112 Minutes With Julian Niccolini

Photo: Joe Fornabaio/Retna Ltd.

It’s a miserable Monday, a little after noon, and though the streets are soaked and chilly for April, things inside The Four Seasons’ Grill Room are heating up as usual. A parade of suited regulars, including Steve Forbes, Pete Peterson, William Lauder, and Lynn Forester de Rothschild, are taking their seats. Since the tables face one another, it’s like a theater-in-the-round, so that every laugh or frown is on display for all to see. “I used to think they wanted privacy, but eventually I realized that they come here, where the privacy is not so good,” says co-owner Julian Niccolini, who’s been doling out the daily positions in the room for 30 of the restaurant’s 50 years. “Everybody claims to be serious, but they are actually having fun.”

The Philip Johnson–designed restaurant hasn’t changed much since it opened in 1959, even as the world around it has changed quite a bit. But Niccolini’s sense of the drama, and clubbiness, of the place is what has kept it alive, even as this downturn is putting other similarly grandiose lunch spots out of business. “Sometimes I try to create an atmosphere of conflict, you know, put a recently divorced couple, or people who aren’t speaking, near each other,” he says. “Maybe it will make them start talking again. Why not? Of course, you have to understand who you can play with. Those that don’t take it well don’t come back, which is fine with me. I’ve always tried to get rid of people who do not belong here.”

This is not a place for nonperformers. “I read the columns, the blogs, the Times, and the Journal before I arrive, so I am up-to-date about my clientele,” says Niccolini. But sometimes the news comes a little late. Just last week, a businessman, seeing whom he was seated near, stalked out, heading to San Pietro for lunch instead. It wasn’t until days later the reason for his animosity hit the Journal.

Niccolini, 56, grew up in the hills of Lucca, Italy. His father had a grocery on the first floor of their home. He moved to New York in 1975, and worked briefly as a waiter at the Hôtel de Paris in Monaco. After a stint at cuny’s hospitality-management program, he applied for a job at The Four Seasons, but didn’t get it. “Then the Palace opened. It was the most expensive restaurant in New York, and I was hired instantly. I was working like a dog, and six months later The Four Seasons called.” He began as a headwaiter and became a partner in 1995.

He’s developed close relationships with regulars from Henry Kissinger to Martha Stewart, and some fly him to their homes on private jets—just last weekend he was invited to the Bahamas. “Sometimes I show up at these places and I say, ‘Is this how people really live? Looks pretty good to me.’ Our restaurant grossed $17 million last year. Great, right? Some of our customers actually made more than that themselves.’’

Niccolini and his wife have two daughters, and divide their time between a Sutton Place studio and a “shack in the woods” in Bedford. He picks his own mushrooms and bottles his own honey, called Bee Naughty, a jar of which is $45 at Dean & DeLuca.

He works the room, chatting and advising: “Try the sardines today, it is like being in Venice,” or “You are going back to work? You need another glass of wine.”

“These people come here to be served, respected, and loved,” he says. “You have to understand we are not them. When you begin to cross the line and feel you are one of them, a superstar, you have true problems. Sure, I entertain them, but I never sit down with them.” Part of the entertainment is the ribbing he dishes out. He slaps a patron lightly on the belly. “He doesn’t feel it; it is only lard,” he says, laughing. “That’s Lally Weymouth in the corner; they’d better keep her in the corner. And that guy over there is in finance, but his name is John Holmes, like the porn star, so I introduce him to everyone as a porn star, and he freaks out.” More chuckling. “If you haven’t been insulted by Julian, you are nobody,” says Holmes.

Niccolini’s phone goes off; the ringtone is a duck quacking, and as he reaches to pick it up, wild-boar cuff links poke their heads from beneath his jacket. He is finalizing plans for his roast, to be held as a kickoff to anniversary festivities, with Edgar Bronfman Jr., Jonathan Tisch, Sirio Maccioni, and Peggy Siegal among the roasters. “It’s time for them to express their feelings, and I can’t wait,” he says.

The 50th year is certainly not the easiest. “I’m glad you enjoyed lunch,” he tells one diner. “Thank God you didn’t go to Lever House—they just closed.” He’s introduced a three-course prix fixe for $59, in honor of the year it opened. “Fifty percent of our customers are taking this menu,” he says. “We are not making much money on it, but we did it to stay competitive and make sure we will be in business for the next 50 years.”

112 Minutes With Julian Niccolini