Call it the power meal -- the point at which business and food converge.

Cold cereal at breakfast . . . sauteed soft-shell crabs at lunch . . . more rarely, martinis at dinner -- for the region's business bigwigs, the menu doesn't necessarily matter. The agenda does. If you plan to be a player in your field, the power meal remains essential. Breaking bread can help nab clients, recruit employees and nurture relationships with customers. It can also save time.

Forget about the deal inked on a cocktail napkin. It practically never happens that way. And few people are willing to sacrifice precious hours with their families in the evenings to do dinners with clients. Breakfast and lunch are the most popular times for executives to feast among themselves.

In an increasingly time-crunched society, more executives are opting for catered lunches in their offices.

And for the utmost in privacy, Washington power brokers will often have valued customers over to their homes for a meal.

That may be why a recent national study found that restaurant revenue from lunches has grown only modestly over the past several years, despite a strong economy. Instead, restaurant owners report a larger increase in traffic among business customers at breakfast. In a recent study by the National Restaurant Association, nearly half of the 1,000 respondents said they have less time for lunch than they used to have -- an increase of 5 percentage points from a similar study in 1996.

Complicating the equation are federal, state and local limits on the amount of entertainment and food that government employees can accept from lobbyists and constituents -- not enough to cover the price of an entree at many restaurants. Meanwhile, early this decade, the federal government reduced the amount of entertainment and food expenses that corporations can deduct on their tax returns. Today the restaurant industry is fighting hard to have those deductions restored.

"The numbers of business customers have risen," said Michael Sternberg, who owns two Sam & Harry's steakhouses in the District and Tysons Corner. "But the percentage of receipts we get from American Express on expense-account meals has remained consistent."

D.C. Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4) will pick up her own tab to eat breakfast with key members of the Financial Control Board. Lawyer David Wilmot of Harmon & Wilmot PC will stake out a table at Georgia Brown's restaurant, knowing that he'll spot city officials whose assistance he needs.

Julie Holdren, who is president and chief executive of the Olympus Group in Alexandria, will motivate the staff of her software company by bringing them together for a late working lunch at the nearby inexpensive trattoria Faccia Luna.

"It's a much more comfortable environment and real icebreaker to do business over a meal or drink," said A. Scott Bolden, a litigator at Reed Smith Shaw & McClay in the District and immediate past president of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce. "It adds a more dynamic atmosphere to the conversation."

And yet there are a few contrarians -- business executives who believe client meals are unproductive and a waste of precious hours in a time-starved day.

"I don't eat breakfast. I barely eat lunch. So my only real meal is dinner," says D.C. Council member David Catania (R-At Large), who recently orchestrated a tax cut for District residents. "Business meals don't permit the engagement of information in a paper form. I don't think you get much done unless you can take notes."

Dining Diversity in D.C.

At Bistro Bis, an expensive and trendy eatery on Capitol Hill, the day gets a jump-start from lobbyists and members of Congress who pack the place for breakfast starting at about 7:30. Restaurateur Jeffrey Buben says politicos are an early bunch who often have had three meetings before entering his bistro.

"There is no longer this stereotype of the three-hour lunch," Buben said. "There are fields to be plowed. There are a lot of things to be taken care of. Time is everything to Capitol Hill."

In the early morning, the restaurant's expansive polished blond wood booths and tables become a who's who of congressional members, staffers and Clinton Cabinetry. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright often steals away to a booth for dinner. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) recently had lunch here with relatives. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) makes an occasional visit.

"It's a very clubby atmosphere," Buben said. "When people come in and pass tables, everybody knows everybody."

By mid-afternoon, a similar scene is playing out at other District restaurants as executives descend from their office towers to meet clients and customers for grub. At Georgia Brown's on McPherson Square, a prominent spot for District power brokers, nearly every table is abuzz with patrons. Waiters scurry to take orders and serve the restaurant's elegant soul-food entrees.

Emily Vetter, president of the city's hotel association, slides into a chair with a view of the entire dining room. "I sit here for a reason," she says with a smile. She sees lawyer David Wilmot sitting just two tables away. She's got a bird's-eye view as the board of the city's restaurant association meets over lunch.

When Vetter spots a friend who works at the White House leaving, she immediately makes a plea for a high-level presence at a fund-raiser for the industry's hospitality high school. "We lost [Vice President] Gore for the event. Maybe you could help nudge the first lady to attend," Vetter urges.

