Power-lunching is passe, darling. Let's do dinner

From Wall St to the City of London, the business lunch of the yuppie years is back, finds Ann Treneman - though in a guise more suited to the 1990s
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The Independent Online
Pat Cetta runs the kind of steakhouse that makes America great, but his restaurant is known for something besides its menu: a mob boss was murdered on the pavement outside Sparks Steak House on East 46th Street in New York a few years ago. This has now become "the incident", and it's the kind of thing you don't really want to mention. I'm not bothered, though, because I have called Mr Cetta about a different sort of mob and a different sort of death: lunch.

There is a rumour that lunch is simply not what it used to be in New York. It has become - well - a social event. The chat is almost as light as the food, and the sparkling water flows like wine. These days, the serious uncorking doesn't occur until 5pm - for this is now Wall Street's new power-eating hour.

"Lunch is gone. Lunch is a thing of the past," one broker maintains as his surf and turf arrives with a $100 bottle of wine at a Wall Street haunt - and it isn't even 6pm yet.

They are calling it the power dinner, the early bird special, the "relationship" dinner for those whose passion is money and the making of it. Mr Cetta has a theory about this which he is eager to share.

"This is how I see it. I think the whole thing really started a few years ago with this thing called downsizing. People started to worry a little about their jobs, and they weren't going to take off three hours in the middle of the day to go and have lunch. They want to be at their desk. They don't want to miss anything. Now they come in here about 5pm. They've been at work since 7am. You have to realise they work through lunch, so this early dinner really is their lunch. They are ready to relax and to eat."

And Sparks does not disappoint, because this is the perfect place for power eating. Its menu declares it to be "The Fort Knox of Fine Aged Prime Beef". Here you can feast on the finest 20-ounce sirloin steak, large live lobsters and top it off with a slice of walnut pecan pie a la mode. There are 30 kinds of single malt whisky and a wine cellar with 100,000 bottles. Wall Street types love it. It's just that these days, Mr Cetta explains, they love it a little later in the day than before.

But if you think eating early means eating light, think again. "This is not a light meal," says Pat Felitti, the manager of Morton's of Chicago. Don't be confused by the name: Morton's is a chain, and this particular one is near the World Financial Centre in Manhattan. "There is the 24- ounce porterhouse or the 16-ounce rib-eye with an appetiser and salad and so on, plus dessert and coffee." The 230 names on his wine list do not go unread either.

Most people say that it could not happen in Britain, but then again no one thought it would happen in New York.

"I've never seen anything like it before," says Ken Aretsky, who used to be president of the 21 Club and nine months ago opened a restaurant called Patroon at East 46th Street. "When I was at the 21 Club, we had nobody at five o'clock. But what I see - and what others in the business are seeing - is that the brokers are not going out to lunch anymore. Instead they come here at about five. They are here to do business and they are spending money."

This sort of thing knows no season. It has been a hot summer in this city but the brokers are still ordering steak and what Mr Aretsky calls " big" wine. "New York right now is on a roll. The market is going up every day. There is a tremendous boom and it feeds into what is going on," says Mr Aretsky.

And what is going on is lucrative indeed, because the brokers have created a new dinner sitting. "I love this trend because it adds a whole other meal period," says Pat Felitti. "You get a nice early hit and then it still gives you plenty of room for the regular diners at 8pm."

So here is the Felitti guide to early eating. The market closes at 4.30pm and by 5pm the traders and brokers are walking through his door. They go to the bar, or sit right down. "We take reservations from 5pm. Most nights - and especially midweek - the dining room is full by 6pm. We seat 130 there and then we have another 90 in the banquet rooms. All of those are filled with meetings of eight, 12 or sometimes 20 people, for small presentations and things like that."

The jackets come off and the ties are flipped over the shoulder. Almost everyone in the restaurant is male, and the atmosphere is boisterous. Red meat, red wine and machismo do not come cheap, however. On average it costs $75 per head and the tables look like a public service health warning for heart disease.

It may sound like a debauch but they treat it like a meeting. Mr Cetta remembers a time when people met in this way at lunch, too, but there's no question it is more fun to celebrate after work than in the middle of it.

As one broker said: "I talk more to these guys than I do to my own wife." Now, thanks to the "early bird special", he can talk to both, because by 7.30pm the coffee cups are empty. Allow for the commute home and Wall Street's finest can be back in the suburbs, reading the children a bedtime story or even talking to the wife, by 8pm easy.

So could it happen here? Ian Mitchell is the managing director of Eurest's London and City catering operations, and he remembers when no one believed in the power breakfast either. Now even the most dedicated sceptics are chewing over a few figures at 8am. In fact, Mr Mitchell admits to having munched the very morning of our interview. "Orange juice and croissants. We've got a good early start and it does seem the thing to do now. I suppose to a certain extent it's meeting in your sleeping time. We don't want to waste any part of the day."

One of the people munching with him that morning turns out to be Simon Titchener, a Eurest business development executive who had just come back from the States with his own power dinner story to tell. "It did feel quite strange having dinner so early. Normally half past five is my time for an afternoon cake or something. But once I got over the shock I did quite enjoy it. The evening is free - and they value their leisure time - and I did actually sleep better. It's much better for you."

But Britons tend not to care too much about such things and Bob Cotton, the director of corporate affairs for catering giant Gardner Merchant, is not convinced. America may set some trends - lunches are lighter, fresher and less alcoholic these days on both sides of the Atlantic - but not when it comes to timing.

"When you eat is about local culture," he says. "If you go to Holland, lunch is still all about a cold sandwich. That is a power lunch in Holland. If you go to Brussels, which is only 50 miles away, lunch is still a five- course event that takes two hours." And what about here? "The power hour is still 1pm."

In London, the most powerful hour of them all - pace Messrs Blair and Clinton, who recently sat down to dinner at the Pont de la Tour not long after the traditional British tea time - ticks away at the Savoy Grill.

Here the panelling is yew, the glasses sparkling and the tables just so. The maitre d', Angelo Maresca, is one of those men with whom one feels instantly at home. If lunch is about comfort food then this sort of service is as comfortable as it gets. His regulars hardly need to enunciate their requests. He knows their special table, whether they want sparkling or still, the correct wine, how they like their favourite meal cooked, whether it is one sugar or two in the coffee. "We take all the worry from them," says Mr Maresca, and even I feel better upon hearing this news.

Wall Street's early bird dinner may be all about steak and machismo, but power eating at the Savoy is subtler than that. Here any food can be powerful or, more accurately, make you look powerful. "The thing about the Savoy Grill is that you never know what the day will bring," says the chef, David Sharland.

"Some customers have their favourites and sometimes I only need to see the name to know how to cook it. One must have only gluten-free food. Another insists on having nachos and so we do those for him. One wanted baked beans. 'Baked beans? From a tin?' Yes, that's what he wanted and so we flambeed him some."

Now that is just about as powerful as it gets. Of course, there's no real reason why you can't have flambeed baked beans at 6pm, too.