Special Sauce: Tom Roston on the Untold Stories of Windows on the World

Special Sauce: Tom Roston on the Untold Stories of Windows on the World


[Tom Roston photograph: Jeremy Folmer. Shrimp photograph: Chichi Wang]

No matter where you were when the two planes hit the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, you were profoundly affected by the events of that day. And if you, like me, were at all involved in the food culture at that moment, your thoughts quickly turned to Windows on the World, the glitzy restaurant on the 107th floor of the North Tower, where visitors could enjoy unparalleled views while sipping $5 drinks (at the adjoining Greatest Bar on Earth) or dropping serious coin for a celebratory dinner. One hundred seventy employees and patrons of the restaurant died that day.

Author Tom Roston, this week’s Special Sauce guest, has written The Most Spectacular Restaurant in the World: The Twin Towers, Windows on the World, and the Rebirth of New York, a compelling and doggedly reported book that details the history of both Windows on the World and the Twin Towers, from their inception to their demise. As Roston says, “It’s no coincidence that the book is coming out in September, right around 9/11, because it’s when we are all forced to remember. Even though we are all thinking about it. I think so many of us always have it in the back of our minds…. I didn’t lose anyone, but as a New Yorker, my city suffered. It just makes sense when you’re…putting a book out, let’s do it when this is part of the conversation. And I want the life of this restaurant to be a part of the conversation about 9/11, because it’s not just about the tragedy.”

Roston was particularly drawn to the poignant stories of the many immigrants from all over the world who worked at Windows on the World. “…There are these stories that have gone untold. We experienced 9/11, we think of this smoke, we think of these awful things, potentially. Or people go to the memorial, and they commemorate what happened. But it was interesting to me as a storyteller to say, ‘Well, what about all these stories that haven’t been told?’ And it turned out they were these incredible stories, like from September 10th. This range of experience of life that happened in the restaurant that, of course, is heavy with meaning and profundity when you consider what happened the next day.”

These next two Special Sauce episodes with Roston moved me to tears, and I imagine they will move many other serious eaters in the same way.

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Transcript

Ed Levine: Welcome to Special Sauce, Serious Eats podcast about food and life. Every week on Special Sauce, we talk to some of the leading lights of American culture, food folks, and non-food folks alike.

Tom Roston: I would say it was an exercise in opulence. Some people called it a Versailles in the sky. We’re talking about mirror paneling and geodes and brass and the most beautiful bathrooms you’ve ever seen made out of pink marble that was shipped in from Italy. They spared no expense. You didn’t have to pay to eat dinner there, you could just buy a drink. And then suddenly you had access to the most spectacular view in the world.

EL: This week we are pleased to welcome writer, editor and reporter Tom Roston. Tom is the author of three books, including the just-released, The Most Spectacular Restaurant in the World, The Twin Towers, Windows on the World, and The Rebirth of New York. The book is aptly described on its jacket as the story of a restaurant on top of the world, built by a legend, destroyed in tragedy, and a pivotal era in New York City history.

I am welcoming Tom on September sixth. So welcome, Tom.

TR: Thanks so much for having me on the show.

EL: To talk about his book, about the World Trade Center and Windows on the World, which has a pub date of September 10th. It somehow was timed appropriately, given the subject matter. And the book was so moving, and so amazingly reported.

TR: Thank you so much.

EL: And you painted such a vivid portrait. And I know a lot of those people and I’ve tried to do some of the reporting that you did, but you did a better job than I did.

TR: I’m interested to hear where you fell up short, and I could explain my secrets or the magic. But actually, I have to say that I think part of it is there’s been so much magic about putting this book together. I should say I don’t believe in magic, but really what it’s been, there’ve been gifts. So many people I’ve talked to, I felt like, kind of what you’re implying, I felt like, “Oh wow, they’re telling me this? This is incredible.” And I felt like I was getting a gift every time someone told a story or revealed themselves. And I do think it has to do with this incredibly tragic day, 9/11, and how it has impacted people. And really there is a sense, I think, that people want it to be remembered.

Ultimately, though, I do want to impress upon you that this is not a 9/11 book. It’s a book about a restaurant and the life of the restaurant. So the way I think of it is when you go to a funeral and you hear a eulogy, you’re not going to hear about how the person died. You’re going to hear about how that person lived. And, man, what a story, what a life this restaurant had from 1976 through 2001.

