I have a lot of boring lunches, but I never have a boring lunch at Michael’s.
That’s because you’re part of every other conversation in the place -- everybody who you know or want to know is sharing secrets and confidences just a few feet away. (Restaurants where it’s just you and your lunch date, forced to entertain each other, seem hard to justify.)
The other day, a gossip columnist I know was telling me, all cattylike, that he had seen me with a gossip-worthy luncheon companion who’d leaned over and, in a stagey way, confided something to me. And wasn’t this ridiculous, the gossip columnist said, because everyone knows it’s impossible to hear anything going on at any other table at Michael’s -- so that the only reason you would try to hide what you were saying is so that everyone would know you were trying to hide what you were saying.
I swear: At that moment, my companion had been telling me something delightful and mean and astute about the gossip columnist who was watching the confidence being shared.
Some people say this is so high school. But to me, it’s the opposite. There’s nothing chaotic or anarchic or gratuitous at Michael’s. Everything is stylized, choreographed, orderly, courtly, elegant.
Michael’s is as close as I’ve ever come to my dream of living in the Manhattan of the movies. The Manhattan of, say, The Thin Man (rather than the Manhattan of The Sweet Smell of Success).
You step into the door on 55th Street, in a building once owned by the Rockefellers, and get a greeting from Michael himself (when he’s in from the coast -- Michael’s has a sister restaurant in Santa Monica), in brilliantine hair (recently he’s been sporting a new floppy cut), or from one of the oddly nurturing (“You look great today”) front-desk people. Then, from the top of the few steps leading down into the spacious dining room with good art and many flowers, you see everybody else in the media business who wants to be seen.
I have a table. It’s table No. 5, which is a very good table very near the front of the room. Its sight lines go directly to the entryway, and its back is secured by the east wall (in view of table No. 1 in the bay with Caroline Kennedy playing with her hair or Mick Jagger drumming his fingers or Bill Clinton monologuizing his luncheon companions). Among the things I have never expected or wanted to achieve is a table of my own. And, I understand, my achievement here can be explained by little more than the fact that I might write articles like this (like Winchell at the Stork Club). Still, this takes nothing away from the satisfaction of having gained a contested piece of turf. (There is a menacing back room at Michael’s where faceless people are led every day, never to emerge.)
Before Michael’s was Michael’s, it was the Italian Pavilion, which in a former heyday of media life had a serious following among advertising and network types. My father was in the agency business and once took me to lunch there and pointed out Bill Paley, the chairman of CBS and the most powerful and elegant man then alive.
I think this is part of the Michael’s attraction: It recalls this other, more salubrious, three-martini era (occasionally, someone will even have a martini at Michael’s), when media was the easiest game in town, when the world was made up of a passive audience and eager advertisers, when the money flowed like gin -- as opposed to now, with media being a tortured, hardscrabble affair. A bleak, unpromising, Darwinian struggle.
I sometimes think this is part of a running joke. When you’re making a lunch date and say to someone, “Michael’s?” -- they’re in on it. The joke is that all these media bigs show up for lunch and pretend everything is just fine and still supporting these incredibly expensive meals, while waiting for the person at the next table to break down in tears (at any given moment, everyone knows who will likely be crying next).
In other establishments like this -- the Four Seasons, for instance -- there’s a certain sort of pretense. People in a gated community pretend that they live the lives of people outside the gated community, or pretend the gated area is normal life.
But Michael’s isn’t like that. Everybody is open about being on the inside. It’s like a prison yard.
As soon as you’re seated, you start assessing who you see (if your lunch date hasn’t yet arrived, you call someone on your cell to report who’s there). Every conversation I’ve had at Michael’s is very analytic, very smart, very precise about who is falling from what height and how fast -- about what forces are about to take what person apart.
It’s all deconstruction.
Which is why lunch is so satisfying.