There’s an envelope waiting at the table, leaning against a vase with fresh white roses, when I arrive for lunch at Les Trois Chevaux in the West Village. Inside, there’s a handwritten note from chef Angie Mar welcoming my party: Every guest with a reservation gets one. It’s a detail at one spot that’s helping to revive the power lunch, which is taking on a new look and diversifying from Midtown in its post-pandemic iteration.
Turns out the death of the power lunch announced during the pandemic was premature, with its accompanying Great Resignation, a rising remote work culture, skyrocketing food costs and tightened belts. Instead, some would argue, it’s a New York mainstay.
“In my forty-some years in show business, the power lunch has never really gone away,” says award-winning screenwriter, Tom Fontana, who’s already a habitue at Mar’s lunch, which started last month, “because the industry is all about personal relationships. That’s how things get done [in New York] and in Hollywood.”
Lunch dining is up 17 percent this year in New York, compared to last year, with a weekday lunch uptick by 21 percent, according to OpenTable CEO, Debby Soo. And with nationwide lunch numbers only increasing three percent, it’s outpacing the nationwide uptick. Lunch dining is up five percent for the month of May alone, “which we surmise is due to the widespread return to the office.”
Mar thinks it’s “a quintessentially New York thing,” she notes, and can serve as an elegant way to wind down the week. Among the reasons Mar felt the time was right: She’s finally able to staff it. “We opened in the height of COVID, so coming across good staff was very hard for a while,” she says, remarking that the return of high-end restaurant workforce is just one way the power lunch reflects the city’s renewed vibrancy.
Les Trois Chevaux, which also recently diversified from tasting menu-only to a la carte options, seems to have been built for the power lunch: There’s a full, and busy, bar, from which wine, and martinis flow. And the entire concept pays homage to restaurants such as Lutèce and La Côte Basque, hubs of clout back in the day, with a luxurious menu that features caviar service; white asparagus with bechamel; spring garlic and black truffle soup en croute; steak haché topped with a decadent slab of duck foie gras.
Brenda Bello and Joel Medina, known for the Vanity Fair Oscar party, designed the interior, which includes a crystal chandelier from the Waldorf-Astoria, circa 1931. There’s a Picasso etching, bringing the classic Four Seasons to mind. The florist, Raul Avila, also fashions arrangements for Anna Wintour. Staff uniforms are by Christian Siriano. Despite all of these heavy-hitting contributions, there are a few distinct differences from the traditional power lunches of the pre-COVID heyday: Primarily, the chef herself, a woman of color, making rounds in the dining room to touch each of the tables.
Though the term was ostensibly coined in a 1979 Esquire magazine piece, New Yorkers have been power lunching since the advent of Delmonico’s in the 19th century. Still, as constant and vital it has been to the city, the power lunch’s obituary has been written several times, citing death due to economic crises, 9/11, millennials, boomers, or the pandemic.
“I long for a gorgeous lunch at La Grenouille or La Caravelle or the old Four Seasons with white table cloths and martinis and fancy French food and rooms full of society people, celebrities, beautiful people,” fashion icon Isaac Mizrahi says. While some may miss those classics, the power lunch never died: It’s just different. “People are still making deals and deciding the future over lunches,” Mar says.
The locales of power lunches certainly has expanded. Les Trois Chevaux is in a neighborhood previously not known for power lunches — save Gotham Bar & Grill — demonstrating that Mar is banking on the influx of new business in the area. The Village is now home to Google headquarters, for example, and Disney will be moving in soon, in addition to clientele flooding Manhattan’s new Billionaire’s Row. Today, one can power-lunch anywhere from Nolita’s Torrisi to Columbus Circle’s Bad Roman.
Bret Csencsitz, the proprietor of Gotham, where Richard Gere and best-selling author Daniel Mendhelson were recently spotted lunching, notes that Hudson Yards and Manhattan West are welcoming a new breed of power-lunchers. Csencsitz observes that the power lunch doesn’t necessarily have to be about business these days. “It’s a time wherein people are engaging in any sort of meaningful conversation,” he says.
Even in Midtown, the power lunch has a new look. Chef and owner Alex Stupak, who has noticed an uptick in lunch reservations at Empellon Midtown and the newly opened Mischa, says that “the definition of luxury and power have changed a bit.” He adds that the crowd is more diverse, no longer made up of all Masters of the Universe. While he agrees that the three-martini lunch is still happening, he points out that not “non-alcoholic cocktails are being appreciated just as much.” Above all, he feels that the need to “be seen,” especially after a period of isolation, is driving the resurgence. “People are social animals and they were bound to come back.”
What does this all really mean for the city? First, that there’s a return in the general workforce, including the hospitality sector. According to the New York City Department of Labor, employment at full-service restaurants is trending upward. “While numbers are still down overall from pre-pandemic, they have absolutely bumped up from 2022 and 2021,” says Steven Picker, executive director of the Food & Beverage Industry Partnership, NYC Department of Small Business Services. And while much of the real estate conversation has recently centered on empty office space, corporations such as J.P. Morgan are expecting a mass return, reflected in their investment in 270 Park, which Curbed calls “a corporate bet on the city as a place that’s growing rather than treading water.”
“Think about it, we’re the activators of the real estate enchilada,” Stupak says. “We are opening restaurants at the bottom of all of this rentable office space. This is a reflection of a vital and iconic function of this city, and a symbolic piece of New York’s identity.”
Chef and restaurateur Daniel Boulud, who operates Joji, Le Pavillon, and the Centurion Lounge at power-tower One Vanderbilt, says that Le Pavillon’s lunch numbers are significantly higher than last year. “We had a situation of a new tower with new tenants during the pandemic,” he says. “They are now all coming back.” Boulud is also catering to the “shopping lunch” crowd, with the opening of Blue Box Café within Tiffany & Co., perhaps taking a cue from nearby Rockefeller Center, where restaurants such as Le Rock, Jupiter, and Naro are coveted daytime reservations.
Lunches like Les Trois Chevaux especially prove that despite the wolf-cries, fine dining is also alive and well. “It never died,” Mar says. “There’s always been room for all types of restaurants in this city, whether it’s a hole-in-the-wall or that restaurant you go to splurge for a celebration, or just because.”