WHERE'S THE power lunch headed? Well, there are a few biz/boomer restaurants testing possible trend waters that might make the midday meeting (1) economically palatable to more than the platinum card crowd, (2) as quick to carry out as fast food but much more enjoyable, and (3) a transition from the increasingly institutional short-hours Friday to the weekend.
Here's a major marker for executives willing to indulge their appointments in good food but hoping to hold the travel & entertainment budget line just a little: Since its ownership shakedown and kitchen staff dust-up, the elegant and, to some, forbiddingly formal Lespinasse (in the St. Regis at 16th and K streets NW; 202/879-6900) has intelligently developed a less formal but still meticulously appointed lunch service in that wonderful old bar called "The Library." Although you can still drop $30 or so for a steak, you can also dawdle on a love seat over smoked salmon, a cheese plate with wine, a classic salad or sandwich (Caesar or cobb salad, burger, roasted guinea hen, "portobello burger" or even club sandwich, a childhood favorite) in addition to such bistro-max fare as sea bass en papillote with basil hollandaise, or shrimp and mashed potatoes in a crisp pastry shell, most for about $20.
The Bistro in the Washington Monarch Hotel has decided to adapt its light fare into a to-go menu for downtowners, meaning that you can just as easily have a real crab cake sandwich and fries as frozen, refried ones. (Well, yeah, at $18 it's a little more expensive, but think what you're saving your arteries.) It also means you can luxuriate in marinated portobellos on focaccia, open faced steak sandwiches, crispy scallops and shrimp or a flank steak salad. More seriously, it means an unexpectedly intense negotiation can continue over lunch and you won't have to take that damn cell phone or laptop to the restaurant! (Sorry.) It usually takes only 10 or 15 minutes, but call the restaurant a half-hour in advance and they guarantee to have the whole order wrapped up, accouter'd and ready to go when the courier arrives (24th and M streets NW; 202/457-5020). Weekend shifters can use this one, too.
And lunch marks the opening round of the weekend at Greenwood in Cleveland Park (3529 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202/833-6572), one of the neighborhoods where of a Friday lunchtime one is apt to see executive types in dress-down khakis slipping into the SUV for a three-day getaway with a doggie bag for the road. This is actually the bargain of the three, with only the sirloin ($15) coming in at more than $12, although the side order of hand-cut fries and ketchup will set you back another $5. Among quintessential start-the-party entrees: white cheddar-horseradish fondue, smoked salmon with avocado-goat cheese spread and the oyster po' boy. We wouldn't recommend taking the spicy mussels spaghetti out, but there are fanatics everywhere. Note: Lunch is served Friday through Sunday (which means extra eggy things, bagels, etc.).
So watch for other white-collar specials to start sprouting. There is one caveat: A kitchen staff accustomed to preparing one sort of food isn't always entirely comfortable gearing down to something else, so that what you'd expect to be the mundane items may actually present new problems. For example, while a recent lunch special at Lespinasse, a loup de mer formed into delicate white sausages, was good and fairly characteristic of the restaurant's style, though still dressed down, several of the more ordinary dishes that day were just passable, handled a little carelessly and either over- or under-seasoned. Remember to play to the kitchen's strengths.
NEW FACES, NEW PLACES: To the area's largest "food court," Bethesda, add Fairmont Bar & Dining (4936 Fairmont Ave.; 301/654-7989), a forward-looking (free substitutions, sharing plates encouraged, etc.) new American bistro from restaurant consultant Bob McKay.
The new chef at the new Mrs. Simpson's (2915 Connecticut Ave.; 202/332-8700) is the gleefully eclectic Gillian Clark, late of the Evening Star in Alexandria.
Also, if you're beginning to dread the continual influx of New York steakhouses, and wondering why you need to try Bobby Van's when it finally opens -- managers hope that will be by Christmas, but they have their fingers crossed -- in the old Notte Luna/Isabella space off McPherson Square, here's some culinary cheer: The menu will be a mix of fine dining and big beef, and the head chef will be Will Biscoe, late of the rising Indigo at Great Falls.