It was on the top floor, overlooking Rockefeller Center like a low-flying aircraft and a restaurant like no other.The menu was prix fixe, and payable in advance. If that wasn’t somewhat a clue, it was confirmed the minute you stepped out of the elevator, when you were greeted by a liveried butler (or maid), who greeted you before walking you to your table:
“Hello, my name is Rodney. I’ll be your waiter this evening,
and this is your maid, Barbara,
and footman, Ken.
Our selections tonight are roast beef, roast lamb or Long Island duckling.
Before dinner, may I start you off with a cocktail?”
The Tower Suite had no menu at all, preferring to serve from three rolling carts that traveled around the floor. Each table had their own designated three-person staff (butler, maid, and footman) were solely responsible for your well-being.The decor was in warm tones of red and orange and walnut, speaking the discreetly wealthy visual language of passenger jets, executive suites and power in the postwar world. As well it should: from 9 to 5 every day, this very same grounds hosted an elite private club, open only to Time/Life editors, journalists, and other staff, called Hemispheres.
Welcome to 1960.
The net result was both imposing and homey, as if you were a guest of a rich uncle more than a real restaurant, and was an instant hit with anyone trying to impress someone from out of town. Instead of gesturing towards the nearest staffer, or waitstaff asking “is everything all right?” diners were assured of someone who would watch to see that the water glasses were filled without question, that the bread basket was stocked, and that a dropped soupspoon was replaced as soon as it happened. Each cart carried a new course, with fresh plates and cutlery (no holding on to your fork, here!), and as the diner watched, roasts were carved, salads were tossed, and Crepes Suzettes flambeed. During this tableside theater, the staff kept up a line of warm and reassuring chitchat, and were careful to disclose the ingredients of anything that might appear foreign or unfamiliar to the diners. On Fridays, there was a fish option, and, according to season, the poultry might be such exotica as goose or pheasant, and a favorite feature of the meal was an Edith Wharton-like serving of sorbet mid-meal, which could be as sweet as cranberry or as bracing as clove, as a palate-cleanser. At the end of the meal, unless you’d succumbed to an extra dessert or a digestif with your coffee, you could simply opt to get up and leave without any further payment or fuss. If you had, the bill (generally $12.50 a head) would be discreetly passed to you in an envelope.
As the decade wore on, however, the years were not kind. The comparably simple menu demanded of this kind of service became more and more dated as restaurant dishes became more complex, with “continental” entrees (mostly white meat and some kind of sauce) replacing the sturdy meat and potatoes of yore. What looked like serenely Top Drawer furnishings in the beginning of the 60’s looked bland and sterile beside the Art Nouveau exuberance of Maxwell’s Plum. Also, every other place in town had taken up the “I’m your waiter.” meme, no matter whether they were exclusively your waiter or not. Accordingly, The Tower Suite became less and less the place you used to impress business contact, or romantic Significant Other and more and more a spot for retirees and well-heeled family gatherings — and anyway, most people liked Tavern on the Green better, with its views of Central Park, and crystal chandelier. Accordingly, it folded, quietly in the early 90’s, never to be found.
Its signature greeting, however, lives on.