MICHAEL’S has been New York’s leading power lunch mecca for media and entertainment A-listers for over a quarter of a century and owner Michael McCarty is telling me it’s down to love.
“You’re in your dining room with all of your best friends,” he says. “People love being in the company of their peers and those they aspire to be like. It’s sort of like a lovefest.”
Brian Glazer, Uma Thurman, and Piers Morgan have all dined at McCarty’s elegant premises on West 55th St on the corner of Fifth Avenue in the past month.
“Hospitality and lifestyle against a backdrop of gastronomy is part of our culture,” McCarty continues. “Part of the revolution I helped to start 40 years ago was to emulate European cultures where people would enjoy the meal as an extraordinarily important part of the day.”
Although his own battle seems to be going fine, McCarty is losing the war. If lunch is a lovefest, most of us are resolutely single.
Whether we’re powerful or powerless, when it comes to lunch, we have it at our desk, buy it from a food truck, or get it on the go. We don’t go out to break bread with a new or old friend. As with music, something people used to venture out to purchase has become an object of consumption in front of the computer.
A 2012 study conducted by the University of California, Davis Graduate School of Management, found only one in five people venture out to have lunch.
The halo of Gordon Gekko, the corporate raider in Oliver Stone’s film Wall Street depicted by Michael Douglas, may have been tarnished by events but his legendary dictum that “Lunch is for wimps” holds sway.
I don’t only mean the bibulous Three-Martini Lunch, epitomized in Mad Men when Roger Sterling vomits following a lengthy meal with Don Draper at Grand Central Oyster Bar.
The Power Lunch, where people get together to discuss a deal, idea or creative endeavor—or simply unwind for an hour or two—is dying out.
The number of people debating what will happen to Michael’s and The Four Seasons when Ralph Lauren’s Polo Bar, which recently opened for dinner, expands to serving lunch later this year is probably less than the line for a Shake Shack emporium at any given lunchtime.
It’s partly generational. The younger crowd that dines out tends to prefer an evening meal rather than lunch. In finance the Closing Dinner, thrown to celebrate a deal, is still customary but bankers tell me the presence of the CEO and CFO usually means it’s more often endured rather than enjoyed.
The tech industry barely does lunch at all. Ben Lerer, co-founder of Thrillist.com, obnoxiously opined to the New York Times, “I almost resent having to go out for lunch. I’m too busy.”
Long lunches are still popular for people in the shipping industry (nobody knows quite why) but in the words of one social observer, “An increasingly common companion for those who now lunch at top New York or L.A. restaurants is their nurse.”
The refined lunch used to be a staple of the creative classes. No longer. For a variety of reasons, many of our finest creative minds have foresworn off lunch.
Hamish Bowles, the international editor at large of Vogue, says, “I don’t at all [do lunch]. It’s just a waste of…it’s difficult to get out for lunch and I just think it’s not time efficient. It’s a charming cultural phenomenon but I don’t think it’s fully functional in today’s world.”
Fern Mallis, who created the concept of Fashion Week and who now runs her own fashion and design consultancy, has also given up the practice: “Lunch as a concept is kind of over. No-one really has time anymore.”
Veteran Hollywood publicist Bumble Ward recalls she used to have her own table at now-shuttered Beverly Hills restaurant Orso in the 1990s where she banged the drum for Quentin Tarantino and Sofia Coppola.
Now co-running social media-driven PR company The Hive Collective, Ward says, “I don’t do lunch as frequently because I fall asleep if I eat too much lunch and I feel like it disrupts the day too much…it’s much more grabbing a sandwich at your desk or with someone else at your desk now.”
Jeanine Pepler, founder of the AKA life PR Agency, said: “I’ve cut down radically on lunch because of social media.”
Richard Johnson, longtime gossip columnist at the New York Post, has not completely given up lunch but notes expense accounts are critical when accounting for its decline. “It’s become just for higher-paid executives now”, he says. “Alot of people feel it’s not a productive use of their time. But if you’re with the right person, it can be very productive. I’ve had tons of stories that were the product of lunches.”
Beginning in British journalism at the beginning of the century, I just caught the tail end of the lunch tradition before it began to die out. I’m grateful I did. Not because I could drink more alcohol or shirk off working in the office but because a good two-hour lunch often supplied the most meaningful moments of the working day.
The right lunch can be an inspired interlude, helping an otherwise linear working day go off the beaten track in the best of ways.
I recently bumped into former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer in midtown. Did he do lunch, I asked? “Sometimes, if I’m hungry,” he replied. I asked him if the conversation could be on the record. “It can be if you make clear this is a frivolous conversation,” he said.
But lunch isn’t frivolous! As a journalist, lunch didn’t merely help me fill space in the next day’s newspaper. It gave me ideas and perspective. Whether it was Margaret Thatcher’s former PR adviser Lord (Tim) Bell dissecting in detail the 1987 general election or when my father talked about his wartime experiences in Poland for the first and only time, so often it supplied me with original and innovative ways of seeing life that I’ve never found through any other forum.