D.C. Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis is drawn to Georgia Brown's partly because her nephew, Billy Jarvis, has an ownership stake with longtime restaurateur Paul Cohen. But mostly, she's here because she revels in the atmosphere.

"What I like about Georgia Brown's is that it has continued to attract a very diverse group," Jarvis said. "It's a very important outcome and management actively seeks that outcome."

Luring smartly dressed business executives hasn't been a problem at DC Coast since it opened nearly a year ago at 14th and K streets downtown. The contemporarily designed restaurant, with its curved booths and glass-encased balcony, has become the city's hottest spot for lunch and dinner.

Taking clients to DC Coast makes a big impression, said lawyer A. Scott Bolden, who recently took the head of one of the region's fastest-growing security firms for a get-to-know-you session.

"The food itself was a conversation piece. But I got to know their business and them as individuals," Bolden said. "It is a work in progress. I don't think lunch, dinner or breakfast gets you business. It provides a comfort level and environment that increases the opportunity."

Business etiquette also dictates that dining mates never discuss anything that is too sensitive for fear that other diners will overhear. Still, business executives said there are some places where you can eat and discuss important projects.

Pauline Schneider, a partner at the law firm of Hunton & Williams in the District, where she specializes in public finance and government work, said she oftens dines at Kinkaid's downtown because "the booths offer some privacy so that you can have a good conversation about business."

But even the best-laid plans for privacy can be scotched. Last year Paul W. Whetsell, then chief executive of CapStar Hotel Co., and Steven D. Jorns, then chief executive of American General Hospitality Corp., got together over breakfast at the Waldorf Astoria in New York to discuss merging their companies. But they had a problem: The breakfast was held in the same hotel that was hosting the New York University Hospitality Investment Conference.

"Not a good place when you're trying to keep something a secret," Whetsell said about the conference where investment bankers and industry muck-a-mucks gather. "Everybody knows something must be up if you're meeting with your chief competitor." (The two companies merged in August to form MeriStar Hospitality Corp. and its operating arm, MeriStar Hotels & Resorts Inc.)

The easiest way to dodge such scrutiny is to dine at restaurants off the beaten path. D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) hardly ever runs into high-powered Washington executives when he ventures to restaurants located in his eclectic district.

One of Graham's favorite spots is Utopia, on U Street NW between 14th and 15th streets. "When I was a young lawyer, my mentor taught me the importance of getting away, pulling away from the office and going somewhere to enjoy an hour away from the desk," Graham said. "During the budget process, the lunches haven't had the same quality."

Setting Suburban Business Tables

To hear suburban executives talk, a dearth of restaurants and the congested roadways associated with suburban sprawl make going out to lunch a rare event. "I can say in the last four years, I've gone outside to lunch maybe one or twice," said William A. Haseltine, chairman and chief executive at Human Genome Sciences Inc.

When clients visit the company's headquarters in Rockville, Haseltine said, he has lunches catered in. "The major reason is convenience," he said. "We're often very busy. So we can meet and eat at the same time."

At least twice a week, Haseltine invites associates to breakfast at his home in Georgetown, where he has a cook and a beautiful outdoor garden setting.

Haseltine isn't alone in preferring breakfast business meetings to more time-consuming midday deal meals. Across the river, Northern Virginia's burgeoning technology community may have brought a plethora of upscale eateries like Morton's, the Ritz-Carlton at Tysons Corner and Sam & Harry's, but the fast-paced technology industry keeps most business executives chained to their desks.

"I never, ever do lunch," said Ted Leonsis, the new owner of the Washington Capitals hockey team and president of America Online Inc.'s interactive properties.

Leonsis, like his tech colleagues, most often conducts breakfast meetings. "I do breakfast at the Hyatt Regency in Reston for interviews or meetings with employees we can't schedule during the day in the office," he said.

When Raul J. Fernandez of Reston Web services firm Proxicom Inc. meets with venture capital partners and clients, he often takes them to the Four Seasons in the District, where, at breakfast, each table has a pen and pad. "You can write some notes down and have a great one-hour meeting," the chief executive said.

But many suburban business people find that the traditional times for out-of-office connections serve their purposes, though their choices of settings vary widely. Commercial real estate broker Sharon Oliver uses the Hamburger Hamlet near the intersection of Democracy Boulevard and Old Georgetown Road as her spot to meet clients. "Everybody knows where it is," she reasons. "Every time I go to Hamburger Hamlet, I see somebody I know."

