A 29-year-old who owns two small restaurants in the West Village has big plans: bringing back a new version of the old the Four Seasons restaurant, one of the most storied names in New York dining.
There’s just one possible problem: She doesn’t own the rights to the name.
That hasn’t stopped Olivia Wang, who grew up in northeast China along the border of North Korea, from signing a lease at The Centrale, a new luxury residential building at 138 E. 50th St.
And it hasn’t stopped her from hammering out an $8 million plan to build out a 10,000-square-foot space that aims to recreate the atmosphere of the scene of so many power lunches.
“The Four Seasons is a New York institution,” said Wang, who said she’d also never dined at the original location. “It lives in people’s hearts — and I want to bring it back.”
She plans to call the restaurant “The Four Seasons-New American Restaurant.” That’s the name in her signed lease with Ceruzzi Properties, the Centrale’s developer.
The most recent incarnation of the Four Seasons shut its doors in 2019. One of its co-owners, Julian Niccolini, told Side Dish that the ownership group had sold the rights to Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts. That Four Seasons didn’t return calls for comment.
James Mallios, a restauranteur who’s also a lawyer, said if Wang doesn’t make a deal with the hotel for naming rights, a lawsuit could be a real possibility.
“The question is, how strong is the claim — how confusing is the name to normal people?” he said. “The name sounds really similar — and the Four Seasons Restaurant invented New American dining,” he said of the original restaurant, which operated in the Seagram Building starting in 1959.
Would he do it? “I wouldn’t,” Mallios said. Besides, Mallios added: “It’s like opening a nightclub called Studio 54. You are setting such a high bar. It’s the most iconic restaurant ever. Why claim to play in that sandbox?”
But Wang is undeterred. She acknowledges that she and her investors don’t own the rights to the name — and she’s not sure if they’ll be able to secure them. When asked if she was afraid of a lawsuit, she declined to comment.
Still, preparations for the “Four Seasons-New American Restaurant” continue. Wang has even hired a former executive chef of the last Four Seasons restaurant. Side Dish spoke to the chef; he declined to comment and asked not to be named.
Wang wouldn’t name her investors for the Midtown space, but she says they are friends. And they come with deep pockets.
Ceruzzi, the Centrale’s developer, also has Chinese investors — the real estate investment firm SMI USA. People there introduced Wang to Art Hooper, Ceruzzi’s president, she said.
“Bringing back the Four Seasons Restaurant is good news for the building and for the neighborhood,” Hooper said.
Last year, Wang opened two fast food spots by Washington Square Park. One of her hot spots is Crop Circle, at 126 Macdougal St., which specializes in guokui, a popular street food from China’s Hubei Province. She also owns Meno, at 218 Thompson, a bubble tea-style cafe.
At first, Wang, who came to New York in 2010 and studied music in Buffalo, pitched Hooper on a high-end Chinese restaurant concept for the space.
“Let’s just say it wasn’t the right fit,” Hooper said.
Wang came back with the Four Seasons Restaurant concept, and Hooper was sold. He declined to comment on the naming issue.
Wang’s version of the Four Seasons is slated to open next year in a room with 30-foot-high ceilings and a mezzanine. Apartments in the luxury development on the market range from $1.9 million to $39.8 million for a penthouse duplex.
Wang told Side Dish that she never made it to the original Four Seasons Restaurant when it operated from 1959 to 2016 in the Seagram. But she did dine at its short-lived second iteration on East 49th Street, which opened in 2018 thanks to a $40 million investment, and closed less than a year later in 2019.
It was then that the owners of the restaurant — Niccolini, Alex von Bidder and the Bronfman family — auctioned off everything they could. They nabbed $4.1 million by selling such items as ashtrays for $1,000, a lobby sign for $96,000 and a cotton candy maker (used in a famed dessert) for $6,000. They then sold the name for an undisclosed price.
The original Four Seasons Restaurant had been part of the city’s cultural landscape since it opened in 1959 in the modernist masterpiece by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe at 99 E. 52nd St.
The late starchitect Philip Johnson designed the restaurant, whose interior was declared a local landmark in 1989, and Johnson dined there regularly for decades.
The Four Seasons is credited with launching the city’s famed “power lunch,” and great care was given to seating charts — where regular billionaires and power brokers like Henry Kissinger had tables alongside media moguls like Martha Stewart and editors like Anna Wintour.
It also launched the farm-to-table seasonal dining trend with menu input from legendary foodies James Beard and Mimi Sheraton. Wang said that the new restaurant will have its own menu, with more of an emphasis on seafood.
The art was also a big deal at the original Four Seasons, and the collection included Picasso, James Rosenquist and Richard Lippold pieces. Mark Rothko was commissioned to create murals, but reportedly found the scene so “pretentious” that he returned the money and completed the works for himself. The Rothko art now hangs in London’s Tate Gallery and elsewhere.
Wang tells Side Dish that art will also be an important part of her new restaurant.
The original Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagram Building was anchored by a pool surrounded by trees that changed with the seasons and a giant Picasso canvas. It was magical in a way that did not get old — even as its patrons did.
Of course the original Four Seasons magic will be impossible to replicate, Hooper said.
Still, adds Wang: “It will be a beautiful space, like a work of art.”
Wang says she is bringing in a Japanese designer and will focus on creating “clean, minimalist lines and lots of art.”
But unlike the original, the new space will not have a pool.
“There just isn’t space for a pool,” Wang said.