Again, I just felt like there were all these weird gifts of circumstances where so much that happened to the city could be seen through what happened at the restaurant, whether it’s the economic ups and downs, to the blackout in ’77, to the cast of characters who went through that restaurant.

EL: Yeah, it was a socioeconomic and financial and psychological and emotional history of the city during that period.

TR: Yeah. From Yogi Bear to Henry Kissinger to this amazing influx of immigrants who were working at the restaurant.

EL: Yeah, no, it’s amazing also how timely it feels, given all the conversation about immigration. That was the other thing that I noticed. So how did the book come about?

TR: The book came about by just me being a New York writer looking for stories. And actually nine years ago, I wrote an oral history for Manhattan magazine about the restaurant, because I just realized no one had written a real story, the real history of Windows on the World.

TR: I grew up in New York City, I’m a native New Yorker, and I used to go to Windows on the World. I knew what it was, what it meant to this city. It was the place where everyone either went or considered going. When your friends or family were from out of town, you would think, “Should we take them to Windows on the World?” That’s where you went for your anniversary or birthday, your bar mitzvah, whatever it was.

EL: I went to many cocktail parties at Windows of the World given by all kinds of companies, and it’s where I found out that I didn’t get a job that I really wanted.

TR: Oh, God.

EL: So that’s what I associate with Windows on the World.

TR: You mean someone brought you up there and said, “Oh sorry, you didn’t get the job.” That’s awful.

EL: Yeah, yeah. Literally it was like someone said, because I was up for… This is in my book, actually. But, not the Windows of the World part, I was at this party and someone said, “The Food Network is negotiating with such and such for the president’s job.” And it had come down to me and that person. And I was like, “Oh, I guess I didn’t get the job.”

TR: Yeah, so much happened at that restaurant. Restaurants are so essential and so to the core of so many cultures, but I think we’re narcissistic New Yorkers, I think. We think that New York is so special, and it’s true, New York is special and its restaurants are truly special. It’s where people go to see each other. And I’ve been thinking a lot about how one of the chefs at Windows talked about, his name is Georges Masraff he actually was a cook. He was the head chef at a difficult time in the restaurant’s history. But he was explaining why he hired this young gun named Mark Murphy who really was unproven. And he basically said, “Cooking is not production, cooking is a culture.”

And this guy, Mark Murphy, was this dynamic young gun who could speak three languages, had traveled all over the world, and he saw in Mark that he had this culture that he wanted to bring to the restaurant. And that’s, again, one of the things I thought, “Wow, that is what this restaurant was about.”

EL: You write in the book that you are a New Yorker fixated on the past.

TR: Yeah.

EL: Yet you look very, very contemporary and current.

TR: Thank you. Well, I think we all are, really. I think whenever a New Yorker walks down the street, you look around and you look at the cracks. You look at the cracks in the sidewalk, you look at the store around the corner, and you remember what used to be there. And as a native New Yorker, whenever I walk down any street in the city, I see what’s there, but then I also see what was there 10 years ago, 20 years ago, whatever it may be. And yes, again, coming back to why I thought of doing this story, who doesn’t look down at the bottom of Manhattan and just see an absence, even if that one World Trade Center is there now, which it wasn’t when I was working on the first oral history about the restaurant, you see the absence. There was once there, the two buildings, they were there. Even though these terribly awful reviled buildings that so many of us didn’t really appreciate, they became ours and they became a part of-

EL: It’s true. And I still, when I go take the train to the Serious Eats offices, and I go across the bridge, I look at the skyline, and I’m like, “They’re not there.” I’m always surprised. Like, “No, they haven’t been there for a while, Ed.”

TR: Right, right. I know. It’s incredible. And you mentioned early on about this book is coming out in September. Yes, it’s no coincidence that the book is coming out in September, right around 9/11, because it’s when we are all forced to remember. Even though we are all thinking about it. I think so many of us always have it in the back of our minds. As a New Yorker, I didn’t lose anyone, but as a New Yorker, my city suffered. It just makes sense when you’re selling a book and you’re putting a book out, let’s do it when this is part of the conversation. And I want the life of this restaurant to be a part of the conversation about 9/11 because it’s not just about the tragedy. There are people like you and I who can remember it, but it’s receding.

