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. Hi, I’ve been thinking about you and this site this whole last week.

    I posted here a couple of years ago and then couldn’t find it again. I well remember the dacquoise, and your description of it brings the taste right back. To recap, I worked there between 1978 and 1980. One time when I was working a night shift, there was a fire in the kitchen (!). We were told by the manager to NOT TELL THE DINERS. While the fire was put out fairly quickly, it automatically dumped tons of white powder on the grill. So all of that food, at the height of the dinner hour, was ruined.

    Someone was sent 107 flights downstairs to a basement to bring back more steaks. That took a while. Customers got edgy, asked questions. We smiled and gave more bread, free glasses (bottles?) of wine. One guy from Texas was the most pissed. So we finally got the food out and everyone was pleased, even Mr. Texas, who thanked us. No one ever knew what had gone on.

    It was just one example of everyone working as hard as they possibly could, terrific teamwork, and the ability to lie imaginatively on the spot. That’s the kind of staff the WOW had and I’ve thought about the ones serving breakfast on 9/11 ever since. They were probably that way, too. Thank you so much for this site.

    1. Catherine, that you for the kind words. I never had to do the 107-story sprint, but I heard stories of a breakfast shift in which the fire alarm went off and one of the head waiters had to lead all of the guests down the stairs. Not sure if that’s apocryphal, but that’s dedication.