clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Windows on the World, New York's Sky-High Restaurant

New, 19 comments

If you buy something from an Eater link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics policy.

2013_windows_onthe_world_top_art12.jpg

Windows on the World was one of the greatest restaurants New York City has ever seen. Located on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center, it offered guests soaring views of not only Manhattan, but also Brooklyn and New Jersey. Although the food couldn't always match the scenery, at its best, Windows provided guests with a sophisticated, forward-thinking dining experience unlike any other in New York City.

Windows on the World vanished 12 years ago. On that horrific day, 79 employees of the restaurant lost their lives. Here, now, is a remembrance of Windows on the World, with an afterword from the restaurant's last chef and greatest champion, Michael Lomonaco:

2013_baum_and_co_1.jpg
[GM Alan Lewis, chef Andrew Renee, restaurateur Joe Baum via Edible Manhattan]

Windows on the World was the brainchild of visionary restaurateur Joe Baum. With the Restaurant Associates group, Baum created a string of '60s blockbusters including La Fonda Del Sol, The Forum of the Twelve Caesars, and The Four Seasons. In 1970, after parting ways with Restaurant Associates, Baum was hired by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to help develop the restaurants at the World Trade Center.

2013_windows_menu_world_trade_club12.jpg
[A '70s menu for Windows via Typofile; A pamphlet for the world Trade Center Club via eBay]

Baum, along with partners Michael Whitman and Dennis Sweeney, created 22 restaurants for the World Trade Center, many of which were casual operations located in the basement concourse. But the most elaborate Baum creation was Windows on the World, which occupied the 106th and 107th floors of the North Tower. The restaurateur hired architect Warren Platner to design a grand, modern space.

2013_windows_artwork_1234.jpg
[Windows on the World Ephemera from Milton Glaser.com]
Graphic designer Milton Glaser (of the I ? NY and Brooklyn Brewery logos) contributed the menu artwork, dishware patterns, and logo. Barbara Kafka picked the plateware and silverware. And James Beard and Jacques Pepin helped develop the menu.

The Port Authority then signed a master lease with Inhilco, a subsidiary of Hilton International, to run the World Trade Center restaurants. Baum and his team then moved to Inhilco to put their plans into action.

11212get.jpeg
[Kevin Zraly talking to guests in 1976 via The Nestle Library]

Windows on the World opened on April 19, 1976, as a private club with 1,500 members who paid dues based on their relationship with and proximity to the World Trade Center — WTC tenants paid $360 a year, and those who lived outside the "port district" paid just $50. But anyone could visit Windows on the World in the early days if they paid $10 in dues, plus $3 per guest.

12get.jpeg
[The Hors d'Oeuvrerie via The Nestle Library]

In addition to the main dining room, where a table d'hote dinner was $13.50, Windows on the World had an Hors d'Oeuvrerie that served global small plates.

2013_cellar_in_the_sky_123.jpg
[Cellar in the Sky via Baum + Whiteman]

One offshoot, dubbed the Cellar in the Sky, offered an expansive wine list from young gun sommelier Kevin Zraly, plus a five-course menu of American and European fare.

2013_most_spectacular_restaurant12.jpgIn a New York magazine cover story titled "The Most Spectacular Restaurant in the World," Gael Greene describes the experience of entering the dining room:

Every view is brand-new? a miracle. In the Statue of Liberty Lounge, the harbor's heroic blue sweep makes you feel like the ruler of some extraordinary universe. All the bridges of Brooklyn and Queens and Staten Island stretch across the restaurant's promenade. Even New Jersey looks good from here. Down below are all of Manhattan and helicopters and clouds. Everything to hate and fear is invisible. Pollution is but a cloud. A fire raging below Washington Square is a dream, silent, almost unreal, though you can see the arc of water licking flame. Default is a silly nightmare. There is no doggy doo. Garbage is an illusion.

2013_window_on_the_world123.jpg
[Cellar in the Sky via Baum + Whiteman]
Windows on the World was an immediate success. New York Times critic Mimi Sheraton describes the dining experience:

Unquestionably the best thing about this place, other than the toy-town views of bridges and rivers, skylines and avenues is the menu. It represents an international crossroads of gastronomy, stylish and contemporary, and perfectly suited to this particular setting and this particular city.
The restaurant quickly became a favorite hangout of high-powered businessmen, politicians, and celebrities. By the end of its first year, Windows on the World had a waiting list that was fully booked for six months straight.

2013_windows_facing_left123.jpg
[The view facing west via The David Blahg]

In 2001, Joe Baum's creative partner Michael Whiteman told the Times: "In a way, it was the symbol of the beginning of the turnaround of New York...We were successful because New York wanted us to be successful. It couldn't stand another heartbreaking failure.''

