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Comfort Food

David Emil ran the most lucrative restaurant in New York, the World Trade Center's Windows on the World. Next week, he's opening his first new venture since the tragedy: a brightly colored, Latin-themed, Times Square extravaganza called Noche. The two are as different as night and day. So is this business or therapy?


Times Change: David Emil during his Windows on the World days.  

Standing on the second-floor balcony at Noche, his new Times Square restaurant, David Emil flips a carpet sample over the rail onto the concrete floor below. He's trying to land it face up, and his architect, David Rockwell, is getting into the game, tossing one of his own. "This is like flipping baseball cards," Emil jokes.

It seems that because of a contractor snafu, custom carpet was never ordered for the Latin-themed Noche, which will occupy the soaring space originally built for David Copperfield. With the restaurant booked for its first party in just ten days, Emil andRockwell have to choose a floor covering today. In his French cuffs, blue tie, and dark suit, the rail-thin Emil looks every inch the lawyer-businessman, and he's pushing hard for the blue-wave pattern he's thrown down. "Besides," he adds, "it's free."

Rockwell, in regulation downtown black, acquiesces amiably. "It's up to you, David," he says. "I can live with it."

I ask Emil how he is going to get all that carpet gratis. The pair is suddenly mute. "This was excess carpet from Windows on the World," Emil finally explains, almost inaudibly. "We still have it because it was in storage."

All restaurant openings involve last-minute drama: harried construction workers hammering away in the dining room, frenzied chefs testing new dishes in the unfinished kitchen. But there's an added poignancy to the launch of Noche, a nightclub-cum-restaurant that will combine live music, dancing, Rockwell's over-the-top hot-orange décor, and a crowd-pleasing Latin-based menu. David Emil's family owned Windows on the World, on the top two floors of the World Trade Center's north tower, and Noche reunites more than 50 of its surviving employees.

For Emil, the creation of Noche has been an unlikely form of therapy, a way to begin rebuilding his shattered company -- 79 Windows employees were lost September 11 -- and work toward healing emotional wounds. "It's been very good to have a project to work on -- and very difficult," he admits. "It's hard to overcome normal kinds of problems that exist in a complicated New York building project in the emotional state we're all in."

Walking me into the kitchen, he introduces Jesse Davis, the former chef de cuisine at Wild Blue, which was part of Windows. Davis, a 30-year-old who had been unemployed since September, is stirring a pan of braised short ribs for a midday taste test. "I'm so happy to be back in a kitchen," he says. "I could have gone to work earlier, but I think I would have had a breakdown. Now I'm ready." There are other familiar faces: Michael Lomonaco, the Windows chef, is consulting on the menu; Andrea Immer, the Windows beverage director, is training bartenders; and Jennie Emil, David's younger sister and the former Windows banquet manager, is booking events. But it's David who is the emotional center of the project.

The New York restaurant world attracts flamboyant impresarios (Sirio Maccioni, the late Warner LeRoy), foodie perfectionists (Drew Nieporent, Danny Meyer), and up-by-their-bootstraps stories (Pino Luongo, Silvano Marchetto). David Emil, at 51, is none of these types. He's an introspective intellectual who is a board member of the Poetry Society of America. He's a politically connected lawyer from a wealthy Upper East Side family who became a restaurateur only after stints working for Mario Cuomo as president of the Battery Park City Authority and deputy commissioner of the state's Department of Social Services. "David is a deeply contemplative, philosophical person," says Alice Quinn, poetry editor of The New Yorker, who has known him for 25 years.

In his tiny, cluttered second-floor office, Emil points out two rust-colored Windows chairs that had been sent to the reupholsterer before September 11; now they are tangible mementos he can't part with. "David doesn't wear his heart on his sleeve," says Michael Lomonaco. "But the grief and feeling of loss is bottomless. All those people who died in his restaurant worked for him, and he was helpless to do anything." Rockwell agrees: "I don't know if David will ever get over this."

