You’ve heard it before. The world of "power dining" has fundamentally changed over the last few years: In New York, major companies have set up headquarters outside Midtown Manhattan, and such mighty spots as the Four Seasons have succumbed to a monumental decrease in lunch business.
In Washington, a change in administration means a reset on a lot of things, not to mention priority restaurants. The new president has scarcely been seen in a dining room that’s not in the White House or his local hotel. And in London, the days of free-spending, boozy midday meals are well over, as companies focus both on cost and the propriety of lavish lunches. Exhibit A: Lloyd’s of London insurance market has banned employees from drinking during working hours.
But how much does this really affect so-called power restaurants? Not necessarily much for the most popular places, as with New York's unstoppable Le Coucou. Rather, we're talking about the expensive temples of fine dining, where deals are worshipped and C-suite executives and politicians are the rotating idols.
Let’s look at where to find the players in three of the strongest doing-business-while-eating cities in North America and Europe. What holds them together? They all feature food that you want to eat, invariably near where people live or work. And there’s barely a steakhouse on the list.
You might have read (here at Pursuits, even) that power dining has moved downtown to the Financial District. Yet Midtown is still a dominating force, with its proximity to major hedge fund addresses and banks such as Merrill Lynch and J.P. Morgan. The menus at these places are accessible, sometimes even healthy-ish. (Think grilled fish.) So don’t give up your $40 million Park Avenue penthouse just yet. Unless it’s to move to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. (More on that in a moment.)
The GrillStepping into the major, landmarked confines of the former Four Seasons space, the Grill from the Carbone team evokes the power-dining scene not of its predecessor but of the era before that: the late 1940s and '50s, when the cool kids went out after attending the opera. The Grill specializes in the best-dressed waiters in New York (Tom Ford) and prime rib carved table-side. So far, it's lured notable people from the business world (you might see Ken Chenault and Allen Grubman, or a smattering of Goldman Sachs Group bigwigs) and Jerry and Jessica Seinfeld. Now comes the real power-dining test: The Grill is introducing lunch service, a business meal made iconic by the Four Seasons.
Never underestimate the ability of a clubby dining room to attract crowds. The Polo bar has thrived for more than two years, generally the life expectancy of a trendy restaurant. In spite of that—and the shuttering of the Ralph Lauren flagship next door on Fifth Avenue—the intimate Polo Bar, plastered with framed pictures of horses, exerts a magnetic pull on a wide range of people. Such country club-era dishes as a monster shrimp cocktail, Ralph’s favorite corned beef sandwich, and the bacon cheddar burger are presented on branded plates. Hillary Clinton has enjoyed that burger with owner Ralph Lauren; Charlie Rose visits, as does Showtime’s Matt Blank (bringing with him the cast from Billions).
Avra Madison Estiatorio
The steakhouse might not be going anywhere, but a vast place specializing in exquisite fish has extremely hard-to-get tables. Avra is owned by the Tao Group, which runs Tao Downtown, the most profitable restaurant in New York; but it doesn’t much resemble that Asian temple except that it also has 300 seats and operates on two levels. The grand, Midtown destination features lemon trees and seafood flown in from around the world for a range of raw-bar and sashimi selections. Developer Larry Silverstein comes, and Tony Bennett chose to celebrate his 90th birthday here.
This warehouse-style Italian restaurant, which features some of the top pasta in the city, from A Voce alum Missy Robbins, is co-owned by a Goldman Sachs alum, Sean Feeney. It’s put Brooklyn on the power-dining map, with guests that range from Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert to Ivanka Trump. Lilia also gets a lot of love from Wall Streeters, including Feeney’s former colleagues (both Goldman's chief operating officers have dined there; David Solomon has shouted out the place—and its cheese-crusted whole artichoke). Said Feeney: “Missy and I work so hard to make everyone comfortable. I think that's why people come: We treat big name people normally. That’s often a change for them.”
It used to be that deals were done in London's gentlemen's clubs and then in fine-dining restaurants. These days, it's all a bit more democratic. A lot of business still transpires in the City of London, the financial epicenter, but now you might find power-dining locations as far afield as Shoreditch in East London.
This brand-new hotel and club from the Soho House group (and NoMad New York owners, the Sydell Group) shows just how much power dining has changed in London. No fewer than seven restaurants are open to the public, all prime spots for business in the City financial district. For a choice at the Ned, you might go to Cecconi's, which serves traditional Italian food. Note, though, that the Ned isn't totally democratic: Steakhouse Lutyens Grill is open only to club members and hotel guests.
