As a penny-pinching undergraduate in New York, my idea of a power lunch was saving up for the Friday whitefish sandwich special at B&H Dairy on Second Avenue. Sitting alone on a vinyl swivel stool, I’d daydream about my boho-intellectual fantasy life, which involved large groups of opinionated writerly types laughing and arguing over exotic communal meals and bottomless tumblers of whisky, which I did not actually drink.
If my luncheonette-fueled fantasy was a bit overstuffed, at least it was rooted in historical accuracy: power lunches are an institution in New York, so much so that they warrant their own section in the New York Public Library’s new exhibit, “Lunch Hour NYC,” a retrospective of 150 years of lunch history and culture in the city. While the term power lunch didn’t officially appear in print until a 1979 Esquire article about the Grill Room at the Four Seasons (unfortunately, “America’s Most Powerful Lunch” is nowhere to be found online), the ritual itself has been an important part of the city’s lunch landscape for well over a century.
Lunch helped shape the rhythm of life in a rapidly industrializing New York at the turn of the last century: lunch breaks were hurried affairs, with rushed stops at quick-lunch counters in the early 1900s and Horn & Hardart automats a few years later. Time was a luxury, and leisurely midday meals were reserved for those wielding considerably political, financial, or social power. “Power lunches weren’t necessarily about exchanging money,” explains Lunch Hour cocurator Rebecca Federman. “They were about connecting with each other and exchanging thoughts, and there can be great power in ideas,” she says.
The earliest power lunches likely took place in the 1830s at Delmonico’s, whose culinary wizardry (Lobster Newburg, Baked Alaska) and prime location in the financial district made it popular with well-heeled suits. Apart from the occasional visit from such authors as Charles Dickens or Mark Twain, Delmonico’s remained largely populated by business and finance moguls. Other powerful groups gathered at different locales over the years: playwrights and actors descended upon Sardi’s in the theater district in the forties, while wealthy socialites clustered at Le Cirque, Le Pavillion, and La Grenouille in the fifties and sixties, earning the not-entirely-flattering nickname “ladies who lunched.”
For literary types, the lunch venue of choice was the Algonquin Hotel on West 44th Street. What would later come to be known as the Algonquin Round Table (or, as its members preferred, “The Vicious Circle,”) began in June of 1919, when Vanity Fair writers Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, and Robert E. Sherwood joined like-minded pals for a midday soiree to welcome back famously sharp-penned New York Times drama critic Alexander Wollcott from a stint as a World War I correspondent overseas. Theater agent John Peter Toohey had organized the lunch as a practical joke, ostensibly as a welcome home, but instead used the opportunity to roast Wollcott for failing to include one of his clients in a column. Legend has it that all attendees—Wollcott included—enjoyed the gathering so much they decided to do it again the next day, and the next, and the one after that.
Dining upon free popovers and celery sticks, or, in flush times, chicken hash with pancakes, the aforementioned writers—along with an ever-evolving cast that included playwrights George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly, columnist Heywood Broun, and author Edna Ferber—bantered and gossiped, played endless games of cribbage and poker, and devised elaborate practical jokes to deceive one another. Conversation was fast, clever and biting—hence the “vicious” nickname, though the Round Table moniker was widely used after a Brooklyn Eagle caricature depicted the group draped in armor around a circular table. (Not all were fans of the club: Groucho Marx, whose brother Harpo occasionally joined the group, distanced himself from the table, claiming “the price of admission is a serpent’s tongue and a half-concealed stiletto.”)
Of course, the Round Tablers also wrote—Kaufman, Connelly, and Sherwood all won Pulitzers for their work, and the Table’s wit was made famous nationwide in columns by Broun and Franklin Pierce Adams, who dutifully reported Tableside gossip in his “Conning Tower” column in the New York Tribune. Ernest Hemingway wrote his infamous “Baby Shoes” short story during a visit to the Round Table, collecting ten dollars apiece from the other writers who dared to bet he couldn’t write a complete tale in only six words.
But the most enduring legacy of the Algonquin Round Table was undoubtedly the creation of The New Yorker in 1925, the masterwork of editor and Round Table regular Harold Ross, who secured funding for the magazine at the hotel (to this day, Algonquin guests receive a complimentary copy of the magazine). Many Round Tablers contributed to the magazine, whose urbane, sophisticated tone mirrored the conversations at the Algonquin’s power lunches.
Over the course of the twenties, as its founding members moved on and away from New York, the Vicious Circle gradually disbanded (the hotel had long since stopped serving free popovers). The legacy of the Round Table has remained strong, however, in the generations since: in 1987 the Algonquin was designated as a New York City Historic Landmark, and in 1996 it was declared a National Literary Landmark by the Friends of Libraries USA.
And the history of the power lunch, too, continues today, albeit in less ostentatious incarnations: Federman suggests Union Square Café as a modern-day haunt for literary agents and authors, while Michael’s in Midtown has long been a favorite for publishing-world honchos. The perennially hip Momofuku restaurant empire—which last year launched its own food-lit magazine, Lucky Peach, in conjunction with McSweeney’s—now hosts a series of lunchtime discussions at its Midtown outpost, Ma Peche. Called the “56th Street Round Tables,” the forums are billed as “lunch and lively discussion, in the spirit of the Algonquin Round Table.” This month’s discussion, presented in conjunction with the library, concerned the history and legacy of street food in New York, with insight from Federman; Robert La Valva, the founder of the New Amsterdam Market; Jane Ziegelman, the curator of the Tenement Museum’s Culinary Conversations; and Zach Brooks, the founder of the blog Midtown Lunch.
The New Yorker’s midday meal, it seems, will continue its reign as the quintessential venue for the exchange of thoughts, ideas and power; to say nothing of the fare consumed. Perhaps for my next trip to B&H, I’ll split the sandwich with company.
Visit NYPL’s “Lunch Hour NYC” through February 17, 2013.
Jamie Feldmar is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor focused mainly on food, both professionally and personally.