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Insights: Indulgences—Dining for 100 Dollars

A "hundy" can buy you many pleasures, but none so indulgent as the French Lunch
Matt Kramer
From the Print Edition:
Gene Hackman, Sep/Oct 00

The challenge was simple. The criteria were loose but specific. "What could you get for a 'hundy' these days?" asked a jaded friend of mine, referring to one hundred bucks. It had to be deeply pleasurable and legal. It had to be something prolonged (no quick thrills) and genuinely refined. And it had to cost $100 per person, give or take.  

"Cigars," responded one participant. He had a point: they are a prolonged pleasure. You don't light up a good cigar when you're in a hurry. And a hundy more than covers the tab.  

Other voices chimed in with good, if predictable, choices: wine, golf, a massage.   "A French Lunch," I said, somehow conveying the necessary capital letters. "It's the last great legal pleasure of our time. And it's not what you might imagine," I added hurriedly.  

All my adult life I have loved what I reverently refer to as a French Lunch. It began decades ago when my wife and I first started bicycling in Europe. You're out there in the middle of the French countryside and it starts to rain. You know that it's not going to let up anytime soon. Your day's cycling is pretty well shot.  

So, you whip out the red Michelin guide, the one with all the restaurant and hotel listings, and look to see if there's a starred restaurant nearby. There usually is. And so you call to see if a table is available for lunch (rarely a problem) and cycle over, soggy but in eager anticipation.  

That's how my wife and I discovered the joys of a French Lunch. It's not just the food, mind you. A French Lunch is about the choreography between diner and server. It's about a certain level of formality--not stuffy, but not chummy either. (None of that Disneylandish, "Hi, my name is Mindy and I'm your server" nonsense.)  

The dining room should be formal, too, with tables spaced widely apart so that there's a distant, pleasant, hive-like buzz of murmurings in the room but no more than that. In short, you want an atmosphere consecrated to serenity.  

First, you need to find just the right venue. The food doesn't even have to be French. But the place has to have a formal, even old-fashioned, dining room, something probably more formal than you'd normally otherwise choose. And, of course, it has to be open for lunch. That's the hard part. Most of the potentially great French Lunch places are now open only for dinner. 

Today, the open-for-lunch restaurants with just the right hush and service are found almost exclusively in grand hotels. For example, I recently decided to indulge in a French Lunch with two friends while visiting New York. I chose what may very well be New York's premier French Lunch restaurant: Lespinasse.  

Located in the plush St. Regis Hotel, Lespinasse has it all. The dining room is a pale-green and gold marvel--formality at its prettiest. The tables are widely spaced; the service is impeccable. The food is superb and not least, the wine list is truffled with treasures. It's a shrine to leisured dining, a place where you can enjoy your food, savor your wine and talk to your friends in quiet privacy.  

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