Windows on the World opened in April 1976 to critical acclaim — and by 2000 it was the top-grossing restaurant in the U.S.
When Windows on the World opened in 1976 on the 106th and 107th floors of the World Trade Center's North Tower, New York Magazine dubbed it: "The Most Spectacular Restaurant in the World." Today, however, the restaurant is best known for its tragic end in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
On September 11, 2001, all 170 people in the restaurant — including 72 Windows on the World employees — were killed after hijackers crashed American Airlines Flight 11 into the North Tower at 8:46 a.m, blocking off any means of escape. Less than two hours later, the tower collapsed.
But out of the tragedy and horror came great generosity. In the years since, surviving employees have come together to take care of their former co-workers' families. This is the story of Windows on the World.
Building A Restaurant In The Sky
Three decades before the 9/11 attacks, restaurateur Joe Baum was hired by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to develop restaurants at the World Trade Center, which opened in 1973. According to Eater NY, he developed 22 restaurants for the new complex, including Windows on the World, a sophisticated restaurant located on the North Tower's 106th and 107th floors.
Windows on the World opened in April 1976 to great acclaim. Gael Greene, writing for New York Magazine, praised its optimistic opulence. It was a sure sign, she declared, that New York City was back after a difficult decade.
"Suddenly I knew — absolutely knew — New York would survive," Greene raved of the new restaurant in the magazine's cover story. "If money and power and ego and a passion for perfection could create this extraordinary pleasure... this instant landmark, Windows on the World... money and power and ego could rescue the city from its ashes. What a high. New York would prevail. Forget about Acapulco gold. This is Manhattan green."
By 2001, the restaurant was broken up into three basic sections: Windows on the World itself, which offered diners jaw-dropping views of New York City; a bar called the Greatest Bar on Earth; and a smaller, more intimate restaurant beloved by locals, Wild Blue.
"We didn't just want people to come up and spend a lot of money," Glenn Vogt, a former general manager at the restaurant, told USA Today. "We were going to give you really good food, really good wine, really good cocktails."
As a result, the restaurant attracted both tourists and New Yorkers. According to USA Today, it also drew celebrities like Warren Beatty and Wayne Gretzky.
Behind the scenes, restaurant workers became close friends. Hailing from more than two dozen countries, they often bonded over food they brought in to share with each other in the kitchen, which led one former employee to describe the band of Windows on the World workers as "the little UN."
Windows on the World had its ups and downs — and was briefly closed following the 1993 World Trade Center bombing — but it remained a New York City institution. Then, in September 2001, the unthinkable happened.
Windows On The World And The 9/11 Attacks
For Windows on the World employees, September 11, 2001, started like any other day. By 8 a.m., the restaurant was already buzzing, as various business people and power brokers enjoyed breakfast, coffee, and the stunning views from the 106th and 107th floors of the World Trade Center.
The Guardian reports that Risk Waters Group was holding a conference that day on information technology, which drew dozens of people, including executives from companies like Merrill Lynch.
At 8:44 a.m., Michael Nestor and Richard Tierney, who worked for the Port Authority, and Liz Thompson, the executive director of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, finished their breakfasts and boarded an elevator.
"We rode down, and I guess we were joking around or talking," Nestor told NPR 10 years later. "And it didn't take long. You know, those elevators were fast. It didn't take long. And then we got off, and the plane hit."
They didn't know it at the time, but Nestor, Tierney, and Thompson were the last people to leave Windows on the World. At 8:46 a.m., the first hijacked plane, American Airlines Flight 11, struck the North Tower, tearing through floors 93 to 99 and cutting off any means of escape for the people above.
About 15 minutes later, around 9 a.m., an assistant manager for Windows on the World named Christine Olender called Port Authority for help. The Guardian reports that Olender had gathered all the restaurant's employees and guests on the 106th floor, and she was looking for guidance as the three emergency stairwells filled with smoke.
"We are getting no direction up here," she said. "We need direction as to where we need to direct our guests and our employees as soon as possible."
"We're doing our best. We've got the fire department, everybody, we're trying to get up to you, dear," a police officer told her, telling her to call back in two minutes. Olender called back four more times. But there was nothing she — or the first responders on the ground — could do.
"The fresh air is going down fast! I'm not exaggerating," Olender said in her last call, asking if she and the others could break windows to get the smoke out. The officer told her to go ahead.
Meanwhile, Vogt, the general manager, arrived on the scene. At that point, he didn't understand the gravity of the calamity unfolding above.
"I thought, 'Oh, we're going to have to be closed for months.' I didn't know the severity of what was going on," he later told USA Today.
Then, someone fell or jumped from the tower above and landed close to him. A fireman told him to get away from the building, and Vogt obeyed.
And at 10:28 a.m., the North Tower collapsed. Everyone at Windows on the World restaurant, including 72 employees, perished.
The Ongoing Legacy Of Windows On The World
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, employees of Windows on the World who hadn't been at the restaurant struggled with how to respond to the tragedy. There was grief, of course, but also a determination to help.
As Eater NY reports, a Windows on the World hotline was set up a week after the attacks in order to find employees who were unaccounted for. The restaurant's final chef, Michael Lomonaco, also set up a relief fund called Windows of Hope, which raised $30 million for families who'd lost loved ones. This fund was especially helpful for the undocumented workers at the restaurant, who were not eligible for other benefits.
"It really helped a lot of people survive," Vogt told USA Today. "There were a lot of people who passed away who were the main breadwinners. Not just for their families in New York, but back in their home countries, too."
Help also came from FEMA and even from Windows on the World customers. And many former employees found comfort in each other. As USA Today reported in 2021, several continue to attend 9/11 anniversary events to remember the co-workers that they lost.
Today, there's a new restaurant at One World Trade Center, the building that replaced the World Trade Center towers. Called ONE Dine, it's located on the 101st floor and offers stunning views, just like Windows on the World did.
But the Windows on the World experience — for both diners and employees — is lost forever.
After reading about Windows on the World, look through these heartbreaking stories of nine 9/11 victims. Or, see how Gander, Newfoundland, stepped up after the 9/11 attacks to host displaced airplane passengers.