Back in less-enlightened (and possibly far more entertaining) times, there was a fair percentage of the population who did not eat their lunch. They drank their lunch. Sometimes, some food would be consumed with all those drinks not so much for sustenance, but just to have something to wash down with those flowing bowls of gin and scotch.
It was an age when the olive in a martini was viewed, without a hint of irony, as a vegetable course. Toss in a pickled onion, and you had your veggies for the day. A maraschino cherry and an orange slice was always good, for they'd keep at bay dreadful sounding ailments like scurvy and pellagra.
Writers spoke of the "Drinking Class," not with contempt, but with awe. Life was a series of hangovers, interrupted by attacks of coffee nerves.
For those who really liked to drink, there was a libation called the "Silver Bullet." Depending on whom you ask, it was either a double martini or a triple martini, and it may or may not have had a layer of scotch whiskey floating on top. Advertising legend Jerry Della Femina has written about having lunches consisting of three and even four Silver Bullets. I don't know about you, but I suspect my heart would stop at some point during the second they were made of sterner stuff back then. Or perhaps they just really liked spending the whole day dead stone drunk.
These days, in Los Angeles at least, we've virtually revived the tenets of Prohibition; Carrie Nation could be our patron saint. Forget sucking down an old fashioned or a stinger for lunch. Even Diet Coke seems to be viewed with a certain doubtfulness all that caffeine and those chemicals upset our delicate constitutions. Iced tea, which is both refreshing and pleasantly cost-effective (most restaurants will keep refilling your glass until iced tea is pouring out of your ears), has the same downside too many glasses, and your eyes start throbbing.
We have turned into a town where mineral water is the liquid franca, the drink of choice for L.A.'s Aqua Generation.
"That's absolutely correct," says Bob Spivak, owner of The Grill and The Daily Grill chain, the restaurateur son of a restaurateur (his family owned downtown's legendary Redwood Room). "In Los Angeles, alcohol consumption at lunch is almost nonexistent."
The Grill, which sits at the junction of Rodeo Drive and Wilshire Boulevard, is (along with trendies like Spago, The Ivy and Le Dome) the inheritor of the fine-dining mantle that once belonged to such gloriously retro dinosaurs as Scandia, Perino's and The Brown Derby Hollywood watering holes where water was not the beverage of choice. (To conservatively paraphrase the legendary W.C. Field's remark upon being offered a glass of water: "Water! Never touch the stuff! Fish fornicate in it!" The word he used, gentle reader, was not "fornicate.")
Photographs of celebrities lunching at the Old Guard restaurants rarely showed any actual food in front of them. Instead, there were glasses of pale liquid in which melting ice cubes languidly floated. They drank their lunch, and they most definitely drank their dinner; it's amazing their teeth didn't fall out from lack of vitamins. I remember well studying a classic photograph of Humphrey Bogart at Romanoff's, looking happy as a clam, with several glasses in front of him in various states of consumption.
"Back then," says Kurt Niklas, maitre d' at Romanoff's who went off to open The Bistro and The Bistro Garden, "people knew how to drink. These days, it's a lost art."
The question is, whether it's been lost through lack of practice, or simply through intention.
"I think that in Los Angeles at least, it's a function of the efforts of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, along with the change in the law to .08 (percent blood-alcohol level) as the definition of drunkenness," says The Grill's Spivak. "But it's also the way we've come to view drinking to excess. It's just not cool anymore. It's not viewed as chic to go back to the office slurring your words. Boomers and Xers don't see being drunk as anything more than sad behavior. And peer pressure can be very powerful."
Gerhard Trotter, who's been general manager at Cafe del Rey and director of operations at the Patina Group, and who's now managing partner at the Saddle Peak Lodge in Calabasas, agrees that drinking (and especially lunchtime drinking) is on the verge of extinction in Los Angeles. But he sees other causes. "Until the mid-, even the late-'80s, the business crowd would still order cocktails at lunch, maybe two martinis, or manhattans. And then, in the early-'90s, that just stopped. I think two things happened at once the economy went soft, and expenses were drastically cut. People had to work harder going back to the office with several martinis under your belt was no longer acceptable behavior. And it's true, there was a big image problem the sophisticated lunchtime martini drinker wasn't a role model anymore."
Trotter also points out that the end of smoking, first in restaurants and then in bars, also had a serious effect on drinking habits. "Drinking and smoking go hand in hand," he says. "The bar and the restaurant used to work together, with a smoke and a cocktail before the meal, during the meal, after the meal. When smoking went away, drinking diminished as well. Our bad habits just weren't politically correct."
It's a point well taken. In more sinful cities like New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., where smoking is still regarded as a natural human right, drinking is every bit as popular as Martha Stewart during an IPO. (In her words, "It's a good thing.")
Spivak, who's been opening branches of The Daily Grill on the East Coast, says, "It's the total opposite in New York and Washington. We serve lots of martinis, lots of wine. Time has stood still back there. Nothing has changed. There's a totally different attitude toward health back there, and it's reflected in their drinking habits."
So if we aren't consuming alcohol at lunchtime, what are we consuming? Simple question, simple answer. Trotter says, "Lots of iced tea, lots of Diet Coke." Spivak says, "In Los Angeles, people drink sparkling water like it's a cocktail. I've seen people actually sipping their water, as if they were drinking a Martini, using it like a pacifier. Sparkling water is a big thing in our restaurants, it's become a cocktail substitute." And he's not mourning this: "There's plenty of profit in mineral water."
Will we ever go back to the bad old days, when a martini with lunch was as standard as a napkin and a basket of bread? Neither Spivak nor Trotter are willing to say "never."
"Never is a long time," says Spivak.
But he doesn't see the return of drinkers like Jackie Gleason, who would drop by The Grill every day when he was making a movie and staying at the Beverly Wilshire. The Beverly Wilshire is directly across the street from The Grill. Yet Gleason would have a limousine drive him from the hotel to the restaurant, and then take him back afterward. "When I saw how much he was drinking," recalls Spivak, "I understood why."
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