Eight of us nurse BLT salads, carne asada plates and Wagyu-beef burgers at Cora’s on a sunny farmers’-market Wednesday, flying high on coffee and eavesdropping on the Midwestern tourists who have gotten lost on the way to the pier. The weather is warm, the company fine, the ocean air heavy with salt. The salad is good; the tomato ripe and sweet, the bacon smokily solid. Around 2 o’clock, about the time I contemplate switching from coffee to lemonade, half of us — the wives, the girlfriends — shrug their purses onto their shoulders and head back to the editing rooms, photo studios and newspaper offices where they are already missed. The rest of us — all men — go to the movies. We will hear about this when we get home. We will become properly sheepish. We would have lunch like this every day if we were allowed to: smoked pork chops at Eat. on Sunset, grilled-cheese sandwiches at Kokomo, flattened chicken at Campanile, or oozy fresh-mozzarella sandwiches at Bread Bar served on truffled olive bread.
Conventional wisdom has it that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and more attention is certainly directed toward dinner, but lunch is all about pleasure, the lazy afternoons stretching into evening, the delicious California light, the happy buzz created by half a bottle of wine, a good meal and a double espresso. Have you ever shaken the last few drops of red wine into your espresso cup after a meal, turning dregs into a bootleg digestif? You can’t really pull that off after a nice dinner, and you probably don’t even want to. Have you ever sat out on a patio after lunch, the bill paid, the tablecloth stained, the waiters gone home, the half-glass of Albarino long ago warmed by the sun? Have you ever lingered outside at Irv’s Burgers, making a 12:30 pastrami burger last until 3?
Lunch can be taken on its own terms; dinner is always preliminary to the movies, to clubbing, to sex, crammed into those scant, overstructured hours between the end of the workday and unconsciousness. Dinner is about logistics — the babysitter, the rush-hour trip across town, the reservation that you had to make three weeks before you knew if you were going to feel like sushi or pasta. At lunch, no maitre d’ will tell you that you have to give the table back in 90 minutes, few sommeliers would bother up-selling you from Chianti to Brunello, and no chef will object if you order only a salad. Unless you happen to be going to Spago or the Grill, you can walk in and get a table without waiting. Dinner is about restaurant-as-theater; lunch is about you, and the woman across from you, and the last few inches of Rully left in the sweating bottle on the table.
You could, for example, find an outside table at Beacon in Culver City, a moss-green glass of iced tea in your hand and an avocado salad with shaved bonito in front of you, perfectly ripe, squishy and cool and green as your thoughts.
Southern Europe glides to a halt for three or four hours in the heat of summer afternoons, which may be a problem if you’re trying to cover three museums in a day, but is about the right amount of time if all you have planned is a leisurely meal and a nap.
Italians are particularly brilliant about lunch, at least in the countryside — two-hour meals on the terrace, perhaps, lubricated with Sangiovese, cured meats fading into pasta and then maybe a small bird snatched off the fire, with a piece of ripe fruit for dessert and the companionable silence of a darkening afternoon. Even at a businessman’s restaurant like Alfredo-Gran San Bernardo in Milan, a bustling place filled in the afternoons with publishing executives and media guys, there is a sense of luxury and cool, the saffron risotto and the breaded veal seasoned not just with salt and pepper but with possibility and time.
Madeo, the understated agents’ hangout a few blocks from Cedars-Sinai here in Los Angeles, resembles exactly a business-district canteen in one of the lesser quarters of Rome at lunch, from its shiny disco-era décor to its location a few steps below the street, its sparingly dressed pastas to its roast veal to its featherweight, handmade gnocchi, but also to the ease that spreads across the dining room like spilled wine. Angelini Osteria, an overheated, pressurized restaurant at night, is a capsule of lovely golden light in the afternoons, unhurried plates of spaghetti carbonara and roast branzino, tomato-basil salad and grilled octopus — busy in a big-city way, but existing as a bubble of calm.
But unless you count the patio at Orso, where movie people talk shop between tiny bites of pasta, or the downtown bankers who expense oysters and plates of sumac-crusted barramundi at Water Grill, Los Angeles isn’t much of a business-lunch town, at least compared to Manhattan. There are few local equivalents of Michael’s or the Four Seasons, high-powered dining rooms where some executives lunch five days a week — our Michael’s, in Santa Monica, has a similar menu but a very different function in the order of things. Its flowery patio, as filled with contemporary sculpture as a small museum, inspires voluptuousness, not ruthlessness.
I can think of few better ways to spend an afternoon than behind a white tablecloth at Providence on Melrose, where the cool sunlight filtering down from the high clerestory windows resembles the watery light under a pier, but although there is a quick business menu if anybody wants one, and Providence is just a few blocks from working Hollywood, the restaurant is abandoned to the sybarites nibbling spot prawns, eel risotto, and roasted Tasmanian sea trout with celery root and roe. The Hungry Cat is sometimes hard to get into at noon, but most of the customers look far more intent on the crab cakes and hamburgers than on anything resembling labor.
There is nothing wrong with work lunches, of course. It is fun to spend a quick hour at Kate Mantilini among half the midlevel film people in Beverly Hills, watching sunlight stream through the abstracted orrery in the Morphosis-designed space, biting through a rare filet-mignon sandwich so soft that the sensation is of vaguely meat-flavored butter. Kate Mantilini takes care of its people: You can get your omelets made with egg whites, your chicken breast seared with cooking spray, your salad with dressing on the side, on the top, or spread underneath like a sauce. Lemon Moon is a perfected office-building cafeteria, with flatbreads baked to order, grilled fish and beautifully composed Mediterranean salads ready to take back to the desk, not to mention a pretty outside dining area to loiter in if you don’t happen to feel guilty about skipping out in the middle of the day.
The bosses of the Kate Mantilini crowd can sometimes be found down the street at the Grill, where the silver is heavy and the customers heavier, the toned, tanned men who run things in what they refer to as “this town,” and my idea of happiness sometimes is to show up for a late lunch of gin martinis and chunky corned-beef hash — well done please, with Cholula sauce on the side — just as the industry people clear out. The pale, masculine light and a bowl of rice pudding are mine for just as long as I want them.