows has that feeling too. An extraordinary luxury liner sailing through blue skies 107 stories above the sea. You get the message in the sleek mess uniforms, the epaulets, the gold braid, the brass railings.
There are familiar faces from the old Restaurant Associates days. Dapper, stylish captains. “Our Satchel Paiges,” Baum calls them. And his rookie waiters – fresh and eager, sweetly confused, treading in each other’s tracks. The aperitif order is requested twice. Twice the wine is presented for inspection. Twice we are asked if we would like dessert. It scarcely matters. Their spirit is contagious. Pride, joy…whatever it is. Unbelievable that the house can function so smoothly on only the fifth day. The food is good. Perhaps someday it will be very good. Perhaps it never will. Unfair to judge so soon. The menu is still evolving. But the desserts are splendid. The Grand Buffet ($2.95 as an appetizer, $7.95 for unlimited exploration) tickles eclectic appetites with bay scallops in seviche, sea bass salad, cold meats and terrines, turkey-apple salad, sesame-dressed Japanese noodles, jambon persillé, herring in dilled mustard, bass in aspic, lentil salad, a daily roast and stew.
Joe Baum is everywhere. “This is one of my favorite tables,” he says. It sounds like a post-hypnotic suggestion. We are as far as we can be from the window. Yet the view is remarkable. “I don’t ever want to be in the position of selling window seats,” Joe says.
“They didn’t put enough sugared pecans on your strawberry-rhubarb compote,” he complains, pounding the table, about to summon a waiter.
“No, Joe. They did. I ate them.”
Joe Baum is a small man, but he can look tall – tall and mean. Workmen may not know who he is, but they sense he is…somebody. “The warp on that hemp mat goes the wrong way,” he observes. “They’ll have to re-lay it.” He bends down to pick up a cigarette wrapper and an ashtray someone has kicked into a corner.
“There is nothing in the place that does not have his mark on it,” observes Milton Glaser, graphics designer of Baum’s dream. “Every word has been filtered through him – should it be tartar steak or steak tartare?”
Baum’s longtime menu printer, Bill Doerfler, agrees: “Menus may go through eleven revisions, but by the time they come to me, that’s it. He’s a pleasure to work with if you know your business. If you don’t, you have a problem.”
“This is the kitchen” says Baum proudly. “Isn’t it beautiful?” You can see he is itching to straighten up the ravaged cracker-supply counter. “No table is more than twenty steps from the kitchen,” he boasts. At the far end hangs a sign: PASTRY GENIUS. Albert Kumin, the Swiss pastry master from the golden days of Baum’s reign at the Four Seasons, is on loan from the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), hiring bakers, setting up the commissary bakeshop, perfecting his achingly piquant lemon tart. A tall blonde with Campbell Kid curls works beside him. The entire staff is an emancipator’s dream – male and female, assorted colors, eclectic backgrounds.
“Oh God, I hope it will be good,” says Joe.
The club is the showpiece of a community of WTC restaurants and carry-outs designed to feed the complex’s 50,000 employees, 80,000 visitors…30,000 lunches a day, mostly $2 or less, in 35 locations. It was early deemed impractical to parcel out parts of Baum’s feeding scheme to individual owners. A tribe of operators would quickly tax truck docks, elevators, and garbage disposal. But when WTC director Guy Tozzoli presented Baum’s plan and construction estimate to food industry giants, no one was interested. “I hadn’t planned to spend a dime building The Club,” Tozzoli recalls. “Everyone thought Joe’s plan was brilliant but they weren’t willing to make the capital investment.” So $21 million was budgeted for creating food service. (The Club itself is only $300,000 to $400,000 over its $7.5 million budget, Tozzoli reports.) Now nine companies were interested enough to bid, Joe Baum among them. But Hilton International’s bid offered the most profitable balance for the Port Authority. It didn’t require exceptional intelligence for HI president Curt Strand to form Inhilco to run the system with his old Cornell Hotel and Restaurant School classmate Joe Baum as president. Same salary plus a percentage. Net profits go to 85 percent to WTC, 15 percent to Inhilco.
“Tozzoli is a feisty guy with a good eye,” says Baum. “He gets things done. He protected the integrity of our idea. Ask him how the windows got wider.”
“The steel was going on, already 40 stories up,” Tozzoli recalls. “And I saw how thick the mullions were and I realized we were building a view restaurant with a limited view. I called our architect, Yamasaki, and he refused to change it.” Tozzoli built a window mockup in his office and brooded. “For six months we argued, then finally I said, ‘Sorry, Yama,’” Yamasaki visited the club two weeks ago. “’You were right,’ he told me. That made me feel good.”
Two thousand names were suggested for the restaurant. “A marble contractor named Robert Lazzero came up with the winner,” Tozzoli remembers. “We were down in Puerto Rico. Caterina Valente was singing ‘Windows of the World’… he turned it around a little.”
Joe Baum wanted to call it “For Spacious Skies.” For a while he even signed letters, “For Gracious Skies, Joe Baum.”
