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Old Classic, New Classic: The Legacy of the New York Power Breakfast

Early morning breakfasts at The Loews Regency and The NoMad are for the regulars, not the observers.

Classics Week logoAll this week, as a Classics Week special, Eater is sending correspondents to classic New York restaurants and their newer counterparts, to see how the two compare. They'll report back on the scene at both, suss out the differences, and maybe even shed some light on what makes the classic a classic. Up today, Associate Editor Devra Ferst, with a look at the early morning power scene:

As my dining companion and I waited for a table amid pairs and trios of men in well-tailored suits, and women with perfectly placed hair early on a Tuesday morning at the Loews Regency Hotel she remarked, "When you live in New York, it's easy forget that there are so many other New Yorks happening at the same time — sub-communities that rarely intersect." This was not our New York. We felt very far, literally and culturally, from our Brooklyn apartments where breakfast is coffee and perhaps some toast or yogurt eaten haphazardly while half dressed for work.

For some New Yorkers, the power breakfast is a ritual that takes place on the way from expensive Upper East Side apartments to grand but chaotic offices in Midtown and on Wall Street. In response to the havoc of New York in the 1970's, Loews' then-owner, Preston Robert ("Bob") Tisch, invited leaders in business and politics to an early morning breakfast. Tisch beckoned influencers with the suggestion, "We'll talk and figure this out," explains longtime New York restaurant consultant Clark Wolf. "It was a very effective word of mouth campaign to get New York going in the right direction again." Deals were discussed at one table and sealed at another. "People table hopped like crazy," explains Wolf.

The environment is civil but intense, as if the steam wafting from the $7.50 cups of coffee has caffeinated the entire room.

An entire culture grew around the breakfast at The Loews Regency, and it has continued for 40 years. Chauffeurs of regulars wait outside, while diners grab one of the five papers stacked along the bar and are escorted to a table in the dining room, greeting colleagues and social acquaintances at tables they pass. Less established members of the club make the rounds of tables, to "glad hand and network," and pay homage, explains Adeena Sussman, who is co-authoring a book with Lee Schrager tentatively called Breakfast in America, and recently attended the breakfast with Jonathan Tisch, Bob's son.

Downtown, a new younger generation of stylish influencers, who work at nearby tech companies, fashion houses, PR firms, and the like joined the cult, making the tradition their own at The NoMad, The Breslin, and a few other restaurants. Mark Zuckerberg clones in hoodies and blazers tap away on their laptops, sipping Intelligentsia Coffee, as 20-something women who work in the fashion world pick at their breakfasts or sip a green juice in The NoMad's skylighted atrium. The clientele is younger, the approach to food more contemporary and in focus, and the hour of attendance later, but the family resemblance is clear. This is a place to work and network, where who you are eating with is just as important as who sees you eating with them (or, more likely, reads about it later on Instagram).

Back uptown, on that Tuesday morning, the environment is civil but intense, as if the steam wafting from the $7.50 cups of coffee has caffeinated the entire room. Cabs whiz by down Park Avenue through the large windows. The room, which was overhauled in 2013, has some color thanks to its patterned carpet, but still feels corporate with its grey walls, and traditional with its white table cloths and heavy hotel china. Large photos of the Financial District decorate some of the walls, reminding everyone why they are here — either they are a titan, or are working to become one.

When we arrive at 8:30 a.m. for our reservation, we are offered a seat by the bar or to wait 10 minutes for a table in the dining room. We wait. Sitting by the bar is like sitting in the balcony of congress — in the presence of power, while not holding any of it. As we wait, regulars sail by with greetings from the suited host.

The dining room is packed. A server who looks to be in his 50's comes to the table in a sharp lavender shirt and tie to hand us menus. The menu at the Loews, created by chef Dan Silverman, is big — even slightly overwhelming to the uninitiated. There are three set offerings, American, Continental, or "healthy," each big enough to please Donna Reed's standards. A generic three egg omelet, three varieties of eggs benedict and a "healthy" section that includes yogurt, egg white dishes, and oatmeal also make appearances. But, the menu is almost irrelevant. Most regulars have an order from the healthy section that the wait staff — many of whom who appear to have worked here for decades — knows.

