The remarkable story of a restaurant on top of the world—built by a legend, destroyed in tragedy—and an era in New York City it helped to frame In the 1970s, New York City was plagued by crime, filth, and an ineffective government. The city was falling apart, and even the newly constructed World Trade Center threatened to be a fiasco. But in April 1976, a quarter-mile up on the 107th floor of the North Tower, a new restaurant called Windows on the World opened its doors—a glittering sign that New York wasn’t done just yet. In The Most Spectacular Restaurant in the World, journalist Tom Roston tells the complete history of this incredible restaurant, from its stunning $14-million opening to 9/11 and its tragic end. There are stories of the people behind it, such as Joe Baum, the celebrated restaurateur, who was said to be the only man who could outspend an unlimited budget; the well-tipped waiters; and the cavalcade of famous guests, as well as everyday people celebrating the key moments in their lives. Roston also charts the changes in American food, from baroque and theatrical to locally sourced and organic. Built on nearly 150 original interviews, The Most Spectacular Restaurant in the World is the story of New York City’s restaurant culture and the quintessential American drive to succeed.
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About the Author
A journalist for over 20 years, Tom Roston worked at The Nation and Vanity Fair, and was a senior editor at Premiere for a decade. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Fast Company, New York Magazine, Food Republic, Salon, and more. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Read an Excerpt
SIN AND CIVILITY
The fish were dead. Not all of them. But most. It was totally unacceptable.
Alan Lewis put the phone down in the cradle the only way he knew how. He slammed it. The crash-ding sound resonated in his office on the 106th floor of the North Tower, Building One, of the World Trade Center. Sitting in the room, which was laced with cigarette smoke, was his boss, Joe Baum. Lewis had to act. He picked up the phone again and dialed the line to the commissary in the B-level, 107 floors below him.
"What do you want, Al?" asked Dennis Sweeney, the usually reliable director of operations who ran Central Services, the vast complex of kitchens, providers, and transport services that connected the twenty-two restaurants in nine different locations on various floors of the Twin Towers, from the central docking station in the garage all the way up to the top. Sweeney and Lewis got along well enough, but Lewis had a way of leaning on people. He was Baum's bulldog. Not that Baum needed one. For those who worked under Baum, it was hard not to do everything within one's power to satisfy him. Whether that was out of fear or respect or just self-preservation, it didn't really matter.
It was Lewis's role to carry out Joe Baum's wishes, no matter how impossible, bizarre, or indiscernible. Lewis, perhaps more than anyone, understood Baum. They had met at Cornell and risen together to the top of Restaurant Associates in its heyday, when Baum made his name as the greatest restaurateur in the country. What it took for Baum to get there probably showed more on Lewis's face than it did on Baum's. Lewis had weathered some personal bad luck and an ocean's worth of Baum storms, and you had to feel bad for the guy, except when he was tearing into someone himself.
Joe Baum's presence could electrify or freeze a room, depending on his mood. He carried himself like a king. He was a hefty five-foot-eight with a neatly thinning, cropped crown of receding hair, but he led with his chin and eyes, so sharp and challenging. His thick, solemn eyebrows arched with intelligence and reprobation.
He would crack wise whether he was charming or criticizing you, or sometimes both. And the smoking. He'd always have a menthol cigarette or cigar or pipe in hand, sometimes while another smoldered in an ashtray.
Sweeney worked for Baum as well, but because of the World Trade Center's byzantine food services hierarchical structure, Sweeney was in the role of representing Central Services, which was providing the fish to Baum's crown jewel, Windows on the World. And Lewis was speaking on behalf of Windows, so he was in the driver's seat.
"Dennis, I just heard from André. The trout are dead. What the fuck are you trying to pull?" Lewis's voice rose steadily with each word. "We need them alive. You know that. The dish can't be served if they come in dead. Cut this shit out. Get it right the next time."
The first time it happened, Sweeney was in his office. Of the forty or so rainbow trout, about half arrived in the kitchen dead. This time, he made sure to go down to the docking station when his provider, an upstate guy in a truck, arrived, having called him an hour earlier to tell him he was on his way. Unlike the rest of the restaurant's seafood, which came from the Fulton Fish Market just down the street, these trout were on special order.
Sweeney had counted the fish himself, not an easy task, considering they were still flipping and flopping around. As the numbers guy, the one counting costs and constantly trying to reel Baum in, it was a fun switch getting his hands wet.
