This time I think they've got it. This time it looks like the top-of-the-line lunch is going the way of all flesh.
To my surprise, one of the less controversial items in the new tax-reform plan is one that would cap (or rather, decapitate) the business lunch. Under the plan, the deduction for any meal over about $25 would be cut in half.
Predictably, the restaurant owners have been poor-mouthing. But very few corporate types seem eager to join them in another food fight. We may be about to see the demise of the demon called the "three-martini lunch."
In the future, social historians will figure out just when and why the business lunch began to lose its political weight. But we know even now that it's become the $7,500 coffee pot of the business world. It's the symbol of public-funded gluttony where the expense-account rich sit and eat at the public trough.
The irony is that this image of corporate gourmands is way out of focus. It's left over from the era when the J. P. Morgans of the world ate a bushel of oysters for their appetizer.
Today's business lunch is not all that indulgent. Indeed, the more outrageous the bill and the more luxurious the surroundings, the more utterly Spartan the menu.
Just ask the people who routinely fight over who will pick up and write off the check. Or just look at them. They are all lean and hungry. The current class of executives all have exercise charts as complicated as their spread sheets. They run six miles every day before entering the rat race. They have as much heavy lifing at the health club as at the office. They do not do "carbohydrate loading" at lunch.
No self-respecting yuppie eats cow in public at mid-day. Only the downwardly mobile order their first baked potato before the sun goes over the yardarm. There are no credit cards flashed at all-you-can-eat buffets. Indeed, eating (as in chowing down) has become absolutely d,eclass,e, an admission that you might be uncertain of the whereabouts of your next meal.
In New York City, where all the trends meet their makers, the power lunch has now become the will-power lunch. Across elegant tables set with the finest china, publishers and agents share their spa menus, trying to get one-up by undereating. Any author who reaches for the rolls is relegated forever to paperbacks.
In the other major cities, with the exception of Chicago, the chefs in greatest demand are graduates of the culinary school of minimalism. If a modern American can never be too rich or too thin, a modern American restaurant can nevr be too expensive or too spare. Portions are called discreet. The plates arrive looking like the raisin faces we used to make on our oatmeal, only without the oatmeal.
It was not easy for restaurants to make the transition to the will-power lunch. The ultimate challenge these past years was to figure out how to keep raising the prices while lowering the calorie count.
Enormous amounts of imagination and planning, not to mention raspberry vinegar, go into menu planning. The meals involve first-class flights of fancy: asparagus from Australia, mussels from New Zealand, yellow peppers from Holland, salmon flown from one coast to the other.
By now, there are a half-dozen restaurants -- three of them in San Fransisco alone -- where it's possible to eat at the rate of 75 cents a calorie. You open with Perrier (with or without lime) and close with cantaloupe sorbet, a choice of brewed decaffeinated coffees, and a bill that equals your first monthly mortgage payment.
Anyone who calls this "tax-supported hedonism" should try grazing through a salad of raddichio, arugula and watercress. It isn't fun. It's work, ergo, business.
Just to keep the historical record straight, mid-day restaurants have become a meeting place where corporate Americans go in order not to eat, together. And maybe, just maybe, that's why the moguls have given up fighting for their right to deduct the entire rent of a table. Maybe they aren't tired, just hungry.
Besides, have you ever tried to talk high finance with watercress between your teeth?