And yet, there are these stories that have gone untold. We experienced 9/11, we think of this smoke, we think of these awful things, potentially. Or people go to the memorial and they commemorate what happened. But it was interesting to me as a storyteller to say, “Well, what about all these stories that haven’t been told?” And it out they were these incredible stories, like from September 10th. This range of experience of life that happened in the restaurant that, of course, is heavy with meaning and profundity when you consider what happened the next day.

Can I tell you one of the stories, just one of the many? George Delgado, the head bartender. It was raining like cats and dogs. He lives in New Jersey, and his car got stuck. It was drowned in water. So he had to take a taxi. He had a awful day. He had to come in, he was doing a special bar night, drinking, I think it was a tequila night with Dale DeGroff, the King of Cocktails, up in the greatest bar on earth, the bar that was next to Windows on the World, it was part of Windows on the World.

And then, they had an incredible night, but George couldn’t get home. So his wife had to come in from New Jersey with the baby, they have a little child, and picked up George. And when he went down to get in the car, he took the baby out and raised the baby up and pointed the baby up at the World Trade Center, and said, “Look, honey, this is where Daddy works.”

EL: Wow.

TR: That happened eight hours before those buildings were hit.

EL: Amazing. Describe the restaurant, because not everybody who’s listening will have been, besides the fact that it was 107 floors up.

TR: Yep, that’s right. So it opened in 1976, and Joe Baum wanted to wow his guests.

EL: Joe Baum was a world famous restaurateur who is responsible for many things in the restaurant culture. A lot of good things and some not so good things. He was the P.T. Barnum of restaurants.

TR: Yes, he definitely was P.T. Barnum. But he’s also the guy that created Four Seasons.

EL: Yeah, exactly.

TR: Which is considered the greatest restaurant possibly in American history. And full of class. So, it’s true, he was this interesting combination of entertainer, but also a guy who really understood food.

But by the time 1976 was coming around and he had been dubbed to develop the restaurant, Joe was there for a reason. Guy Tozzoli, the director of the World Trade Center, needed to sell this building to tenants to get them to move in to this monstrosity of a building. And he also needed to sell this building to the city of New York, because everyone’s like, “What’s going on? The port authority, what? The port authority is spending a billion dollars on these ugly buildings? What’s the port authority doing?” It didn’t make any sense.

So, Guy had the brilliant idea of bringing in Joe Baum to create this restaurant to make it accessible. And so, what Joe did was he created a, I guess I would say it was an exercise in opulence. Some people called it Versailles in the sky. I mean we’re talking about mirror paneling and geodes and brass, and the most beautiful bathrooms you’ve ever seen made out of pink marble that was shipped in from Italy. They spared no expense. The port authority poured a ton of money into this thing.

EL: You’re surrounded by windows.

TR: Of course, yes.

EL: Obviously.

TR: The greatest impression is that you’re surrounded by windows, you see the beautiful city in front of you. And the thing is you could get up there for the price of a screwdriver, whatever it was, two bucks, three bucks, at the time. You didn’t have to pay to eat dinner there, you could just buy a drink. And then suddenly you had access to the most spectacular, yes spectacular, view in the world.

And then the food. The food was this interesting mix. Joe Baum had been, his muse, his food muse, was James Beard. And James Beard and a lot of these great food consultants, the pinnacle of the culinary world back then were advising Joe. And it was this interesting mix of, maybe you can call it continental. There was a lot of aspect on the menu, which I get a kick out of because I just think aspect is funny and it’s so outdated. But there were novelties like satay and coconut shrimp. Coconut shrimp seems trite to us now.

EL: Yeah, coconut shrimp is Applebee’s now.

TR: Exactly. But at the time that’s what anyone and everyone talked about, because it was unheard of.

EL: And what was fascinating, they spend all this money, and Joe, yes, had launched many restaurants that were very well regarded by critics, but the critics didn’t immediately embrace this restaurant. Right?

TR: No, no, they didn’t. No. There was awareness. And in fact, Joe himself, in one of the early clips after he had been appointed to work on this restaurant, he said, “This is not going to be a tourist trap.” There is awareness that when you put a restaurant at the top of a big building that it could be just for tourists and that it’s not about the food.