One by one, he dropped three dozen trout into water in the large blue garbage can. It's what they used for fish. The green can was for the vegetables, and the red one was for the meat. The thirty-two-gallon plastic cans weren't pretty, but they didn't need to be.
The fish were alive when they entered the elevator — Sweeney knew that much. He saw them go in, the can pressed against the heavily padded walls, stuck among other containers that were destined for various food service locations spread throughout the World Trade Center — an area so large, it had its own zip code.
He'd packed them with ice this time. Could the provider have switched the fish? Or did someone kill them on the way up? In the restaurant business, anything could happen. That's why they locked the steaks for the ride up. And it's why they counted them a second time when they arrived. Wouldn't want those to disappear. But someone killing fish didn't make sense.
Still, everyone was on edge. The opening of Windows was just weeks away, and Joe Baum wanted his new restaurant to serve Truite au bleu, or, blue trout.
The preparation of the dish is straightforward. What matters most is the freshness of the fish, because when the fish is alive, it is coated in slime that is integral to its preparation. You take the breathing fish, bludgeon it unconscious in the kitchen by slamming it on the counter, gut it, and then drop it into boiling court bouillon, a flavorful stock, with vinegar and salt, which turns the trout a luminous tinge of blue. Served with butter, salt, lemon, boiled potatoes, and ground pepper, it's hard to beat. The subtle, wet-earth taste of the fish is perfectly balanced by the butter, flavorful broth, salt, and the acid of the lemon.
That was why Baum needed the fish to be swimming in tanks in the kitchen. He was planning on serving blue trout at the opening. It had been printed in the advertising material. It had to happen.
Truite au bleu w as pure theater, but it was also simple, fresh, Good-tasting food with origins in Continental Europe. It was perfect for Windows, because it was an extension of everything that was Joe Baum. He had made his name serving high-concept dishes that could capture people's imaginations at the same time that they satisfied their appetites.
Baum liked to think of customers in the same way a chef might cook rabbit stew. When it came to making the dish, the recipe was fairly simple. But first you had to catch the rabbit.
Truite au bleu had to be on the menu because Baum, although he may not have shown it, was petrified by how the restaurant was barreling forward like a runaway train. The opening had been delayed, and it was now just weeks away, and there were so many fires to put out, from the annoying — such as a delay in the plate delivery — to the catastrophic — such as the state liquor authority threatening to not issue a license. He needed to be able to play up his strengths, which would be hard to do if the fish were scared to death of heights.
* * *
Joe Baum was born into the hospitality business on August 17, 1920, in a refuge of health and hedonism just a few miles upstream from where those tender rainbow trout came from: the Hudson River Valley, an abundant Eden of plants and animals that had fed the Mohican and Lenape people, who gathered nuts and berries, hunted deer and rabbit, harvested corn, beans, and squash, and fished over two hundred types of fish.
The indigenous people also partook of the naturally carbonated mineral spring water, which flowed through faults in the bedrock, using it for bathing, rituals, and for healing. In 1771, Mohawks brought an ailing Sir William Johnson, the British Superintendent of Indian Affairs, to the springs. Word soon caught on, and settlers began to build hotels in 1803.
The water that bubbled up was rich in minerals and compounds that healed skin ailments and digestive disorders. More hotels sprouted up. Businessmen tubed the springs to make the waters more accessible, and Saratoga Springs quickly became a cosmopolitan, European-style spa where one could "take the cure."
The development of the Saratoga and Schenectady Railroad made access more convenient, and, in 1863, the Saratoga Race Course opened, making the region a prime recreation destination. The wealthy built grand homes there. Presidents and high society flocked to the town.
The expansion of the spa resorts depleted the springs until, in 1911, ordinances were instituted controlling overuse. But Saratoga Springs' reputation as a place free from restrictions was already set. Illegal gambling houses cropped up around the horse racing. Nearby houses on Saratoga Lake became lavish sites for the elite to engage in fine-dining "Fish and Game Dinners," followed by games of chance. In the 1920s, the area became a bootlegging hub between Canada and Albany.
Brothels also cropped up; one of the most notorious madams of the Prohibition era — Pearl "Polly" Adler, known as the "Jewish Jezebel" — relocated her highbrow New York City operations there in an attempt to avoid conviction and to follow her clientele, which included the literati of the Algonquin Round Table, New York City mayor Jimmy Walker, and mobster Charles "Lucky" Luciano.
