Table d'Hot

Dining at Michael's
For nearly a decade, Michael's restaurant in midtown has been the place where the heavyweights of New York media, fashion and finance go for lunch. (Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)
By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 16, 2005


If National Geographic is up for a new angle on the pack behavior of exotic animals, here's a can't-miss idea. Forget penguins. Instead, focus on the heavyweights of New York media, fashion and finance. Rather than the annual slog to a patch of ice, there'll be a daily migration to one restaurant: Michael's, in midtown Manhattan.

"Each day, they arrive by taxi, by limo or on foot," Morgan Freeman could solemnly intone in the voice-over. "All of them mysteriously drawn by some irresistible force to these modest rooms, where they will twitter about themselves and their careers, feasting on Cobb salads."

This zoo is always full. Last week, the creatures on view at Michael's included record mogul Tommy Mottola, who dined with actor Joe Pesci; Vanity Fair writer Dominick Dunne, who brought along Ron Reagan; Tommy Hilfiger, who huddled with Patrick Bousquet-Chavanne, president of the Estee Lauder Group. There were editors from People, Glamour and Time, agents from William Morris, editors from major publishing houses. On Tuesday, the latest Mrs. Donald Trump lunched with very blond friends.

"It's an important-persons club," says general manager Steve Millington, getting ready for lunch one recent morning. "It's a successful organization that represents and reflects people's accomplishments."

Why is Michael's the preening ground of choice for this crowd? And how, in a city so fickle, has a lunch table here endured for nearly a decade as such a valuable totem of success?

"It's not the food," says Henry Schleiff, the CEO of Court TV and a Michael's regular.

Not that the food is bad. Zagat voters rate the French-leaning fare, which includes such dishes as confit of Long Island duck ($31) and fresh veal cheeks sous-vide ($34) squarely in the "good to excellent" zone. But there's far hautier cuisine in this city and better values.

No, the reason people eat at Michael's is (a) to network and do business, and (b) to talk about the people who eat at Michael's, with a heavy emphasis on (b). The genius of the place is how it has transformed the city's perpetual anxiety about pecking order into culinary gold.

Which is to say that at Michael's, where you stand determines precisely where you sit. The place is divided into two rooms roughly the same size. The rear room is arguably the more appealing, because it's next to a garden, but never mind that.

"If you're stuck in the back room, you're probably with the wrong person," says Jeff Jarvis, a former critic for TV Guide and a Michael's frequenter.

The action is in the front room. Generally speaking, the closer you're seated to the windows overlooking 55th Street, the more juice you've got. Diners can request a particular table, but there are no guarantees. Millington and the maitre d' lay out the seating every morning after studying the reservations list. Names that aren't recognized are Googled.

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