The three-martini lunch may be dead, but its replacement is alive and well in Nashville

Sunday, October 30, 2011 at 10:05pm
By Kay West

The popularity of the television show Mad Men has tapped nostalgia for glamorous elements of the era’s fashions, social culture and free-wheeling business practices, chief among them the three-martini lunch. While the boozy midday meeting may have helped grease the wheels of a deal — assuming someone could remember the details the next day — in 1976, it became fodder for presidential candidate Jimmy Carter’s rail against tax laws, which he claimed subsidized the “$50 martini lunch.” (Presumably, a slogan-seeking campaign manager or journalist in need of a lead came up with the catchier phrase, the “three-martini lunch.”)

Opponent Gerald Ford countered, “The three-martini lunch is the epitome of American efficiency. Where else can you get an earful, a bellyful and a snootful at the same time?” Clever, but a wee bit out of touch with the populace, which elected teetotaling, austerity-preaching, cardigan-clad Carter over the golf club-swinging incumbent.

As the habit of imbibing multiple martinis moved to Happy Hour, the noon hour not only dried out, it revved up to something more suitable for the dawning of the era of The Masters of the Universe: The Power Lunch.  Esquire magazine — a longtime favorite of Mad Men and Masters — takes credit for coining the term in a 1979 article  “America’s Most Powerful Lunch” by former editor-in-chief Lee Eisenberg.  

The Four Seasons restaurant in New York earned the top distinction, but the scenario of white-collar professionals enjoying fellowship over steak tartare and Dover sole was enacted on a daily basis in cities all over America. The Power Lunch, aka the Expense Account Lunch, was a key component for making connections, laying the foundation for future transactions, solidifying relationships, and stroking egos.

If video killed the radio star, where can the finger of blame be pointed for the demise of the Power Lunch, a tragedy documented by business writers and mourned by executives whose expense accounts have been cut to the bone?  Restrictive tax laws?  Smaller profit margins? Stringent accountability? Less time?  Technology? The media? (We get blamed for everything else.)

All of the above, movers and shakers say, contributed to the end of three-course (albeit martini-less) two-hour, reimbursed meal. But people have to eat, and emails don’t have quite the same human touch as face time, whether it’s over a 16-ounce sirloin or a burger.  The term “power lunch” may have fallen from favor, but the noon hour is still prime time for Nashville professionals, whatever their field.

“Nashville isn’t so much a ‘power lunch’ town as it is business lunch,” says Rick Bolsom, whose Tin Angel restaurant at 32nd and West End is among those named by several in an informal poll of businessmen and women as a favored spot to dine. “Downtown is probably more about power, but here it’s a bit more laidback. We get a very broad mix at Tin Angel — business, arts, music, Vanderbilt. We might have five guys in suits at one table, and five tattooed and pierced musicians at the table right beside them. We have to have a really broad menu as a result, everything from steak to vegan.  But whatever it is, these days you have to be able to get people in and out fairly quickly.”

Efficiency is key to a successful, productive lunch business concurs Chris Lowry, who opened Germantown Café at Fifth Avenue North and Madison eight years ago with partner Jay Luther. Though the Germantown neighborhood wasn’t exactly in the thick of the dining district, it was the closest full-service restaurant to a segment of downtown that had been temporarily relocated. “Our lunch business was the first to build when we opened.  Because of construction and renovations, all the courts were in Metro Center at the time, so we saw a lot of those people,” he explains. “When they moved back downtown, they stayed with us.”

Lowry says their lunch menu and service practices are so streamlined they can actually get people in and out in 30 minutes, if that’s what they need. “We don’t rush anyone, but these days, most people allot an hour for lunch, no matter if that is company policy, or their own scheduling. Take into account 15 minutes of travel on each side, and that’s just 30 minutes to eat.”

