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 TOP TEN

Club 21

A saucy guide to 21 of the world's most important business restaurants

Friday, September 26, 1997

THE AMERICAS

Los Angeles

OLD GUARD

The Dining Room
Hotel Bel-Air
701 Stone Canyon Rd.
Tel: (310) 472-1211

Breakfast for four: $120

With it's far-flung geography, dining in this city without a centre can become an exercise in migration. Chic dining spots have sprung up in the once-dreary Valley--Ca' del Sole, Pinot Bistro and Cafe Bizou, for example--to serve studio kingpins who can't squander precious minutes driving to Hollywood for lunch.

But in the early mornings, movie chieftains gravitate to the Westside hotels near their homes. With so many Hollywood evenings gobbled up by screenings, premieres and other crucial social events, breakfast is often the time when serious negotiations are opened and major deals are closed.

While the Peninsula and the Four Seasons draw their share of industry honchos, "there's more business done per square inch of table space at 8 a.m. at the Bel-Air than anywhere in town," alleges a leading Hollywood agent.

"Their work-days are so long," notes Bel-Air morning manager Karla Triska, "my regular customers arrive here at 7:30 a.m., after having been to the gym."

Just as at lunch or dinner, this is an opportunity to start a buzz, to crank up the stakes by getting the other studio heads in the room to wonder what you're talking about. Or as Triska puts it, "They like to congregate in one place so they can spy on each other." --Janet Forman

NEW GUARD

Indochine
8225 Beverly Blvd.
Tel: (213) 655-4777
Dinner for four, with wine: $200

"Inside information" is a crucial part of L.A.'s business scene. In some quarters, knowing the cutting-edge dining spots is considered akin to finding tomorrow's Tom Cruise. While you'll never go wrong choosing one of the old favourites: the Ivy on Robertson and Ivy at the Shore, Granita, Patina, Morton's or Spago Beverly Hills, which has become an instant "old standard," your stock will rise in this town if you can snare an 8 p.m. reservation at the restaurant of the moment.

This year cross-cultural is in vogue. Jozu gives Zen an all-American spin with carafes of sake and fried Ipswich clams. The Little Door serves a Pan-Mediterranean menu of French, Moroccan and Tunisian fare. Indochine has won the hearts of L.A.'s Young Turks with the sensual cuisine of French Indochina, and an attitude that is both welcoming and hip. "Everyone likes to feel they belong to a club," observes maitre d' Spencer Gray as he untangles the 10 p.m. rush at the door, "so we try to be exclusive without being exclusionary." He often has his hands full when everyone clamours for the "best table," the seat that announces your rank at the top of the Hollywood pecking order. At Indochine these are the cushy booths at the back; the choice vantage point from which to see and be seen.

For all this exquisite positioning and preening, Indochine has a carefree spirit as agents and studio executives casually trade plates of amok camdogien--fillet of striped bass with coconut milk steamed in a banana leaf--and dip delicate finger food such as rice paper-wrapped goi cuon rolls into puddles of peanut sauce. When young power brokers have a need to let their hair down, Indochine lets them do it with style.--Janet Forman

San Francisco

Tommy Toy's
655 Montgomery St.
Tel: (415) 397-4888
Dinner for four, with wine: $260

San Franciscans like their business dinners to be exercises in cool sophistication. As a result, the commercial aspects of your table conversation will be dispensed with rapidly. Your host would much prefer to discuss cultural affairs, Third World development, or the private-label vineyard that he or she has just bought up in Sonoma County ("Nothing big, mind you. Just 50 or so bottles of really good stuff every year").

That's why Tommy Toy's is the quintessential San Francisco business restaurant. It is pretentious, just as San Francisco is cheerfully and unabashedly pretentious (how else could this small city, with dirty streets, erratic transportation and terrible public schools, lay claim to being world class?). Tommy Toy's Chinese cuisine, with French service, is impressive but overpriced--much the same as San Francisco's homes and office space.

Furthermore, the restaurant's plush Pan-Asian decor presents a nice segue to the obligatory San Francisco dismissal of any other U.S. city ("I just got back from Chicago. It was awful. Now I have to go to"--grimace--"Atlanta").

San Francisco's restaurant scene is notoriously fickle, but Tommy Toy's has been a favourite with the city's investment bankers and venture capitalists since opening in 1985 (groups of 15 or so are accommodated in the French or VIP rooms). One regular customer, an executive vice-president at Wells Fargo Bank, promised his wife an anniversary dinner there, only to be confined at home by knee surgery. On the anniversary night, Tommy Toy's dispatched by limousine a six-course dinner to the executive's Laurel Heights home. --David Graulich

Washington

Bice
601 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W. (entrance on Indiana Avenue)
Tel: (202) 638-2423
Dinner for four, with wine: $250

James Carville, the Democratic consultant, was in jeans with a blazer; Republican Mary Matalin, leaner and more angular than she appears on television, was in a black dress. The maitre d' had welcomed them, given them a central table, and various Democrats were dropping by their table to pay respects, including the former White House pollster Stanley Greenberg, and his wife, Democratic member of Congress Rosa DeLauro. What was striking, in the midst of this standard display behaviour at the junction of politics and celebrity, was that the Democrats all seemed to be paying much more attention to Ms. Matalin than to Mr. Carville.

