On an icebound night in February 1993, I trekked with a few hundred other New York Post employees — copy kids, writers and top editors — to a party none would soon forget.
Our host was Steven Hoffenberg, a tax fraudster who briefly controlled the newspaper before he was sentenced to a long prison term. The venue was Windows on the World — technically the 106th floor, the banquet level that was one story below the main dining room.
The black night pressed hard against the windows. I felt the room wobble, as the towers did in high winds. We drank ourselves silly. No one could stomach Hoffenberg, the cash-strapped Post’s short-lived “savior.” But he laid on unlimited food and booze, and we all had a ball.
You won’t find that notorious party in Tom Roston’s splendid new Abrams Press book, “The Most Spectacular Restaurant in the World: The Twin Towers, Windows on the World, and the Rebirth of New York.” But no single account could scratch the surface of all the life and drama that Windows on the World bore during its mere 25 years.
The city’s premier celebration venue, deeply woven into its social, culinary and business fabrics, deserved a proper history. Roston delivers it with power, detail, humor and heartbreak to spare.
Hoffenberg had good reason to choose Windows to try and persuade Post employees that he was really a good guy. No competitor could match its capacity to awe and thrill. Not even the older Rainbow Room and certainly not tourist-trap Tavern on the Green.
Although not a regular, I experienced Windows at its best and worst. For every marvelous meal, there was a mediocre or disastrous one. Two weeks after Hoffenberg’s bacchanal, we were invited by a publicist to a more normal dinner. We never got there: The date was Feb. 26, 1993 — when terrorists first struck the Twin Towers with a bomb planted in the basement that killed six people and traumatized thousands more. Like most New Yorkers, I wouldn’t get to see Windows again until it reopened three years later with an all-new look.
Many famous local restaurants — The Four Seasons, Balthazar — have been subjects of whole books. But strangely, there’s previously been none entirely devoted to Windows on the World, a noble but tragic enterprise so huge that it comprised five distinct venues on two floors.
Roston brings it to life with a novelist’s skill — as on the eerie night when patrons and staff watched alarmed as the blackout of July 1977 plunged one chunk of the city after another into darkness. His telling of the hours before the planes struck on 9/11 gave me chills even though I’d read about them so many times before.
Port Authority honcho Guy Tozzoli, who drove development of the original World Trade Center, fought with Twin Towers architect Minoru Yamasaki over the fact that Windows’ vertical windows were painfully narrow. Tozzoli got Yamasaki to widen them by a half-foot each on the 107th floor before the place opened. But the architect insisted on symmetry, so the PA also had to widen the corresponding windows on the south tower where there was no restaurant, only offices.
The kitchen was the scene of innumerable crazy moments. One chef, Marc Murphy, cut a hole in a wall so he could have “cold Heinekens delivered to him expeditiously and surreptitiously.” On stressful nights, cooks threw curried kumquats at each other “at high speed” to break the tension.
Windows somehow survived a turbulent procession of internal power struggles as well as changes in ownership, management, critical reputation and culinary direction to emerge in 2000 as the world’s highest-grossing restaurant ($38.8 million). It was a stirring revival following years when, as wine director Kevin Zraly put it, “The place sucked.”
The names of Joe Baum, the restaurant genius who created Windows, and star chef Michael Lomonaco — who rescued its flagging kitchen in the late ’90s and escaped death on 9/11 thanks to an errand — are familiar to millions. Fewer knew of Alan Lewis, Baum’s explosive floor boss who “walked the 107th floor like an agitated shark,” terrified the staff and once threw a spoonful of soup at chef André René when he didn’t like the way it tasted.
But there’s more than colorful anecdotes. Roston frames Windows’ history in the context of urban decline and renewal. He relates its up-and-down fortunes to those of the city — the decay of the mid-1970s, the Wall Street boom and bust of the 1980s, the murder and AIDS plagues of the early 1990s and the Giuliani-era revival.
In this telling, Windows comes to symbolize New York City’s singular capacity to regenerate itself with every turn of the cycle.
What a pity that the new World Trade Center has nothing to compare with it — only a small, top-floor dining room with bad food and precious little view.
But for those who missed it, Roston’s book is a wide-open window on the glory of what was.
Credit: Source link