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.
I know Lespinasse's sommelier, Joseph Nase, from when he worked at Fournou's Ovens in San Francisco. So I called him and we talked over what I had in mind, namely, choosing the wines first and allowing the chef to devise the menu as he saw fit. "We're not going anywhere," I made sure to point out. "We just want to come in, sit down and let the show begin." Nase said he'd take care of everything.
The ideal French Lunch occurs on a Friday. Essentially, you're taking the afternoon off. Believe me, you won't want to go back to work (and if you're a wine lover, you probably won't be able to). The idea is to leave the office, meet your tablemates at the restaurant, and let the afternoon unroll.
A French Lunch can be an all-guy thing (although it can involve a romantic rendezvous as well). It can be for two people or a party of 12. But everyone has to agree about one thing: no one's going anywhere. This is part of its delicious luxury. Everyone has to agree to turn off his cell phone, pager and anything else that smacks of the outside world. A French Lunch is a cocoon.
On the romance side, a French Lunch invites all sorts of possibilities. The greatest French Lunches I've ever had always ended with my wife and I leaving the table and heading up to our hotel room. Since so many of the best French Lunch restaurants in this country happen to be in hotels, it's a natural progression. Besides, you won't be driving after the lunch.
At Lespinasse, it was France--not the language but the actual substance--towed to New York. My friends and I sat down and everything simply unfurled. For more than three hours we ate great food, drank an impressive amount of wine and flat-out enjoyed the choreography of being proper diners in a restaurant that knows how to do it right, unobtrusively and with no fuss.
"Frankly, we don't do as much of this as we'd like," says Nase, referring to my idea of a French Lunch. "It's really a pleasure for us. And while it can be hard to get a table for dinner at Lespinasse, especially on Friday, getting one for lunch is usually no problem. You know," he adds with a grin, "the food and the service are the same, not to mention the wine list."
Although New York probably has the largest concentration of viable French Lunch venues, such as Le Bernardin, Daniel and Lutéce, to name just three, most big cities boast at least one properly formal, really good restaurant that's open for lunch. For example, on the West Coast, you might be surprised that Los Angeles--everyone's notion of West Coast casual--offers several choice locales, such as the Peninsula Hotel, the Ritz-Carlton Huntington, the Regent Beverly Wilshire and the Four Seasons. All of these hotels have truly elegant, fresh but formal dining rooms with excellent food.
Oddly, San Francisco--which has a more formal image than rival L.A.--has fewer French Lunch venues. I can't think of one that meets all the French Lunch criteria of formality, a certain grandeur, serenity and outstanding food. The Campton Place dining room might work, or the jewel- box restaurant called Elizabeth Daniel.
Seattle, in comparison, has the stunningly restored Four Seasons Olympic Hotel, which surely has one of the grandest, most beautiful dining rooms in America, serving consistently fine food with more formality than you'd associate with Seattle. A true French Lunch needn't necessarily even be French. I recall as pure a French Lunch experience as I've had in a restaurant renowned for its Southwestern cuisine: The Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas. It has all the elegance, formality and serenity you could want.
New Orleans, of course, is ideal. A place like Brennan's is custom-made for the indolent excesses of a great French Lunch, as is Antoine's. Now that I think about it, the entire city of New Orleans is one big French Lunch in ambience, pace and laid-back attitude. But if you're not already there, it'll cost more than a hundy.
Oregon-based Matt Kramer is a columnist for Wine Spectator, Cigar Aficionado's sister publication.