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From the Archives: Creating Fine Dining in 1980

by Karen MacNeil Photographed by Dan Wynn
Thursday, December 21, 2017
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This article originally ran in the September 1980 issue of AVENUE.


When the Four Seasons opened in 1959 there was no restaurant like it – in conception, in scale, in the wealth of talent behind it. First, it would be a singularly American restaurant; and as an added distinction it would have a theme. Menu and ambiance, that is, would change along with the seasons. Behind the vision were two men, Jerome Brody and Joseph Baum, then president and vice president of Restaurant Associates, a company dedicated to opening first-class restaurants here.


As Brody and Baum planned it, few restaurants would ever rival the Four Seasons in design. They hired architect Philip Johnson, whose imagination ran to twenty-foot-high ceilings, an enormous, marble, reflecting pool, rippling chain curtains, a hanging brass sculpture by Richard Lippold, and hundreds of other details, some of which – like the silver holloware and tableware designed by Ada and Garth Huxtable, now part of MOMA’s good design collection – would go on to become classics. 


For all its originality and grandeur, the Four Seasons would, in time,  grow burdensome – a huge capital drain in a hard-put economy. But Tom Margittai, who began at Restaurant Associates as director of the Tower Suite restaurant, and Paul Kovi, who later held the same position, believed in the Four Seasons concept; believed, moreover, in New York’s ability to support such a restaurant. By 1974 Margattai was vice president in charge of operations at RA and Kovi was director of the Four Seasons. They bought the restaurant that year and spent a quarter of a million dollars sprucing it up. Today, they say, a restaurant like the Four Season would cost $25 million to create.


******


In a fantasy world of easter-egg pinks and greens among thirty-three, double-linen-draped tables, Sirio Maccioni, owner of Le Cirque, calmly makes his rounds, shaking hands like a politician. He knows most of his customers by name; nearly all know him. They come, not twict a month, but once or twice a week. Not infrequently, a regular too busy to dine will receive a card from Maccioni noting the absence and expressing concern for the customer’s health. To be sure, not all restaurateurs feel this sort of familiarity is appropriate. But to Maccioni, keeping tabs on his clientele means knowing his business. Indeed, there are times when Le Cirque seems more like a parlor full of friends than a restaurant full of customers.


This is due, in part, to the Maccioni started out: at twenty-six years old, as a maitre d’ of the Colony, a restaurant which, in its day, was what Le Cirque is now: the restaurant of the well-known, well-to-do. Later, Maccioni would go on to be maitre d’ of the Hotel Pierre’s La Foret, one of the first sophisticated clubs in New York. In both positions, Maccioni made friends. And he built a reputation. In 1974, William Zeckendorf Jr., owner of the Mayfair Hotel at Sixty-fifth Street and Park Avenue, suggested Maccioni do a grand-luxe restaurant right in the Mayfair. For the space, the rent, the patronage – it was an offer too good to refuse. To open a restaurant like Le Cirque today, says Maccioni, would cost at least one million dollars. 


******


No one ever said Madame Henriette Spalter wasn’t dedicated. For eleven years after the death of the owner Henri Soule, she ran La Cote Basque with firm and unflagging devotion. But even La Cote Basque regulars would admit that Spalter, at times, was exasperating. On the issue of women and pants, for example. Right up until 1979, no woman was allowed in La Cote Basque unless she had a hemline.


Last year Spalter, well into her eighties, decided to sell La Cote Basque. But not just to anybody. The lucky man: Jean Jacques Rachou, who seemed to understand the restaurant’s nature. Rachou, who owns Le Lavandou, the successful small French restaurant on East Sixty-first Street, brought to La Cote Basque money, energy, and a new creative emphasis on food. The result has been not a new restaurant, not a second Le Lavandou, but a smashingly born-again La Cote Basque. 


Customers who’ve had charge accounts for fifteen years, but haven’t used them for ten, have begun to return. They have found the restaurant, generally conceded to be one of the most beautiful and gracious in America, visibly unchanged. The soft red velvet banquettes, the brass lamps on each table, the Bernard Lamotte murals are all still in place – redone at a cost of roughly $500,000. The restaurant itself cost twice that.


There 12,000 restaurants in New York, and 3,000 new ones every year. It’s almost the collective New York fantasy – opening one’s own “little place.” But sixty-five percent of all new restaurants here fail in the first twelve months; a quarter disappear or change hands before twelve months have passed. In this, restaurateuring is bleakly, jokingly, compared to terminal illness; surviving more than five years means one’s chances for life are dramatically improved. 


What makes the restaurant business so difficult is largely the cost involved. Rents in midtown Manhattan locations are so formidable that the only way most restaurants manage is by having the good fortune to have struck a special deal with the landlord. Le Cirque’s rent, for example, out to be in the range of $80,000 to $100,000 a year. But because of its arrangement with the Mayfair Regent, Le Cirque pays roughly half that. La Cote Bisque, newest of the three restaurants, reflects the present situation more exactly. The restaurant spends $125,000 in rent a year. Although the Four Seasons would not divulge the amount it pays, 2,400 square feet in Fifty Second Street off Park Avenue demands a considerable sum. 


Rents, of course, must be looked at the context of leases. A ten to fifteen year lease is considered the minimum acceptable for a fine restaurant in New York. But established restaurants have often worked out better agreements. The Four Seasons, for example, has just signed its second twenty-year lease. Increasingly, restaurants must contend with another facet of rent: contracts which require the restaurateur to pay a certain percentage of his volume as rent. The amount is usually eight to ten percent, and the situation is most prevalent when new, large restaurants move into new, large buildings. Non of the restaurants portraited here reported such an agreement with their landlords.


