Comfort Food

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

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).

Among the other students at Fieldston when David was there were the three children of Joe Baum. “Our mothers became best friends,” recalls Joe’s son Charles, and their families were soon inseparable. Says David, “I remember being in Joe’s kitchen on Park Avenue with James Beard, eating and cooking and drinking. That was my teenage thing.”

At Fieldston, Emil was a bookish kid who played bridge on the subway to school and was so skinny that he was called “skelly” behind his back. The influential friends of his parents looked out for him: Movie producer Dan Melnick (Roxanne, L.A. Story) was then running a TV-production company and hired the 16-year-old Emil to write questions for a quiz show called The Generation Gap. The show was co-produced by Judy Crichton, a documentary pioneer and writer who would later – nearly two decades later – become his mother-in-law. “In came this pencil-thin, handsome kid with a delicate sensibility and a brilliant mind,” says Crichton, who brought the boy home to her Upper West Side townhouse to meet her husband and children, including Jennifer, who was 11.

“My mother intended for this to happen,” says Jennifer, who has just received her master’s degree in eighteenth-century English literature from Columbia. “She told me I needed to be with someone smarter than I was, and David was the smartest man I’d ever met.” Emil gave her books but at the time didn’t pay her much attention otherwise – “David always brought these elegant heiress types as his dates when he came over” – and the couple didn’t start going out until 1984, marrying two years later.

Emil and his wife have been invited to Mayor Bloomberg’s townhouse for dinner, and he’s been asked to prepare “talking points” about himself for his host. He wants me to take a look at a draft. The single-page résumé makes Emil’s very interesting life sound very bland, so I suggest he at least put in some of the things he’s told me or that I’ve heard from his friends. Maybe this memo to Mike should mention that after high-school graduation, Emil drove a VW bug from Europe to Asia with classmates Leon Black (the future financier only went as far as Istanbul) and Frederic Mishkin, who made it all the way to Bombay.

Or maybe he should explain how he dropped out of Yale for a year to work in Hollywood when Dan Melnick became the head of MGM production (“David should have stayed; he’d be running a studio,” says Melnick). Emil could at least mention that he studied Farsi and Arabic, and lived in Iran for several summers. “I did put down that I have a stunt pilot’s license,” he interrupts, explaining that he took flying lessons as a college student. “I thought the mayor might find that interesting, because he flies a helicopter.” Emil hasn’t performed any aerial stunts in years, he concedes; these days, he buckles his seat belt in New York taxis.

After graduation from columbia law School, Emil took a job as a securities lawyer at white-shoe Willkie Farr & Gallagher, a firm with prominent Democratic ties (Mario Cuomo is currently there). He joined Amnesty International, and when the organization’s leaders learned he spoke Farsi, he was asked to go to Iran in 1978 to interview torture victims. Emil ended up fleeing the country as the government collapsed, amid fighting in the streets. “I was in extremely bad shape when I got back,” he says, describing his horror at talking to people who had been brutalized. “I wasn’t emotionally prepared for a war situation.” Uninterested in returning to corporate law, he took a job as assistant counsel to Governor Hugh Carey in Albany. After two years, he bounced back to Willkie Farr, then joined Governor Mario Cuomo’s administration as general counsel and deputy commissioner of the Department of Social Services.

“David really cared about getting help to poor people,” says Deborah Sale, then the chief of staff for Lieutenant Governor Stan Lundine and now vice-president of the Hospital for Special Surgery. “Which, given his background, was not what you might have expected.” Emil worked closely with Andrew Cuomo, who was impressed enough to advise his father to name Emil president of the Battery Park City Authority in 1988.

At Battery Park City on a sunny recent Friday morning, Emil walks me around, pointing proudly to the buildings that went up on his watch, from Stuyvesant High School (which his daughter will attend this fall) to the Holocaust Memorial.

Emil is the first to admit that he was not universally beloved as head of Battery Park City. He has a reputation for being abrasive at times. “I was controversial, but I hope controversial for good causes.” He fired artist Jennifer Bartlett, who had designed the South Gardens with a high concrete wall blocking the view of the Statue of Liberty, and he knocked heads with community leaders by insisting on the construction of a pedestrian bridge rather than a street crossing.

Meanwhile, during the years that Emil was working in government, his family had become even closer to Joseph Baum. Arthur Emil was a major investor in two of Baum’s restaurants, Aurora and the Rainbow Room; Jennie, who trained at culinary school and cooked at Sarabeth’s, had joined the Rainbow staff in banquet sales. In 1994, shortly after Mario Cuomo lost his bid for reelection, David joined the restaurant company as president. Charles Baum, Joe’s son, was then a manager at the Rainbow Room. “My father saw David as a great business partner, with his background in business and politics,” says Charles, chatting recently over iced coffee at a West Side Starbucks. “I was secure in my position. I thought, This is great, come join the party.”

It didn’t work out that way. By all accounts, Joe Baum, an extraordinarily talented man who could be ruthless with subordinates, treated David as his heir apparent, pushing aside his son and his longtime consulting partner Michael Whiteman. Ill with prostate cancer, Joe hid the severity of his disease as he and David began renovating Windows. Charles was not invited to join the project: “My dad wanted me to hold down the fort at Rainbow, and I said okay.” In May 1998, Tishman Speyer Properties, part owner and manager of Rockefeller Center, announced it would not renew the Rainbow Room’s lease at year’s end; in October 1998, Joe died. Charles was odd man out, with no role to play at the company.

