What Ever Happened To The Power Lunch?

By Maggie Wicks
Photo / Babiche Martens for volume one of Viva Magazine

The hours-long ritual associated with hedonism was out. Then a new breed of dining took a bite out of its playbook.

‘Power lunch’ is an evocative phrase. What does it bring to mind for you? Power suits and shoulder pads? Company credit cards and ordering the lobster? Bad behaviour perhaps:

But we live in self-conscious times: of watching what we eat and drink, weighing up provenance, keeping an eye on the state of our livers, our figures, our behaviour. Perhaps, in these chastened times long boozy lunches never stood a chance.

And yet it seems that reports of the death of the power lunch were greatly exaggerated. Or somewhat, at least.

“No, no, no, it’s not over, it’s still here, and it’s not even sometimes.”

Lucile Fortuna, co-owner of Ahi and Origine, is speaking to me on a Monday afternoon, just after Origine’s lunch service. Against the usual Auckland grain, Origine offers lunch and dinner seven days a week, and reports suggest that even Mondays are pumping.

And how should a power lunch at Origine begin? “Oh, Champagne, of course.”

Lucile Fortuna at Origine. Photo / Josh Griggs
Lucile Fortuna at Origine. Photo / Josh Griggs

Fortuna was born in Lyon, a city famous for its gastronomy and restaurant culture. She pronounces Champagne in a way that makes you want a glass of it immediately: ‘shum parn’, short and sharp and matter of fact. You may pride yourself on your pronunciation of Louboutin and Moet and bruschetta these days, but you won’t realise how terribly you’re butchering the word Champagne until you speak to a French sommelier.

In Lyon, says Fortuna, even on a weekday a worker would sit down at a restaurant for a main and a dessert, plus a glass of wine. Without wanting to be presumptuous, when was the last time you enjoyed a main course, a dessert and a glass of wine in your lunch break?

Back in the heady days of the 80s, everyone was being extremely naughty.

Geeling Ching

At Origine, the business lunches get bigger as the week progresses. “I love the Thursday and Friday lunches, especially with the big corporates. They don’t even look at the menu — they just say, ‘Just make it happen.’ And with the wine is the same. It’s not that they want to show off, but they want to be in good hands. They want to drink, they want to build a big seafood tower, they want to try everything.”

A lost culture

What does lunch culture look like in Auckland, and what could it be? When we look at the long unhurried lunches of Lyon, the boozy pub lunches of London, the pavement dining scene of New York, the standing sushi bars of Tokyo, the late lunch tapas of Barcelona — how does Auckland stack up? These days we’re more likely to suffer through a sad desk lunch than order a carafe at a local bistro. For the sake of playing devil’s advocate, didn’t we used to be more fun?

“Not at all — we’re just as exciting as we used to be,” says Geeling Ching, operations manager at Soul Bar & Restaurant. “There’s definitely partying going on, it’s just a different type of partying. Back in the heady days of the 80s, everyone was being extremely naughty, and that kind of thing doesn’t go on so much during the day now. Perhaps we’re older and wiser.”

Geeling Ching, operations manager at Soul Bar & Bistro. Photo / Supplied
Geeling Ching, operations manager at Soul Bar & Bistro. Photo / Supplied

Ching is an icon — a stalwart of the Auckland hospitality scene, an It girl of the 80s. She’s been there, seen that, and she’s happy to say that the power lunch is still here — it just looks different. She says diners are more sophisticated now.

“It’s not like it used to be,” she says. “The longest lunches we had at Ramses would last for 12 hours. But I feel like maybe it was a more innocent time then, although maybe I see it through rose-tinted glasses.”

Ching was the restaurant manager at Judith Tabron’s Ramses, one of Auckland’s most popular fine dining restaurants and power lunch spots for more than a decade, eventually closing in the early 2000s.

“We used to have butcher paper down on the tables at Ramses, to protect the table cloths and make them last longer, and one lovely guest, he had a party trick which was to whip the paper off the table without breaking anything — the table would be fully laid, with glassware and cutlery and dishes. And he didn’t miss once. He was very charming so he got away with it. The only problem was that then he’d egg on his lunch partners to do it as well, and they were useless. But you couldn’t stop him. It’s not like you had warning, he just did it.”

The new power dining

Swinging from the chandeliers. Cocaine off the cistern. Going home with the barman. Those days are (for the most part) over. There has been a quiet revolution in the way Auckland lunches — it’s the power lunch, but redefined. It’s quality over quantity; gastronomes over gluttons; oenophiles over alcoholic excess.

