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. Such a poignant read, David.

    I live in South Africa but have a WTC memory that we often talk about. We visited the viewing area of the WTC in December 1997 and spent a number of hours up there in awe of the buildings and the view. While we were sitting chatting and enjoying the view north, a red helium balloon came floating up. Both my husband and I turned to each other and simultaneously, “Remember the red balloon”. Who knew that that would be ingrained in our memories for the rest of our lives! Still get tears in my eyes whenever I think about it.

    1. What a wonderful memory, Jill. Such powerful imagery. It’s almost like a scene from a film!

  2. Thank you David! As a former New Yorker (if there is such a thing) as the anniversary of that horrific day in September, I think back of the many resplendent moments that I’ve spent on top of the world (aka) Windows on the World Restaurant. Growing up in New York, back in the 1960’s, I was lucky enough to know New York like the back of my hand. While I was attending NYU, my future husband at that time was a sub-contractor for Tishman Realty & Construction Company and working on that engineering wonder of the modern world. Years passed and we moved south, but since we still had families in New York, Windows on the World Restaurant/Cellar in the Sky was a MUST whenever we visited “The City”…anniversaries, birthdays, weddings, engagements, memorials or just plain dinners it was always there. It was my mothers favorite restaurant to celebrate her birthday, so when December rolled around, you would find me at top of the world…no better place to be. I remember one raining December night as it pour on the street it was snowing up where we were. To this day it has to be one of the MOST memorable night.

    1. Sandy, it sounds like you have wonderful memories of WOW! Speaking of Tishman, our dear friends bought the Tishman home, which was built in the 70s. Rumor has it some of the materials earmarked for the World Trade Center went into the home!