WASHINGTON — Few people understand the power lunch better than Ashok Bajaj. The restaurateur began his career here in the waning days of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, when he opened the Bombay Club a short walk from the White House.
Eight of the 10 restaurants he operates today are, like his first, located downtown. They’re conveniently clustered near one another, making it easier for Mr. Bajaj to preside over multiple dining rooms, and near customers who work on Capitol Hill, at the State Department and in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building — crucial sources of what Mr. Bajaj calls his “lunch crowd.”
Prominent members of that crowd gravitated to the Oval Room, the power-lunch magnet he ran for 26 years — and closed in November 2020. Longtime regulars have resumed eating lunch at his places that are open for it, like Rasika and the Bombay Club. But “it’s nothing like it was before Covid,” he said. “The energy has been sucked out of downtown.”
Of all the headaches the pandemic has caused the restaurant industry, among the most persistent is the disruption of the business of doing business over lunch. It afflicts a specific, influential cohort of restaurateurs who, like Mr. Bajaj, own prestigious restaurants in the hearts of large cities that office workers have fled, along with their corporate expense accounts.
Continued uncertainty over when or if those workers will return leaves the dining rooms that catered to them without an important revenue stream at a time when the cost of doing business, particularly in dense urban areas, is spiking. At the same time, many of the diners who used to nurture relationships and close deals over midday hamachi crudo and steak frites are now making those connections in front of a computer screen at home while eating salads from takeout boxes.
These economic and behavioral shifts are heightening concerns about the viability of independent restaurants in big cities, where they double as bulwarks against the homogenizing effect of corporate chains. “The Cheesecake Factory Will Open March 30 in Downtown DC and People Are Freaking Out,” blared a headline on the Washingtonian website last year, atop an article reporting the replacement of an award-winning chef-owned restaurant.
In an apparent nod to the new reality, Mr. Bajaj opened a grab-and-go place, Bindaas Bowls and Rolls, downtown in April. Not long ago, a quick-service pit stop would have been unimaginable coming from a restaurateur known for his savoir faire and designer suits.
“It just seemed like the right time for it,” he said. “There are not that many people doing power lunches right now.”
In less-fancy dining rooms across the country, the restaurant lunch is thriving, particularly in the suburban and residential city neighborhoods where many Americans have worked during the pandemic. Total sales at quick-service restaurants have exceeded those at table-service restaurants since the start the pandemic, upending a historical norm, according to the National Restaurant Association. And fast-casual chains have continued opening in cities like Washington and San Francisco.
But a number of independent city restaurants that used to do brisk noontime business are remaining closed for lunch, even as demand for dinner reservations returns. Many operators say rising costs and labor shortages make lower-priced lunch menus near-certain money losers.
Nancy Oakes, who opened Boulevard in the Embarcadero area of San Francisco in 1993, said the return of office workers on staggered schedules — say, three days in the building, two at home — has been too unpredictable to justify hiring and training staff for the midday meal.
“With this hybrid workday, is Wednesday the new Monday, or is Thursday the new Friday?” Ms. Oakes asked. “If I can crack that code, I might have a chance.”
By the time Marea, an Italian restaurant in Midtown Manhattan, fully reopened for daily lunch in February, its owner, Ahmass Fakahany, noticed the pandemic had changed diners’ demeanor.
The restaurant is known for its Michelin star and affluent customers. Mr. Fakahany, a former co-president of Merrill Lynch, said Marea’s slightly simplified new lunch menu suits the mood of business customers who have already used video conference calls to settle tense matters they once handled in his restaurant. Those diners now look to lunch to deepen relationships.
“I’m seeing a lot more people reconnecting, at a slower pace,” he said. “People used to use the term power lunch. It’s becoming more of a social-impact lunch, after all this time on Zoom.”
Dirk Van Dongen retired as a Washington lobbyist in early 2020 and moved to Florida. He is still connected enough to have experienced what is lost when people no longer meet face to face.
Mr. Van Dongen said he ate most of his lunches and half of his dinners in sit-down restaurants in his more than 50 years in Washington. It’s how he built his business relationships, he said, with people he wanted to work with as well as those who could eventually become adversaries.
“But let’s still get to know each other as people,” he said. “You can only do that when you can look each other in the eye.”