126136280694_fbc7e1296b_o.jpg
[The original Windows on the World crew via Suzette Howes]

Joe Baum was only involved in the management of Windows on the World during its first three years in business, but the restaurant sailed along through the '80s and early '90s. During this period, the restaurant employed a number of chefs that would go on to find success on their own, including Kurt Gutenbrunner, Christian Delouvrier, Eberhard Müller, and Cyril Reynaud. The critics were not always kind to Windows on the World, but year after year, it remained one of the top-grossing restaurants in the country.

On February 26, 1993, a group of terrorists detonated a bomb inside a truck that was parked below the North Tower. The bombing killed six people, and injured over a thousand. The explosion damaged storing and receiving areas used by Windows on the World, and the restaurant was forced to shutter. Hilton International gave up its lease after the bombing, and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey asked 35 restaurant groups for proposals for the Windows on the World space.

2013_windows_9612.jpg
[a New York article on the revamp from July 15, 1996]
On May 13, 1994, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey announced that the Joseph Baum & Michael Whiteman Company had won the contract. Almost two decades after opening the restaurant, Joe Baum was back in control of Windows on the World.

2013_cellar_in_the_sky.jpg
[Cellar in the Sky, 1996 via Baum + Whiteman]

Baum and his partners tapped Hugh Hardy to create a dining room that was more colorful and whimsical than the original. Unlike the old Windows, which served Continental fare with a sharp American influence, the new restaurant offered a globetrotting menu from chef Philippe Feret.

2013_the_greatest_bar_123.jpg
[The Greatest Bar on Earth via Skyscrapercity]
The Hors d'Oeuvrerie was replaced by The Greatest Bar on Earth, a splashy space that had three bars and a menu of fun international fare. Before the reopening in summer of 1996, Baum told the Times: "When Windows first opened it was a great restaurant for New Yorkers...When tourists came, they came mostly because New Yorkers were proud to bring them here. We want Windows to be a great restaurant for New Yorkers again."

2013_new_windows_19961.jpg
[Windows on the World in 1996 via the Container List]

Feret left Windows in May of 1997, and he was replaced by Michael Lomonaco, a chef that had earned raves at the '21' Club. A few months after he took control of the kitchen, Ruth Reichl bestowed two stars on Windows on the World. In 1999, Cellar in the Sky was replaced by Wild Blue, a cozy American restaurant, that was also overseen by Lomonaco. In his review, William Grimes wrote: "When night falls, Wild Blue feels like a plush space capsule hurtling through the cosmos."

79 Windows of the World employees died on September 11, 2001. Michael Lomonaco was conducting an errand in the concourse of the World Trade Center when the first plane hit. The chef was evacuated from the building immediately, and witnessed the second plane hit the WTC from the street. Lomonaco then headed north and made it up to his home on the Upper East Side, where he immediately started figuring out who was working that day.

2001: Lomonaco and His Team Search for Employees:

By the following week, a Windows on the World hotline was set up at the restaurant's sister establishment, Beacon, and Lomonaco and his head of human resources, Elizabeth Ortiz, began working to find the 50 employees that were unaccounted for. Lomonaco soon helped set up an relief fund called Windows of Hope, which raised over $22 million for the families of Windows workers.

2013_windows_on_the_worldscreengrab.jpg
[A screengrab of the Windows on the World website from 2002]

Windows on the World co-owner David Emil opened a Theater District restaurant in 2002 called Noche, which was staffed by several Windows employees, including Lomonaco — it closed in 2004. Some of the Windows employees opened a Noho restaurant in 2006 called Colors — it's still open, but only for parties and private events. For the past seven years, Lomonaco has been the co-owner and executive chef of Porter House in the Time Warner Center, and he recently opened Center Bar, a casual spinoff on the same floor as Porter House.

The Port Authority has ruled out the possibility of putting a fine dining restaurant like Windows on the World at the top of the new World Trade Center, which is slated to open in 2014.

Earlier this week, Eater interviewed Michael Lomonaco about his experiences on the 106th and 107th floors of the North Tower. Here's an extended look back:

2013_michael_lomonaco_%21234.jpg
[Michael Lomonaco via Porter House]

What did it mean to you to get that job at Windows on the World?
Michael Lomonaco: Well I'd never been there before. I'd never worked there. I'm a native New Yorker, and I remember very clearly when Windows on the World opened. I have very clear memories of that, even the review that they did in New York magazine. But one of the key memories I had always had was Cellar in the Sky, because the original Cellar in the Sky was a prix fixe restaurant — that was pretty new to New York. And it was advertised weekly in the dining section of the Times — they advertised the menu as changed every week, or every other week. That ad always stuck in my mind, how they promoted Cellar in the Sky. It just sounded so incredible.

