NEW YORK – — If Tom Wolfe were to write a novel about power, style and status in New York City at this moment in the 21st century, there is one restaurant dish he might have to build a whole scene around, to convey the right tang of anthropological exactitude.
It’s the roasted carrot and avocado salad at ABC Kitchen, with its beguiling layers of spices, sprinkled seeds and creme fraiche. It’s a virtuously healthful dish, even though it tastes luxurious, and Tina Bhojwani has devoured it during more business lunches than she can count.
“It’s my favorite,” said Bhojwani, an executive who oversees international development for the clothing brand Theory. “I always eat that.”
A salad may seem modest, but that dish (and its cult following among trend-attuned New Yorkers like Bhojwani) is emblematic of a shift in the way that women participate in the crucial information-gathering and idea-generating ritual known as lunch. Wander into ABC Kitchen on any given weekday and the nature of that transformation will be abundantly clear: There’s a new generation of power-lunch spots in downtown Manhattan, and women are the most devoted regulars.
Anyone who’s anyone
For culinary, aesthetic and economic reasons, some of the most influential editors, fashion designers, filmmakers, actresses, media executives and thought leaders in the city can reliably be found at a sisterhood of restaurants scattered in and around Greenwich Village and Tribeca, NoHo and SoHo.
Don’t make the mistake of referring to these midday regulars as a new breed of “the ladies who lunch,” an echo of the Babe Paleys and Pat Buckleys, expertly coifed and even more expertly married to rich men, who once commanded hangouts like Le Cirque and La Cte Basque. For most of the current habitus of ABC Kitchen and Buvette, the Smile and Caf Cluny, Rosemary’s and Lafayette, lunch has nothing to do with lingering for hours among the leisure class, comparing Bill Blass suits and sharing gossip with the catty likes of Truman Capote.
These are women who work, and the places where they choose to network and hammer out deals are a conscious reflection of their professional strategy.
“Lunch is always about business for me,” said Laura Michalchyshyn, president of Sundance Productions and a regular at downtown spots including Hudson Clearwater, Caf Cluny, Morandi, the Dutch and EN Japanese Brasserie. “There’s a bit of a charge about going to a really great restaurant and having a terrific meal and doing business over lunch.”
It would be another mistake to expect the same kind of vibe associated with the city’s more traditional power spots.
If an institution like the Four Seasons represents the archetype of the New York corner-office clubhouse – it’s in Midtown, primarily presided over by a portrait gallery of male machers from Washington and the Fortune 500, and as carefully orchestrated as a royal processional at Versailles – then ABC Kitchen qualifies as its looser, female-friendly downtown counterpart.
“It has its Four Seasons power-lunch vibe,” said Dan Kluger, executive chef of ABC Kitchen, but if you just happened to stumble in, you might not notice.
That appears to be part of the appeal for many working women (and men, too). “Where you go to have lunch has to be on brand with your brand,” said Carrie Rosten, a consultant for media companies and magazines – as much a signal of your sensibility as the shoes you wear. She added: “You’re not going to some Midtown spectacle of a place. Because that’s not cool. That’s a different thing.”
Along with shucking off the hauteur, many of these new magnets have dispensed with the expectation that the elite will get concierge treatment.
No Wi-Fi or Diet Coke
The low-key team at Buvette may offer to walk your dogs or look after your parking spot on Grove Street, but if you happen to ask for a Diet Coke, skim milk or artificial sweetener, you’re out of luck. The restaurant, which specializes in what one might call French soul food, declines to carry anything that its chef and owner, Jody Williams, views as unworthy.
“Guess what? We’re not going to let you do that to yourself here,” Williams said with a laugh. “We have some raw organic sugar for you. And only whole milk.” Nor does Buvette take reservations. None of which seems to deter Sofia Coppola, the film director, from routinely finding a quiet seat toward the back. (It’s hard to imagine Henry Kissinger settling for a “No, sir.”)
“It’s art people, it’s publishing people, it’s food people, it’s film people, it’s gallery people,” Williams said. “It’s downtown people.”
For some of the creative women who have adopted Buvette as their midday clubhouse, lunch might involve commanding a little round table and taking a series of face-to-face meetings over the course of four hours or so. Or six. Best to leave the laptop at home, though.
“We don’t do computers here,” Williams said. “That would be so horrible for someone sitting next to you, because it’s so close.”
There’s an aversion to screen glare at the Smile, too, which explains why that discreet nook a few steps beneath the cobblestones of Bond Street doesn’t offer Wi-Fi: on aesthetic grounds, the owners banned it.
In spite of (or because of) touches like that, as well as the easy appeal of sandwiches involving roast chicken or manouri cheese and fig preserves, the Smile became a veritable commissary for women (and men) from the fashion industry as soon as it opened in 2009. That was pretty much the plan.
Carlos Quirarte, one of the three owners of the Smile, said he and his partners were obsessed with Michael’s, the Midtown fixture where the equivalent of the old media’s Jedi Council still holds court. The master of ceremonies there, Michael McCarty, is the father of one of their friends. “We loved the way Michael would walk into the room and he knew everybody and he connected people,” Quirarte said. “The idea kind of was that this would be a clubhouse for people who did that downtown.”
For the ladies who power-lunch at the Smile or Caf Select, Caf Cluny or Hudson Clearwater, that breezy vibe (and a Keith McNally-ish eye for design elements that feel simultaneously old and new) seems to be part of the draw. (Much of that DNA can be traced back to McNally’s Balthazar, the SoHo powerhouse that feels like a spiritual and stylistic godfather to scores of younger, smaller restaurants.) There’s often “an improvisatory quality about the decor,” said Molly Young, a content strategist for Warby Parker, the of-the-moment eyewear company. Quirky tchotchkes, communal newspapers and elfin, wobbly tables conjure up impressions of “a professor’s rambling country house.”
“It feels like an ambience that an intelligent person would design, rather than just a rich person,” she said.
‘A sense of richness’
What the new power-lunchers value perhaps more than anything else is what is embodied in that classic carrot-and-avocado salad: a sense of richness that never leaves the diner in a crippling food coma. “Very often you’ll go out and have a meal and you’ll feel heavy,” Bhojwani said. “You never feel heavy after a meal at ABC Kitchen.”
If there’s a single reason ABC has become the crown jewel of the female power-lunch scene, it’s that Kluger, the chef, is something of a wizard when it comes to the balance between premium lightness and stealth indulgence. His asparagus salad is accompanied by a fried egg; crispy shrimp top an assortment of greens and straight-from-the-market vegetables. When the restaurant opened 3 1/2 years ago, he said: “It took me a while to get into the whole salad thing. But I started to work on it and I started to see the draw.”
“We create something that lingers for a little while and makes you want to come back for it,” Kluger went on. For a few of the power-lunchers, that might mean chasing a salad with a few bites of miniature lemon Bundt cake.
“They all save room for a little dessert,” he said. “They all tell you they don’t want any.” But they order it, they eat it, and “then they come yell at me.”