Paul Kovi & Tom Margittai
Food Arts presents the May 1993 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Paul Kovi and Tom Margittai, keepers of the flame at The Four Seasons.
The two Hungarian refugees ventured to this country as young men (Kovi via Italy where he was a soccer star), and both began their training at The Waldorf-Astoria. "When I came here in 1950 and sailed up the Hudson, never in a million years did I dream I would be able to do this," says Margittai. Then there was only one thing on his mind: "Survival."
By 1973 they were veteran restaurateurs when they took over the helm of what remains the most visually spectacular—as well as one of the most prestigious—restaurants in the United States. The 34-year-old Four Seasons was a New York City institution long before it became an official landmark, thanks to their business acumen and savvy hospitality.
The soaring interior, originally intended to be a Cadillac showroom, was molded into a luxury restaurant—at a cost of $4.5 million—by architect Phillip Johnson in Mies van der Rohe's Seagram building. Restaurant Associates (RA) opened it in 1959. The visionary restaurateur Joseph Baum, who now heads his own consulting firm which operates the Rainbow complex at Rockefeller Center, was the creative genius behind the original concept.
In spite of its magnificence, the restaurant was not doing well, and RA decided to unload it. Waiting in the wings were Kovi, the restaurant's director who had joined RA in 1964, and Margittai, who had joined RA in 1962 and became group vice-president.
Though their deal was sweet, it was still risky to take on such a luxurious restaurant in the recessionary early '70s. "At the time it was fashionable," Margittai recalls, "for people to leave New York and to say first-class restaurants were dead. It was a double vote of confidence on our part."
They set their sights on the power-lunch crowd—the movers and shakers in real estate, publishing, advertising, communications, finance, politics. The reservation book became peopled with names like Kissinger, Simon & Schuster editor-in-chief Michael Korda, literary superagent Mort Janklow, designer Bill Blass. The seating chart for The Grill Room, where the term "power lunch" is believed to have been invented, would tax the skills of a chief of protocol. It didn't hurt that the restaurateurs had the mien and sartorial style of congenial international bankers.
At the same time, Kovi and Margittai were leaders in food and wine, pioneering the new American cuisine and an American wine list. Their California barrel tastings, held between 1975 and 1985, were influential in popularizing California wine on the East Coast. And each year, the barrel-tasting menu was a veritable forecast of American food trends. "We were the first to introduce Spa Cuisine."
According to critic and food historian John Mariani, who is working on a history of The Four Seasons to be published by Crown in 1994: "Without for a moment compromising the original vision that made The Four Seasons the archetypal postwar New York restaurant, Tom and Paul were able both to restore an eminence it had lost in the late '60s and to being it all the way into the '90s as a restaurant that seems as modern today as when it opened in 1959."