If the rent costs seem high, food costs seem unconscionable. The best restaurants must offer certain items: caviar, foie gras, and truffles, for example. On these and other expensive imported foods, it’s not unusual for the restaurant actually to lose money. Truffles cost from $400 to $500 a pound. Given garnitures, sauces, pates, and special dishes, a pound doesn’t go far. A kilo (2.2 pounds) of foie gras costs about $150. A kilo will make appetizers for eight – if no waste is allowed for.


Basic foods like meat, fish, and vegetables are also expensive. Restaurants have the option of buying food along a spectrum of varying quality – two-day old eggs rather than week-old eggs, for example. But the best and most expensive restaurants have little choice here. They buy the best and most expensive ingredients, even if it seems unlikely that a customer could detect the difference between two- and seven-day-old eggs. The best food purveyors are thus patron saints in this industry, and the Four Season, Le Cirque, and La Cote Basque will each use at least twenty, and maybe as many as fifty of them. The quality these purveyors deliver is consistent, but not so the prices. Coffee, meat, sugar, and dairy costs may fluctuate weekly, and all food costs change with the seasons. Sometimes unexpected weather can lead to an extraordinary and unpredictable cost increase. One example: the July heat wave and subsequent drought that may jack up beef prices this fall by twenty to twenty-five percent. 


Small things also matter when one dines out. And small things add up. A decent inner roll plus fresh butter costs a good restaurant almost a dollar. A glass of water, freely poured, costs twelve cents. If the martini olives are imported from Spain; if the parmesan is fresh and Italian; if there’s cream for the coffee or walnut and olive oils for the salad, a dinner that may have seemed expensive may seem to make sense.


Besides rent and food, a restaurant’s third basic cost is staff. The Four Seasons has employed thirty-five in kitchen help; Le Cirque has fourteen, and La Cote Basque, twenty-five. At least as many employees, usually more, work out in the dining room. But kitchen and dining room personnel rarely comprise the full staff. The best restaurants also have florists, architects, and publicists, not to mention lawyers, accountants, bookkeepers and office staff. All told, the Four Seasons’ staff numbers 150.


More than mere wages and tips are involved here, too. Unions have driven a hard bargain with restaurateurs, who can now count on spending as much as thirty percent more than actual salary figures on bonuses and benefits. Neither Margittai nor Maccioni would discuss the paychecks accorded to their chefs – Seppi Renggli and Alain Sailhac, respectively. (Rachou is his own chef at La Cote Basque.) Salaries in the neighborhood of $100,000 would not be surprising though, given the talent and experience of each chef. In addition, chefs today have the kind of status and visibility artists and athletes have. Writers compare their techniques. Customers know them by name. At some point, all of this translates as money. 


Though every restaurant must deal with rent, food, and staff costs, it’s the special peculiar expenses a restaurant bears that are most revealing and indicative of style and substance. When Rachou bought La Cote Basque, for example, the restaurant needed new dishes. Rachou bought Villeroy and Boch china in triplicate – at a cost of $45,000. Each time one of the hand-painted dinner plates is broken, it costs the restaurant $41. Ten of the elegant coffee cups may be broken in the course of a week. At Le Cirque, nearly $4,000 is spent each month for china. The Four Seasons, given its size, fares even worse. Last year the restaurant spent $100,000 to replace some of its renowned holloware.


One of the most remarkable expenses fine restaurants share is that of linen and laundry. Every set of chair covers at Le Cirque costs $4,700 to make, and must continually be laundered. The Four Seasons uses Belgian flax tablecloths and napkins. The yearly cost for laundering them, plus laundering uniforms, is $175,000. And $20,000 a year is spent just in new uniforms. Each waiter’s jacket, for example, is custom-tailored and costs $160. Every waiter needs two, and two new ones every year; every season, moreover, sashes and ties change too. As for captains, they are supplied with their dark business suits. Of course, it’s not only uniforms and linens which need cleaning. The Four Seasons must spend $12,000 once a year to clean its rippling aluminum blinds, and $3,000 to clean the sculpture over the bar. 


Some expenses are unexpected. Rachou spent $350,000 redoing the kitchen at La Cote Basque, and new ventilation, now in the works, will cost an additional $45,000. Even the brass lamps on the tables carried a surprise cost: $75 each to clean and refinish. Other costs are necessitated by law. The desk-size buffet one meets upon entering Le Cirque, for example, cost $25,000  to construct in a way that complied with Health Department Regulations. And each restaurant shoulders a few expenses that may seem optional but add an infallible touch of class. The Four Seasons and Le Cirque each spend about $35,000 a year for flowers – and the Four Seasons doesn’t even look flowery. 


It’s true, Gone are the days when two people, dining out in elegant surroundings, get change back from their hundred dollar bill. But given the costs, a fifty-dollar person dinner somehow looks different. The profit margin, after all, is what matters, and in an industry where pre-tax profits average only four percent anyway, a restaurant like The Four Seasons, which easily does more than five million dollars a year in volume, may have a lower profit margin than a one-million dollar restaurant with fewer expenses. 


When all the money has come and gone, there remains something far less tangible about successful restaurants. It’s mood, magic, the ability to fulfill fantasy, satisfy cravings, indulge whim. But it’s also resilience and the compulsive desire to be on top. Obstacles will always arise, and soe restaurants overcome them more cleverly than others. Maccioni tells of Mimi Sheraton’s review of Le Cirque in the New York Times last May. “You know what she wrote about our vegetable terrine?” he asks, reliving the insult. (To quote from the Times piece: “Nothing bound the elements together to make them truly a terrine. Rolling loosely on the plate, they were merely a lot of well cooked col vegetables.”) “Well, for two weeks no one wanted it. Then we renamed it ‘terrine Mimi Sheraton,’ and customers began ordering it again.”



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