It was simply another encounter at Bice (pronounced Bee-chay), the fine Northern Italian restaurant not far from the Capitol. "We are very well known by the city," says manager Alexander Negrette, who says that customers are equally divided between Democrats and Republicans. "We do strong, powerful dinners and lunches for lobbyists or Senators. We're a high-class restaurant, so people are comfortable with the atmosphere. We just do business as usual; there's no big secret."

There are other very good restaurants in Washington, where the chefs win prizes and the food is as good as any in North America, and there are other spots where the other diners are as interesting and as noteworthy as anything on the menu. Some, such as the Occidental Grill, collect photographs of the politicians who have eaten there; others, like The Palm, almost exude the now-bygone flavour of late-night cigars and high-cholesterol pols.

But for the past eight years, Bice has served the powerful; just a block from the Canadian embassy, it is near enough to the Hill for easy access, far enough away to justify using the driver; inexpensive enough not to draw whistles of disapproval--but expensive enough to screen out aides and tourists. --Graham Fraser

Chicago

The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton
160 East Pearson St.
Tel: (312) 266-1000
Dinner for four, with wine: $360

Whether or not Mayor Daley possesses gastronomic savoir faire is not a matter of public record; his political acumen, however, is. The mayor is an astute dealmaker who favours this solid, respectable dining room when conducting business beyond city hall.

The Ritz is also the choice of Christie Hefner, scion of the Playboy empire, and of Oprah, who has her own empire. Another frequent guest is Wayne Huizenga, founder of Blockbuster Video and free-spending owner of multiple sports franchises, who makes expensive forays into the acclaimed wine list.

Why does Chicago's power elite choose this room? "It is the antithesis of what is trendy," says Nick Mutton, general manager. "It is traditional and reliable, with a stable staff who get to know the preferences of guests."

Intimate banquettes, crystal chandeliers and views into the palms and potted plants of the adjoining Terrace provide a vaguely Edwardian feeling. Tables are generously spaced, many roomy enough to spread papers (although genuine power merchants keep the details in their heads). Tucked in a corner, booth 44 is private and often requested. Service is attentive, yet discreet. And it doesn't hurt that a superstar chef presides over the kitchen.

At age 33, Sarah Stegner is a culinary wunderkind, working her way up in 12 years from fish cleaner to top tuque. In 1994, The James Beard Foundation named her "Rising Star Chef of the Year." Her own brand of contemporary French cuisine uses fresh regional ingredients and offers more than a few surprises.

Simplifying matters when food selection takes a back seat to business are two six-course dégustation menus, one of them vegetarian ($60, $43). If ordering à la carte, try rack of lamb or venison steak in a pepper crust. --Mike Michaelson

New York

OLD GUARD

"21"
21 West 52nd St.
Tel: (212) 582-7200
Lunch for four, with wine: $350

This famous onetime speakeasy with the toys hanging from the low dining room ceiling is coming back into favour with New York's power lunch crowd after a long spell in the wilderness. The revival can be credited to a nostalgic yearning for a bygone era when the rich were treated with the respect they deserved, and to the painstaking restoration of the property to its former lustre by Orient-Express Hotels Inc., the luxury hotel operator that bought the place two years ago.

To be sure, it doesn't have the drawing power of the Four Seasons Grill Room, to the east on the same street. There, billionaires such as publishing magnate Si Newhouse have long had their own tables and don't even bother looking at the menu because they always eat the same thing.

But few restaurants can match the character or history of "21," and it's been giving its customers more of what they like--simpler food well-prepared and served at such exorbitant prices that the hoi polloi can't afford to mingle. This is, after all, the home of $1,000 (U.S.) bottles of Château Pétrus, which although reserved for special occasions, do not gather dust in the cellar. For the faint of heart and light of wallet, there's an excellent three-course prix fixe menu for $25.

The "21" burger is here, and so is the "21" sauce, the restaurant's upscale version of ketchup that goes on just about everything. If a lunchtime hamburger could ever be worth $21, this would be it. Other signature dishes such as the $32 steak tartare mingle with a handful of interlopers on the menu, like a terrine of eggplant, goat cheese and red pepper.

Returning veterans such as billionaire Bob Tisch and Henry Kissinger (also a Four Seasons regular) are pleased to find many of the same staff that catered to their every whim 10, 15 and even 20 years ago. This is not a place of high turnover. One waiter, still marvellously proficient, has been on the job since just after the Second World War.

