Some years ago, I spent several months working for People magazine in New York. Before I started, I called one of the phalanx of editors who works there, and asked what time I should show up. He told me 9 a.m. would be fine.

I was there at 8:45. He showed up at 11 and he was one of the first people to arrive in the office. What I observed over the next few weeks was a world built not just around late starts, but around seemingly endless lunches. It was something that Calvin Trillin wrote about in his book "Floater." But the degree to which it was true astonished me.

As a rule, editors and writers showed up late in the morning, and spent what little time remained in the A.M. to set up a lunch date. They usually left for lunch a little after 12. They often returned somewhere around 4. I speak from experience, for I was asked along on enough long lunches to grow my waist line from size 34 to size 36 in less than a month. And those lunches were an amazing process.

Though an argument could be made that business was being done over three Martinis, two bottles of Cab, a Caesar salad, a Porterhouse with a baked spud jammed with sour cream, a slice of pie, and an after-dinner drink, most of the world would say that what ensued was a mildly inebriated hen session.

Writers complained about editors, editors complained about writers, and everyone complained about the flacks at PMK. Attention would finally be paid to copy when we all staggered back to the office in the late afternoon, where we'd stay late enough to be entitled to the company perk of a paid cab ride home. New York may believe that Southern Californians spend their days jogging and playing tennis, but I contend that based on our lunch habits, New York is a lazy backwater, where lunch is just another name for heading down to the fishin' hole.

Simply no time

This is not to say that no one in L.A. goes out for lunch the Ivy, the Grill, Nick & Steff's, Water Grill, the Pacific Dining Car, they're all busy with suits eating and, yes, drinking their lunch. But this is also a city where a remarkable number of Type A's eat their lunches at their desks. Not just occasionally, but day after day after day.

Take me, for instance. The first two months of 2000 are now over, and I have yet to leave my office for lunch. This is particularly odd because I am a restaurant critic by trade. It's my job to go to restaurants. And yet, in the middle of the day, I simply don't have the time.

These days, it takes half an hour (if you're lucky) to get anywhere. It takes a minimum of an hour for lunch (unless you're eating at McDonald's). It takes half an hour again (ditto on lucky) to get back. The bottom line is two hours gone during the most productive segment of the day, and possibly three it's a lot easier for me to make a sandwich, and eat it at my desk.

And I'm right on the curve when it comes to my perception of lunch as a black hole for time. My wife, Merri Howard, a supervising producer for "Star Trek: Voyager," also has yet to leave her office for lunch in the year 2000. She says, "We bring food in every day for the office. If I were to leave, I'd spend the whole lunch on the phone anyway there are always issues that have to be dealt with. Going out for lunch would cause significantly more stress than staying here. The notion that lunch is a relaxing break in the middle of the day doesn't make sense in television production."

It actually seems as if it doesn't make sense in a lot of industries. Sky Dayton, one of the founders of EarthLink, said in a recent profile that he eats "breakfast, lunch and dinner at my desk. I'm handling more output per square inch of my body than I ever have."

'I like to order in'

Even restaurateurs don't have time to eat lunch at restaurants. Richard Drapkin, co-owner of The Brentwood, says, "More often than not, lunch is a waste of time. The best case scenario, eating in the neighborhood, makes it an hour out of your day. I like to order in it takes a few minutes to order, you can work while the food shows up, you can work while you eat. When you have a packed day, an hour is a lot of time to give up. It can make the difference between getting your job done or not."

Michael Marcus, a judge for the California State Bar Court, who works downtown in the Transamerica Building, says, "For me, lunch is a time to read The New York Times, to recharge my battery, to be peaceful in the middle of a busy day. It's a time not to run around town. I go out at most once a week for lunch. And every time, the day is thrown off by that there's no transition period between going out and coming back. As soon as I get back, I have to start returning phone calls. But if I stay at my desk, I can catch up on the little tasks that fill up the day."

Marcus either orders soup, a salad or pasta from a shop in the building, or his wife packs him lunch, "mostly leftovers." On the other hand, he recalls that during his days in the District Attorney's Office, lunch was an essential activity: "If you didn't go out to lunch, you felt as if you were missing out on something, that there was some gossip that wouldn't come your way, that there was a point you missed scoring. All the rules were different there."

Attorneys in the DA's office may live for lunch, but for many lawyers, lunch is a rara avis. Michael Berk, a partner at Pircher, Nichols & Meeks in Century City, says, "Going to lunch means a minimum two-hour hole in the day. Since many firms try to maximize the number of billable hours put in by the worker bees, there's a trend toward in-house cafeterias at some of the bigger firms having your own cafeteria minimizes the time spent out of the building. I eat at my desk a lot. And we also have weekly legal advocate seminars where we bring in lunch it kills two birds, allowing us to take care of the seminar and lunch at the same time. The choice is simple go out to lunch and go home later, or eat at your desk and go home earlier."

Upscale takeout

The trend toward eating at one's desk, not surprisingly, has created a cottage industry of purveyors who specialize in feeding workers quickly and efficiently. To do just that, Joachim Splichal, owner of Patina and the Pinot chain, recently opened a fast-food outlet in the Wells Fargo Center called Pentolino to Go, offering upscale takeout items like braised lamb shank, lemon chicken panini and a portobello mushroom flat bread sandwich.

And on the Westside, Doug Delfeld, former owner of Trumps, owns a company called Kitchen Fresh that specializes in bringing lunches to doctor's offices at Cedars-Sinai, design firms along Robertson, law firms in Century City, and entertainment production companies along Olympic. He says, "I've found that professionals like to bring their lunch in. It's a big business for me there are companies that have a standing order for me to bring in meals for all the employees, three, four, five days a week. In Los Angeles, productivity is far too valuable a commodity to lose an hour or more to lunch."

To facilitate eating-at-their-desks, Delfeld has created a menu he calls "Business As Usual Luncheons." One section is called, whimsically, "The Executive Lunch Box," which features herb-crusted roast beef and sundried tomato spread. In L.A., we may be eating at our desks, but that doesn't mean we're living on liverwurst on white.

Restaurant critic Merrill Shindler is co-editor of the Los Angeles/Southern California Zagat Survey.

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