My New York Obsession

The Power Lunch Enters Middle Age at Michael’s

What becomes of a legendary restaurant when many of its boldfaced diners disappear?

Photo by Sayaka Ueno

I have been irrationally obsessed with Michael’s New York restaurant and its tribe of Wednesday power lunchers for the better part of a decade. In the early aughts, everyone in the media industry seemed to dine at Michael’s, and the Wednesday power lunch was fodder for blog posts and tabloid headlines. “Who was at Michael’s?” was a question asked, breathlessly, by the media stalkerati at Mediabistro’s FishbowlNY and my old site, The Corsair, as well as at dearly departed Gawker. Editors, anchors, owners, and machers of all sorts roamed the island of Manhattan freely then, and Michael’s was the place to spot them.

Michael McCarty, widely considered the father of contemporary California cuisine, as well as a master of the power dining scene, started his restaurant on the Left Coast in 1979, at the dawn of the celebrity chef. “In early pictures of Michael, he is thin, like me,” David Patrick Columbia, Michael’s regular, recalled to me during a recent (power?) lunch at the eatery. McCarty is now less slim, but that could be easily taken as a sign of his professional dedication to good food. The term power lunch—coined by Lee Eisenberg in the pages of the once influential Esquire in 1979—is now 40 years old, officially middle-aged, the time of life when we all lose a little power.

Michael's New York
Photo by Sayaka Ueno

On the Wednesday before Memorial Day, the atmosphere at Michael’s was muted, but some television industry players were in attendance. The opening bell of the summer meant that many of the powerful were off opening up their summer houses, beginning the slow season in Manhattan. Still, a few regulars like Star Jones and Dr. Oz sat at coveted tables. Executive producers and PR folks chattered in the back of the house. Steve Millington, the general manager and a friend from years of lunches, dropped by the table to catch up and chat with me and Columbia at priority Table 8. “George Lucas and Mellody Hobson dated here for a long time; Elvis Costello and Diana Krall, too,” Millington dished to The Hollywood Reporter in 2015. Millington is the face of the restaurant, its in-house historian, and, during one memorable holiday season, he actually broke out his guitar and serenaded the room. McCarty, though a frequent Wednesday regular, wasn’t there.

Before the days when a perfectly filtered and tagged Instagram shot could change a restaurant’s trajectory, Michael’s created buzz by attracting all the boldfaced names of New York’s media industry.

Ten years after opening in Santa Monica, McCarty opened Michael’s on 55th Street in New York. Because of the number of nearby talent agencies (William Morris, ICM, CAA), as well as the offices of book publishers and music labels still in midtown at the time, he found himself serving many of his West Coast regulars as they visited or worked in the city. “It was very fortunate that, when I opened here, I saw a lot of my L.A. people,” McCarty told FoodRepublic in 2012. 

While publishing, music, and even talent management have suffered some setbacks, the age of the celebrity chef, to be sure, remains in full flower. Every few months a new culinary superstar emerges, or some new hot food critic or influencer breaks through the static. Celebrity chefs now make their bones on Instagram and Twitter, serving as multimedia figures on demand and less as creators of collective food experiences in real time. The actual brick-and-mortar outpost of a chef’s empire has become something of an afterthought, which is why a place like Michael’s—no one’s idea of this week’s trendy spot—is so special.

Before the days when a perfectly filtered and tagged Instagram shot could change a restaurant’s trajectory, Michael’s created buzz by attracting all the boldfaced names of New York’s media industry. They’d come for the camaraderie and $22.50 salads they knew they could expense. It was like the cafeteria—or the cool pizza place just off campus—for editors at Condé Nast, Hearst, Wenner Media, Time Inc., as well as for such folks as Bryant Gumbel, Barbara Walters, and many, many others

Michael's New York
Photo courtesy of Michael’s NYC/Facebook

Alas, the pendulum swings. The media ecosystem of 2019 is far more austere than it was in 1999 or even 2009. Rather than $22.50 salads and networking at Michael’s, many editors are opting for sad desk salads and Twitter. The editorial Medicis—the Graydon Carters and Tina Browns and the Adam Mosses—have, like Elvis, left the building. Heck: Condé Nast and Time Inc. have left the neighborhood. Even the legendary Four Seasons has gone off into the sunset, launching a thousand meditations asking: Is the power lunch dead?