The member-recruitment brochure was irresistible – a seductive lyric of homemade potato chips, live trout, lead baffles for conference-room walls with no ears, never a soggy lettuce leaf, the concierge-miracle-maker. Not even the WTC’s fiercest critic, Theodore Kheel, could resist. “Since my office is above Canal Street, the dues were only $100. What a buy,” Kheel rejoices.
“On April 12th, 1976, the incredible Club at the World Trade Center will open its doors,” the brochure declared. (“We’d scheduled it three times and postponed it. We just had to pick a date,” Baum recalls.) “It will be a private luncheon club the likes of which the city has never seen.”
The State Liquor Authority ruled it would not. The SLA demanded full public access at all times. A compromise was finally reached – 120 nonmembers would be admitted at lunch for a $10 cover, plus $3 for each of their guests... The Restaurant would be open to all, no cover, from three on, and weekends. Baum is bitter. SLA chairman Mike Roth (offices in the WTC) paid a $13 entrance fee and got a window seat at lunch the first Friday in May.
The architect is the one in blue jeans – Warren Platner, calmly supervising a colleague with a staple gun on a ladder in Suite F. “We are putting doodads on the wall,” he says. “As architects we like to do the whole thing.” Most of the artwork is still to come. “We held off ordering till we knew there’d be money left in the budget to pay for it.” If there hadn’t been? “We’d have done without.” Platner looks like a country hick. Yet he has created a quietly sophisticated environment, so splendid the eye need not seek a window for joy.
Without a trained eye or Platner as guide, you might not see the elaborate repetition of points in a square, the subtle distinction of velvet and wool and rattan and brass, the pattern of curve, the unlikely grayed-Easter-egg color in The Grill…nothing makes noise.
“There are no compromises here,” Platner says, watching in fascination as two lingering drunks, holding each other up, navigate the mirrored glass of his Gallery, coming from the bar. “We had to trim our design and keep trimming to keep it within the inflationary spiral. That is the cheapest acoustical tile you can buy. We have acres of plasterboard. That way we can afford silk and gold leaf and brass and pink and marble.”
Cynics who long gave up quality forever will have to think again.
Joe Baum believes in consultants. James Beard has been Joe’s giant muse for two decades. Jim fantasizes, spinning sense-numbing fancies by cassette: “There must be croissants that float in the air…fresh sorbets every half hour…fish hash I adore… blueberry slump and apple grunt and gooseberry fool…crab cakes luscious and hot and wonderful…last night I had a lamb ragout so wonderful you just wanted to cuddle it in your arms.” And Joe wades through “all that excitement” asking, “What can I do? What’s possible?”
All week the bodies have assembled in what will soon be Inhilco’s 106th-floor offices – naked now except for Joe’s desk and cookbooks on the floor, ringing the room. It’s time to plan the dinner menu. Barbara Kafka, Baum’s resident muse, calls up to The Club for Perrier. Club director Alan Lewis and his chef, André René, are here. And public relations man Roger Martin. Lewis and Martin date back to R.A. days.
Barbara writes: “Country Pâté, Stuffed Baby Zucchini, Iced Cucumber Cream, Tomato Consommé With Thyme, Fresh Ham with Cream and Cider, Shrimp Creole, Contrefilet With Mushroom Purée.”
“This is $13.50. People are coming all the way downtown,” says Joe. “Give me something you can use your teeth in.”
“We have to have a fish dish,” says Alan.
“Take out the fresh ham,” says Joe.
“I like this item,” says Barbara. “I want you to taste it.”
“I’ve tasted it,” says Joe. “Put an r in shrimp, dummy.”
Barbara letters in: “Herb-stuffed Bass in Lettuce.”
“Beef,” says Joe.
She writes, “Zrazy Nelson.”
“It’s Russian. Beef sauté with cucumber and crisp fried onions on top,” Barbara replies.
“I don’t want to be accused of not giving them red meat at $13.50,” says Joe. “We need a soup with guts,” he says. Barbara is in her coat now, erasing. “I’m supposed to be home by seven-thirty to give my kids dinner,” Joe sighs. Somehow he must be home by midnight to run the elevator in his strike-bound building.
The third Friday after opening day. Breakfast in Joe’s eighteenth-floor office. He tears off a piece of croissant. “Should be looser, flakier. We’ve got work to do.”
“Angier Biddle Duke called to be if he could get William Randolph Hearst into the club.” Taken care of.
“This is not our Danish dough,” says Joe. “Don’t give them to me as right unless they’re right. Tell me what’s wrong.”
“It’s my fault,” confesses Al Ferraro, WTC director of food operations. “I just let it go. In my desire to get The Corner [a concourse coffee shop] open for breakfast. I let it go.” Baum smashes his napkin across his desk. But it’s only a napkin and it does not quite smash.
Joe studies a croissant. “A croissant is the same as shiny silver,” he says. “They’re good if they float away. Shiny silver is good if it’s shiny.”
There are two cracked glasses from The Club on his desk. “Something is wrong with the heat treatment on the edge. They’ve got to fix it or take them all back.” Joe turns to his trouble-shooter, Dennis Sweeney. “How many items on your punch list?” There are a few nervous giggles. Dennis swallows. “Two hundred.” Joe is benevolent. “That’s not too bad.”
