I can go weeks eating my lunch at my office desk, rarely venturing to a restaurant. Often, client meetings happen at my office over sandwiches, salads and the occasional soup. The intensity of modern business life dictates this somewhat sad ritual. I don’t think anyone gets any joy out of this. When I started to work in Boston, it seemed like everyone—from mail guys to secretaries, from worker bees to bosses—went out for lunch, wanting to take a break, stretch their legs, maybe pause to turn their faces up to the sun. Like recess for adults.
A friend recently brought me a newspaper column from the late 1970s in which I was quoted. It was about power lunches in Boston. Compared to today, the scenes described seem almost as distant as Victorian England. According to the column, 55 percent of people surveyed said they drank at lunch. I can tell you that 100 percent of the people in finance, advertising and publishing—which was huge here in the 1970s—drank. Literary business went on at the old Ritz (now the Taj) and Locke-Ober, where the chairman of publisher Little, Brown had a usual table. (It was kept empty after his death, save for a single gin martini, straight up.) The head of publicity at the biggest publishing house would drink several “see-throughs” (martinis), followed by wine and brandy if the author was a big enough name. Authors always drank and ate prodigious amounts, since the publisher paid. And all of them felt they were being screwed by their publisher. The complaints of the literary world, at least, have never changed.
These power lunches in the 1970s were always two hours or longer, and all were exclusively male. They happened at such places as the Federal Club atop the Bank of Boston building, the Bay Club, 28 State Street, Joseph’s restaurant in the Back Bay, the Fort Hill Club in downtown Boston. Politicos convened at the Parker House and Dini’s, advertising executives at the Copley Plaza hotel. While the physical addresses may remain, most of the names and owners have changed; the formality of those days, the dance of the dining and drinks culture, is gone forever. I remember when One Boston Place, which now houses BNY Mellon, was home to the Boston Company, which had an executive dining room with a private salon for the chairman. One of them entertained me—he the Rajah, I the emissary from a distant court. A whiskey, a loin of veal, a carafe of claret, a chocolate sundae and, if I cared to, a brandy or a glass of port. I went home after lunch.
There’s not as much fun today, and less power as well, it seems. Since the late 1970s, we’ve lost most of our New England shoe manufacturers, lost the textile people, lost the majority of big local banks and insurance companies. The dozens of investment firms and mutual funds have largely been absorbed by entities outside of Boston. A friend of mine, the former CEO of one of our biggest banks, told me: “There are no more power lunches, and very little power as well. Mostly people eat in as far as I can see. Occasionally, I go to the new steakhouses or the downtown Harvard or BC Clubs, or the Four Seasons. I have a glass of wine, maybe, at a Christmas lunch. That’s it. Everyone’s on a diet and everyone’s too busy…. It’s over, what used to be.” Of course, in some respects, that’s a very good thing. “Women are definitely at the tables now,” he said. “You want energy? Go to Kendall Square—energy, creativity, innovation, bouncing off the walls. Power, no. Lunch in conference rooms, or quickies at new restaurants in jeans and T-shirts with bean sprouts.”
Today I see people who hope for better jobs someday, rolling carts down side streets, loaded up with take-out food for catered lunches for lawyers and investment company offices. One of our largest real estate developers said, “Well, I like Brasserie JO for lunch, and I like my lunches. But really, if I want to linger over lunch, it will be in Paris.”
But everyone I talked with agreed on one thing, that the closest Boston comes these days to power meals is breakfast at Kevin Phelan’s office at Colliers International. Kevin is one of Boston’s best-known citizens, particularly in the political arena. He pays attention and runs a quirky salon in the morning for Boston’s most generous and involved people. I talked with a frequent visitor to these very informal gatherings. “Kevin’s?” he said. “Great conversation, mostly over water and Munchkins from Dunkin’s.”
Well, I like Munchkins. But you can’t turn back the clock.