Remembering Windows on the World

When the horrific memories of the World Trade Center attack sometimes threaten to crowd out everything else, especially on the anniversary of 9/11, I call up a different, comforting memory shared by perhaps only several hundred people in the world:  sunrise from Windows on the World, on north tower’s 107th floor.

In the mid-’80s, I was a waiter at the Hors d’Oeuvrerie, the lounge and international café of Windows on the World, where women and men from around the globe came for perhaps a bit of then-unheard-of sashimi, after-dinner dessert, and dancing, or the glittering, quarter-of-a-mile-high views of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.

Everyone from heads of state to rock stars to Broadway royalty visited the Hors d’Oeuvrerie on their way to or from Windows on the World’s main dining room, which faced uptown. Elegance and pedigree abounded, even among the staff: Waitresses wore satin sarongs and waiters bowed almost imperceptibly when greeting guests. The tall, silent piano player was rumored to be a protégé of Leonard Bernstein.

During the day, though, the Hors d’Oeuvrerie was a private club, a place to conduct business lunches and the newly popular power breakfasts. When a waiter made it through the gantlet of personnel interviews, he was handed a white, naval-style jacket—his day wear—and a schedule that included at least one breakfast shift a week.

Working dinner the night before a breakfast shift usually meant my head barely hit the pillow before I had to be up and at the restaurant by 5:30 a.m. Never a caffeine addict, I nonetheless needed a way to wake up, so I’d stumble to the dessert case and cut a generous slice of dacquoise, a delicate cake of hazelnut meringue layers with coffee buttercream filling. The dacquoise, which was made the day before, was best then; the crunchy meringue had softened into a slightly chewy nougat because of the filling. I’d install myself at one of the east-facing tables, and with my feet up and my fussy uniform falling open like a bathrobe, I’d watch and wait. My reflection would fade while the sky turned from black to gun-metal gray to a luminous mauve as if the world had just discovered Technicolor. On the clearest of mornings, I could see almost 90 miles, or so the bartender would always tell me.

When I’m in downtown Manhattan these days, I look up and try to remember exactly where in the sky I entertained guests, patiently pointing out landmarks and boroughs, and where I never tired of those sunrise views. And how a day could begin so sweetly.

About David Leite

I count myself lucky to have received three James Beard Awards for my writing as well as for Leite’s Culinaria. My work has also appeared in The New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, Saveur, Bon Appétit, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Yankee, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, and more.

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  1. What a touching piece David, and so beautifully written. I live in CA and had the privilege of dining at Windows on the World only once but reading this transported me back to a beautiful memory of my own. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Thoroughly enjoyable. I did not know that about you, either. I was living on the West coast when this occurred, and even though I lived so far away and had never even been to NYC or even thought about the towers, I was devastated. It was right up there with how I felt on the day of John Kennedy’s assassination.

    I think you are lucky that you have good memories of the tower. We all know the numbers of people that lost their lives that day and we know of the continuing trouble of many people that were there that day but hearing stories of the people that spent their workdays in the towers makes the situation more personal. Thank you for sharing your memories.

  3. David, I also enjoyed remembering the good memories of the WTC. I had dinner once at Windows on the World. It was a wonderful dinner, with great view, service and food. But, for me, the dacquoise was the best part of that evening, and I, too, will never forget it.

    Thanks for the recipe. I also could have read more.

    1. Anita, thanks for chiming in. Funny, a dacquoise is looked upon as a fussy, old-fashioned dessert, but to me, it holds such—sweet—memories. I’ve made it many, many times since.

      And as for Diane and you wanting to read more, apparently I have to listen less to those naysayers who espouse no one is willing to spend time reading on the Web. Perhaps we need to get a movement going: READ MORE, SURF LESS…or some such.