The dress code is still enforced, though not so rigidly as the time a quarter century ago when one unsuspecting youth was hustled out of the dining room because, although he was wearing the required jacket and tie, the top button on his white shirt wasn't done up. --Brian Milner

NEW GUARD

Balthazar
80 Spring St.
Tel: (212) 965-1414
Dinner for four, with wine: $250

This artful re-creation of a classic Parisian brasserie is the hottest new restaurant in New York, a magnet attracting both the rich and powerful and the celebrities who are famous for being famous.

On any given night, even in the dog days of summer, moguls such as Donald Trump and Ronald Lauder (son of Estée) will be here rubbing shoulders with Arnold or Sly or any number of one-named high-fashion models.

They come here not for the typical brasserie menu of such fare as steak au poivre, gigot d'agneau and rabbit fricassee, which happens to be first-rate, but because "it's a place you have to be," says Florence Fabricant, who chronicles restaurant comings and goings for The New York Times.

Like most downtown restaurants, Balthazar is more casual and tends to attract a younger, artsier and more entrepreneurial crowd than the grand midtown eateries. This is where the players in the new media, advertising, fashion and entertainment worlds congregate; where diners cheerfully accept reservations close to midnight, because that's the only time a table's available.

Although it looks and feels as if it has just been transported from the sixth arrondissement, Balthazar is almost entirely an artful mirage. The stunning antique mirrors come from Pennsylvania. The marble has been aged with tea and the light fixtures were left over from a defunct department store.

The food is certainly no mirage. And while the service is slower than any Parisian bistro would tolerate, the limousine crowd is too busy trying to talk above the constant cacophony to notice. --Brian Milner

Santiago, Chile

Tio Willy
Mercado Central on San Pablo
Tel: (56-2) 697-4285
Price for four, with wine: $220

The smartest way to approach business dining in Santiago is to consider any particular lunch or dinner as just one episode in a sequence of gastronomical events. Your Chilean hosts are likely to take you to a marathon series of meals, during which business will be discussed peripherally, if at all, while you consume copious amounts of Chilean wine for most of the afternoon or evening.

There's a national joke about conducting business on "Chilean time," which means a studied casualness about the clock. Meetings and appointments rarely begin or end on time. This condition is slowly changing, as Chile modernizes and its economy expands, but the old habits are still there--to the exasperation of business visitors on tight schedules.

"Chilean time" is reflected in long, leisurely business lunches. Your hosts will take you to at least one charcoal steakhouse for a parrillada, a platter of steaks and obscure bovine cuts that you won't recognize and, for the sake of your appetite, you probably shouldn't identify. Another meal might involve a day trip from Santiago to the seaside resort of Viña del Mar.

Tio Willy is likely to be the site of at least one of your business meals. The restaurant is located in Mercado Central, a formidable wrought-iron structure built in 1872 that occupies an entire block. It is a pleasant walk from the Santiago Stock Exchange through the Mercado's colourful, boisterous swirl of fish and produce vendors, and a quick cab or Metro ride from most business locations.

Once inside, the atmosphere is that of an urban bistro--relaxed and informal, yet intimate and quiet enough for a business conversation. Try the seafood, especially the salmon, corvina (sea bass), or mariscos (shellfish). Our waiter, a personable young man named Pablo, offered fast repartee as well as sound advice about the day's specials and wine selections. (Chileans like their vegetables quite well cooked, so specify if you want some crunch in your cauliflower.)

You'll see a diverse crowd at Tio Willy: financiers, out-of-towners, local merchants, government officials and diplomats. As my dining companion and I were ordering dessert, a table of three grey-haired gentlemen in dark business suits invited us to join them for a glass of red Chilean wine. They said they had been colleagues of the late president Salvador Allende, and regaled us with tales of politics and national intrigue. When my companion and I departed Tio Willy an hour later, all three men were still there, surrounded by their wine and memories. --David Graulich

Europe

Paris

Le Pavillon Ledoyen
Carré des Champs Élysées
1 Ave. Dutuit
Tel: (33-1) 53 05 10 00;
fax: (33-1) 47 42 55 01
Prix fixe lunch for four, with wine, at Ledoyen's Restaurant gastronomique: $325
Prix fixe lunch for four, with wine, at Le Cercle Ledoyen: $250

In days of yore, a Parisian business lunch consisted of at least two hours and five courses, bracketed by apéritifs and digestifs, and washed down by fine wines of various hues and temperatures. Terribly impressive on the "joie de vivre" scale, but more conducive to a siesta than to effective negotiation.

Today, increasingly globalized and European Unionized French businesses have scaled down such fancy feasts, but in selecting a restaurant, the excellence of the food is still the No. 1 consideration. Although three practical factors weigh heavily--reasonable prix fixe menus, rapid service and proximity to Paris's "triangle d'or" (the haute gamme district that cuts between the Champs Élysées, Place de la Concorde and the Pont de l'Alma)--a chef's gastronomical gifts (and a good sommelier) coupled with the prestigiousness of the site still rule. Which is why the heads of major French business groups, directors of TV stations, but also government ministers, couturiers and the odd baron flock to the historical landmark that is the Pavillon Ledoyen. Says director Philippe Berry: "It's very fashionable because it's very Parisian. And for Parisian businessmen what's most important is traditional French food and wine, and a setting charged with history."