Baum's parents, Louis and Anna, ran Saratoga Springs' seasonal Gross and Baum Hotel, a formidable building with large white columns, more than a hundred and fifty beds, and a kitchen permeated with the smell of cooked cabbage and pickled herring. Louis, a bakery truck driver when he met Anna, owned the establishment with Anna's father, Isaac Gross, who'd put up the money for the mammoth Victorian building on Broadway, the town's the main drag. Joe's father was an exuberant host who ran the front of the house while Anna ran a disciplined kosher kitchen. Open from May until the Jewish holidays in September, the hotel had many more rooms without baths than those that did. The effusive Louis, with a supple understanding of salesmanship, assured guests that they could adequately cleanse themselves in the nearby spas.
Although Joe lived the rest of the year in Lakewood, New Jersey, where the family owned another hotel and where he attended school, he credited Saratoga Springs for shaping him and introducing him to the world of hospitality.
In the kitchen, there was always something on the stove — soups and stews and stuffed cabbage — and the walk-in was a treasure trove lined with barrels full of pickles.
Young Joe observed the public personas of his parents as professional hosts in a town that valued gilt, glamour, excellence, and also value. They drove to faraway markets to find the best produce. His father believed in the dictum, "Find out what the customers want, then give it to them."
The kitchen's Hungarian cooks took Joe under their wing from a young age. He learned to wield a knife at the age of six. (Joe said that his mother was never more proud of him than when he sliced a tomato as well as she did.) They would tease him. He was once told to hang noodles on the clothesline to dry in the sun. The staff gathered to have a good laugh at the owners' son as he stood in front of the line and puzzled over his task. A voluptuous, blue-eyed cook wrapped her arms around him lovingly. Baum was hooked. He later said that it was then that he "fell in love with the human contact, the smells and the tastes. The sensuality" of a restaurant kitchen.
Joe's older son, Charlie, often heard stories of his father's childhood at the Gross and Baum. "He felt this enormous sense of family and community in that kitchen," he says. "It just touched him in ways that it clearly didn't affect his siblings." Baum's older brother became a cardiologist, and his older sister, Pearl "Pepper" Golden, was a prominent social worker. "He loved the people who worked there," Charlie says. "They were his extended family."
Early in life, Baum told an interviewer he learned "the pleasure of giving pleasure." He further said, "I had no sense whatsoever of being part of any service or servant class or self-consciousness because of the mixture of people who lived and played at Saratoga."
The warmth and civility of the hospitality business also had what Baum called "a wildly sinful" complement in the illicit leisure activities of Saratoga Springs. One bookie would wave his pearl-handled revolver in Louis's face and sometimes show up at three in the morning and demand a steak dinner; he was not a man you said no to. Baum was enamored with these "Damon Runyon types" — gangsters, con men, and hustlers on the make. In addition to working in his parents' pantry, he shuffled cards for the guests and ran errands, delivering packages on Broadway and selling racetrack scratch sheets on the steps of the United States Hotel. He played nickel roulette and developed a taste for gambling.
As the family legend goes — and, in keeping with Baum's love of a good story, this account will include some tall tales, within reason — the Gross and Baum once housed the illegal yet popular one-armed-bandit slot machines of the day in one of its parlors. When authorities came to investigate the premises, the family received a tip, and Uncle Simi, who was normally in the kitchen, made a mad dash to remove the machines, put them in the back of a truck, and drive them out to the woods to bury them. Later, Uncle Simi claimed to have forgotten where he hid them and rued his losses.
At around the age of thirteen, in what's passed down as the "Anticipation Story," a foundational tale that Baum repeatedly told to illustrate his approach to hospitality, he was brought by Uncle Simi to a bordello for his first sexual experience. As he was being led up the stairs by a prostitute, she turned to him and said, "This is the best part, sonny, so you'd better enjoy it." Whatever happened up there, one lesson was learned: The anticipation before an actual experience might be its greatest pleasure of all.
Baum also applied himself to more normative forms of education, attending high school in Saratoga and Lakewood, depending on the season. He was one of the few boys who took the home economics class at Lakewood High School, which he graduated from in 1937. Although his family was well off, he worked a variety of hotel jobs, washing dishes, waiting tables at his parents' place and tonier establishments such as the Greenbrier luxury resort in West Virginia and the Roney Plaza Hotel in Miami Beach, Florida.
