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The power lunch is back in business

By David Carr

New York Times News Service

NEW YORK -- The Composite Index of Leading Economic Indicators rose, the Dow was close to 10,000 for the first time in 18 months, and Julian Niccolini, an owner of the Four Seasons restaurant, added three tables in front of the maitre d'hotel's stand in the Grill Room.

The last statistic may be the least scientific, but it is one of the more obvious signs that a city that had been counting its pennies is once again making reservations for lunch. And the powering up of the ultimate power lunch spot in Manhattan is not an isolated circumstance. Michael's, the Midtown maypole for media types, is humming, and the Lever House Restaurant, a new entrant in the high-end lunch sweepstakes, is so busy it is turning business aside. Farther down in Midtown, DB Bistro Moderne can barely contain the noisy bustle of its midday visitors, and downtown spots like Eleven Madison Park and Da Silvano are seeing a steady stream of moneyed lunchers as well.

"We are up 20 percent from last year and having our best year in the past three," said Steve Millington, general manager at Michael's. "And the holiday season is not even in full swing. It has been a parade of celebrities, regulars and new people, pretty much nonstop."

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The power lunch, a ritual that took on an odor of profligacy in the months following Sept. 11, 2001, has again become standard practice within a certain rank of business people.

And there is some evidence to show that a long lunch between the right people is anything but a waste of time. Over at the Four Seasons, events of some significance are on the menu along with the white truffle risotto ($130 for an appetizer portion) and grilled dorade. On Nov. 20, Edgar Bronfman Jr. and Roger Ames spent a good long while chatting amiably with heads bent toward each other while other captains of industry, including Ronald O. Perelman, Steven Rattner and Ronald S. Lauder, casually took in the significance of the pairing. A few days later, Warner Music, of which Ames is chairman, was sold to a group headed by Bronfman for $2.6 billion, which sort of puts the price of risotto in perspective.

While the martinis of lunchtimes past may never come back, along with the generous tax deductions for business lunches, there have been scattered outbreaks of wine and champagne by the glass. Happy days, it would seem, are here again -- at least for people who can afford to spend $30 on a hamburger and 90 minutes eating it.

"It is all about making deals," said Niccolini, who in addition to being a co-owner of the Four Seasons is the keeper of the restaurant's lunchtime seating chart. "If our business is any sort of economic indicator, things are going well."

The right lunch at the right place at the right time is a statement, a way to get the jungle drums chanting. Susan Magrino, who watched the Bronfman-Ames lunch, is a publicist who counsels Martha Stewart, among other clients. Nibbling on some bay scallops while she watched Bronfman and Ames, she said that lunch can be a powerful form of communication.

"If I have a client who is in need of exposure, I make sure that they are out there and people can see them," she said.

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