French execs--hospitable and never shy about showing off their cultural and culinary heritage--enjoy bringing foreign clients to this verdant downtown oasis. It is the ideal place to talk about business, or around business, before getting down to the vulgar task of signing the papers.

Both restaurants--the elegant "gastronomic" upstairs dining room overlooking the Champs Élysées, and the more informal and less expensive Cercle Ledoyen tucked within a terraced garden--feature the classical French and Flemish cuisine of much-acclaimed Ghislaine Arabian. France's top (and virtually unique) woman chef, she specializes in creative combinations, from roast turbot with fried onions in beer sauce (Arabian single-handedly revolutionized the Paris restaurant scene by introducing "cuisine à la bière") to iced chicory-gingerbread parfait. Pavillon Ledoyen boasts seven elegant wood-panelled salons--popular for private business meals or cocktails. Audio-visual equipment, including simultaneous translation, is available with notice.

As for heritage, the restaurant that opened its doors in 1792 saw Robespierre dining here while next-door revolutionaries plotted to slit his throat. A few years later, legend suggests that it provided the setting for Napoleon's introduction to a woman named Josephine. --Michael Sommers

London

OLD GUARD

Le Pont de la Tour
36d Shad Thames
Tel: (44-171) 403-8403
Lunch for four, with wine: $275

Bill Clinton and Tony Blair struck up their now-famous friendship over a meal at Le Pont de la Tour. Set on the south bank of the Thames, at the foot of the majestic Tower Bridge and not far from London's mighty financial district, this is the restaurant where modern-minded nabobs go to network. Dark-suited businesspeople, plus a sprinkling of top politicos, fill the tables at lunchtime, hammering out deals and trading gossip. In the evening, celebrities such as Sean Connery leaven the mix.

Le Pont de la Tour thumbs its nose at the stiff decorum of older rivals. Banquettes and long riverside windows give it the relaxed, bustling air of a French brasserie, particularly at lunch. The chrome and black-lacquered mouldings are a homage to old cruise liners. Meticulous but unstuffy waiters guide customers through the menu, which is French with Tuscan and Irish flourishes, and the 700-strong wine list. "It's perfect if you want to impress your guests without making them feel inhibited," says one investment banker.

Business and booze are easy bedfellows at Le Pont de la Tour. Some power lunches go on for hours, finishing up over liqueurs and Cuban cigars in the sleek, jazzy bar next door. Tastings can be arranged in the cave-like wine cellar, which houses a smart 20-seat salon privé. The cooking is as light and refreshing as the river breeze, with magnificent seafood and bread from the in-house bakery. Carnivores swear by the ballotine of foie gras, while the much-feted crêpe parmentier, a slim potato pancake topped with smoked salmon and caviar, is ambrosia. --Carl HonorÉ

NEW GUARD

Le Caprice
Arlington House
Arlington Street
Tel: (44-171) 629-2239
Lunch for four, with wine: $340

Talk comes thick and fast at Le Caprice. Nestled behind the Ritz Hotel, the restaurant is a magnet for the "creative classes" that inhabit London's West End. Everyone here has an idea to pitch or a piece of gossip to share. Rumour has it that the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral was hatched here.

At lunch, advertising executives, arts impresarios and media moguls rub shoulders with bright young things on the make. Jackets are often slung over the backs of chairs, and open-neck shirts and goatees are fairly common. Any aloofness is merely skin-deep: Furtive glances register who is sitting with whom, and which celebrity has just walked in.

Discretion is guaranteed at Le Caprice. Paparazzi are barred at the door and staff are forbidden to talk to the press. Even the juiciest conversations wash over the stoic waiters, who have seen and heard it all before.

With its chrome on black and white decor and its David Bailey portraits of the rich and famous, the smallish, square room seems every inch the embodiment of '80s chic. But trendy West Enders seem not to mind. Tables are always scarce, and even the places at the bar get booked up. The menu is as eclectic as the clientele: risotto jostles with crispy duck and Mexican chicken salad. Nearly everything, from the seared fillet of wild sea trout to the mousse aux deux chocolats, is light, modern and first-rate, though customers often seem too busy nattering to notice. --Carl Honoré

Brussels

Stirwen
15-17 Chaussée St-Pierre
Tel: (32-2) 640-8541
Lunch for four, with wine: $400

At last count, Brussels's eating places had garnered twice as many Michelin stars as the restaurants of another famed gastronomic centre and comparably sized city, Lyon. For a small city, with one million people, the Belgian capital has to be one of the finest places on earth to eat. Its culinary reputation is bolstered by two things--first, the locals' love of food epitomized by the cartoon character Obelix who, in Asterix and the Belgians, found his hosts ate so much that one meal merged into the next; second, the padded expense accounts of those who call the city home, a huge diplomatic corps, 600-plus MEPs, or Members of the European Parliament, top Eurocrats and heads of U.S. multinationals, and a lobbying contingent drawn from 15 European Union countries and beyond.