“I would like to get the damn beepers going,” complains Lewis. Each waiter is to carry a beeper so the chef can signal when an order is ready.
“I sent them back to get the beeps lowered,” says Joe.
“How about a silent beep? A pulsation?” someone asks. “We tried that,” says Joe. “A noiseless vibrator.”
“But the waiters made too much noise,” says Michael Whiteman.
Jacques Pépin is hopping mad, hopping about the subterranean World Trade Center commissary with his bamboo walking stick – just recovering from a triple fracture. “I complained six month ago and it’s still all wrong. If I tip that cauldron, I’ll flood the kitchen.”
Troubleshooter Sweeney is soothing. “I don’t think this is impossible.”
Under Baum’s grand scheme, the commissary will supply 35 feeding stations throughout the WTC complex – from Coffee Express to Windows itself, everything dispatched by an omniscient computer. Pépin, creator of the successful Potagerie concept, former chef of the Elysée palace, very spiffy in white laboratory coat and blue jeans, is organizing the commissary. At the moment it is mostly vast space, fresh cement, and Albert Kumin’s bakery.
“The commissary will do soups and sauces – velouté, nantua, duglère, all the stocks. We’ll have plastic sacks of cooked chicken off the bone. Each restaurant orders what it needs,” Pépin explains. He tastes a nantua sauce. “Too salty,” he says. “Our beef burgundy will be chunks of meat and sauce. A luncheonette will serve it on noodles adding carrots. Crisp, I hope. Upstairs in The Club, they would double the meat and serve it with glazed onions, mushrooms, and tiny lardons of pork.”
Pépin is preparing a book of procedures – each “store” will have detailed instructions for how to use the product without ruining it. “I know I can control the commissary. But it’s up to the restaurant to control the kitchens.
“These corn fritters.” He makes a face. “They’re terrible. They ruin them. I tasted one and it was lousy. Not fried in the middle. I said, do it on the griddle. So now maybe they will cook 30 ahead… and that ruins them too.”
The man who will run the commissary, Michel Bonnettat, an old teammate from Pépin’s days at Pavillon, brings in a corn fritter. And then another. “It’s still not right,” says Jacques. Bonnettat returns with two plump, crisp little fritters
“You cooked these in fresh fat,” says Pépin. “Very good. Now if I could only get them to boil an egg right.” But mostly Pépin is pleased with The Corner’s kitchen recruits from the CIA. “It’s better to train a guy who’s never done it. They’re good because they don’t know everything. If you get a professional, he’s been a broiler guy for twenty years; he only knows his way to do it – simmer the sole in water, press the hamburger till all the juices run out.” He sighs.
Dennis Sweeney is on the phone. The wheels have fallen off the oven salamander.
Ted Kheel is eating sushi and sipping a fine dry Chablis in memory of the Courtesy Sandwich Shop. Courtesy “et al” fought the giant Port Authority in court…and lost, provoking a minority opinion that matches Kheel’s own: the Authority’s sprawl into real estate is socialism. “It’s socialism at its worst,” says Kheel. “I drove the Daily News crazy with that sentence.” I wouldn’t want to suggest that our town’s most brilliant arbiter and influential spokesman for mass transit is naïve. But Ted Kheel persists in believing that the Port Authority should do something about mass transportation simply because that is its mandate.
“Has anyone ever ordered his own private cellar yet?” Kheel asks Kevin Zraly, the cellarmaster Joe recruited from the De Puy Canal House Tavern in High Falls, New York.
“Not yet,” says Kevin. “I just finished our wine list this morning. That’s why I’m smiling.”
“Good,” says Kheel. “Then I’ll have cellar number one. This place is fabulous. This is New York. I said they should tear down the building. Now I say, tear it down but leave the 107th floor. I sit here. This is bittersweet. This is irony in the extreme. Joe has done for food delivery what the Port Authority was supposed to do for people delivery. Guy Tozzoli has great talent. Put him to work on mass transit. The elevator gets up here in 58 seconds. That’s the fastest form of vertical transportation in the world, but the P.A. was formed to do something about horizontal transportation. The ghost of Austin Tobin stalked these halls saying ‘Thou shalt not do a goddamned thing for mass transportation because there’s not any money in it.’”
He studies Kevin’s wine-purchase proposal. “I want to add two cases of this Cabernet,” he says, “and two of Freemark Abbey Pinot Chardonnay. As long as they don’t tear this place down pursuant to my suggestion, I’m going to enjoy it.”
It is night. There is a meek sliver of moon. From the Promenade, the East River is a dotty grand dame wearing all her diamonds at once. There is where I want to dance. O beautiful for spacious subterranean parking! I will brave the muggers yet to come, the wilderness menace of the downtown nighttime desert. What fine poetic justice if smqrbrqd and sashimi and strawberry shortcake on top of what once was jeered as a steel-faced tombstone signal the city’s rebirth.
Of course, could be Joe Baum is just another sorcerer. Could be a trance I’m in…a brilliant illusion. I will step off this exhilarating high, swoop 1,350 feet in 58 seconds to the ground below. The doors will open. And things will be the same.
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