The three-martini lunch? Who, me?

As reports of the possible demise of the tax-deductible liquid lunch reached Washington's poached-fish restaurants (and if you tear-gassed any on K Street, you probably wouldn't flush out one person paying his own tab), indignant protests were heard. First from the restaurant owners, complaining about the bill before a House-Senate conference committee that would halve the 100-percent corporate tax deduction on business lunches. And now, there comes this new rumble:

"I've never had a martini in my life," says Pete Teeley, press secretary for Vice President George Bush.

"If most older men I know had a couple of drinks before luncheon," says Clark Clifford, the lawyer and statesman, "then after luncheon, they'd be ready for a nap."

"I've never had a martini in my life," says Barbara Thomas, a Securities and Exchange commissioner.

"The three-Perrier lunch is probably more popular than the three-martini lunch," says Art Buchwald, the columnist who once haunted the Sans Souci.

"I sell more matzoh balls than I sell martinis," says Mel Krupin, the owner of the expense-account restaurant that bears his name.

"I've never had a martini in my life," says Carolyn Peachey, a public relations consultant who sometimes has five business lunches a week.

So goes the refrain. From Capitol Hill to the K Street restaurant corridor, from Joe and Mo's to the Washington Palm, lunchtime eaters all say the same thing: The three-martini lunch is folklore.

(That isn't to say that the expense-account lunch, which is what "three-martini" really means, is myth. This lunch is alive and well, flourishing at establishments such as the Maison Blanche where Tony Greco, the owner, estimates that 90 percent of his customers aren't personally paying the $13.95 for the coho salmon or $22 for the Dover sole.) With drinks, lunch at Maison Blanche can easily reach $50 for two.

But no one has three martinis. White House chief of staff James Baker has buttermilk, his assistant swears. (Although he does have a vodka martini, with an olive, before dinner.) When he's not eating at the private, old-line Metropolitan Club, Clifford sometimes dines at the 17th and I Street People's drugstore counter, where he has milk. Others say they drink wine or beer, but not three martinis--or any martinis--because of weight consciousness, health concerns and the need to stay alert in a cagey town.

Columnist Nicholas von Hoffman, who dines at home, concludes: "There is no long lunch in Washington. Everyone is hagridden and anxious. Look at them. They're going to go back and do a full afternoon's worth of damage to the society. You've got to be sober for that."

But somebody's drinking in the nation's capital. In fact, the District of Columbia ranks No. 1 for alcohol consumption, per capita, in the United States. (The figure doesn't include beer or wine.) That's according to a 1981 state-by-state ranking by the Distilled Spirits Council, the major national trade association for liquor producers and sellers.

A spokesman for the Distilled Spirits Council warns, however, that this is "not a significant figure." Factors that skew the number include tourists, hotel conventions, low prices and Maryland and Virginia visitors who buy drinks here at lunch or dinner.

Still, the average District resident--an average which includes all residents, of all ages--consumed 5.97 gallons of distilled spirits in 1981. This amounts to 764 ounces. Dividing that by 1.5 ounces, which is a healthy shot of spirit per drink, you come out with 509 drinks per person per year, or 1.4 per day.

The Distilled Spirits Council also reports that alcohol consumption in the District last year was down 1.6 percent from 1980, a trend that is matched nationwide. As J.D. Williams, the lawyer and lobbyist, puts it: "I think there are a lot of people in town who used to think they could drink three martinis. But now I think they know they're not man enough."

As the rumble continues, Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.), the chairman of the Finance Committee, who added the business lunch limitation to the $98.9 billion proposed tax increase, is remaining firm. Although he was considering some compromises late last week with lobbyists from the hotel and restaurant industries, Walt Riker, Dole's press secretary, insisted: "We're not going to cave in. It's a fairness question. It's unfair to impose a new energy tax, or take away the third year of the tax cut, when other people are either avoiding taxes or getting a 100 percent deduction on their business meals."

The three-martini lunch, adds Riker, "is the colloquial title for the business lunch. But we're including meat and potatoes, too."

Meanwhile, is there anyone in town who admits to drinking anything more than a careful glass of wine at lunch?

There's always Charles Peters, editor of The Washington Monthly, who often shares a whole carafe. But a businessman, he says, "knows he may not close the deal, or more important, knows he may not establish that long-term relationship if he does something injudicious. My own view is that we'd all have a lot more fun if people would risk that injudiciousness . . . I wish we had more orgies."

"I think the way to get around all this controversy," says Clifford, "is to go into a restaurant and say: 'I want the three-martini luncheon--without the luncheon.' "