For those who remain, expense accounts have significantly shrunk. Long gone are the days when restaurants delivered meals in thermal containers to the Time Inc. offices on magazine closing days. The ad recession of 2008 said goodbye to all that. And even though the music industry is showing signs of life, the disruption of peer-to-peer networks followed by YouTube and streaming services was a massive shock from which the industry has yet to fully recover. Midtown, to say the least, is not quite the land of milk and honey that it used to be. Even Midtown Lunch, the early aughts go-to site for food recs, has gone silent. (There are, however, still many tasty places to grub in the neighborhood.)

David Patrick Columbia, of Table 8, has been inviting me to these lunches for nearly a decade. He is slimmer now than when we first met, even as I am thicker around the middle.

Yet Michael’s, which turned 40 in April, remains. Columbia, of Table 8, has been inviting me to these lunches for nearly a decade. He is slimmer now than when we first met, even as I am thicker around the middle. Now he’s the editor of Quest, the high-society bible chronicling the goings-on at the swishy philanthropic dinners on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and the diners’ summers on Long Island and in Palm Beach. He also writes NYSocialDiary, a daily version of Quest, with up-to-the-minute images and summaries of last night’s parties. He even played himself on Gossip Girl and is the subject of an upcoming documentary. These cherished lunches at Michael’s usually involve brilliant conversations about writing, politics, and, most important, gossip that I would never share with anyone else.

The author and David Patrick Columbia still have regular tête-à-têtes at Michael’s. / Photo by Sayaka Ueno

Despite revamping New York’s menu in 2012, the power eatery’s East Coast iteration is also feeling its age, showing signs of a midlife crisis. Some of the California cuisine has made way for Korean tacos; prices are lower than they were during the boom years. There was that review by Frank Bruni in The New York Times that may or may not have been written because he was seated in what he perceived to be “Siberia (Averted Gaze).” (The New York Daily News, we cannot fail to note, also diminished Michael’s in 2019, giving it one star.)

And while the powerful species of New Yorker that Michael’s fed and housed has experienced an extinction-level correction, the restaurant continues to evolve. McCarty has said that the menu revamp and price reductions are at least in part due to diminished expense accounts. Another change: Many of the regulars, semiregulars, and midtown media types who used to frequent the place have gone from famous to infamous over the years. Bestselling author Linda Fairstein has most recently been brought low by Ava DuVernay’s Central Park Five Netflix series. The #MeToo movement sent Charlie Rose into exile (and loneliness), as it did Les Moonves and Matt Lauer.

Some regulars, such as film producer Irwin Winkler, Kathy Lee Gifford, Dan Abrams, Jason Binn, and Steve Kroft, still show up as if nothing has changed, but there is no question that the clientele is older now. One is more likely to see a Tommy Hilfiger or a Kerry Kennedy at Michael’s than, say, a Jack Dorsey or a Kylie Jenner. But—news flash—Michael’s was never the place to go to be perceived as cool. It was the place to be part of the small, insular club that was New York power. Now power can be found everywhere.

Not enough can be said about the disruptive power of the Internet. The fame and fortunes of Internet influencers, as well as the huge money in tech and the rise of reality TV stars, have eclipsed the stalwarts of legacy media—print magazines, books, the music industry, nonsuperhero film studios, and terrestrial radio. The media ecosystem may have changed entirely, but Michael’s hasn’t. It just got older. We all have.

Ron Mwangaguhunga is a contributing editor at Openletr. He edits The Corsair, a media-obsessed Tumblr, daily. He previously wrote about Pat Kiernan for WSWD.