Throughout the meal, it's clear that there are two restaurants here happening side by side.

After bringing our order of a classic eggs benedict and a mushroom and cheddar omelet, the servers leave us alone for the rest of the meal, not bothering to offer more coffee or check in on the meal. The poached eggs, which sting slightly from their vinegar water bath, sit atop a country-style thick cut piece of ham, and a slightly tough english muffin. A nice hollandaise and potatoes that had been sitting for a few minutes too long finished the plate. Across the table, my companion's omelet is slightly overcooked, and sits next to a pile of mixed greens one might see at a nice but slightly dated hotel wedding. Throughout the meal, it's clear that there are two restaurants here happening side by side: One for regulars, where service is attentive, the food is more on point, and seats in the center of the dining room are a given, and another for the few like us — 20 years younger than the average diner, who have came to watch, but not participate in the power brokering.

For non-regulars, the food is far from bad, but it is equally as far from excellent. But that isn't the point. "People are not at the Regency to eat," says writer former Times critic Ruth Reichl. "They're there to be powerful and have important meetings and make deals."

Downtown, at The NoMad, things are different. Diners here are a generation younger and the crowd "cares profoundly about the food. That's one of their draws," says Reichl. That sentiment is felt at the first blush of the menu, which is petite but descriptive in the way that all hip, food-focused downtown restaurant menus are these days. The coffee is clearly labeled from Intelligentsia, mushrooms in the omelet are identified as hen of the woods, the eggs benedict is made with crab and tarragon, not slabs of ham, and perhaps most glaring, salt shakers are replaced with small wooden bowls of Maldon flakes, brought out fresh for each party.

The eggs benedict here comes on a perfectly round house-made english muffin, and while the crab meat seems to have crawled over to one side of the muffin, it's well cooked and topped with precisely timed eggs that bleed when punctured, but not too much. Both are tucked under a fluffy duvet cover of hollandaise that is almost mousse-like, and served with a mixture of roasted and crushed baby potatoes and a small bundle of frisee dressed with lemon. Servers are outfitted much like their uptown counterparts in slacks and matching vests, but, like the diners, they are younger. Our servers are more attentive than their uptown counterparts, but not as on point as one expects from the NoMad's dinner service.

The full breakfast is only served in the NoMad's grand atrium, which even on a recent grey day feels like a space entirely outside of New York, quieter and more calm than uptown, closing off all views of the city except the sky. The room has an air of modern European elegance, with its long, heavy drapes. The white tablecloths are done away with and the hotel plates replaced with something one might find at a fine Japanese home goods store.

Breakfast at The NoMad for the young power elite is a less frequent occurrence than it is uptown, where power is older and wealthier, and can more easily afford to walk into the office 30 minutes late or pick up the $75 bill for two plates of eggs without wincing even slightly. Still, there are regulars. A large gentleman sits on the side of the atrium, splayed out on a banquette. Two younger diners sit across from him, engrossed by what he is saying, as the stylish women sitting at the next table discuss an upcoming fashion "campaign." This is not their first time dining here. The line between insider and this outsider here is thinner than uptown, but still palpable.

While the power lunch seems to have nearly disappeared as more people peck at salads at their desks, the power breakfast has maintained its footing uptown, while being co-opted by a younger generation downtown — though it seems unlikely that the two groups are aware of one another. Still, this ritual is part of the life of two very small groups of New Yorkers. Stepping into their New Yorks for a morning or two is fascinating, but not a terribly gratifying dining experience. Neither the service, nor the food at either hotel was particularly remarkable, but that has more to do with the diners in question than the hotel's capabilities. Power breakfasts, both old and new, are built for the people who are part of the ritual, not observers of it.

Loews Regency Hotel

540 Park Ave, New York, NY 10065 (212) 759-4100 Visit Website

NoMad Restaurant

1170 Broadway, New York, NY 10001 212 796 1500