Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk
September 8, 2011
“The amazing thing was just how fast the elevator ride was,” said my friend, who was a semi-regular diner at the Windows on the World restaurant.
He was responding to my question about his recollections of the iconic eatery that was located on the 107th floor of the North Tower of New York’s World Trade Center. “About halfway up your ears would pop and you would feel it in your stomach,” he remembers with slight, sad mile as though it were just yesterday. And yet it has been a decade since Windows on the World, the rest of that tower below it and the adjacent South Tower, came crashing to earth on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
If you had ever been to Windows on the World, you know exactly the feeling that my friend described. Perched high above Manhattan, the restaurant, bar and the original “Cellar in the Sky” were unforgettable for those who came to dine, drink or simply marvel at the view. The experience began with that speedy ride to a luxurious outpost where one could gaze out over three states and uptown at the most spectacular city view in all the world. In fact, when the planes crashed into the Towers on that crystal clear late summer morning, no doubt thousands, perhaps millions of people all over the globe felt a deep connection, a kinship with that place as they recalled their dining and drinking experiences and the never to be seen again views from Windows on The World.
The Windows on the World restaurant was the creation of New York dining impresario Joe Baum, who also brought New Yorkers The Four Seasons restaurant and who redesigned the Rainbow Room atop Rockefeller Center. In the spring of 1976, as the nation was celebrating her bicentennial, the 50,000-square-foot dining complex opened for business. That summer, as the Tall Ships sailed into New York harbor on July 4, there was no better place to be an American than in that resplendent dining room, above it all.
Over the next quarter century, Windows on the World thrived and, by the turn of the century, it sold more wine than any other establishment in the United States. In 2000, under the culinary stewardship of executive chef/director Michael Lomonaco and wine director Kevin Zraly, Windows on the World was the largest grossing restaurant in the country, posting $37 million in sales. It is said that the wine list, with 1,400 selections, sold 10,000 bottles of wine a month.
Zraly, who this past spring was honored by the James Beard Foundation with a Lifetime Achievement Award, is perhaps the greatest wine educator who has ever lived. In addition to overseeing the wine program at the restaurant, he created the Windows on the World Wine School and wrote the “Windows on the World Complete Wine Course,” which has sold more than three million copies. To this day, the school is still teaching wine knowledge to both experts and novices alike at its headquarters at the Marriott Marquis Hotel in mid-town Manhattan.
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Zraly, who was the only wine director in the restaurant’s history, was a passionate teacher while at Windows on the World and spawned a generation of wine professionals. It is a tribute to those who died in the carnage that the Windows on the World Wine School carries on, keeping the legacy of those who worked there alive 10 years on.
Lomonaco, who now operates Porter House, a steakhouse in New York’s Columbus Circle, has been instrumental in the establishment of a fund raising effort called Windows of Hope that was created to raise funds for the families of those who worked at the restaurant and did not make it out that day. More than $22 million has been raised and the foundation is now providing scholarships to the children of those who died in the buildings’ collapse.
At 8:46 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, some 72 employees of the Windows on the World restaurant were preparing, serving and seating the last meal in the restaurant’s storied history. In moments, American Airlines flight 11, traveling at more than 400 mph, would crash below them into the 96th floor of the North Tower. The employees and their guests, many of them diners who were there for a breakfast seminar hosted by the Risk Waters Group, never had a chance.
While the families of the victims bear the unimaginable burden of their loss, we all lost something that day. In addition to the towers themselves, when we lost the Windows on the World, we were denied forever both a view and a vision.
It was a place that brought us all a sense of wonder.