So fast-forward to the '80s. I got out of culinary school in 1984, and Windows on the World had become this giant place that was historic, and I'd never been there. I'd never gone to the Cellar. I'd never gone to Windows. In fact, the first time that I had ever gone up there was at the reopening in 1996 when they hosted an industry night, and I went up there for an evening.

I knew Joe Baum pretty well in my days at '21.' Joe was a regular and I was introduced to him, and he was a very passionate, warm, hospitable guy. He really was magnetic, in many ways. I had some sense of what was going on there. In the early '90s, when I met Joe, it was no longer associated with us. But then in 1996, when they did the big reopening, I was still at '21' and had started doing television at the Food Network, so I was in a transitional period.

123902.jpg
[Windows on the World in 1976 via the Container List]

I'd left '21' in the last quarter of '96 to film Michael's Place at the Food Network. Then in '97, I was introduced to David Emil and Joe Baum. My relationship began with them at that time, and I really had some long talks with David Emil and with Joe Baum about joining them and becoming part of their team. I was the "chef-director." This was Joe Baum's title for me. Direct all of the chefs. We had Windows on the World, there was Cellar in the Sky, and there was the Greatest Bar on Earth, and it was all private dining on the 106th floor, so there was quite a team of people. So that, for me, in '97 when I joined them, was really very exciting. It was very exciting because it was such a historic place, it was such a beloved place, and it was really at the pinnacle of its own opportunity to reinvent itself again. And that's the opportunity I took. That was the great step forward for me — it was the chance to reinvent Windows on the World. And, in fact, we shuttered Cellar in the Sky in '98, and reopened the space as Wild Blue in '99. It became a very kind of beloved space. It's small, 55 seats.

Were you proud of your work up there?
Absolutely. First of all, I had a great team. You know, there was a great group of people. There were 450, 500 people that worked up at Windows on the World at one time. And I had a great team with me. My chef de cuisine is still with me today — Michael Ammirati. He came with me. Michael, who would be here now at Porter House, he was a key component, because it was really just the two of us with a culinary team that was 35 people, trying to turn it to a new direction. I think we were able to fulfill, to some degree, an original vision that Joe Baum had for Windows on the World.

You know, I thought that Joe's vision was that Windows on the World should be a beacon of American cooking, on American products, on American foods. And, also, shine a spotlight on local ingredients. So we started working with the local suppliers at the greenmarket in 1997, and a bunch of the produce that we bought came from the greenmarket at the World Trade Center. This is something that fit into my vision of what we could do, and also Joe's vision. And I'll tell you, in 1998, we were talking about planting an herb garden and a vegetable garden on the roof of the World Trade Center. Sustainable cuisine, sustainable cooking was something that Joe started talking about back in '97, probably before, and it was really a big topic when we met and talked about ideas.

On a Saturday night, we could do 700 or 800 covers, but all of that was from-scratch cooking. Everything was cooked à la minute. And we did that with a great team of cooks in the kitchen, and our culinary chef staff. We just did it through organization, and sheer will that we would cook everything à la minute.

123456908.jpg
[The Greatest Bar in the World via The Container List]
Cellar in the Sky reopened in 1996. It was expensive. It was a prix fixe, $125-a-head dinner and it was kind of staid. It wasn't getting the traffic, because there were so many more things happening in the culinary world. And so what we did in 1998 was we closed Cellar in the Sky with the idea of turning it into an American chophouse, and that's what Wild Blue was. 55 seats and a very aggressive wine-by-the-glass program. We served, I think, really delicious American chophouse fair. Prime beef, game birds, duck, squab, and it was all family-style. It was really kind of a fun place that became more of a locals restaurant. The tourist crowd, the visitor crowd would go to Windows, which had dramatic views. Wild Blue also had dramatic views, but on the south side of the building, facing the Statue of Liberty. We had a very kind of local crowd. I'm very proud of the work we did there, and I'm very proud of the people I met and had the chance to work with.

Do you have a favorite memory from working on the 106th and 107th floors?
A real favorite memory was the annual holiday party that David Emil and Joe Baum hosted, and that was held in January at Windows. That's where everyone who worked there was invited to bring members of the family and come to one of the private dining rooms, which could seat 500 people, if not more. That holiday party was a fantastic memory. Everyone came with family. Everyone who worked there got dressed up. We had people from the around the world at Windows, and it was an incredibly global staff. The team would refer to themselves as the U.N. of restaurants. They had such diversity in the workforce, the staff that worked there. And there were more than 60 languages that were spoken among the staff. You could alway find someone who could act as a translator for any guest who needed help. This diversity was exciting.

But on that day when we had our holiday party, it was really wonderful to see all of the people we worked with. Much of them came in the finest clothes that they wore in their original, native homelands. It was like being at a party at the U.N. with beautiful clothing from around the world — from Africa, from Asia, from India, and Latin America. Just a beautiful thing where people were proud of where they worked. Everyone had a good time.

