Remembering Windows on the World

Windows on the World, on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center’s north tower, was a quarter-mile in the sky above New York City. As lively as the restaurant was, weekday mornings occasionally afforded the employees, including David, a serene moment to take in that famous skyline at dawn.

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.

David Leite's signature

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Comments

  1. David, we missed each other by more than a decade, but it’s a nice idea anyway to collapse time and imagine that while you were perched in that eagle’s nest eating dacquoise and looking out from those windows, I was sitting with a mug of real strong coffee on the balcony of my 10th floor apartment on West 57th Street, facing south toward the single slice of renowned NYC skyline I could see: the Twin Towers. That was my morning ritual. I lived in that apartment a couple years beyond 9/11, too, but frankly lost my enthusiasm for breakfast on the balcony after that day. This tribute adds something pleasant to a grim anniversary. Thanks for that. (Plus for the reminder that I am free to eat cake for breakfast if I so choose; one of many liberties I should not take for granted!)

    1. Allison, thanks for your sentiment. Windows on the World was a very special place for me; it was the first real job I had in New York, and it made quite an impression on me. And it allowed me to move on to work at Restaurant Lafayette, which was Jean-George Vongerichten’s first place in the city. But Windows also haunts. I still find it very painful to look at photos of the restaurant, let alone images of the attack.

      1. It was a special place, wasn’t it? And impressive. Actually, my husband was at Windows on Monday the 10th for a wine course, and I remember how he came home with an immigrant’s awe, as if every time he went there was the first time. I confess that I grew up accustomed to seeing the towers, so they were just part of the landscape… until 2001. But to my husband, who grew up in provincial France, well… the sight of them was always something awesome and symbolic.

        1. Dear Mrs. Parker,
          I am researching a National Geographic documentary about events on 9/10/2001, the day before September 11, 2001. I am intrigued by your story and would like to talk with you and your husband. Thank you, Diane Coady

          1. Diane, just an FYI that I’ve moved this off-site now. I received your email and sent you a reply (also via email). I hope you received. Best, Allison

          2. Diane, I believe my name links to my website, where you’ll be able to get in touch directly. Happy to provide whatever information I can. A documentary on events of 9/10/01 sounds interesting. Regards, Allison

  2. Striking photo and a poignant reminder of one morning’s restaurant service that ended so sadly and profoundly.

      1. I was one of the original staff members at windows. i worked in the main dining room from 3/76 to 81 with the beautiful Claudette Fornier and Paul Eggar. This was my first real job at 20 years old. Wonderful memories that will last for the rest of my life.

        Claudette Fournier

        1. walter, we wouldn’t have overlapped, time wise. It was a beautiful place to be. You know, I never, ever ate in the main dining room. I did go to Cellar in the Sky once when Kevin Zraly was still there. Wonderful.

          1. Hello David, I just read your story of your time working at Windows On The World. It was both poignant and sweet. Never have been to NYC and it must have been an amazing view from up there in the sky. I could picture you so vividly up there watching the world wake up and the sky coming to day. BEAUTIFUL!

            Lyn Price

          2. Lyn, thank you so much for your kind words. It was, indeed, an amazing thing to watch the world wake up. My heart aches every time I look downtown and don’t see the twin towers.

          3. David, I can only imagine the sorrow and grief the people of NYC felt. Along with everyone else in the US. I do not own a TV, and the day that happened I saw a small clip of terrible images and didn’t want to see any more. It was too much. Still do not have a TV.

          4. Lyn, I think not having a TV, at least for this, was probably a lifesaver. We stared at ours for more than 12 hours that day and had nightmares for weeks.

          5. Kevin, was such a great guy, always willing to answer any questions and always very helpful.

          6. I am looking for a menu from Windows on the World, as close to September 10, 2001 as possible for use in a National Geographic documentary about that day.
            Thank you. I enjoy other’s memories.

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