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At the Power Lunch, the Check Is Kryptonite

On a recent Monday night, Christine Peters, a producer of “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,” tucked into a corner booth in the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel with a fellow producer and an actress. They chattered about a possible film for an hour or so before Ms. Peters excused herself to go to the ladies’ room. When she returned, she noticed a thin leather case sitting on the table, with the check inside.

Photo:Doug Ellis

“Did anybody get this?” she asked. Both women stared blankly, first at her, then the check. “We didn’t see it,” one finally said. When neither offered to pay the tab, nearly $100, Ms. Peters did what she has found herself doing more and more these days: she fished out her wallet and paid the check herself.

“They were polite,” she said. “But neither wanted to pay. It’s like you almost want to put them out of their misery.”

It used to be a common sight from Sparks to Spago — the boisterous scrum as diners wielding corporate cards dove for the lunch bill, crying “I’ll get it!” But since the economic downturn, the delicate social rituals of the bull market era, when executives tried to outdo one another in expense-account one-upmanship, have been upended.

Instead of dessert, many meals are ending with a cold, hard calculation of who is worth paying for and who isn’t. Often, the answers cause discomfort on both sides of the table.

For years Larry Kirshbaum, the former chief executive of the Time Warner Book Group, wooed a procession of agents and writers at restaurants like Michael’s and Patroon, showering them with praise and happily paying for the privilege. Then, in 2006, he became a literary agent himself. “All of my life I was taking agents to lunch and I was looking forward to getting my turn,” he said.

But the high life Mr. Kirshbaum was hoping for has turned out to be something of a low-rent affair. Instead of Michael’s, Mr. Kirshbaum said he often meets colleagues at the Comfort Diner on East 45th Street, where a grilled cheese sandwich costs $8.95. And more often than not, editors and publishers are asking him to pay for his own meal or skip lunch altogether. Last week a top book publisher asked him to lunch and agreed to pay. Mr. Kirshbaum’s initial delight faded when he learned that the publisher wanted to meet at a McDonald’s.

“This is what it has come to: ‘Can I come to your office and have a cup of water?’ ” he said. “People are really afraid to spend money. Anything that smacks of too much fun or self-indulgence is being frowned upon.”

That fear is being felt to varying degrees at restaurants where the bottom line is bolstered by expense accounts. At Michael’s in Manhattan, some patrons who used to come in for lunch three times a week are now down to two visits, according to the general manager, Steve Millington. They are passing up extras like bottled water and rarely ordering both an appetizer and a dessert. And, he said, the number of customers at breakfast — which is about 40 percent cheaper than lunch — has increased 20 percent.

At Wolfgang’s Steakhouse, which has locations in New York and California, the figures are more stark. At the Beverly Hills location, entertainment executives are spending 20 percent less than they did six months ago, according to the managing partner, Peter Zwiener. Wolfgang’s two Manhattan restaurants are down 10 to 15 percent, with traffic at the TriBeCa location hobbled by the troubles at Wall Street firms.

“Who would have thought that banking would be a riskier business than owning a restaurant?” Mr. Zwiener said.

Not surprisingly, the politics of the business lunch have tilted toward the haves versus the have-a-littles. Nowadays, picking up the check is often a reflection of whose corporate balance sheet is in better shape.

“I feel lucky,” said Terry Press, a film marketing consultant who shuttles between New York and Los Angeles advising movie studios on how to promote their films. “I’m not sitting here keeping score of who I took to lunch and whether they paid or not. The fact is, I can afford to take people to lunch and that makes me lucky.”

More often than not, Ms. Press said, she ends up picking up the check because it is uncomfortable if she does not.

“It’s not like there is a look of relief on people’s faces when I reach out, but they are not grabbing for it, either,” she said. “I always reach for the check because it is too weird if no one does. Who wants to sit around with a check on the table? It lingers. It’s uncomfortable. If you can’t afford to pick up the check for lunch, then you shouldn’t go.”

In other words, she said, if the arrival of the check is more awkward lately, it is because some people have not yet adjusted to the new economic truth. These adjustments are particularly difficult in Hollywood, where the perception of wealth is often more salient than the reality. “You have to separate out what is the ‘ego lunch’ and the ‘regular lunch,’ ” Ms. Press said. “Lunch doesn’t have to be a statement about who you are.”

Playing "credit card lottery"

For those lucky enough to have jobs, meals with colleagues who recently lost theirs can bring a new social dilemma. Do you pick up the check? And if so, do you submit it to your company for reimbursement or does it come out your own pocket?

A financial analyst said he was asked to lunch by a laid-off colleague who wanted advice on where to look for a job. The two met at a buffet near the analyst’s office, and the tab was a reasonable $40. In such cases, business etiquette prescribes that the person asking for advice should cover the check. But the analyst, who had sympathy for his colleague’s plight, offered to pay.

“I felt bad for him, and it was only $40,” the analyst said. “You try not to rub it in.” Besides, one day he, too, could be looking for a job and his colleague might remember the gesture.

The colleague declined the offer. Instead, he said, he had one more expense report to submit and would slip their lunch past his bosses. The analyst was astonished and a little embarrassed, but he also thought the remark told him something about why his colleague might have lost his job. “He knew he was riding the gravy train,” said the analyst.

For those who suspect that their bosses are analyzing their expense reports line by line, the coffee break has become the new power lunch. Peter Thonis, chief communications officer for Verizon Communications , used to regularly eat out with reporters, many of whom were required by their employers’ ethics policies to pay for their own meals.

Because of this, Mr. Thonis was in something of a quandary: was it appropriate for him to ask a reporter to lunch, knowing it could be a hardship to pay? Or should he forgo face-to-face meetings, knowing it could weaken his relationships with the media?

Now, grabbing a cup of coffee is a welcome compromise. First, it avoids the awkwardness of a reporter’s having to pay for an expensive meal. And it allows for Mr. Thonis to maintain crucial relationships. Best of all, it costs less than $10. “It is a tricky balance, maintaining relationships in these precarious times,” he said.

For some, though, the new austerity comes as something of a relief. One wealthy woman, the wife of a securities company executive, said he and his work friends used to play a game at dinner they called “credit card lottery” to decide who would pick up the check.

Each man, she explained, would take a credit card out of his wallet and toss it onto the table. Then someone — usually their server — would be asked to pick a card and bellow the owner’s name so everyone in the restaurant could hear. The “winner” would pay the bill, which often tallied $1,000 or more.

“It was disgustingly awful,” she said. “The waitress hated it. The wives were uncomfortable. It was a guy’s betting kind of thing, you know, ‘I’m a macho master of the universe.’ Thank God, no one is saying let’s play that game anymore.”