Brussels has grand places to eat: Pierre Wynants' Comme Chez Soi and Bruneau in Ganshoren; Villa Lorraine and De Bijgaarden in the suburbs; La Maison du Cygne in the Grand Place where the Bruegel Room has the real thing on the wall. But they tend to be pricy dinner places and, in the Lower town and suburbs, almost impossible to reach at midday.

Stirwen is not. It sits, on a modest street, close to both the European Commission's Breydel headquarters and the shiny new Parliament building, and is both unpretentious and quiet. Ignore the corps diplomatique-plated limousines pulling up outside; this is not a town where there is a need to put on a display or recognize your neighbour since everyone, diplomat, commissioner, NATO ambassador, lobbyist, is replaceable. It is, however, a town that values, and trades in, information, and that makes lunch a serious matter for most.

The presiding genius at Stirwen is Alain Troubat, who, last year, followed the fashion of the best chefs and spread his talent to a second restaurant, Le Trèfle à Quatre, which is situated on the lake at Genval, south of the city. Troubat handed over to a disciple, Pascal Bey, who prepares the dishes for which the restaurant won its Michelin rating, joue de boeuf braisée à la bourguignonne, dos de saumon grillé au sel de Guérande, and all manner of fresh fish, faultlessly. In Brussels, wine is nearly always drunk at lunch, but the new way of doing this is to ignore Obelix and share a half-bottle, not tipple the full thing; as a result, most restaurants, including Stirwen, have an impressive list of small bottles. --Peter Cook

Berlin

Borchardt
47 Französische Strasse
Tel: (49-30) 203-9710
Lunch for four with wine: $160

There's no better indication that the centre of Berlin's business community is moving east than the noontime scene at Borchardt. It's primarily a male and business-oriented crowd that gathers at this elegant venue just off Friedrichstrasse, the main retail street of prewar Berlin and, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the site of a new branch of the French department store chain Galeries Lafayette.

Like the surrounding neighbourhood, which includes Unter den Linden, Berlin's Champs Élysées, and historic Gendarmenmarkt Square, Borchardt is a striking example of renewal after the devastation of the Second World War and the stagnation that 45 years of communism visited on East Berlin. Friedrich Borchardt founded a catering and fine-food establishment at the same site in 1853 and soon became purveyor to kaisers and aristrocrats. Although the restaurant was destroyed during the war, the old Borchardt food hall continued life as a Communist-era cafeteria and disco before becoming a warehouse. When the wall fell, the building was discovered by West Berlin restaurateur Roland Mary, who uncovered glorious columns, a detailed stucco ceiling and a beautiful wall mosaic, now restored as part of the restaurant, which opened in 1992.

Service is impeccable and prices are reasonable at Borchardt, where the cuisine tends toward the international with an emphasis on lightness in preparation and elegance in presentation. The daily selection of three luncheon main courses, all below $18, always includes one vegetarian dish. Patrons prefer tall bottles of Badoit and San Pellegrino mineral water to anything alcoholic. But if you're still interested in something sinful, there's always the luscious dessert of light and dark chocolate mousse floating on a raspberry coulis.

During the summer months, business moves to a sunny courtyard terrace where one can admire the intricate stucco exterior of the restored Borchardt building and the contrasting modernity of the Four Seasons hotel next door. Borchardt's success has spawned two would-be competitors nearby. But the restaurant isn't standing still. In addition to the 180-seat main restaurant and 100-seat terrace, a banquet room accommodating 120 is due to open this fall. --Alan Freeman

Moscow

Club T
Ulitsa Krasina 21
Tel: (7-095) 232-2778
Dinner for four, with wine: $775

When they first appeared on the post-Soviet landscape, Russia's brash new businessmen were given to vulgar displays of wealth and power. But as they became more polished and better travelled, they discovered the elite private clubs of London and New York (and were often refused entry). They took the concept back to Moscow, and now the Russian nouveaux riches do their deal-making in the plush surroundings of their own clubs.

Club T is one of the most discreet of the new establishments, but its presence is revealed by the luxury cars parked outside: a Bentley, a silver Mercedes, and a stretch Lincoln limousine. Inside, past the tight security at the door, the restaurant's decor is an opulent blend of gold-framed mirrors, cherub candelabra, massive chandeliers and chrome lamps. The clientele features wealthy bankers, politicians, fashion designers, television producers, pop stars such as the beloved Russian diva Alla Pugacheva, and a constant stream of the powerful municipal officials who control Moscow's booming real estate industry.