You devoted a lot of your life after 9/11 to working with the families of the employees that died, and the employees that were displaced. Did you think that, after a year or two, there would be another Windows on the World? Did you think that you would be able to work together again?
There was a lot of pain and loss felt by everyone and it was different for each individual. We lost 79 of our co-workers. But I think that there was some sense of time to recover. It's a very difficult question to answer, because I think it's personal to each individual. You've got to see it from this point of view: There were people lost at Windows who had family members who worked there who weren't lost. We had a family that worked in our kitchen, there were four brothers, the Gomez brothers, two were lost and two were not. There was a lot of recovery. I think the pain of recovery leads to, "We want to get back to where we were..." I think there was a sense of people trying to stay together.

There was also a lot of confusion in the aftermath thinking, "What is the right thing to do?" It was something I wish could've happened overnight. For me, I wish that this never would have happened, of course, but there were different configurations of people trying to stay together. We had Noche in Times Square with nearly 50 of our co-workers. That's a small number compared to Windows Hospitality Group, which was one of the largest in the world in sheer volume and size. So, 50 people working together was a comforting thing for some of us to be able to continue to work together. Others went down to the restaurant on Lafayette Street — there were groups that felt they wanted to keep some of their friends and co-workers together. The loss of something so immense was a shock in itself.

12 years later, what is your relationship with the families of the employees you worked with?
As in any situation, you know some people better than others. You have to cultivate some relationships...you have to imagine 450 people working together. I'm just trying to stress that that's a lot of people. There are some people that I knew quite well, and I am in touch with some of the family members of those who lost. I do keep in touch with some. There are others who, we work together, and we have some contact during the year. I have a few of my co-workers who were with me at Windows, who now work with me at Porter House.

If this is something that can answer your question...The Windows of Hope Relief Fund, we raised 22 million dollars with the help of Tom Valenti, David Emil, the board members, and the group of people who were with me. That fund is still paying for education for 150 children who are eligible to receive education grants from that fund, every year. A great portion of the original funds went to emergency aid to those families who lost someone on that day. There was emergency aid and health insurance that the funds paid for, for the first five years. The original mission was emergency aid, health insurance, and educational opportunities for the children of the victims, of the food service worker victims. All of the food service workers who were identified, of which there were 102, Windows being the greatest. Just so you understand, when we established that fund, we worked with the Community Service Society of New York to administer the families' needs, and I think the most important thing that we could give them was a sense of dignity and a respect for their loss, and maintain the respect for their privacy. So, in a way, it kind of cut off having personal relationships with people that were included in this fund.

Do you think New York will ever have a restaurant like Windows on the World again?
Oh yeah, that's the spirit of New York and our nation and humanity. To build, to create, to entertain our guests — that's what we do. Windows was incredible, and because it had really been reborn in its incarnation in 1996, that version of Windows wasn't meant to be exclusive. It was a very inclusive and democratic restaurant. The prices were not exorbitantly high, and people could come in and go to the bar and have a Coke and having this incredible experience of seeing the city. It was very open, hospitable, and friendly.

I think in that spirit, New York will have something like this. I'm very happy to talk to you, because what I want you to understand is....That day, aside from the fact that I survived it...the greatest thing I could offer is doing what I was doing before, so that the memory of my friends and colleagues lost that day have honor. I feel privileged to wake up every day and do what I do. What I do, in part, is a tribute to my friends and colleagues.

126135735535_338b65ceaf_o.jpg
[A view from Windows on the World]

Further Reading:
· From Windows on the World to Windows of Hope [Thirteen]
· Lomonco Escaped 9/11 but Dedicates Cooking to Friends he Lost [NYDN]
· Windows That Rose So Close To the Sun [NYT]
· Drinking at 1,300 Ft: A 9/11 Story About Wine and Wisdom [Esquire]
· Ruth Reichl Remembers Windows on the World [NYM]
· Windows on the World: The Wine Community's True North [Wine News]
· The Legacy of Joe Baum [Edible Manhattan]
· Windows on the World Opening Report (Subscription required) [NYT]
· Gael Greene's First Visit [Insatiable Critic]
· Mimi Sheraton's First Visit (Subscription required) [NYT]
· Gael Greene's Review from November of 1976 [Google Books]
· Mimi Sheraton's Second Visit (Subscription Required) [NYT]
· Bryan Miller's One Star Review from 1987 [NYT]
· Bryan Miller's Review from 1990 [NYT]
· Renovation Report from 1996: Can the Food Ever Match the View? [NYT]
· Ruth Reichl's Two Star Review from 1997 [NYT]

Windows on the World

World Trade Center, New York, NY

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Eater New York newsletter

The freshest news from the local food world