New York City said farewell to a beloved icon last weekend, the Four Seasons Restaurant on East 52nd Street that served presidents, royalty, movie stars and business tycoons since its opening in 1959.
One of the mainstays of the Four Seasons, Louis McCullagh, a captain originally from Cranagh, Co. Tyrone who was employed there for 33 years, says his time at the architecturally significant restaurant – not many spaces have pools in the middle and are designated as official landmarks – has forever changed his life.
“I came from a small town in Tyrone, and never in a million years did I think I’d have the chance to serve presidents and celebrities,” McCullagh, 53, told the Irish Voice.
“It was the opportunity of a lifetime. The people I met and the things I learned, I’ll never forget.”
McCullagh started working at the Four Seasons at the age of 19, not long after he left Tyrone after a stint at a catering college with his girlfriend at the time. That relationship eventually ended, but McCullagh’s love affair with Manhattan, particularly its restaurant scene, flourished.
He worked at Rosie O’Grady’s on the West Side and another smaller place before making his way to the Four Seasons as a waiter in the Grill Room. He was soon promoted to waiting on the A-list clientele that gathered daily for power lunches and dinners in the Pool Room, and after four years was promoted to the rank of captain, overseeing teams of wait staff. He also assumed the position of part time maître-d, filling in when needed.
McCullagh could fill a book with stories of the notables he’s served. One of the nicer ones he recently encountered was John Travolta.
“Such a sweet, lovely person, so friendly,” says McCullagh, whose daughter Cheryl, a music teacher and professional singer, happened to be in the restaurant on the same night.
“She loves John Travolta, so I asked him if he wouldn’t mind taking a photo of her with her boyfriend and he was delighted to do so. Such a gent.”
The list goes on and on. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was a regular at the Four Seasons for lunch, and McCullagh served her many times.
“She was the perfect lady. She would ask me about where I was from in Ireland and said she loved the country very much,” McCullagh recalled.
McCullagh has served every recent president, except for Jimmy Carter. Princess Diana was also a customer during a visit to New York – he remembers her as “shy, charming, and very polite. A real lady.”
Liam Neeson is also a McCullagh favorite. “I really like him so much, and I liked his wife too,” he says, referring to Neeson’s late wife Natasha Richardson who died after a ski accident in 2009.
Whenever Neeson came to the Four Seasons, he asked to be seated in the section served by “the Irish lad,” McCullagh said. “A very, very nice man.”
Of course, not all the customers were as pleasant, but McCullagh won’t name names.
“Well, sure, there were people who you simply couldn’t please no matter what you did,” he laughs. “But I have to say, they were few and far between, and I mean that.”
Though the menu at the Four Seasons wasn’t cheap – Grilled King Ora Salmon came with a price of $58; with Prime Aged Sirloin Steak going for $75 – McCullagh said the restaurant was far from snobby. That, he says, was down to the co-owners Julian Niccolini and Alex Von Bidder, who ensured that their staff treated customers not only with respect but with warmth.
“Alex and Julian are great bosses. They ran that restaurant perfectly,” says McCullagh.
The majority of restaurants in New York fail sooner rather than later. That the Four Seasons prospered – more or less -- since 1959 is a true rarity.
“Alex is the businessman and Julian has the bubbly personality,” says McCullagh. “They are a great team. They genuinely care about the customers. We were trained well by them, and as a result people kept coming back.”
The restaurant’s lease in the Seagram Building wasn’t renewed by the new owner, but all is not lost for Four Seasons fans. The restaurant plans on opening again next year at 280 Park Avenue, and McCullagh is relishing a return to his old job.
“It was sad, so sad actually last Saturday night,” he said. “We cleaned out our locker and said goodbye for now. Reality set in.”
Did McCullagh jump into the pool like some tipsy Four Seasons diners have been known to do?
“Lots of people jumped in all week but no, I didn’t take the plunge. I never have,” says McCullagh, who lives in Queens with his wife Monica. They also have a son, Louis, who graduated from the Air Force Academy and is based in Quantico, Virginia.
Until the Four Seasons reopens, McCullagh will spend his working days at another location favored by deep-pocketed New Yorkers: the private Knickerbocker Club on Fifth Avenue.
“I’m very grateful for everything, and still pretty awed by the fact that I came from a small village in Tyrone and I’ve gotten to meet so many wonderful and influential people,” he says.