Although the club has never advertised its existence, its 11 tables are filled every night with businessmen who spend the equivalent of the Russian average monthly wage on a single meal. Old-fashioned chauvinism runs rampant here--no prices are shown on the menus given to the women, since it is assumed that the men are paying.

The club, a Russian-German joint venture in a renovated former Soviet wedding palace, has hired a Parisian chef to supervise an exquisite menu of seafood and French cuisine. Among the specialties are pheasant stuffed with duck foie gras ($58), Mediterranean king prawns ($65) and roast rack of lamb ($59).

The presentation of the food is elegant and imaginative. The service is attentive. A pianist and a guitarist play quietly in the background as the New Russians discuss the finer points of their business agendas. But the conversations are punctuated by the ringing of cellular phones--no Moscow restaurant has yet managed to ban the mobile phones, which are still regarded here as an essential tool of business. --Geoffrey York

Asia

New Delhi

The Chambers
Taj Mahal Hotel
1 Mansingh Rd.
Tel: (91-11) 301-6162;
fax: (91-11) 301-7299
Lunch for four, with wine: $360

When the British built New Delhi in the early part of this century, they designed it as a show of strength, with sweeping avenues, an imposing viceregal's palace and a knockoff of the Arc de Triomphe, set at the end of--what else could it be called?--the Raj Path. So when the Taj group of hotels wanted to create the most exclusive luncheon spot in a capital city known for its bureaucracy, it couldn't resist topping the Raj, literally.

The Chambers, a private restaurant club built atop the 21-storey Taj Mahal Hotel, provides a bird's-eye view of the administrative quarter known as Lutyens's Delhi, with its circular parliament house, white ministerial bungalows and greenery all around in one sweeping statement: This is the hub of power.

New Delhi is not much of a restaurant town, in part because of the government's tight grip on liquor licences, in part because the elite like to keep a safe distance from the masses. Executives, politicians and mandarins prefer the privacy of clubs, from the quaint old Delhi Gymkhana to the exclusive Delhi Golf Club. But none attracts a more powerful crowd than The Chambers.

India's finance minister, P. Chidambaram, and most of his senior officials can be found in The Chambers at least once a week. So can most of the city's merchant bankers. Not by coincidence, perhaps, the masterminds of a big black market money scandal also were active members before they were carted off to jail a couple of years ago.

The 272-member club, which charges $8,000 for initiation and $800 a year for membership, opens with a bar and business centre facing Jawaharlal Nehru stadium, one of the country's better cricket grounds. A corridor leads to The Grill, its dark-panelled, 48-seat main dining hall, which shares a kitchen with the hotel's new French restaurant, Longchamp, one of Delhi's best for specialties such as roast duck. Though The Grill offers some seclusion, the most serious business is done in two private dining rooms: the Parliament Room, with a grand view of parliament and the adjoining presidential estate, and the windowless Pashmina Room, so named for six stunning Pashmina carpets on the wall.

The Chambers has two rules: no cell-phones and no guns. Those annoying pocket devices--the telephonic ones, that is--have become the biggest status symbol in Delhi, and no one of any stature leaves home without one. As a result, many restaurants sound like electronic orchestras during the lunch hours.

For status, the cellphone is only a ring ahead of the gun--preferably the great big kind your bodyguard carries around his shoulder. For years, Indian cabinet ministers have travelled with armed guards, for fear of terrorist attacks. More recently, kidnappings and gangland-style killings have forced many industrialists to adopt the same protection.

But not in The Chambers. Members are asked to turn off their cellphones at the door, and told to please leave the MIBs in the lobby. --John Stackhouse

Tokyo

Kitcho
Hotel Seiyo
1-11-2 Ginza
Tel: (81-3) 3535-1177
Lunch for four, with wine: $600

To be seen or not to be seen. That is the question for Tokyoites straddling daily the cultural divide between East and West. For lunch, to celebrate, to advertise success, Tokyoites go to the New York Grill on the 52nd floor of the Park Hyatt Hotel in trendy Shinjuku. This temple of high tech and triumphalism is the ultimate tribute to Americana, revised and improved on à la japonaise. The focal point is the open kitchen. The food is resolutely modern California, the music is New York, the drink to order is the ever trendy Zinfandel Blush.

Yet, as much as they like to feel "internationalized," what Japanese businessmen value the most is privacy, exclusivity, seclusion. And no one does it better than Kitcho, the ultimate traditional establishment in the heart of Ginza.