Germantown doesn’t take reservations, but Lowry says any wait time is minimal, and they typically see three turns over the course of three hours. “From 11 to noon we see state and Metro workers. Noon to 1 is attorneys, bankers and downtown business people. From 1 to 2, we see Fisk, Meharry and TSU, arts and media.”  Germantown Café East (formerly known an Allium), at Fifth and Main streets in East Nashville, is seeing business build through the same Metro courts and courthouse crowd that kick-started the original Germantown.  “Mayor Dean is here frequently, and the former mayor [Bill Purcell] was in here today with Peter Heidenrich.  We’re right over the bridge for them.” Gov. Bill Haslam, on the other hand, can keep his eye on Capitol Hill from his table at Germantown, where he lunches a couple times a month.

Location is another factor when it comes to choosing a lunch spot. Randy Rayburn, who opened Sunset Grill in Hillsboro Village 21 years ago, and has owned Midtown Cafe for 14 of its 25 years, has a good part of town — and the lunch business — covered. Both restaurants made repeat appearances on the poll.

“People choose lunch places for convenience, location and parking,” says the 35-year veteran of the restaurant business. “The increase in local traffic during the day has a big effect on lunch choices. Midtown customers come from the West End side of the Vanderbilt campus, downtown, the HCA compound and the Baptist [Hospital] area. At Sunset we get the other side of Vanderbilt, Music Row, Belmont and Green Hills.” 

Pity Green Hills, surprisingly underserved by a scarcity of full-service independent restaurants and simultaneously lunch-locked by horrendous midday traffic.  A longtime player on the dinner scene has stepped up to the plate, or the Blue Plate, done Table 3 style, which means fettuccini with fricassee of rabbit on Thursday and bouillabaisse on Friday.  The bistro-style restaurant, owned by F. Scott’s principals Wendy Burch, Elise Loehr and chef Will Uhhorn, reopened in September, fully recovered and refurbished from a fire in January. “We were building our lunch business before the fire, and it has come back even better,” says Burch. “There is a lot of business in Green Hills, and as hard as traffic makes it to get in, the people that work in the area need a place to eat nearby. There’s Burton Hills, BCBS, Vanguard Health, Smith-Barney, several Realtors. We are seeing lots of tables with suits, and lots of recognizable business faces.  Lots of our dinner guests from F. Scott’s are coming to Table 3 for lunch. We’re very happy with this location.”

Location was the reason many in the poll cited for putting BrickTop’s on their list; the Joe Ledbetter-owned contemporary-casual restaurant has not only taken over the same West End address that the late Houston’s cornered for three decades, but the same spot in the heart of longtime customers of both restaurants.  Says attorney David Ewing, “BrickTop’s is West End’s best place to close a deal or put one together. There is always a positive energy of the daytime crowds, and the seating layout focuses on the person you are taking to lunch. “

Location isn’t just about cross-streets: table placement is vitally important to regulars.  “People can be picky about their tables,” says Bolsom. “Some like walls, some like windows, some regulars have a certain table and won’t sit anywhere else.”

Some particularly restaurant-savvy folk go so far as to memorize table numbers and make that ask. “At Germantown, Table No. 52 is the one in front of the picture window. At Germantown East, it’s No. 58, the round table in the window,” Lowry reveals. “I don’t know if you’d call them ‘power tables’ per se, but they are definitely our most desirable tables.”

And at some restaurants, power and desirability go hand in hand. At high noon on any day of the week, the view from the front desk of The Palm restaurant to the far wall is a veritable geodome of government, politics, finance, law, commerce, entertainment, pro sports, media, arts and philanthropy. The staff refers to the six four-top booths and the six six-tops as Power Alley. “People want those booths,” says Paige Dixon, sales manager since The Palm opened 10 years ago. “Some people like to be seated under their caricature, and some will be very specific and ask for the second booth from the front door, on the left. In that case, it’s first come, first served, or first call, first reserved. People want to be seen at the Palm. “

And when they don’t, there are always private dining rooms: The Palm has three, Midtown and Tin Angel both have one, and Sunset has various configurations of closed-door inner sanctums. And, adds Rayburn with a smile, Sunset has one other amenity that caters to the elite when they want to be discreet. “We have a private back entrance to one of our private rooms at Sunset. Which is one reason the Titans brought Jake Locker there to eat.”