So, that, to me, was something not to avoid as a writer. It was something to embrace, this tension between whether or not Windows was a tourist trap and just a place to bring the zillions and zillions of people that they brought in. There are 350 covers, the 350 seats, that’s the phrase, as you know, in the restaurant. They were turning over thousands of people a night. So it could’ve been just a mill, but there was attention and there was this history, like you mentioned, that Joe Baum knew how to put out good food. But there was always this battle back and forth. And yeah, the food, in a way the food followed the trajectory of the city. It started out pretty good, it got better, but then it got really not so good, to the point where it got zero stars. And I think it was 1987, 1988.

EL: It was fascinating, at the end of the book you put a little chart of all the reviews from the New York Times, when the restaurant was open.

TR: Right.

EL: And the range was wide.

TR: Yeah. Well, Ruth Reichl, when the restaurant went down, again, what’s so tragic about the history of the restaurant is that it finally found its legs at the end. When it collapsed, when the whole building went down, it had two stars, which isn’t extraordinary.

EL: No, but given what it was, it really did straddle the two worlds that Joe Baum wanted to. Right? And that was because of Michael Lomonaco.

TR: Right, the chef.

EL: Who he hired, the chef, and you chronicle. I actually learned a lot and I knew some of those stories, but I didn’t know all of them about how Michael ended up there. And of course he’d been at the 21 club. And I remember even, I think I wrote a review of Wild Blue, which was the small-

TR: Boutique.

EL: Boutique restaurant. And I actually had a really good meal there. It was fairly simple, which I was glad about, but it was really well executed.

TR: Yeah, so not only was the restaurant finding itself critically, but also it was the highest grossing restaurant in the world. To be able to do both, so unlikely. The easiest comparison is Tavern on the Green, which has been, obviously, I think that place has really struggled with the quality of its food.

EL: Absolutely. And, really, it only enjoyed one good period, and that was when Patrick Clark was the chef. The late Patrick Clark, I should say.

TR: I don’t know, you threw out Patrick Clark. Can I tell you a story?

EL: Sure.

TR: A Windows story. It’s one of my favorite stories. There’s so many, it’s just like I can’t tell you-

EL: We should tell people that Patrick Clark was one of the first prominent modern African American chefs in the restaurant culture in America.

TR: That’s right. Classically trained, and he was wowing them at The Odeon in the early ’80s, when Saturday Night Live was the hot show.

EL: Right. And all the after parties were there.

TR: And Jim Belushi, all those guys. They were all going down there, and they were eating things. I love the idea that they were all playing with the word arugula. This thing that was a strange thing at the time. And guess what? There was this taxi driver who was a gypsy car driver, even, named Micheal Lomonaco who was just wishing-

EL: Who was a struggling actor at the time.

TR: Struggling actor, but who also loved to cook. He actually knew how to cook fish cheeks. He could appreciate that. We’re talking about an early age, before the foodies had taken over the world. So, he’s a struggling actor driving a cab, wishing he can cook more, and he hears on the radio that there’s a call to pick up the chef at The Odeon. And he’s like, “I got that call. I want that call.” He was far away. So he went there, and he picked up Patrick. He drove him all the way to east New York. And he was brazen. He just said, “How do I get into the business? How do I do it?” And Michael Lomonaco ended up being the executive chef of Windows on the World.

EL: That’s awesome.

TR: And Odeon is right in the shadow of the World Trade Center. It’s like these things, they-

EL: Wow. That’s karma. It’s weird. And Patrick Clark’s son is the chef at Lure Fishbar, I think.

TR: Yeah. Yeah, he’s a success. It’s a family. I think there’s an uncle in there. It’s a strong family of chefs. And that’s, again, one of the things I was trying to tap into, that New York is filled with these incredibly talented cooks within their families. It was really a joy to write.

EL: Tom Roston, writer, editor and reporter. What was the most interesting thing you discovered when you were doing your reporting, and the most surprising thing?

TR: I could have never foreseen the conversation I had with Anna Saria.

EL: Right. Who was the widow of a worker at Windows on the World.

TR: Right. They immigrated from Ecuador, both undocumented, classic story of a couple who tries to make good in New York. And he was doing really well. He had gotten up to a management position. He went from stock boy to a management position. And it’s just such a tragic story that it even feels difficult to talk about it because I feel like people should just read it, but I’ll go ahead with it. Because Anna, I will say that Anna is very happy that her husband’s story is being told now, because it hasn’t properly been told, which is a shame to me, and I’m very grateful so that I get to be the person to tell this story.

