Julian Niccolini — the colorful proprietor of New York's loftiest lunch room, set to close later this month — opens up about his A-list clientele, from past presidents to Donald Trump, why the Pool Room is more desirable than the Grill Room and why "Silicon Valley types" choose to eat elsewhere.
A version of this story first appeared in the April 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
At the end of April, The Four Seasons, which will be the scene of the Hollywood Reporter's fifth annual 35 Most Powerful People in New York Media party, will shutter after an illustrious 57-year run. During that time, the cavernous Philip Johnson-designed restaurant has served as the lofty lunchroom of Manhattan's pedigreed and powerful: Anna Wintour, Henry Kissinger, Martha Stewart and Bill Clinton are regulars. It also is where former waiters Julian Niccolini and Alex Von Bidder rose to become the co-owners. But in 2015, Aby Rosen, the real estate magnate who has owned the building since 2000, announced he would not be extending their lease.
The afternoon after a sexual harassment lawsuit against Niccolini settled (a young woman charged he'd assaulted her at a party), the embattled co-owner, who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor assault, met with THR in the restaurant's iconic Pool Room. (As a condition of the interview, Niccolini's lawyers ordered him not to discuss the case.)
Niccolini, 62, promises the magic will continue at their new, smaller space "just five minutes away" (they haven't signed a lease), but whether one can replicate the luster of New York's most celebrated eatery remains to be seen.
You've been here since 1977?
Yes, I worked six days a week. I started out as a head waiter in the Grill Room, which was very unfashionable at that time. Everyone wanted to be in the Pool Room. It was the Mad Men era: George Lois and Bill Bernbach had a regular table here.
So you started off in the uncool room?
(Laughs.) But it became very fashionable, because John Fairchild started bringing in all these designers: Bill Blass, Calvin Klein, Perry Ellis, Oscar de la Renta. And they stayed.
Like everything else in New York — the gays come and make it cool and the old straight guys follow.
(Laughs.) You're right. John Fairchild helped make this place. He'd wait until the last moment to make the reservation. He only wanted to be seated at a booth. But one day we got the wrong table, and he put us on his blacklist for two years. Women's Wear Daily was like the bible at that time — all these wonderful ladies were reading it every day. When he cut us off, it hurt a lot.
From left: Valentino president Giancarlo Giammetti, Elizabeth Hurley, Valentino, Claudia Schiffer and her then-boyfriend Tim Jefferies at a Valentino gala at The Four Seasons in June 2000.
I interviewed him here many years ago, and he said you'd said something nasty about Perry Ellis while he was dying of AIDS.
No, no, that was not the case. This is the truth: Mr. Fairchild called about 11:45 and said he wanted to meet for lunch. Perry Ellis came in with a guy who worked for Mr. Fairchild, and Perry said to me, "Where's John Fairchild? The queen did not make it in today?" So I say, "He did call, and we told him that we're more than happy to accommodate him but not at this table." A couple of days later everyone was freaking out: "Julian, you called John Fairchild a queen!?" That was that; for a couple of years fashion people avoided us. Then one day Bill Blass brought Fairchild over. The next day he invited me and Alex to lunch at La Grenouille, and it was like nothing ever happened.
You must be used to rich and powerful people acting so capriciously.
That behavior is not so common anymore. There used to be a lot of bad people like that: Marvin Davis, who ran Gulf & Western. Sumner Redstone. They wanted a specific table, and if you didn't have it, it was the end of the world. People understand now it's better to be nice to people than to demean them.
What gives you the balls to stand up to these people?
Look, you can only tease certain people. You have to pick your battles. I've had a lot of fun with Pete Peterson [co-founder Blackstone Group] for instance, and he still comes every day. But Philip Johnson, who designed this place, would sit like a monk and wouldn’t engage with anybody at all.
He'd come alone?
No, his office was upstairs. He used to come downstairs with his partner and so on. But when he was gonna have lunch with Phyllis Lambert, you know, the lady responsible for this building, he would tell me ahead of time to make sure it was fast.
Because he wanted to get through with it?
He wanted to get the hell out of here; he didn't want to listen to her. But if he was having lunch with Mrs. [Dominique] De Menil he was the charmer of all charmers. Don't worry, he knew where the money was coming from. He knew how to be pleasant with someone and to not be pleasant at all.
You've also hosted presidents here.
We've had every president except Richard Nixon. I think he thought this was too much of a liberal establishment. Jackie Kennedy was a regular. Also Mr. [Henry] Kissinger and both Bushes. Bill Clinton and George Bush hosted a party together. We have done lots of events for Mr. Obama and Hillary. Donald Trump has been in a few times, but lately we haven't seen him.
What do you think of Donald?
Um … I think he is quite a character. I can really see why people are voting for him.
Did he get a good table?
Oh yeah. He came with his sister, the judge. She's great.
Do you remember the day when a PETA protester served Anna Wintour a skunk?
It was a raccoon, but yes. It was a very disappointing day.
If I recall, she was kind of resolute in the face of the attack.
Yes! We removed it and brought her a burger. She didn't seem bothered at all.
So how did a young waiter come to co-own the most exclusive restaurant in the country?
The previous owner gave all of us a certain amount of shares in the company. When he sold the company to Mr. [Edgar] Bronfman, we acquired many more shares.
What does it take to do what you do? Do you read the papers every morning?
Well, you don't even have to read the paper these days. Before you step foot into a restaurant, everybody has Googled you to find out who you are. We don't do that here, of course!
