When Ronald Perelman walks to his table at Michael's restaurant in New York, a server is usually right behind him with his diet soda at the ready.
"And, right behind that server," says general manager Steve Millington, "there's usually another server waiting in the wings with some green tea" just in case that's what Perelman wants that day.
There are many other reasons Michael's in midtown Manhattan has established itself as a "power restaurant" among New York's media and publishing elite--the round tables which facilitate intimate (and hushed) conversation and double-wide arm chairs, for starters.
But, says Millington, it's the intuitive service that, time and again, makes it the right place to close the deal.
"I see myself as a can of WD-40," he says. "I grease the wheels to make sure everything can happen as it should."
And so it was at Michael's that CBS head Les Moonves wooed Katie Couric to his network and that Warren Buffet forged his idea for charity lunches.
Lunch service here has been described as a "social chess match." Seating arrangements--front room or back room--are critical, which is why they usually go through several edits each morning. At daily 11:45 staff meetings, Millington lets people know what to expect in power "wattage" that day. Power brokers teeter between wanting to be seen and wanting to be left alone, and the staff at Michael's has been trained on how to negotiate that fine line.
"Sometimes we tell the kitchen to hold back on a dish, if we see that a conversation just got very intense," says Millington. "It can be daunting in here."
We scoured the country to find other restaurants that are magnets for politicos and publishers, developers and dot-comers, by talking to concierges, restaurateurs and executives.
Not surprisingly, in Washington, D.C., where legislation often happens over expense-account lunches, there are plenty to choose from, and most--The Palm, Morton's, Charlie Palmer Steak, The Capital Grille--fall into the steakhouse category.
That's because "power lunches aren't always about the food. They're about bonding or doing business or both," says Bret Thorn, food editor at Nation's Restaurant News. "Menus at steakhouses and chop houses, or places with the word "grille" in the name, are predictable and safe. You don't want your lunch derailed because your guest was put off by something like squid-ink foam."
The appeal of the steakhouse "probably started as a macho thing," says Ted Swigert, general manager of The Palm in D.C., where lobbyists and media players have been back-slapping over baked potatoes for years. The three highly visible booths next to the bar are also a big draw.
Jamie Zambrana, general manager of Prime Blue Grille in Miami, the city's hot new power-dining spot, says they've updated the classic steakhouse concept. To start, all their steaks are organic, and the seven-month-old restaurant offers lots more options to accommodate the new breed of health-conscious movers and shakers.
Multi-billion-dollar real estate developer George Perez dines at the restaurant, which overlooks Biscayne Bay, several times a week, says Zambrana--and he always gets the un-macho "build-your-own" salad.