NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- The Four Seasons Grill Room still sells out for lunch on a daily basis. At Michael's, midday traffic is up 10%. Patroon puts its own lunch increase even higher.
So while expensive client dinners are in noticeable slowdown and some normally bustling bars have been deserted at cocktail hour, the bright spot at media and advertising hotspots is the business lunch, thriving despite the times. True, the midday mood may be more somber, the check may be a bit lower and orders for comfort foods such as beef stew and chicken pot pie are on the rise. But recession or no, Madison Avenue regulars seem to consider breaking bread with clients and colleagues at white-tablecloth establishments as important as ever.
"We're holding our own, and I think holding your own is pretty good," said Ken Aretsky of Aretsky's Patroon. "That's the new buzzword in my view."
Julian Niccolini, co-owner of the Four Seasons restaurant in New York, said patrons seem more intent on entertaining, particularly during lunch. He said his clients understand that even in down times, there is money to make, and business dining is an important element of that.
"I think everybody is really maintaining their relationships," Mr. Aretsky said. "There's a bonding at the tables that I sense."
'Upbeat and busy'
Steve Millington, longtime general manager at Michael's, the gathering place of choice for the media elite, is seeing a similar trend. "I'm stunned by how upbeat and busy we are," he said. In January, diners' spirits were down, and business felt slower, he said. But in February, things picked up -- to his surprise -- and lunch for the month tracked up 10% over last year.
Mr. Millington said he senses that his patrons are hungry to make money, and likened the crowd to sharks circling around prey in the Atlantic. "They're anxious to make deals and make things happen."
And for the most part, the media elite are still seated at their hierarchically assigned tables, with the much-coveted corner table going to the alpha execs. "The overall character of Michael's is certainly maintained," said Henry Schleiff, President-CEO of Crown Media Holdings, who dines at the legendary publishing destination a few times a week. "It's still Rick's place from Casablanca in terms of its importance and usefulness as a meeting place to exchange industry information and certainly gossip."
"This is how people do business," said one New York PR executive who frequents places such as Michael's and the Grill Room at the Four Seasons for lunch.
Not quite business as usual
Of course, that doesn't mean things are completely business as usual. "Deals? Nobody's making deals!" said Gil Schwartz, exec VP-chief communications officer for CBS.
Well, some, he conceded, but not the high-wattage pacts of lore. And executives are not having the same breezy social get-togethers they once had. "Expense accounts that used to be river deep and mountain high are now molehills," Mr. Schwartz said, adding that body counts were down at some of his favorite establishments. Where there used to be two lunch seatings -- one at 12:15 p.m. and another at 1:30 p.m., perhaps -- now there's a single stretch between 12:30 and 2:00 p.m., he said.
Mr. Schleiff picked up on that too. "People are a little bit quicker to get back to their office -- assuming they still have their office," he said.
Peter Krivkovich, CEO of Cramer-Krasselt and a regular at the Palm, said the scene is similar in Chicago. "The days of two-and-a-half-hour lunches are long gone," he said. "They were going away before the recession. Now they're definitely gone." In auto-ravaged Detroit, the pain has been even more acute. "Power lunch? Does it still exist?" asked the top dog of a major magazine publisher's Motown office.
Adapting to the times
With budgets tight, restaurants are doing their best to adapt with the times. Restaurants participating in New York City's Restaurant Week -- which began in late January and has been extended through March 20 -- offer three-course prix-fixe lunches and dinners for $24.07 and $35, respectively, to lure in customers in this cold, bleak winter. Similarly, Eleven Madison Park launched a $28 two-course lunch, which General Manager Will Guidara said was designed customer value and time in mind.
"It still allows media executives to bring clients to an impressive space but without either breaking the bank or taking too much of a day," he said.
That's also the justification for more breakfast meetings, and, in fact, Balthazar and Brasserie 44 are packed in the morning. Michael's breakfast business has increased 20% year over year, Mr. Millington said, but the same cannot be said about dinner, where business is "status quo."
Indeed, at the Four Seasons restaurant in New York, come dinner time, the grand chambers of the restaurant seem noticeably cavernous. And on a recent Thursday evening, only a handful of people clustered around the bar at Patroon. To boost dinner business, the Four Seasons has introduced a $59 three-course dinner, in honor of the restaurant's 50th anniversary.
More budget-conscious choices
Those still going out for dinner are a bit more budget-conscious. Mr. Aretsky said he has noticed that liquor consumption is on the rise, but wine is circumspect. No one is ordering the top bottles anymore, he said. At the Four Seasons, if patrons are drinking wine, it's under $150 a bottle -- a stark change from years past. Some are also trading down to outright cheaper places.
The popular News Corp. pub hangout, Langan's, has been even more crowded at mealtimes of late, perhaps because of its clever $14.95 "cost-saving" menu featuring Bank Merger Meatloaf and Freddie Mac & Cheese.
"It's a terrific bargain, and the food is good," said owner Des O'Brien. "It's humorous, and people need a bit of a laugh right now."