There are two types of lunch crowd, says Danny Upton, manager at Michael Meredith’s fine dining bistro Mr Morris. The in-and-out crowd, the dine-and-dash who have an hour to leave the office, eat and get back to their desk; and then those at the other end – the 3- to 4-hour types, who order a bottle of wine and then another, and make sure their meeting runs all afternoon. “People want to come for proper lunch,” he says, “but these days they don’t have as much time.”

Mr Morris, Michael Meredith's fine dining restaurant. Photo / Supplied
Mr Morris, Michael Meredith's fine dining restaurant. Photo / Supplied

In late September, Mr Morris sent out an email to its subscribers. ‘Corporate Lunch’ read the not-so-promising subject line. The Corporate Dash menu offers three courses of fine dining, served to you within 45 minutes. It’s like a pre-theatre set menu for the lunch crowd, those who want to enjoy fine dining but have deadlines and bosses to answer to.

The initiative is in part a lure, to get butts back in seats. “We expected people to be back in by now but it hasn’t picked back up the way we were anticipating. People aren’t coming out as much as they used to.”

At least part of the problem is that despite the end of masks and mandates and traffic lights, the average Auckland city commuter lives and works differently now. With flexible working a more mainstream thing, a 5-day-a-week worker might only be in the city two or three days a week.

And the way we order has changed too. “People are definitely more cautious about the amount of alcohol they consume. They’ll buy a good bottle of wine, but people don’t go out of their way anymore to make a big deal about it — they don’t just order the most expensive bottle in the restaurant so they can let everyone know it.”

Bad for business? Quite the contrary, says Upton. “If they’re getting value and enjoying what they’re having, they’ll be back.”

Soul Bar & Bistro in Auckland. Photo / Supplied
Soul Bar & Bistro in Auckland. Photo / Supplied

Capital ventures

On a recent visit to Wellington, I dined at Boulcott Street Bistro. Arriving at 12pm on a Friday, the sweet Victorian cottage exterior belied the scene inside. At the bar, the martinis were in full flow, the capital conversation was loud and raucous. Those seated were dining on French onion soup, confit duck and beef tongue – it was the early 80s, with better suits. By 2pm, the din had only grown louder. To the untrained Auckland eye, it appeared that in Wellington at least the power lunch had never gone away.

“Boulcott has always been an excellent place for a corporate lunch, they have that white collar lunch going on,” says Kate Hutchison from Capitol Dining Room and Bar on Kent St. “Their list has always been really good: classic and traditional, with 90s bistro fare like steak demi and frites, very old school. So the old guard still go there for sure.”

Hutchison has been waiting tables for almost 40 years, and she’s seen a lot of change. “Lunch culture is different now – people don’t go out and have these massive hedonistic all-consuming lunches anymore, that’s not the way to behave.”

Hutchison cites two reasons for the shift – the first was the change to drink driving laws in the 2010s (which saw the limit of alcohol per litre of breath drop from 400mcg to 250mcg); the second was economic austerity.

“Most businesses can’t afford to behave like that anymore, and can’t afford to be seen to be behaving like that. There are still some industries out having long lunches – advertising and the property developers, they still go out and schmooze. But if you see a bunch of people from an office together, they tend to be really careful, maybe one course and one drink. The consumption of alcohol during the day as part of your working week has absolutely dried up.”

If you’re part of the one-drink crowd, be wary of nursing that single glass for longer than you’re welcome. “Most restaurants can’t afford just one sitting anymore – wages have gone up astronomically, and it costs hundreds of dollars an hour to keep the staff there. So unless you’re paying double the revenue to be there, they have to be turning tables. You can’t sit on one drink for an hour and a half.”

Capitol has yet to reopen for lunches – like so many in hospitality, they’re struggling to get the staff. But Hutchison is confident that hospo, and with it the long lunches, will be back.

“They’re coming back, absolutely. Humans are sociable creatures, we love to gather and there’s something really special about coming together in a dining room where the energy of the room lifts everyone up. You can’t get the same buzz at home as you do in a dining room - where everyone is having a good night, and you don’t even know the people beside you but the energy just lifts you.”

Kate Hutchison and her husband Tom, from Capitol restaurant, Wellington. Photo / Supplied
Kate Hutchison and her husband Tom, from Capitol restaurant, Wellington. Photo / Supplied

Further south, Tony Stewart has overseen food and drinks at Amisfield, Vaughan Mabee’s fine dining restaurant between Queenstown and Arrowtown, since moving south in 2020. After 13 years at the helm of Auckland’s Clooney, and many years in Auckland’s hospitality scene before that, the respected restauranteur has seen many changes over his career, including a change up in the way businesses spend.

