Among the many and profound losses on September 11, 2001, was the destruction of one of New York’s most treasured restaurants—Windows on the World. I still vividly remember the extraordinary experiences I had dining on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center. And an enthralling new book, The Most Spectacular Restaurant in the World, by veteran writer Tom Roston, brought those memories (and so many others) back to me.
Within ten pages, I pushed aside everything else I was doing and read the book for hours, because Roston has written something far more illuminating and edifying than a chronicle of this ridiculously audacious achievement, feeding people a quarter of a mile in the sky.
Ask any native New York baby boomer what was the exciting era of this city, and without hesitation, almost everyone will say “the ‘70s.” Long before everyone started singing “I Love New York,” the only people who wanted to be in this town were those who lived here, because it was dirty, crime-ridden, rough and broke. It was also thrilling, exciting, and frankly pretty damn fabulous, because the people who chose to live in this city were arrogant enough to believe they could do anything against all odds. That’s why, while the Federal Government refused to bail out the city’s financial crisis (instigating the famous Daily News headline “Ford to City: Drop Dead”), those Twin Towers were on the rise, and a restaurateur with bravado to spare figured he could give these gleaming structures a gustatorial crown that would be the envy of all.
Since you really can’t tell the story of the creation of Windows on the World—which opened in 1976—without understanding both the odds against its success and the maniacal drive to make it a reality, Roston has crafted the most detailed, all-consuming and thoroughly spellbinding portrait of my hometown during this daunting, delirious decade that I’ve ever read.
Roston was aware that “as a storyteller, one of the great challenges here was the everyone knows the ending. Then how do you hold people’s attention? By telling people everything that happened before. I was astonished that when I looked into it, it’s a story that has never been told.”
And what Roston reveals is a story about incredible characters: The brilliant and sly P.T. Barnum-esque showmanship of Windows’ driving force, Joe Baum; the tyrannical but effective manner of his chosen manager, Al Lewis, of whom Roston writes “his son called him the meanest man in town”; the handsome and imposing maître’d, P.T. Eggar, who made a fortune getting his palm greased for those most-desired tables by the window because as Roston notes, “he was selling real estate”; as well as the untried but inspired sommelier, the private club manager who kept his money in his sock, and a host of others who were responsible for Windows of the World becoming the highest-grossing restaurant on the planet.
Roston believes it’s also “a story of immigrants. Over thirty languages were spoken in the restaurant. So many came so far because to work here was the chance of a lifetime.”
And it’s a tale of architectural wonder. How do you alter a unique, but rigid structural design to achieve panoramic views? How do you get gas up 107 floors? You don’t. Then how do you cook? And it’s a history of New York’s growing sophistication with food. “Now we toss it off, but back then whoever heard of coconut shrimp?” Baum wanted chef Michael Lomonaco’s menu to astonish as much as the view.”
But most important, Roston revels in the fact that it’s a story about a city that boasts something even more hypnotic than its skyline—the people who make this city come alive. There is the aerialist Philippe Petit, who tightroped across the top of both buildings and “not only humanized the structures but turned these previously unloved buildings into an attraction.” The great food critic Gael Greene’s all-important cover story in New York Magazine, then the most influential periodical in town, calling this what is now the title of this book. “I couldn’t believe how this restaurant absorbed all the trauma and the triumphs of this city. How people trapped at the restaurant handled the blackout of 1977 (they had a blast and ate for free), the first bombing of the building in 1993, and the celebrities as diverse as John Lennon and Henry Kissinger who came and were either loved or loathed by the staff.
And it’s a tale of tragic sorrow, of a city forever changed by the loss of, not the restaurant, or even the buildings, but of thousands of loved ones. “I’m so grateful that the victim’s compensation fund rallied to help the families of the seventy-three people who lost their lives working at Windows,” Roston says.
But as he admits, knowing the awful ending gave him an inspiration that makes this book such a compelling read. “When you hear a memorable eulogy, it’s because it’s about how a person lived, not how he or she died,” he adds. “The waiters, the chefs, the builders, the famous and the fierce, this incredible cast of characters created something so kinetic on the 107th floor of this building. This restaurant was destroyed 18 years ago, far enough away that it counts as history for so many too young to remember, but close enough to get firsthand accounts, and still so fresh in the minds of so many. Everything about this place reflects New York’s culture at a time we should never forget.”
And now we won’t. If you love this city (and if you don’t, better not tell me), grab this book. Thanks, Tom.