Lunch in American fiction has a grand tradition, ranging from John Cheever’s short story Reunion to Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City (“the last time you told Alex you were on your way to lunch you needed a stretcher to get you back to the office”.)
Yet when I re-located to New York in 2007, it proved a painful process discovering that when most people you met at parties said, ‘Let’s do lunch’, it most often meant ‘I’ll see you around’, not ‘Go ahead and book a venue.’
I recall my first New York lunch with an old English friend political journalist Mark Seddon, now working as a speechwriter for the UN, but then toiling for Al-Jazeera.
The London cartoonist Martin Rowson once joked of Seddon’s luncheon habits, “We were due to establish full socialism in England on a Thursday afternoon in October 1998—except that Mark was organizing it but forgot because he was still having lunch.” Seddon’s culinary inclinations did not survive his move; we managed 20 minutes in the Al-Jazeera canteen.
The most fun I’ve had at lunch in New York has been covering events thrown by PR maven Peggy Siegal, held at restaurants including The Four Seasons and La Grenouille.
Siegal is keen to stress the utility factor of her lunches: “They’re Oscar-oriented and sponsored by the film studios. They are press conferences- highly-organized events with movie stars, intellectuals and media elites.”
It’s a far cry from when Siegal first worked in New York in the 1970s. “Young people went to lunches to rub shoulders with the power brokers, to be seen and meet and entertain each other,” she said. “Now the flow of information is much quicker than it is having lunch.”
There are still individuals under 50 who crave the connection over lunch enjoyed by previous generations.
Spencer Sharp, Director of Arts & Entertainment Advertising at the New York Observer, laments, “The current generation of media buyers seem too intent to play out their days online. It’s hard enough to get a decision-maker on the phone let alone sit, discuss and share ideas for the clients’ good over a satisfying meal in the middle of a day. It’s like they’ve completely ignored why they dreamt about life in New York in the first place.”
How different it used to be. Robert Stewart, a former publisher of Scribner’s, who is writing a biography of the love story between Anna Freud and Dorothy Burlingham, recalls he used to lunch four times a week during the 1970s and 1980s.
“You did it so much that you got very tired of lunching,” he reflects. What did he learn from his lunches? “I learned how to listen, how to be flattering, about people’s personalities and how to be polite. If the author arrived and told you what his cocker spaniel did that morning, you’d have to listen and cleverly find a polite way of saying ‘It’s time to discuss how to get the bestselling book out of you.’”
Occasionally the power lunch can go disastrously wrong.
Orson Welles, whose lunches with the filmmaker Henry Jaglom formed the subject of an entertaining recent book My Lunches with Orson, took an underling at Universal Studios to lunch for his birthday at Ma Maison restaurant in Santa Monica.
In a story that Heywood Gould fictionalized in his novel Green Light for Murder, Welles spared no expense on the Universal factotum, promising they would work together and ordering a celebratory cake only to then storm out of the restaurant in a huff without paying the bill when he discovered his guest wasn’t the man he thought he was and hadn’t just been made Vice-President of Casting at Universal.
Many of the great historical figures have been inveterate lunchers. JFK rose to power after lunching with writers and academics at his preferred time of 1.15 PM. While campaigning for the Democratic Presidential nomination in February 1960, he found time to have a three-hour lunch with future mistress Judith Campbell Exner on Frank Sinatra’s patio.
Sir Winston Churchill’s luncheon appetite was legendary. As Cita Stelzer wrote in her book Dinner with Churchill, “At lunches and dinners, Churchill acquired and improved relationships that would stand him in good stead at some later point in his career.”
Throughout World War II he would have regular lunches with General Eisenhower and King George VI, though his companions weren’t always so salubrious. Press baron William Randolph Hearst helped Churchill crack the US publishing market by throwing him a lunch in 1929 in the MGM bungalow of Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies.
Churchill historian Andrew Roberts says today’s lunches are now closer to those of Napoleon (“People complained how short the lunches were with Napoleon—he was in and out in half an hour”).
However, Roberts adds its reduced circumstance has enhanced the status of the lunch. “It’s become very grand to have a proper lunch,” he says, “and much more impressive when people take you out.”
Euan Rellie, a British banker in New York, testifies to the value of his regular lunches.
“Most people struggle to justify taking two hours off for lunch but I convince myself every minute of it is worthwhile for my increased erudition and education,” he says. “I’ve forged great and profound professional relationships by taking people to lunch that would otherwise be mere business acquaintances.”
Rellie is part of a group that still regularly meets at Michael’s.
“It’s almost like a club,” he says, making it sound like an underground resistance movement in World War II. “I wouldn’t call it the power crowd but there is a frisson of buzz,” he says. “It feels like you’re in the flow of things. It’s not taking time off; it’s spending time wisely.”
“If we could wean the tech people off sushi, we’ll be good,” says Michael McCarty of his drive to revive lunch as an art form.
Whatever the outcome, and even though most people today follow Gekko’s philosophy, the ‘wimps’ seem to be having more fun. They always have.