This European cafe and brasserie on Piccadilly is so established as a center for power dining in London, it's easy to forget that it was revolutionary when it opened in 2003. The menu is simple, the prices reasonable, the cavernous dining room seats hundreds of people, and it's open all day. It is always buzzy and busy: Just try getting a table for breakfast. The Wolseley is very different from the hushed restaurants in which deals are traditionally done over classic French cuisine and fine wines. Tycoons, celebrities, Londoners, and tourists rub shoulders from early in the morning until late at night. Afternoon tea costs 29.75 pounds ($38.70), compared with a starting price of 54 pounds just across the road at the Ritz.
This quirky East London restaurant, housed in the old Shoreditch Town Hall (built in 1865) is very much the new face of power dining in London. You sit at bare tables in a high-ceilinged room that has a wooden floor and pipes running round the wall. There's an open kitchen, where you can see chef Isaac McHale and his team at work, preparing dishes such as haggis buns; pot-roast cauliflower, cinnamon, bay leaf, and toasted bread sauce; and Amalfi lemonade and Kampot pepper ice cream. (Perhaps you would like to wash that down with a glass of Corsican wine.) This is the 26th best restaurant in the world—and best in the U.K.—according to the World's 50 Best Restaurants awards. Bookings are so hot you have to pay for your dinner when you make the booking, if you can get one.
This glamorous Italian restaurant is in the traditional hedge fund area of Mayfair but bears little resemblance to classic power-dining spots. Under Calabrian chef Francesco Mazzei, it combines a beautiful Art Deco look with friendly, informal service and gutsy food that's stronger on flavor than subtlety. There's a lively bar and three private dining rooms, as well as a 26.50-pound two-course lunch, if you are in a hurry. Sartoria is on Savile Row, so it draws a fashion and show business crowd, along with business diners. Roger Waters of Pink Floyd is among the regulars.
While Barack Obama was president, dining out in the nation’s capital became as cool as it’s ever been. He and his wife went out frequently and ate everything from elite Greek food to roll-up-your-sleeves burgers. The new president has not shown the same inclination, which generally portends a change in the district’s dining habits. That has not happened so far, but stay tuned.
On the ever-popular 14th Street corridor, this quintessentially French brasserie has been a hot ticket for politicos since it opened more than three years ago. The mirror-lined, tile-floored space with a menu of grand seafood plateau, steak frites, and a large Champagne selection is from James Beard-winning restaurateur Stephen Starr; reportedly, even Starr has been surprised by the popularity of a spot that is not a steakhouse in such a steak-oriented town. It’s popular with a range of residents, including former Vice President Joe Biden, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), and Environmental Protection Agency Director Scott Pruitt, who dined there the night after the U.S. withdrew from the Paris Accord. Said Jenna Velella, Starr's director of restaurants: "Dining in Washington carries the paradoxical needs to see and be seen and for quiet discretion. During campaign season, the semi-circle red leather booths at the entrance tend to be more coveted. In the off-season, the quiet tables in the back are in demand."
Chef Fabio Trabocchi and his wife Maria have built a Washington-based empire of fashionable dining rooms such as Fiola Mare, which brings in so many VIPs that the Trabocchis installed a dedicated security guard (and built a good relationship with the Secret Service). Casa Luca, set downtown, is more casual, decorated with giant black-and-white family photos and red leather banquettes. The rustic Mediterranean restaurant has served a swath of big names, from the Obamas to Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), with a menu that includes such family-style feasts as whole branzino baked in salt and a 42-ounce Porterhouse Florentine.
Tail Up Goat
The city’s most powerful dining rooms are, in part, a function of their distance to Capitol Hill. Still, Adams Morgan has become one of the city’s coolest dining areas. This is where you’ll find the brilliant Tail Up Goat, which has a fan in Michelle Obama and many young government staffers. At the simple spot, an inspired menu from chef Jon Sybert boasts tagliatelle amatriiana with black pepper bread crumbs and lamb ribs with grilled lemon. The wine, beer, and cocktails list features both local and non-local beverages: District-based Raised by Wolves Pale Ale is on tap; a 2008 Domaine Lionnet Cornas from the Rhône Valley is sold by the glass and in magnums.
Article by Richard Vines, chief food critic at Bloomberg