In the cocoon of your own private room, shoes left at the door, jacket in the closet, you will lounge on the tatami floor, be served the best sake, and be pampered like a baby by women with soft voices. Don't ask for the menu here. No guest should be troubled with such earthly matters. Food will appear, kaiseki style, in bite-size portions served in exquisite diminutive dishes designed specifically for the establishment, and chosen according to the season, the colour of the food and the mood of the day. Salmon roe fresh from nearby Tsukiji Market, Matsuyaka beef--the best, fed beer and massaged every day of its life--turtle essence with custard neige, handpicked raspberries in exclusive porcelains. It would be slightly gauche to actually talk about business here. Rather, this is the place to "show your stomach," as the Japanese say. That is, let go of the masks and establish that elusive level of intimacy so fundamental to any long-lasting business relationship in Japan. --Catherine Bergman

Beijing

Hai Yang Palace
Minzu Hotel
51 Fuxing Mennei St.
Phone: (86-10) 6601-4466;
fax: (86-10) 6601-9487
Dinner for four, with wine: $200
Private room rental: about $500

To paraphrase the opening line of Pride and Prejudice: It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Western businessman in possession of a Chinese customer must be in want of an impressive place to host dinner.

Much of what little there is of business etiquette in China revolves around eating and drinking the right stuff for the right price (read "high"). "On behalf of my clients, I must spend between $100,000 and $200,000 [U.S.] a year entertaining," says Beijing-based marketing consultant John Gruetzner of Toronto.

With that amount of money at stake, Gruetzner, 36, is particular about where he spends it, steering clear of the capital's garish, ultraexpensive seafood restaurants "where everyone tries to out-fish each other." Instead, Gruetzner often directs clients and their Chinese counterparts to the Hai Yang Palace, a four-year-old restaurant on the ground floor of the old, Soviet-style Minzu Hotel, a few kilometres west of Tiananmen Square.

There is nothing old or Soviet about the Hai Yang, tastefully decorated (by Chinese standards) and specializing in a sumptuous, delicate style of cooking from the southern coastal city of Chaozhou, about 300 kilometres east of Hong Kong.

With eight private banquet rooms complete with attendants who help diners tuck corners of their napkins under their plates and make karaoke selections, the Hai Yang has been a hit with well-heeled Chinese from the day it opened.

Not for the faint of pocketbook, though cheaper than many competitors, the restaurant is a perfect place to close a deal or celebrate a contract. A Westerner who hosts his Chinese "friends" at the Hai Yang will impress but not show off, demonstrate a bit of local knowledge and enjoy some superb food in the process.

The shashimi lobster, for instance, is a must. --Rod Mickleburgh

Canada

Montreal

Milos
5357 Ave. du Parc
Tel: (514) 272-3522/5242
Dinner for four, with wine: $185

The young man outside Milos was friendly, but firm. "Don't mess with Mr. Spiliadis's garden," he warned. Perish the thought. Costas Spiliadis has made his Greek taverna, Milos, one of the most enduring business restaurants in Montreal through a near- fanatical devotion to fresh ingredients. His Mediterranean fish (grilled royal dorado, $62 a kilo) are flown in direct from Europe. His North American fish (black sea bass, $44 a kilo) come straight from the legendary Fulton fish market in New York. His lobster ($50 a kilo) is brought in, on demand, from Nova Scotia. And at least some of his mint, basil and thyme are plucked from the well-guarded garden planted right by the sidewalk outside the front door.

In a city rife with divisions, Milos's food and professional service have accomplished a rare feat by breaking down the city's linguistic and cultural barriers. The restaurant has become neutral ground by understanding that, in their hearts, all Montrealers are food snobs, who like their meals to seem effortless and be superb.

A faux-rustic setting of wood floors, blue-and-white checked tablecloths, musical instruments on the wall and a merciful lack of music blaring over loudspeakers, contributes to relaxed dining here. The illusion is of a neighbourhood restaurant that just happens to have excellent food. And just to make sure the neighbourhood is kept in good repair, the prices keep out the riffraff. Milos is a regular hangout for bankers, executives, politicians and visiting entertainers. In one week the restaurant served both Bouchard and Roseanne. Visiting patrons have been so impressed that Spiliadis recently opened a branch on West 55th Street in New York City.

Jane Silverstone Segal, executive VP of the retail chain Le Château, regularly brings associates to Milos: "When you are on business, you want everything to flow right. I want to know it's going to be a perfect meal. Milos is quiet, private and the service is done by top professionals. And after your meal, for the complete Montreal experience, you can go around the corner to St- Viateur and pick up a dozen bagels."

Just be careful not to step on Spiliadis's garden on the way out. --Cleo Pascal

Toronto

Prego Della Piazza
150 Bloor St. W.
Tel: (416) 920-9900
Lunch for four, with wine: $225

No one who frequents the place would ever think of Prego as a Toronto business restaurant. That term conjures up the image of stuffed suits in Bay Street clubs droning on about amortization. Prego, with its New York attitude, informal (though not inexpensive) Northern Italian menu and stylish midtown location tucked behind a stone church, seems the antithesis of that.