So, yes, her husband, Luis, had taken time off in August of 2001 because she had had this terrible miscarriage. And he went back to work on 9/11. What an awful, awful thing. And he died that day. And then Anna had to deal with this just traumatic, awful thing of being an undocumented immigrant in this country with a son, with a husband who was her entire life. She had known him since she was a child. Just trying to just deal with that. The whole world was trying to deal with 9/11, imagine what this woman was trying to deal with.

So, what I find incredible is that she was able to get up and go on and move on. And she took cooking classes, and she learned to live her life, and she learned to raise a son. And so, she spoke to me and she told me this amazing story of when she visited her husband at the memorial, 9/11 Memorial. It was for his birthday. So she got a card and put the card on the memorial, and was going to sing Happy Birthday to him, just quietly, just out of respect her husband. But she couldn’t because there were so many people there, and so many people were looking at the card and weeping and being moved by it.

And so, Anna eventually saw these four young white, long blonde haired women looking at the card and singing Happy Birthday. And so she joined them and sang Happy Birthday with them. And to me, again, what a moving incredible moment. And what was amazing to me was that it was this idea that Windows on the World was bringing people together in this magical, incredible way. That is something I could never have predicted.

EL: Yeah. I want to talk a little bit more about Joe Baum, because you have this great quote from him that he says, “A restaurant takes a basic drive, the simple act of eating, and transforms it into a civilized ritual. A ritual involving hospitality and imagination and satisfaction and graciousness and warmth. A restaurant elevates a human need to a subtle and sophisticated pleasure.” Relate that quote to what he did with Windows on the World.

TR: To me, I immediately think of truite au bleu. Excuse my French, but it’s blue trout. It’s a dish that he served at Four Seasons, this incredible dish where writers like Hemingway have written about what a wonderful dish it is. It’s very simple. Basically, you need the fish to be alive in the kitchen, because you need to have the slime that the fish lives with on its skin. You bludgeon the fish in the kitchen, you gut it, you drop it in broth with vinegar, and it turns this brilliant blue.

And so, to me, this dish was quintessential Joe Baum, because you get the fish, you put it on the plate, it’s just simply prepared. You can serve it with butter and potato, lemon. And apparently, if you get it right, the fish is just tender and it has this exquisite taste, but also it’s blue. So it’s like, “Woohoo.” It’s like you said, P.T. Barnum. It’s this strange, magical thing on your plate.

So, to me, that is a perfect example of how Joe wanted food to be something that was a conversation starter, that was more than just nibbling.

EL: And delicious.

TR: Yeah, delicious, but also engaging to the mind.

EL: Sure.

TR: Because, again, food is culture, it’s about context.

EL: Yeah. So the book is about so many things, right? It’s about a restaurant of out-sized importance. It was about the political climate of New York. It was about finances. It was about power. How did all of those things manage to come together with a restaurant?

TR: It is interesting. I think that’s New York, because those buildings should have never been there. The port authority, it’s a transportation agency. Why are they building these buildings? It’s because the Rockefellers wanted to… It’s a complicated, complicated story. But the Rockefellers wanted to revive downtown Manhattan. And so, they were a big part of getting the World Trade Center there.

So we’re talking about moneyed interest, that create this huge real estate construction. But that’s what New York is about. It’s about real estate, it’s about money, and it’s about culture.

EL: Right. And it invites corruption.

TR: And corruption. And what do those things bring? What does money and culture bring? It brings an incredible cast of characters, weird people, strange people, ambitious people, greedy people, wonderful people, everyone. And what do they do? Everyone eats. It’s no wonder that they end up at a restaurant like Windows to suss it out.

EL: The restaurant became a gathering place for all of these people with out-sized egos and ambition.

TR: And in different ways, whether it was they were running the place. As you implied about before, there was major issues between the ownership and the management, and lot of fighting going on. And then there was the… Everyone knows chefs are hotheads, right? And so there was the chefs and then there was the front of the room and the back of the room. So there were all these different people who were fighting, because, you know what, there was a lot of money being made up there. And so everyone wanted their piece of the pie.

EL: Yeah, interesting. Wow. Tom, we have to leave it right here. We haven’t even really talked that much about September 11th itself and the aftermath, which you write about so poignantly in the book. So we’re going to have to pick that up on the next episode of Special Sauce. But for now, thank you.

TR: Thanks, Ed. It’s been great talking with you.

EL: And so long Serious Eaters. We’ll see you next time.

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