It's lunchtime at Forty Four, the restaurant in the lobby of the Royalton Hotel in New York City. Little orchids dapple the tables, the wall behind the bar is blood-red lacquer and the wall sconces resemble lighted rhinoceros horns. There is a teeny pre-lunch buzz, for this is the place to lunch, inner sanctum to celebrity.

In a baggy blue pullover and long curly hair is Roger Daltrey of The Who; in a lime plush power booth is Carly Simon, all big red mouth and checkered waistcoat. Al Pacino has been glimpsed, but you never stare; in New York this is bad form, even if you were to spot the Princess of Wales on her way to Mike Tyson's suite.

Unisex waitpersons, all in black and ponytails, move swiftly among the post-modern chairs, delivering pristine bottles of San Pellegrino; no one drinks at lunch at the Royalton. This is a workplace, an office canteen, the 'war room' for New York's publishing community, where the business of lunch is business. Because so many of the top US magazines are edited and staffed by Brits, the Royalton is the colonial outpost of choice. British accents mumble cheerily. Anna] Tina] Liz] kiss kiss, hello] The doyennes of New York publishing lunch here. All are women; all are British.

I am at table 16] This is an A-list table, a few feet from power-booth row: I have arrived. At the Royalton, the main entertainment, the food apart - and it is spectacularly good, although in the modern vein, sometimes the cod comes rare - is watching the players. Jobs and reputations are made and broken with a flip of a Chanel suit jacket, a twitch of a pair of sunglasses, a tremulous visitation from one table to the next by a writer calling on an editor.

Hushed, sober, carpeted, the room has a perfect ear for the Nineties: in bad times, it's crass to flaunt it, even if you are a lady editor pulling in a million-plus a year (like Anna and Tina and Liz). In Bill Clinton's America, where we are all equal, all earnest policy wonks, the comings and goings at lunch have the nuanced quality of a Noh drama; inferring a pecking order requires an art as refined as the Kremlinologists who once divined the future from the placement of Politburo members on Lenin's tomb.

New arrivals are seated. An unfortunate woman in bad ear-rings is placed at a very bad table, behind a pillar.

The Royalton, long ago a hangout for the likes of Mae West and Noel Coward, was for years a cheap but cheerful sort of hotel where if you were locked out the entire door to your room had to be removed because no one could find spare keys.

In the late Eighties, it was renovated in very high style; the long lobby, where barely a hint of daylight intrudes on the furniture, is perfect for status seating. In the nether lobby, nobodies crouch on spiky metal chairs over low tables; closer in, from the blue section, OK-niks may gaze over at power in lime green and dream.

But then, New York lunching is always about aspiration. At the Royalton, you are where you sit. Brian McNally, the manager, keeps a book of laminated magazine mastheads so he can check out newcomers; he is said to play with seating plans the way other men play with football formations.

Above some of the power booths the mirrors are angled in such a way that you can observe what the powerful eat. Carly Simon, for example, is putting lots of butter on her roll and smiling.

My friends arrive - hello, kiss kiss, who's here? I am trying to be attentive, but I am frozen rigid with a desire to crane my neck. Just behind me, in a power booth, is Anna Wintour, the editor in chief of Vogue, and she is wearing a hot-pink Chanel jacket, her skinny legs encased in black leggings that end in what appear to be a pair of Bette Midler's little spike-heeled shoes. She is alone. Her date is late. She is probably not amused.

Ms Wintour has clout in New York City; how she feels about her lunch guests is apparently indicated by whether or not she removes her sunglasses while eating her hamburger (no bun).

Mr McNally, who knows what the great and nearly great need for succour, rushes to relieve Ms Wintour from her solitary state. They are old friends. Both are British.

Like Ms Wintour, many of the Royalton regulars work for the Conde Nast empire, a few blocks away: 25 per cent of receipts are charged to Conde Nast and the restaurant is sometimes known as Club Conde.

The man who owns Conde Nast is S I 'Si' Newhouse. It has been reported that recently a little man in sweat pants turned up at the Royalton and, just as some manager was wondering what table to hide him at, Mr McNally, ever suave, strode forward and said, 'Glad to have you with us' - although it is disputed whether he called him 'Si' or 'Mr Newhouse'.

When Mr Newhouse bought the New Yorker, arguably America's most prestigious magazine, and installed Tina Brown, formerly of Vanity Fair, as editor, the Royalton acquired even more cachet. The New Yorker is down the street. Ms Brown took to eating at the Royalton.

Aha, the new Round Table, people said, referring to the group of writers and wits who in the Twenties and early Thirties ate lunch - mostly booze and cigarettes - at the Algonquin Hotel, which is just across the street from the Royalton. There they founded the New Yorker; there its legendary editor, William Shawn, lunched daily on coffee and cornflakes. The Japanese have taken over the Algonquin now; the British have taken over the New Yorker; none eats cornflakes for lunch.

As the lemon tart and the creme brulee arrive at table 16, so does Brian McNally. A son of working-class London - he often tells you - he is a quintessential New Yorker, part immigrant, part snob, and the city's best restaurant ringmaster, who always knows the right kind of place for any era. Mr McNally could make a bowling alley happen.

That there are too few 'good tables' is to the Royalton's profit; call it supply and demand. Recently Mr McNally said: 'We have too many VIPs. We have more important people than we have important chairs.'

We inhale espresso. It is 2.30 and everyone is going, mumbling farewells. Bye Anna] Bye bye, Tina and Liz] 'Been back to the Yuke lately?' someone asks, meaning the UK, meaning home. 'Anyone been back to the Yuke?'

(Photograph omitted)