On the morning of September 11, Emil, who is married with two children, drove his son Andrew, now 12, to Dalton in his Saab station wagon (daughter Catherine, 13, took the bus with friends to Spence). He then returned to his book-filled Riverside Drive apartment and by 8:15 was reviewing issue papers for longtime friend Andrew Cuomo's gubernatorial campaign. "I was just putting on my tie to leave for work," he says, when he got a call from Jennie, who usually was at her 106th-floor desk by 8 a.m. but that morning had gone to a doctor's appointment instead and heard the first news there. She then received a hysterical call for help on her cell phone from a trapped Windows employee.

Emil's next call was from Lomonaco, who was at the chaotic scene downtown. Lomonaco had stopped at LensCrafters in the Trade Center concourse on his way to the restaurant, and was there when the first plane hit. Even so, he barely escaped.

Emil and his wife, Jennifer Crichton, watched the towers collapse on TV while frantically making calls. In the end, no one who was at Windows when the planes hit survived.

Now, in casual conversation, Emil frequently uses the phrase "when the dust settles" in connection with ordinary matters, seemingly unconscious of what he's actually referring to. For him, the dust clearly hasn't settled yet. Unlike the brokerage firms in the Twin Towers that were able to continue operations at other locations, Emil's extremely profitable enterprise completely vanished. "Ours was an irreplaceable asset," says his father, Arthur Emil, serving me coffee at his law office in one of the few remaining blue-and-orange signature Windows china cups. "Beautiful, aren't they?" he sadly notes. As David observes, "It's very different from Cantor Fitzgerald, where they had a continuing company. We were wiped out."

Windows on the World wasn't just a New York icon; it was also the highest-grossing restaurant in America, bringing in $37 million in 2000. The late Joe Baum, the legendary restaurateur behind The Four Seasons, created Windows in 1976; he wasn't an owner, though, and he left several years later. The restaurant closed after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and in 1994 Baum won the lease with a group of partners that included his friend and lawyer Arthur Emil. At the time, David was nearing the end of his tenure at Battery Park City. So when Baum asked him to join the new management team, it seemed perfectly natural. After spending $26 million in renovations, the men launched the new Windows in 1996. Then Joe died in 1998, and the Emil family bought out his estate. David had the perfect gig, running a romantic money machine with a lease that ran though 2022.

But now it's gone, and Emil is still wrangling with his insurance company, with millions of dollars at stake. William Underhill, co-CEO of Advent Communications and Entertainment, a Las Vegas company that has invested in Noche, says, "It's been hard for David and his organization to gear up again. Without Windows covering his overhead, he's had to go into his own pocket to pay salaries and keep people around."

Emil is also co-founder, with chefs Tom Valenti, Waldy Malouf, and Lomonaco, of Windows of Hope, a charity that has raised $18 million for the families of all food-service workers killed in the Twin Towers. "The faces of the people who died haunt David," says Jennifer Crichton, sitting in the dining room of the couple's apartment, which is filled with cheerful mismatched furniture, a Steinway, and numerous artworks (including Greek miniature sculptures and an Aristide Maillol). "David plays a lot of Bach on the piano."

Always an emotionally buttoned-up man, Emil has recently been spending a lot of time on the squash court with his son, and he's been seeing a psychiatrist since last fall. For many months, he's carried in his wallet a poem by W. H. Auden called "Villanelle" ("The winds must come from somewhere when they blow / There must be reasons why the leaves decay / Time can say nothing but I told you so"). "It's been a constant struggle," he says. "I've been struggling with the loss of friends and colleagues while at the same time trying to have enough confidence in the future and in my creativity and resourcefulness to execute this huge project."

A third-generation New Yorker, David Emil grew up at Madison and 88th Street in a wealthy family (his father is Jewish and his mother Quaker) that socialized with the city's movers and shakers and vacationed frequently in Europe. His grandfather Allan Emil, a lawyer who collected Impressionist paintings, used to take David along to visit galleries on weekends. "I thought I might become an art dealer," he says; as a teen he began buying Cycladic sculptures. His mother, Jane, who was a remedial-reading teacher, died of breast cancer in 1973. His 77-year-old father still has a thriving real-estate business (he developed the Police Building downtown) and entertainment-law practice (he represents Jeffrey Katzenberg, one of his son's classmates at Fieldston).

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