At midday inside Contessa, high above the Back Bay in a dining room awash in pink and gold, it’s a scene from “Bright Lights, Big City”: bejeweled ladies; dapper men. Every table full, and many of them topped with cocktails at noon. The spirit of Truman Capote hovers.
A few miles away at Buttermilk & Bourbon in Watertown’s Arsenal Yards, also at midday: Throngs of people crowd the host stand, many with worker ID badges flapping in the rainy breeze. A line snakes out the door. Someone finally props the door open to keep it from slamming in each new arrival’s face.
At OAK Long Bar + Kitchen at the Fairmont Copley Plaza, office workers from John Hancock and Wayfair are returning, and in larger configurations, says food and beverage director Jean-Philippe Cote. They’re lingering longer and even drinking (gin and tonics, mostly).
“People are happy to come to lunch in groups who haven’t seen one another for a while,” Cote says. Instead of quick salads, they’re gravitating toward bigger-ticket items such as $55 ribeye and $36 halibut.
In the aftermath of two-plus years confined to sad home sandwiches and stiff Zoom meetings, is the business lunch back, persistent pandemic be damned? Ross Chanowski, CEO of small-business investment platform NuMarket, sure hopes so. While he acknowledges that risk tolerance varies, he’s begun enjoying in-person lunch meetings again with those willing to take them.
“It felt great — like I was an intern entering the working world. You’ve lost the muscle memory, but at the same time, you’re excited to be back on a bicycle,” he says, recalling his return to the dining scene at places like the South End’s Buttery and Mamaleh’s in Kendall Square.
“[After] two years of having all of your person-to-person experience be in a very delineated environment: ‘45 minutes on the calendar, here’s the Zoom invite,’ suddenly we have this more open, natural human-to human interaction,” he says.
Fellow lunch-lover Jennifer Hernandez runs Worcester’s GEM Marketing Solutions. She’s grateful for their return, calling Zoom meetings “terrible” for their lack of personal connection.
“I want my client to feel that I care, feel my enthusiasm about their business goals, and feel supported,” she says. “Taking the time to have these power lunches makes them feel heard and appreciated.”
And, to that extent, a pent-up hedonism has been unleashed on the midday lunching landscape. At the Banks Fish House on Stuart Street, chef-partner Robert Sisca is doing about 100 covers at lunch — an uptick that started around March — and a busy after-hours drinks business consisting mainly of people in “suits,” he says, from nearby businesses such as John Hancock and Liberty Mutual.
“You feel a vibe and an energy picking up,” he says.
While business isn’t at pre-COVID levels, the experience itself recalls three-martini lunches of yore. Workers who either stood aimless in front of an open refrigerator at lunchtime in their pajamas or rushed out for a quick salad and darted back to their desk now want to live a little, it seems.
“[People] want to spend money. We’re seeing more caviar and tons of oysters,” he says.
At swank steakhouse Abe & Louie’s, site of many a pre-COVID power meeting, guests are “networking, talking, and actually enjoying their lunch” again, says general manager Dave Wilson, who’s seen many dining trends come and go since starting his career at Bennigan’s on Stuart Street in 1992. “There’s really no time limit. They call it a ‘working lunch.’ They’re not running out the door in under an hour.”
On the menu: ribeye, filet mignon, and lobster casserole. Wilson senses that customers might have bigger expense accounts these days, maybe because budgets have been cut elsewhere, particularly for travel.
“They have bigger discretionary funds to come in. Rather than get the salad, they’ll get the steak and salad. Rather than get the glass of wine, they’re going to get the bottle,” he says, noting that his bar is standing-room-only by 5 p.m.
“People have been stuck at home, and their palates changed. I feel people are more relaxed, and there’s less pressure to go to work on time. People are here for a good time and they realize, we went through a big event — and we need to enjoy our lives,” OAK’s Cote agrees.
On a good day, he’ll do about 200 lunch covers. But those good days are variable; many offices are shifting to hybrid schedules wherein workers commute in for half the week and stay home other days.
Around the corner at Precinct Kitchen + Bar at the Loews Hotel, “The most significant change is Fridays,” says general manager Robert Rivers. He reopened his restaurant, which offers a roomy patio, on April 1 for lunch.
“I drive in from North Andover, and it feels like a Saturday,” he says.
But when groups from nearby Deloitte, Draft Kings, or John Hancock do come in midweek, they tend to linger longer.
For Brian Poe, who has reintroduced lunch at his Tip Tap Room near Beacon Hill, it’s a go-go throwback to his early days at the Bostonian Hotel 20 years ago. He noticed a change in mid-March or so, when employees from Mass General, Government Center, and Verizon began coming in and ordering fancy dishes. For a while, he wasn’t sure what to serve. It quickly became apparent that people wanted to splash out, unwind, and enjoy themselves.
“People are willing to order higher-end stuff. They want to get back out and have a nice meal: lobster bisque and tenderloin tips,” he says. “They have a good lunch, a good glass of wine, a good beer.” (And, thus fortified, maybe clock out of work early.)
There’s one downside to all this newfound togetherness, though.
“I just had two tables of colleagues who asked not to be seated next to each other when they came in,” Poe says, laughing. “It was: ‘I just spent three hours with you. I’m done.’”