Baum went to college at the Cornell University hotel school in Ithaca, New York, where he studied hotel administration and plied his gambling skills to earn money, primarily by playing bridge. When he fell into debt during the summer of 1941, Baum skipped town with his school pal, Curt Strand, to work at the Fort Benning Officers Club in Georgia. They joined a motley crew of a kitchen staff and waiters. Baum and Strand regularly broke up knife fights among the cooks. Strand was aghast to see an order of "eggs over" being delivered right side up, but as the offending waiter approached the table, he simply flipped them over with his hand.
After Strand returned to school, Baum took a managerial role at the club and engineered a change at the restaurant so that waiters could earn tips, an idea that allowed him to hire local women, who, as it turned out, began to provide a variety of services for the officers, making the club "the best whorehouse in all of Fort Benning." He was dismissed soon after.
During the school year, Baum went on a field trip with his class to New York City to the lush, fine-dining supper club that had opened the decade before atop 30 Rockefeller Plaza. The class was studying kitchen management, but Baum made his way to the front of the house to marvel at the Art Deco grandeur of the Rainbow Room. "I saw this wonderful room," he later said. "I saw all the people of consequence being served in this great, glorious room. I knew that was what New York was meant to be."
When not in class, Baum worked hotel jobs, including headwaiter at his parents' hotel, until he graduated in 1943. In Miami, he had met a pretty blonde named Ruth Courtman. The two married before Baum went to war and was stationed as a supply officer on the USS Lindsey, a destroyer-minelayer in the Pacific that engaged in battle in Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Baum oversaw the ship's financial affairs as well as the food services for the crew.
On April 12, 1945, the USS Lindsey was en route to assist a destroyer under heavy attack by the Japanese. Six miles from Aguni, a small island off Okinawa, the Lindsey was intercepted by a squadron of kamikaze pilots. Although the minelayer's gunners shot down many of the attacking planes, two managed to evade them and crash into the bow of the vessel, setting it on fire and killing fifty-seven sailors.
Most of the men, including Baum, went overboard. Before he did so, though, one of his duties was to recover the cash — $70,000 — from the Lindsey's safe. After abandoning ship, Baum and his surviving shipmates were rescued, and their vessel was towed back to Guam.
In the aftermath of the war, the whole world was radically altered, as were individual lives. A new paradigm of American exceptionalism dominated a devastated planet. And mammoth, bold initiatives — from the G.I. Bill to the Marshall Plan — were put in place to foster a new, prosperous world order. For many Americans, opportunities abounded. Ambitions ran high.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Most Spectacular Restaurant in the World"
Copyright © 2019 Tom Roston.
Excerpted by permission of Abrams Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Prologue: The City on the 107th Floor 7
Chapter 1 Sin and Civility 15
Chapter 2 New York, C'est Moi 24
Chapter 3 The Three-Clawed Lobster 30
Chapter 4 Elevating the Act of Eating 37
Chapter 5 New York Audacity 47
Chapter 6 Blueprints in the Sky 56
Chapter 7 Chaos and Control 64
Chapter 8 Running on Fumes 77
Chapter 9 The City on a Wire 81
Chapter 10 Who the Fuck Are You? 92
Chapter 11 Seventies Splendor 98
Chapter 12 The Most Spectacular Restaurant in the World 102
Chapter 13 Success with Reservations 110
Chapter 14 The Meanest Man in New York 116
Chapter 15 Windows of Opportunity 126
Chapter 16 One Star 136
Chapter 17 To the Top, to the Bottom 140
Chapter 18 An Italian Wedding 154
Chapter 19 Glass Half Full 164
Chapter 20 Growing Up in the Eighties 172
Chapter 21 Chopping Block 184
Chapter 22 Looking for a Star 193
Chapter 23 February 26, 1993 201
Chapter 24 Danger and Opportunity 213
Chapter 25 King Lear's Kitchen 223
Chapter 26 Rebirth 236
Chapter 27 Rebirth Reboot 248
Chapter 28 The Show Goes On 256
Chapter 29 The Highest-Grossing Restaurant in the World 268
Chapter 30 The Last Meal 278
Chapter 31 The Morning of September 11 286
Chapter 32 That Terrible Day 292
Chapter 33 After 303
Chapter 34 Enduring Change 310
Epilogue: Ana's Story 317
Photo Credits 352