“Corporates are a lot more mindful of their spend these days, how they spend and how they’re seen to be spending. These days it’s more about quality over quantity.” At Amisfield they’re also conscious of how a big group can change the dynamics of the dining room. “As a business, you’ve got to be very mindful of the experience of everyone in the restaurant. A big group like that can have an impact – they take the air out of the room a bit. You have an obligation to all your guests.”

A change in drinking habits

The power lunch has long been associated with hedonism. Drinking too much; staying too long. Perhaps it is New Zealanders’ uneasy relationship with alcohol that has killed off the power lunch? Perhaps we might even be getting a better grip on our drinking?

“In France, the wine is part of the culture,” says Fortuna. “It’s just something that goes with the food. So a glass of red or a glass of white, it’s not a big deal, even if you’re working in the afternoon.”

In New Zealand, the drinks orders happen differently. “If one says, ‘Oh no, I’m good’, then no one will drink. If one person says ‘Yeah, actually I’d like a beer’, everybody follows.”

In France... a glass of red or a glass of white is not a big deal, even if you’re working in the afternoon

Lucile Fortuna

This was a sentiment echoed by Upton at Mr Morris — when it comes to drinks, it’s either a desert or a king tide. Why do we play follow the lead when it comes to ordering a glass of wine over our meal? The problem might be having no formal endpoint.

“I think they feel uncomfortable,” says Fortuna, “or they feel they’re going to be judged, that you’re not supposed to drink at lunchtime, especially if you’re working after, and especially if it’s a business meeting. French people, we love drinking, but I’ve noticed that in New Zealand, people love to drink but there’s no limit sometimes — they just keep going. In Lyon, you have the long lunch and then let’s say cheese at the end, and then a nice sticky wine or a fortified wine, even a nice Armagnac to finish. It’s part of French culture, you finish with digestif. That’s how it ends, the nice digestif, and that’s the French way.”

French restaurant Origine in Commercial Bay. Photo / Babiche Martens
French restaurant Origine in Commercial Bay. Photo / Babiche Martens

An evolving party scene

Soul has long been associated with long lunches, events and parties. That front deck that catches the sun all day, the free-flowing Champagne and the people watching — it’s a perfect spot to while away the hours after lunch has ended and before dinner has begun. And they throw one hell of a party — recently a 220-ticket event sold out in just 40 minutes.

“People absolutely still want to have fun,” says general manager Olivia Carter. “My goodness, the demand is overwhelming.”

Carter has been at Soul for 14 years and she says while the people still want to party, the culture has shifted.

“There’s lots of different factors. You’ve got to be far more careful with how much people drink these days compared to 20, 15, even 10 years ago. And I think they’re more careful too. People are more conscious now. They realize that they can sit down and have conversations and drink, maybe not as much. You can still be on the dance floor and have a great time. You know it’s much better to remember it at the end of the day than not.”

Carter keeps an eye on the venue’s social media and notices the trends as they come and go. “Yes, it’s changing, but the face of hospitality is always changing. A few years ago the posts that were coming up were showing people that were eating vegan dishes, who were drinking mocktails and non-alcoholics as opposed to drinking. Lately I’ve noticed people are talking more about money and mortgages, and being wary of that. I think now is a little bit of crunch time and there’s talk around it.”

Ching agrees. “I think we don’t want to look too excessive nowadays — it’s no longer a great look to be splashing around heaps of cash. At Ramses we used to have lots of marketing people and advertising people, and they had unlimited budgets, which isn’t the case now. When you have to present the account to the people who sign it off, you can imagine them questioning why you’ve spent $500 on food and thousands on alcohol.”

Soul Bar & Bistro. Photo / Supplied
Soul Bar & Bistro. Photo / Supplied

A cultural shift

Austerity may play a part, but Ching says something else has shifted — the way we treat each other.

Ching says that as an industry, hospitality is more responsible now. “We’re more responsible around alcohol, around guest behaviour, making sure our team is okay — making sure staff aren’t being harassed by people. And that trickles down — we’re more responsible in terms of keeping an eye on people — we’ll check in and ask ‘how are you getting home, let’s get you a taxi or a bunch of Ubers.” Soul recently held a huge staff training day specifically around host responsibility towards their guests.

“I’m old now,” she laughs, “and if you had asked me 40 years ago, I might have said that yes, we need to party more. But we still throw huge fabulous parties, and people are wild and uninhibited and have a huge amount of fun. There’s no limit on the enjoyment, but people are a bit more considerate. We’re more aware of our behaviour to the opposite sex, and the same sex, and how that can get out of hand. We’re more respectful now — of other people, of other people’s feelings. I think we’ve grown up a bit.”

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