Restaurants are making space and special menus for business lunches.
Two weeks ago,at the end of an intimate dinner party,as we sat around the dining table,the conversation lingered; as is the natural consequence of an evening spent in pleasant company future meetings were discussed. It was at this point that someone turned to me and asked if Id like to join their kitty. I looked around the table and experienced the eerie realisation that all other conversation had ceased; everyone was looking at me expectantly. Clearly,I was the only one sitting there who wasnt a member. Suddenly the evening wasnt quite as intimate or socially random and once again I was cast as the interloper. I turned to my new acquaintances and asked in what I hoped would be perceived as genuine incredulity if I had to be married to be in one. This was received with much mirth from the remaining diners,unwittingly solidifying my claim on a spot in their kitty. They met on the second Friday of every month. I have a job. Come on, my only friend looked up from her plate,you cant get away for lunch on one Friday. I decided not to be defensive,well not tonight in any case.
But it got me thinking about my prejudice against long lunches. I dont quite have it in for them in the way,say former US president Jimmy Carter did for the three-martini lunch. Carter took such exception to boozy lunches that he imposed a law wherein only half the cost of the meal was tax-deductible. During his presidency,it is said that the three-martini lunch nearly came to an end,inviting the ire of restaurateurs in Washington. After all,lunch drinkers are invariably top billers and generous tippers. However,business lunches made a comeback in the Eighties,the years of Gordon Gekko and his famous lunch is for wimps quote notwithstanding.
In India,the business lunch scene has played out differently. For one,its mostly been conducted in coffee shops,not necessarily ideal venues but something that serviced the basic needs of a business meeting. Then restaurants cottoned on and created private dining rooms,little pods of privacy that could be reserved. There have always been clubs like The Chambers (Taj) or The Belvedere (Oberoi) with private dining halls,but their members-only rules made them prohibitive. Then business centres diversified and started offering working lunches but the menu remained restricted to sandwiches and light eats. Speciality restaurants sank during lunch time,their menu items and service sequence too cumbersome for lunching businessmen. For a long time,it was accepted as fait accompli. Some restaurants on cost-saving drives would only open for dinner service. But recently,there has been a re-assesment of that common wisdom. As space is becoming premium and rents are skyrocketing,restaurant profitability is also being measured in terms of viable usage of space/per sq feet (i.e. applying the principles of yield management to a restaurant). Hence,the pressure to justify the use of space is being felt more acutely.
Take the example of Amaranta,at The Oberoi,Gurgaon a coastal restaurant that may be easily defined as a fine dining restaurant. Certainly,it has all the airs a live crab tank,ornate plates for place settings,multiple glassware,course wise silverware its making no mistakes in communicating its identity. Yet at the same time,there is a decided pragmatism in its lunch offer a 30-minute set menu. Set menus arent new,but whats interesting is the detailing taking the traditional and marrying it to the familiar. For example,a selection of Indian breads is served with powders and dips much in the style of the bread boat with the oil and vinegar cruet. Its this sort of culinary translation that is making the business so creative at this point of time. Or the service sequence; at Amaranta,its a set of numbers 0-2-3-6-10-20-22 each signifying a minute in the service sequence and the corresponding action 22 is for dessert and south Indian coffee. A couple of years ago,this McDonalds-isation of the culinary experience would have sent the purveyors of haute cuisine into a tizzy,today its performed with flourish.
Across the road,there is a busy McDonalds at Ambience Mall its a great location,something that their neighbours at the five-star would possibly comment on after all,one cant match the footfalls in a mall,no matter how good your food is. It is then with some interest that I keep track of the amount of time it takes me to order,get served and eat. Needless to mention,its the same time and I daresay it takes a little longer. Now if only we could get the pricing principle worked out. I ask the Chef about business lunches in Australia. Oh yeah,we have them, he tells me. We call them Friday lunches. We leave for lunch on Friday and dont come back.