The hotly anticipated second coming of the Four Seasons is just two months away. But it might be the worst possible season for the return of the restaurant that invented the Power Lunch.
Sexual harassment scandals have brought down superchef Mario Batali and Spotted Pig partner Ken Friedman. Former North End Grill chef Eric Korsh was accused by numerous women of “unwelcome massages” and other inappropriate acts before he left Danny Meyer’s fold “by mutual decision” in December. The question now is: Will Four Seasons co-owner Julian Niccolini be the Teflon survivor?
Niccolini, 64, tells The Post that the new Four Seasons is set to open in May at 280 Park Ave., nearly two years after it was booted from the Seagram Building, its home since 1959. He wouldn’t confirm anything about who will be cooking, but sources say he and partner Alex von Bidder have hired a fine chef, Diego Garcia of Midtown’s modern-seafood bistro Gloria.
But there’s a cloud over the party: Niccolini pleaded guilty to an assault case involving a woman in 2016. And he has a long history of eyebrow-raising incidents, including a $4 million sexual-harassment suit that led to an unknown settlement in 1992 and antics such as posing for photos in a “Boob Inspector” cap with fake breasts at a 2003 party.
In the assault case, “Naughty Niccolini,” as he once dubbed himself, was charged with sexual assault for groping a 28-year-old woman’s breasts and buttocks and severely bruising her back at a private party. The felony charge could have landed him in the clink for seven years, but he took a plea bargain in 2016 and pleaded guilty to third-degree misdemeanor assault instead. He was sentenced to “conditional discharge,” meaning he’d avoid a one-year prison term for the lesser charge if he committed no other crimes for one year, which has been the case.
“They have to have the discipline to do the right thing. That means no funny business with the staff and with customers,” he says. “That means no drinking, no fraternizing, no touching people.”
Veteran restaurant consultant Clark Wolf agrees.
“Julian has paid the price,” he says. “If I was his partner, I’d make sure that women employees are clearly visible in the kitchen, on the floor and behind the bar. This [Niccolini’s arrest] has been more than addressed, but this is one of those things you can’t ignore.”
(Niccolini didn’t respond to a request for comment on how the case might affect the opening.)
‘This [Niccolini’s arrest] has been more than addressed, but this is one of those things you can’t ignore.’
Dapper and witty Niccolini, who like von Bidder personally greets and seats customers, is the restaurant world’s most polarizing figure.
Soon after his arrest, Eater.com’s Editor-in-Chief Amanda Kludt, posted that she found Niccolini’s style “incredibly skeezy.” She wrote that he repeatedly “found a way to touch me” and once “joked” of her company’s name, “Oh, it’s called EatER? Eat her?”
Kludt is currently traveling and didn’t immediately get back to us for any update on her views on Niccolini, but she’s been vocal about how her influential Web site will treat establishments whose key players have been mired in scandal.
On Feb. 10, she wrote that Eater would drop restaurants owned by sexual harassers and a variety of bad actors from its guides and maps. She suggested that the site’s critics avoid reviewing places “veiled in controversy” when there are so many “compelling restaurants to cover.”
Had the new Four Seasons opened a year ago, Niccolini’s past might have been mostly forgotten. But that was before Harvey Weinstein’s downfall and the #MeToo era. Owners and chefs are now under a microscope. Niccolini needs to usher in a fresh new season of respect for women — or his new place will have a much briefer life than the last one.