“Everyone perceived that Joe would choose Charles or Michael to run the company. This was a King Lear situation,” Emil says. “It was a father-son succession battle, but the true fathers and sons – Charles and my father, Arthur – were pushed to the sidelines. It’s hard for them because they didn’t get the cathartic experience of love and expression.”

After a painful legal tangle that ended in 2000, the Emil family bought out Baum’s estate. As Charles, who is now a consultant on restaurant technology, says sadly, “There was a lot of emotional history. The insanity of the World Trade Center has erased some of that, with Windows gone now.”

Emil and contractor Liam Mc Devitt are screaming at each other at the top of their lungs, accusations about cost overruns flying in Emil’s claustrophobic office. But then, suddenly, hostilities cease: It’s as if both men have realized that arguing over the cost of the blue terrazzo bar is not as important as just getting the job done.

The Noche project began seven years ago as a restaurant-theater extravaganza for illusionist David Copperfield. Two buildings on Broadway between 48th and 49th Streets were demolished, and $34 million spent to build a dramatic space with a 70-foot-high ceiling and loftlike industrial-Gothic metal girders, before Copperfield and his financial backer, the giant insurance company Conseco, squabbled and the deal collapsed in 1999. Emil, who had already been set to operate the restaurant under Copperfield, was approached by Conseco, and he suggested that the property be reconceived as a Latin restaurant and nightclub. He was inspired by the success of Windows’ Thursday Latin night. “We discovered that you could get the best Latin bands in the world for $5,000 to $10,000 a night,” he says. “We could charge $20 a head and fill the place.”

In many ways, the affordable and lively Noche will be the antithesis of the expense-account-elegant Windows. The new design by Rockwell includes whimsical mosaics of dancers in the women’s bathrooms, and dazzling orange-and-blue stained-glass light panels. It’s as if Noche were designed to counter the troubling memories of last year.

But even at Noche, with its exuberant ambience, there are eerie reminders of Windows, and unexpected conversational black holes. Walking with Emil and Rockwell through the restaurant, I mention that the pattern on some glass evokes an image of flickering flames. “It’s flames,” agrees Rockwell. Emil reacts with shock, insisting, “No, it’s grass, blowing in the breeze.” Rockwell turns to the staffer who designed the panels, David Mexico, and asks, “What is it?” Mexico looks at all of us and shrugs: “It’s anything you want it to be.”

“We’ll always have the sadness, but there’s been a shift,” says Jennie Emil, working the phones in her windowless fourth-floor office, excited that former Windows clients are eager to book events at Noche. Her brother is enjoying the escape that Noche promises. One afternoon, I find him in his office with a visiting Parisian friend, Caroline Krug of the Krug champagne family, digging into sample dishes brought in by Noche’s chef, Ramiro Jimenez. There are huge platters of crispy snapper and grilled octopus and paella. He lights up as he describes his vision for the club. “We’re going to have a D.J. start at nine, and at first you won’t notice the music. Then it’s going to build until you can’t stand sitting down anymore, you have to get up and dance. And the curtain will go up and there will be a live band. Everyone will be on their feet.”

As the countdown to Noche’s opening next week continues, Emil is already thinking ahead, concerned about staff morale. What will happen when the opening frenzy stops? “All restaurant projects carry with them the childbirth sequence,” he says, “including the period after the restaurant is complete, and there’s a huge letdown.” For this particular group, that letdown could be more painful than usual.

“It’s not clear to me whether it’s really good or really bad to have people still working together where we’ve had this shared traumatic experience,” he muses aloud. “I wonder whether we wouldn’t be better in a setting where loss wasn’t constantly apparent and reinforced.”

Still, Emil wanted to hire as many surviving Windows employees as he could. But Noche has only around 70 kitchen, cleanup, and wait-staff slots – Windows employed 450 people – and the wages at this mid-priced, nonunion restaurant (serving tamales and empanadas) won’t match the high-flying tips and salaries at the fully unionized Windows. “Everyone here is earning less money,” he says. “People are already angry at what happened. Whether they’ll be angry at me for not opening an expensive restaurant, I don’t know.” Local 100 of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union is angry that Emil has not hired more former Windows employees, and picketed a pre-opening party last week.

What weighs on Emil’s mind most, though, is whether he can keep his company intact. Without Windows, there’s not much left: Three years ago, he opened Beacon, a handsome restaurant in midtown, with partner-chef Waldy Malouf; they also have a Beacon outpost in Stamford; Emil’s company, Night Sky Holdings, will be the operator of Noche, with a 16 percent ownership interest. But these properties don’t produce enough income to justify his corporate staff. “The question is,” he says, “can I pull together enough things to maintain a critical mass of talented people?”

Emil is scouting to buy another major Manhattan restaurant to stay in the game. He has kept former Windows chef Michael Lomonaco on the payroll all these months, even without a kitchen, both to help plan and staff Noche and in hopes of employing him in another restaurant that will feature Lomonaco’s upscale American cuisine. “It has been good for me to be working, to be involved,” says Lomonaco. “I hope Noche will be a fun place, and a tribute to the friends we lost.”

Beyond Noche, Emil can’t resist looking downtown. “I believe ultimately, downtown will be rebuilt, and there will be another Windows on the World–style restaurant,” he says. “For me, this is really a fight to preserve the position of my company, so we can be there.”

Comfort Food