Yet Prego is a nexus for the city's powerful, monied and business-minded. A diverse crowd lunches and sups here--chief executives, politicians, media types, lawyers, film industry hotshots. As for names, regulars include Murray Frum, the developer and Toronto Blue Jays suitor; Bluma Appel, arts patron and philanthropist; Avie Bennett, McClelland & Stewart publisher; Peter Munk, chairman of Barrick Gold Corp.; Matthew Barrett, Bank of Montreal chairman; and on and on. The celebrity quotient is also stellar. When they're in town, Tom and Nicole come and go through the kitchen, just like at Spago.

The draw is Prego's buzz and clubby feel, cultivated with brio by owner Michael Carlevale, who also runs the adjacent Enotecca wine bar and Black & Blue, a steak and fish restaurant-cum-cigar bar. The room is well appointed. Service is unceremonious yet discreet. The bar is first rate, the wine list, featuring more than 400 labels, has been lovingly compiled.

If you're outside the loop, though, you may not get Prego's allure. Toronto lawyer Philip Slayton likes to tell the story of meeting Allan Gotlieb, the lawyer and figurehead publisher of Saturday Night magazine, for lunch. Slayton arrived first and gave his name. He was ushered to restaurant Siberia, so far back he couldn't see the door. He asked the maitre d' to show Gotlieb to the table when he arrived. Upon hearing Gotlieb's name, she scooped up the menus and led him to a coveted window table. At Prego, it helps to be known. But if you belong there, you know that already. --Anne Kingston

Vancouver

Diva at the Met
645 Howe St.
Tel: (604) 602-7788
Lunch for four, with wine: $150

Diva opened on a high note just over a year ago and has been attracting standing-room-only crowds ever since. Although it's the official dining room of the newly refurbished Metropolitan Hotel, Diva hums louder than most hotel restaurants, especially at lunchtime, when the Howe Street stock jocks cross the road to refuel.

With its street-level bar and open-concept kitchen, the airy 141-seat room appeals to the less-than-buttoned-down tendencies of Vancouver's business crowd. In a city where ties are optional, it's not unusual at Diva to see four men in olo shirts and deck shoes hammering out the details of some megadollar VSE play. But no matter how casual the clientele, the service is as polished as Markian Olynyk's artful glass etchings. Maitre d' John Blakeley's irrepressible Gallic charm makes a lunch date feel like a homecoming.

In Vancouver, the corporate crowd seldom lingers over lunch; it's in by 1, out by 2, and to the business at hand by the time the menus have been collected. If drinks are ordered at all, it's usually wine, and often local: Diva's wine list champions several exclusive B.C. wineries such as Venturi-Schulze on Vancouver Island, and Blue Mountain, near Oliver in the province's interior.

The food, like the wine, comes from sources close to home. It's testimony to the calibre of chef Michael Noble's cuisine that Diva is a preferred eatery of such eminent Vancouver restaurateurs as John Bishop, of Bishop's, and Michel Jacob, of Le Crocodile. Lunch favourites include the chickpea fritter with green tomato gazpacho as a starter, and Noble's signature entrée, smoked Alaskan black cod on artichoke and potato hash. Diva offers eternally health-conscious Vancouverites a wide choice of fish and vegetarian dishes, but a desperate carnivore can still find a juicy flank steak on the menu. --Julie Ovenell-Carter

Calgary

La Chaumière
139 17th Ave. S.W.
Tel: (403) 228-5690;
fax: (403) 228-4448
Lunch for four, without wine: $95

To understand why La Chaumière is the premier business lunch restaurant in Calgary, you have to understand about the parking lot.

It's huge. It's free. It's easy. You can get to its massive expanse from either of the avenues that run to the north of the place or to the south. And that means, of course, that you can jump in your car in the business core of Calgary a few blocks north of La Chaumière, take a two-minute drive to 17th Avenue, park fast, eat fast and get back to work.

Lunching in Calgary is a quick and dirty affair. It is about duty, not about pleasure. It is common for the business crowd to allot exactly an hour for a high-powered luncheon meeting, including travelling time. The stories are legion here of major deals being struck over a 40-minute lunch. Expecting to linger for a couple of hours would be an affront.

It is for that reason that the elegant La Chaumière begins to fill up on the dot of noon. Only the laggards are still there at 1:30. A discreet word to any of the throngs of staff (obsequious yet familiar, an unsettling and peculiarly Calgary attitude), ensures that the platters of rich food arrive within minutes of ordering.

Alcohol is now so abandoned an aspect of the Calgary business lunch, one could get through an entire meal without ever catching sight of a wine bottle on one of La Chaumière's dozens of linen-clad tables, although the diligent diner may spot the odd single glass.

Calgary is, of course, famous for its beef, and La Chaumière offers some of the thickest, most exquisite cuts going. But when putting in a solid afternoon's work is a prime consideration, it's no surprise that the restaurant also offers a superb risotto with lobster sauce and impeccably grilled scallops, not to mention a full roster of pastas.

In addition to the high-ceilinged dining area, La Chaumière has solemn, nicely appointed private rooms, which are used to satisfy the endemic Calgary craving for privacy. --Alanna Mitchell

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