Mike Dickens, who owns more than a dozen hotels in the region, leans toward the more exotic tastes of Tari Thai in Bethesda, where he has eaten so often that the staff recognizes him. "It's got good food and is a well-designed restaurant. The tables are well-spaced and the service is attentive without being obtrusive," he said.

Julie Holdren of the Olympus Group opts for a more casual atmosphere. The Alexandria chief executive often takes prospective employees to the Evening Star Cafe, where happy hours have a "South Park" theme. "We try to do fun things," she said. "It's important to find a place that is compatible with our culture."

And when a meeting begs for a more formal setting, Alex J. Mandl, chief executive of Teligent Inc., heads to the lobby of his building in Vienna's Fairfax Square to dine at Primi Piatti.

"There's plenty of room, and then there's the added benefit of being a stairway away from our offices," said Mandl. "And if you need real privacy, there's a small room in the back."

Choosing a dining spot depends on the occasion. Here's advice from Washington's business diners on places that best serve a variety of needs:


Hippest Joint: DC Coast, recently named new restaurant of the year at the 1999 Capital Restaurant & Hospitality Awards Gala. With its expansive dining hall, contemporary design and wait staff with a modicum of New York-style attitude, DC Coast even makes staid, buttoned-down power brokers look cool.

Off the Beaten Path: Utopia. There's nothing pretentious about this spot tucked in between the Dunkin' Donuts and Storage USA on the rejuvenated U Street corridor. Attitude is not appreciated at this offbeat eatery, where artists and office workers munch in harmony amid the stripped-down but funky wood decor.

Diversity Extraordinaire: Georgia Brown's. Anyone who is anybody in D.C. politics makes this nouveau soul-food restaurant a staple in his business meal repertoire. But it also scores high points for being one of the District's few spots where a rainbow clientele gathers for food.

Hospitality Speaks Volumes: Hunan at Chinatown. Owner Linda Lee is a tireless community activist. But she's probably best-known by patrons for her staff's ability to serve quick, inexpensive meals with high energy and no nonsense.

Establishment: Capital Grille. Lobbyists, represenatives and senators abound in this clubby den of political extravagance. Prepare to hear a cacophony of ringing cell phones and to pay expense account prices.


Techies Go to Breakfast: Hyatt Regency Reston. It's not surprising that a suburban hotel complex in the middle of Reston Town Center has become the feeding trough for Northern Virginia's technology community.

Best Deal: Faccia Luna (Arlington, Alexandria). Techies and office workers love the big tables, tile floors and black-and-white photographs adorning this trattoria's walls. But more important, the restaurant boasts great prices -- $5.25 for two slices of plain cheese pizza, a salad and Coke.

Mainframe Meal: Morton's at Tysons Corner. Nothing like a big chunk of red meat and expensive red wine to celebrate the latest mega-merger at tech giants such as America Online.

Best All-Around Dining: Clyde's Chevy Chase. Take your pick at this restaurant for any occasion -- eat at the bar, dine casually on the first floor or use the more formal seating upstairs.

Trendy Set: Red Tomato Cafe, Bethesda. Every area needs an upscale California-style Italian restaurant where the business crowd can get good pizza and pasta.


A selection of favorite dining spots for some of the area's business elite:

Pauline Schneider, partner at Hunton & Williams law firm:

Kinkead's on Pennsylvania Avenue

William A. Haseltine, chairman and chief executive of Human Genome Sciences:

The Jockey Club at the Weston Fairfax

David Wilmot, partner in the law firm of Harmon & Wilmot:

Georgia Brown's in the District, BET Jazz in Landover

Alex J. Mandl, chairman and chief executive of Teligent:

Primi Piatti in Vienna

Ted Leonsis, America Online executive and new owner of the Washington Capitals:

Breakfast at the Hyatt Regency in Reston

CAPTION: The Rev. Carlton W. Veazy of the Regional Coalition for Reproductive Choice, center, lunches with co-workers at the trendy DC Coast restaurant.

CAPTION: D.C. Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis, left, and son Ernest Drew Jarvis, Lisa A. Bolden and A. Scott Bolden eat lunch at Georgia Brown's.

CAPTION: Bob Cowden of American Express gets his salad peppered at Primi Piatti in Vienna.