IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Return of the 3-martini lunch

Whether as an alleged complement to food or a business lubricant, the boozy lunch is making a comeback.
Image: Drink on table
From whiskey to wine, business lunches are returning to the days of the so-called three-martini afternoon
/ Source: Business Week

Businesspeople used to know how to waste time. Instead of updating their Facebook wall and shopping on eBay, they ordered three martinis at lunch and headed back to the office four hours later.

"Nobody I know does that anymore," says Joel Babbit, 57, a longtime advertising writer who recently started Mother Nature Network, an environmental website. Babbitt's first day at advertising agency McCann Erickson in 1977 involved a lunch that began with his very first martini — and ended with his head in a toilet at 2 pm.

"There was a time when I had two Bloody Marys at lunch every day," he remembers. "But I haven't had anything to drink before six o'clock in 15 years. Even if I had the desire to do it, I can't stay awake and I can't get anything accomplished."

That's the common gripe against the drinking lunch: It prevents workers from actually doing their jobs. However, from midtown Manhattan restaurants to strip-mall McCormick & Schmick's, professionals are making the drinking lunch work for them. While some hide behind a supposed culinary experience — and some just plain hide it — others, particularly old-timers, have a vested interest in reinstating the institution. To help with business, of course.

Much has changed, though, since the days of Don Draper and Roger Sterling. "Hard liquor has been gone since the '80s, with the last so-called-stock-market crash," says Julian Niccolini, co-owner of Manhattan's Four Seasons restaurant. However, Niccolini claims he now pours a lot of wine at lunch, particularly to parties of four or more. One reason for this, he attests, is that he's seeing fewer judgmental teetotaling diners at lunch. "It's no longer, 'Is somebody going to badmouth me?' That's gone out the window," he says.

Given the right signal, in fact, restaurateurs claim that most lunch companions seem willing to join in. In Los Angeles, Comme Ça restaurant fills with Creative Artists Agency executives and their clients every afternoon. General Manager Christopher Hennessy says he's never seen ordering a drink socially misfire, even in health-conscious Hollywood.

"It'll take one person to make that first tentative order," he says. "Then everyone realizes they're all at lunch for the same reason." Because the restaurant is known for its Prohibition-era cocktails like the whiskey-based Bobby Burns, some people feel they're indulging in a gourmet treat rather than just tying one on. Though several times each week, a table will stretch out lunch until 4 o'clock. Says Hennessy: "A few cocktails takes the pressure off a big deal."

If you have a mixologist making complicated drinks from esoteric-sounding ingredients, people don't even feel guilty that they're drinking. Jon Kamen, chairman and CEO of New York-based production company, doesn't. He only goes out to lunch once a week, but when he does, he often goes to EN Japanese Brasserie and orders a drink, such as their combination of Japanese liquor shochu and oolong tea.

"They've created certain cocktails that I don't look at as a drink so much as a complement to the meal I'm having," he says. The main reason he agreed to talk for this article is to convince the restaurant to bring back its matcha green tea martini.

Others are supporting the drinking lunch's revival as an assertion of their professional identity. These people are called journalists. Dan Dunn, a journalist and author of the forthcominG "Living Loaded," has a few drinks at lunch about 10 days per month.

"You're sending a very clear message that you're not the kind of guy to be trifled with," says Dunn, who also argues that the drinking lunch helps people with their jobs. "Like sex, someone may find your proposal a lot more interesting after six or seven vodka tonics." Dunn suggests bringing a pen and paper to write down anything agreed upon that you might forget. And taking a photo of the person you're having lunch with, in case you forget that, too.

While many people in financial services eschew boozy lunches in order to eat at their desks and follow the markets, some have gotten back on the bandwagon, albeit privately — lest they be accused of throwing around their largesse during a recession.

"Bankers are drinking in secret. It's sort of Prohibition-esque," says Sebastian Fogg, a former general manager of New York's Monkey Bar and current operations manager for Caprice Holdings, a British-based owner of haute restaurants. "Being the despicable creatures they are, they hide at chefs tables and private rooms and drink as much as possible."

Then there are the professions with a vested interest in seeing the drinking lunch return. "I made my best sales going out to lunch after a presentation where you have an in-depth conversation about what their true needs are," says Ed McCarrick, executive vice-president of Icon International, a division of Omnicom media group that specializes in corporate barter. "Sometimes having a glass of wine or a martini allowed that to happen more easily than sitting in a boardroom where everybody is more guarded."

McCarrick began his career as a salesperson at Time magazine in 1973 when a bartender used to push a drink cart through the halls. While his lunch companions used to always order drinks, he says, they now do about 20 percent of the time. "In the old days—boom!—scotch on the rocks," McCarrick says. "Now it's mostly wine."

Stalwarts like McCarrick are doing their part to turn back the clock. Mark Johnson, a former lawyer who now produces films, says one pleasure of having his own business is being able to drink at lunch whenever he wants. "If somebody's a client and they're not abusing my credit card, I'll pretty much drink with them all day," he says.

Johnson often draws comparisons to "The Big Lebowski"'s "The Dude" because of his predilection for White Russians, but he also enjoys peaty, single malt Scotch.

"When you're ordering a highball, you're making a statement. A beer you can slip in everywhere," he says. In San Jose, his lunch options are limited to P.F. Chang's and McCormick & Schmick's ("They have some great single malts"). Though when he takes a meeting in LA, he goes to the Hilton in Burbank, a well-known hideout for lunch drinkers. "Places get known for it. It's enjoyable to go there and get martinis at noon. The people who know what's going on know they have cheap drinks. A lot of people still have three-martini lunches there."

In Europe, of course, no one needs excuses or hideaways. Emil Varda, the part-owner and manager of New York's Waverly Inn, began his career in Paris and opened London's Automat restaurant. His original business plan for Automat was way off, he said, because he underestimated the amount Brits drink at lunch.

"At the Automat, there were suits running to the restaurant at noon and ordering two pints per person when they sat down. Very often they'd have a third," Varda says. "In France, it's lunch, so you have to have a glass of wine immediately. But it doesn't really matter; no one in France works anyway."

In fact, Europe is leading the drinking lunch's revival with a grassroots movement. This spring, hundreds of Carlsberg workers struck in protest of a new policy limiting them to one free bottle of beer per day at lunch. However, the Danish company was careful not to go too far. Carlsberg's head of communication noted that it had set up beer taps at factories as consolation. By utilizing this new system, he said, "The employees can certainly manage to drink more than one beer during their lunchtime breaks."