I only ate at Manhattan’s old Four Seasons once, but its history - and its place in the firmament of New York City dining - always fascinated me. So I’d heard the names Thomas Margittai and Paul Kovi, who bought the failing restaurant from its original owner in 1973.
I knew the pair had transformed a moribund eatery into a Manhattan mainstay. What I didn’t know was that Margittai was a Holocaust survivor who narrowly escaped deportation to Auschwitz. Or that he was married to the same man, Richard Tang, for decades. Margittai died this week in Santa Fe at age 90.
As The New York Times noted in his obituary, The Four Seasons became “the most powerful place to eat lunch in town” just a few years after he and Kovi took it over and infused it with the panache of their own personalities. Esquire magazine immortalized The Four Seasons as home of the “power lunch”; the Four Seasons reservation book “became peopled with names like Kissinger, Simon & Schuster editor-in-chief Michael Korda, literary super-agent Mort Janklow, designer Bill Blass,” according to Food Arts magazine.
Margittai was born in what was then Transylvania to a lumber mill owner and his wife. After living in Bucharest, the family moved to Budapest when Margittai was 10.
In 1944, when the Germans invaded, the family narrowly escaped extermination when they escaped on what became known as the Kasztner Train, “an exodus on 35 cattle cars that Adolf Eichmann had agreed to in exchange for gold, gems and cash,” the Times noted.
The train was diverted to Bergen-Belsen, where the passengers were held for a weeks in a special section; after several months there, the refugees eventually made it to Switzerland. The Margittais moved to what would become Israel; Tom emigrated to New York a few years later.
Margittai started his restaurant career as a dishwasher at the Waldorf-Astoria before working his way up the executive ranks at Restaurant Associates, which owned the Four Seasons. Its leader, legendary restaurateur Joseph Baum, “unloaded” the failing restaurant to Margittai and Kovi. Kovi died in 1998; Margittai retired to Santa Fe with his spouse.
The Four Seasons reinvented itself again in 2017, opening in a new midtown location after losing the lease on its iconic, Philip-Johnson designed home.
“If it wasn’t for Tom Margittai,” Four Seasons co-owner Julian Niccolini told the Times, “American cuisine the way we know it today would not exist.”