Los Angeles is a keystone to the commerce of the Pacific Rim, a nexus for legions of Asian businesspeople, who flock to the City of Angels to make deals, take meetings...and have a few meals while they're in town.
Those of us who have dealt with these visiting businessmen (and women) over the years know that in the world of Asian business, a meal isn't just a meal. It's an event that speaks volumes about the status of the clients and the direction the negotiations are taking. Choose the right restaurant, and riches await; choose poorly, and you'll be doomed to eat your lunch out of a paper bag.
In psycho-babble terms, the restaurant is a "signifier," and its significance can vary depending on which group of Asian visitors we're speaking about. Japanese businesspeople are very impressed by a high level of privacy private dining rooms are a major deal in Tokyo, where sign-less restaurants are sometimes hidden on the upper floors of office buildings, accommodating just a single group of diners per night. (A fair simulacrum of this can be found at the outlandishly expensive Ginza Sushi-Ko in Beverly Hills, with its small sushi bar and tiny private room off to one side in a space virtually unidentified from the outside.) By contrast, both Chinese and Korean businesspeople like to party hearty.
There are no restaurants noisier than the sprawling dim sum eateries of Hong Kong and Taiwan. In Hong Kong, dice are often thrown at the end of a business lunch to determine who picks up the check. In Seoul, whole tables have been known to burst into song after a few rounds of Obi beer. Where quiet elegance works well for Japanese visitors, noisy affability works best for visiting Chinese and Koreans; if the food were better, the Hard Rock wouldn't be a bad choice.
In terms of getting ready for the meal, the choices are simple. Bear in mind that most Asian businesspeople consider it to be bad form to discuss business during a meal. So what you're looking for is not a restaurant with large tables where you can spread out sheaves of documents. What you're looking for is an Occasion, an Event, a Meal Chosen for the Guests. One essential strategy is to pre-order the meal, boiling it down to a limited number of special dishes printed on a menu with the guest's name on it. Nothing is duller than a table of diners staring at a menu for what seems like forever. Pre-ordering the wines is a good move too. The idea here is to nurture and to have a heck of a good meal while you're at it.L.A.'s 'signifiers'
There is probably no restaurant in Southern California that is as much an object of culinary desire as Wolfgang Puck's Spago Beverly Hills. Since 1997, the Beverly Hills branch of Spago (which will soon be the only branch, for the original in West Hollywood closes this spring) has been our Restaurant on a Hill the eatery that defines (and defies) us all. Taking a visiting businessperson to Spago lets them know that their importance is paramount; it signifies great honor.
Visitors tend to be wowed by the legions of famous faces that show up there, perhaps even more than the exceptional Spago style of Asian-influenced California Cuisine.
No matter what's on the menu, this is the hottest ticket in town, with no cooling period in sight.
Another signifier is Lawry's the Prime Rib, which dates back to 1938 and is an obsessively loved eatery predicated on the simple pleasures of beef and cheerful service. And when it comes to entertaining Asian visitors, cheerful service is nice but beef served in sizable quantities is heaven.
With only three items on the menu, there's no room for guessing what you'll have tonight: It's either prime rib (four selections), lobster, or the fresh fish special all of which come with a pinwheel salad.
For Asian business travelers, only a big Kobe steak would signify greater honor than that derived from the beef at Lawry's. This is meat as honorific.
Widely acclaimed as the finest American seafood restaurant in Southern California, the Water Grill is to Los Angeles what Aqua is to San Francisco and Le Bernardin to New York a Temple of Rampant Pescatorianism, a realm in which fish aren't so much consumed as they are venerated.Spotting celebrities
When your client absolutely, positively must see celebrities, there's no place quite like The Ivy for those who live their lives on the A-list celebrities. The setting is, in perfect Los Angeles style, not quite what might be expected it looks rather like a Midwestern farmhouse, where a white picket fence encloses comfy chintz seating and schmoozing power diners. The cooking is almost naively American, a bit of culinary Norman Rockwell spicy corn chowder, crusty crab cakes, Southern-fried chicken (consumed with abandon by those who normally obsess over every calorie). In a city where indulgence is a way of life, there are few indulgences sweeter than The Ivy. And only Spago offers more celebrity sightings. If possible, seat your clients on the outdoor patio, which is where the famous and those who want to observe the famous find bliss incarnate.
For those Hong Kong businesspeople grown nostalgic for home, there's nothing quite as right as Ocean Star, the dominant Hong Kong-style seafood palace of the San Gabriel Valley. The restaurant, a sprawling affair, rambles through a series of large rooms and larger rooms.
Old Chinese Food Hands don't just stick to the menu, they check out what other tables are eating, like the seasonal special of stir-fried pea vines. Show up when a wedding is going on (which is every weekend), and you'll be entertained by guests who, after downing a glass or three of Chivas, head for the mike to serenade the bride and groom with Cantonese love songs. In return, the bride puts on a constantly changing fashion show for the guests. And assuming that your Asian guests are better versed at reading a Chinese menu than you are, they can decipher the many specials that are never translated into English.
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