Fergus Henderson toasts the legendary Four Seasons, favoured lunch spot of Manhattan's movers and shakers.
Attention, New Yorkers and lovers of New York: one of life's great pleasures is under threat. The Four Seasons' lease at the Seagram Building is set to expire next year and there are rumours that the rent is going to skyrocket. It could mean the end of an era.
I first went with my father. I was going to New York to work, and Dad piped up that he should go with me and introduce me to some places and people. We had our first lunch together there in the Mies van der Rohe-designed building, starting with a drink at the bar. Richard Harris, the actor, was there enjoying a Bloody Mary, which I took as a positive sign.
New York felt good back then, and the tingle factor I got when first walking through the 52nd Street entrance has never gone away. You follow the sea of travertine up the staircase to find yourself in a cathedral devoted to lunch.
The light has a magical quality created by the chains hung over the windows gently and constantly moving. Then to the bar for a dry Martini - everything there, too, is perfect. Over the bar hangs a sculpture made up of many menacing spikes, which adds a certain Damoclean dimension to proceedings, the Martini moment bolstered by the intimation that you could be impaled at any moment. And the glass! I took one of my young chefs there once; he was so taken by the glass, he later felt moved to record it with a tattoo on his arm.
Here a word of warning. Only ever have one Martini before lunch. If you have two, you fall into its wonderful power and then as sure as night follows day you have a third and lunch is scuttled. So let me suggest a modicum of restraint at this point. I know it's hard, not least when the gentlemen who work the bar have over time transmogrified into the most perfectly ergonomic of folk, serving in absolute harmony with their surroundings.
Second (and subsequent) Martinis safely avoided, off you go to the Grill Room, its power-lunch-central status beautifully echoed by the power architecture. Then you cross to the Pool Room as a change of tempo. Here, unsurprisingly, a pool inhabits the middle of the room, along with four trees. Where the first room is all deals and mergers, the Pool Room has a very calm feeling. A good spot for a long lunch.
The food is defiantly American, which is of course what the place is all about. The Four Seasons is not short on genius loci. Things like shad roe appear on the menu, or crisp fried oysters at the bar, and a very good burger. Some of the gentlemen in suits obviously feel it's a sign of weakness to sit down to eat your lunch, preferring to stand instead.
There used to be an amazing Picasso, a painted stage curtain, hanging in the space between the two rooms, but it has now gone, which suggests events are moving faster than one might think. My feeling is that you must get there as soon as possible, before the whole restaurant goes the way of the Picasso. And if it turns out the restaurant is secure after all, it's by no means a wasted trip - the quality of the dry Martini served at the Four Seasons is ample reason to visit Manhattan in itself.
In fact, my most extraordinary Martini moment happened there. Someone had kindly (if ill-advisedly) loaned us their driver and minder. We were all convinced he was packing heat, which added a certain piquancy to our cocktail hour. He also had loads of things in his ear; I could imagine him saying, "Code red! Fergus has had two Martinis! We need an extraction! I repeat, code red! Two Martinis down." And rightly so. Those Martinis have within them the power of teleportation: you can be sitting at the bar one moment, and the next you're in your hotel room, possibly the following day. Treat them with respect.
Illustration Lara Porter