Well, once in a while we'll Google a guy to find out what kind of job he has. But mostly we operate on instinct. It's a strange time: You have billionaires popping up that you've never heard of. But most people who come here never see a check.
Really? (Laughs.) I always see a check!
(Laughs.) They either have corporate accounts or personal house accounts.
So they can run up huge tabs without a second thought.
Maybe 30 years ago they did, but these days they don't mess around, and neither do we. Everybody gets a 20 percent gratuity, and that's the end of the story.
What are some firsts you've witnessed?
Did you know that we recently had our first same-sex wedding? (Laughs.)
Yes, I saw that. There was a nice picture of the grooms kissing you in Women's Wear Daily.
A very famous singer performed that night. What's her name, the black lady?
Yes, her! Governor Cuomo was there, and three mayors. All the fire chiefs, too. It was the biggest wedding we've ever had! But since then we've done many others. We recently married two guys [Marc Kushner and Chris Barley] here that were so good-looking, it was unbelievable! One was a Kushner, the cousin of the gentleman who married Ivanka Trump. But they don't speak to each other these days because … well, it doesn't matter! And we also hosted Bethenny Frankel's wedding. She was so excited she pissed in a wine bucket!
Yes, you've often told that story.
I didn't know she pissed in the wine bucket until I saw it on TV. (Laughs.) She was upstairs in a private room; she couldn't take off her gown because she was pregnant. It's sad, really. She wanted to get married here in the worst possible way. She kept calling our PR people: "Listen, I'm Bethenny Frankel. I want to get married at The Four Seasons, but I don't want to pay a cent." I said, "Forget it." So she waited till the last moment and finally agreed to pay. She's a millionaire, you know? I felt sorry for her poor husband, who is a very good-looking guy. Unfortunately, the marriage didn't last.
Who have been some of the most sensitive diners?
One time we mistakenly seated [New York Times columnist] Frank Bruni in the Pool Room, and he threw a massive fit. [The Grill Room is considered the more "powerful" locale at lunch.] I begged one of our regulars to switch tables with him. Then we had a mess this one time … At the end of her life, Brooke Astor was so old she often forgot to make a reservation. One day she shows up, and I say, "Mrs. Astor, who are you lunching with today?" And she says, "Julian, I don't know." Then she sits at a table assigned to somebody else. So there's Mrs. Astor sitting at the wrong table, waiting for her unknown visitor. And the two men whose table it is are very, very unhappy. So I said, "Sorry, gentlemen. Your table has been taken over by New York's grand dame. We have two choices: I can either give you a different table, or you can go over and haul Mrs. Astor to the street!"
They chose the other table, I hope.
Yes! But they really had to think about it. (Laughs.)
A layout of the restaurant.
Several years ago, Michael Ovitz filed suit against the restaurant, charging significant financial and emotional distress.
Oh yes! We sat him in the Pool Room by mistake. We have three reservationists, and sometimes they are in error. So he got very angry, and the next day he sent us this legal letter charging emotional and financial injury. (Laughs.) He still comes in though. I like Mike Ovitz. He's a very sweet man.
The restaurant is closing in April. When do you expect the new one to open?
We're interviewing architects now. I think we'll open up next July, so 18 months from now.
The Four Seasons has seated the world's richest and most powerful people. What have you learned from that experience?
I come away with the fact I am a very humble human being who knows my job. I've gone out with our customers many times, but I know they are in a different league than I am. The worst mistake is to assume that you are like the guests. You are not like the guests — you have nothing in common with these billionaire superstars.
You've said of your customers, "I used to think they all wanted privacy, but then I realized they all wanted to be very public."
It's true. People come to The Four Seasons to see and be seen. We don't attract people who eat a sandwich at their desks and watch CNBC. It would be pretty sad to be a billionaire and sit every day eating a sandwich alone, don't you think? If you are not able to go out and enjoy yourself with all that money, you are a fool. If you spend your lunch having a conference call with somebody on the phone, you're probably a loser geek from Silicon Valley.
The loser geeks from Silicon Valley seem to be taking over.
We really don't have that many Silicon Valley types here. They prefer downtown. They don't appreciate fine food and fine wine and great architecture! Their mission is to make money as fast as possible. So instead of going out for lunch or dinner, they just spend time at their desk. But eventually they'll figure it out, don't worry. Eventually they will find out that you didn't get that rich so you can eat at your desk.
What's the craziest thing someone has done to ensure themselves a table?
We've witnessed many crazy things. A very famous Hollywood agent once offered us $10,000 if I'd guarantee him a certain table. His offer was not accepted, of course.
How do people react when they're assigned to Siberia?
Well, we really don't have a Siberia here. We have five tables that aren't as good as they should be. And we try to limit ourselves to using them. The only thing that you could consider Siberia is the balcony of the Grill Room.
And what poor victims are consigned there?
(Laughs.) Sometimes I play funny games with people. I lead them up the steps to the balcony and it's like they get vertigo, you know? And then when they're almost passed out, I say, "I’m kidding I have a table for you downstairs!" I just like to give them a hard time.
It's funny for you, but probably not for them.
Oh my God, some people really flip out! I also have to worry about positioning people who hate each other — I try not to seat people next to each other if they hate each other. But sometimes it happens!
The average Four Seasons customer is about 65 years old. Are you going to go for a younger clientele at your new place?
Well, the truth is we have more young people coming here now than ever before. We cater to an older clientele, but we are gathering people that are coming to New York and making a career out of themselves.
What kind of table will Aby Rosen get in your new restaurant?
Oh, we'll give him a table on the curb. (Laughs.) Outside dining. He'll love it! We treat all our customers with respect here.