To tide us over until we’re able to travel again, we’re republishing classic travel stories from our archives. Today we revisit Melissa York’s trip to New York to find the original business breakfast.
Every morning, Leigh Wynn, the maitre d’ of the most expensive and exclusive breakfast spot in New York, wakes up at 4.30am. From 7am to 10am, her job is to find a table for some of the biggest and most demanding names in business, media and politics, and personally cater to their every whim, while a queue of impatient New Yorkers snakes out of the door.
This is no ordinary breakfast, but it’s an ordinary morning at the Loews Regency Hotel at 540 Park Avenue, the spiritual and historical home of the “power breakfast”. Highly-polished black cars line up threedeep outside the hotel on any given weekday, while inside the restaurant million-dollar business deals are made before you’ve even brushed your teeth.
And, just to make it interesting, assistants to heads of state might email three hours before service to demand a table. “That’s normal,” Wynn says. “I’ll find a way to get them in, but the difficulty is that everyone has a set table that they like to eat at. The Reverend Al Sharpton has his banquette in the corner, for example, and these people don’t like to be moved around.”
Wynn is only the third maitre d’ in the 35 years the Loews Regency has been hosting the power breakfast. Her interview for the job was with none other than Jon Tisch, son of hotel founder Robert Tisch and chairman of the company, who recognised how singularly demanding the role is; a never ending tightrope that requires the occupant to be forceful enough to say no to the great and powerful, while being charming enough to keep customers coming back.
“It’s not like any other restaurant,” says Wynn. “Everyone in that room is doing business so there are papers all over. The waiting staff know that these people don’t want to be bothered too much; they want their bacon and eggs and then they want to be left alone to do their work.”
If the mark-up is anything to go by, it’s a very lucrative business. A bowl of cold cereal will cost you $23 and French toast will cost you $19. But the power breakfast isn’t about what you eat, but who you’re eating with – if the company is right, it’s worth every penny.
Regulars joining The Reverend Al Sharpton for eggs have included former CNN news anchor Larry King, Mayor of New York Bill de Blasio, as well as numerous CEOs, prime ministers and presidents. Step inside the relatively modest breakfast room, with its patterned carpet and leather, high-backed chairs, and before you is a cacophony of suits, leaning into deep conversations.
Some scribble furiously in ledgers, while others are working their way through three breakfasts, meeting client after client. Wall Street investment banker Felix Rohatyn famously recalled a 2005 power breakfast at the Loews Regency to the New York Times: “I made a deal with Jack Bigel, who was the advisor to the union pension funds, for four or five billion, literally on the back of a napkin.”
It all started during the financial crisis of the 70s when Bob Tisch, unable to bear the thought of his city crumbling into the fiscal doldrums, invited businessmen and politicians to dine with him before the working day to make deals with each other and discuss ways to help kick start the economy. Tisch coined the term power breakfast and the rest was history.
As New York society grew and restaurants proliferated, so did business at breakfast, which became big business in itself. It’s clear to see the far-reaching effects – just walk into The Wolseley in Mayfair or Bread Street Kitchen in the City on a weekday morning.
The Loews Regency power breakfast recently faced its biggest challenge yet when the hotel closed for 12 months for a $100m renovation. Tisch’s main concern, apart from persuading his mother to temporarily move out of her suite, was keeping hold of his elite clientele. He moved the power breakfast across the road to the Park Avenue restaurant and installed Wynn as its maitre d’, getting her to pen 300 handwritten letters to her VIPs, begging their patience.
The hotel re-opened in January and the breakfast seems just as powerful as ever. And while its patrons may have been patient over the venue, their breakfast is another matter. After two years in the job, Wynn now knows to lay out salted matzos for the financier who insists they’re on the table before he sits down, and to count the number of berries on the superstitious realtor’s oatmeal. Besides, she sees the opportunity to network with New York’s movers and shakers as a privilege, keeping her mood sunny side up.
“When you see these people, they’re talking business or politics. But when I see them, often three times a week, we talk about what movies they like and their daughter’s graduation. I get to know the most powerful people in New York on a different level.”
New York’s best power breakfasts
JOSEPH LEONARD, 170 WAVERLEY PLACE
Aim to arrive at dawn to ensure getting a table at Joseph Leonard’s – it’s wildly popular and has a strict “no reservations” policy. Situated in the historically bohemian Greenwich Village, its exposed brickwork, tin ceilings, oddly-shaped mirrors and global knick knacks belie its reputation as a place to be seen to be doing business.
Joseph Leonard has gained a sense of exclusivity in part because it’s so small. With only seven tables and a few barstools, the restaurant has a real intimacy that makes it a discreet place to talk about sensitive deals.
The breakfast at Joseph Leonard has a European flavour, sharing the current continental obsession with pastry and eggs on avocado. Its big brunch is a thoroughly French saucisson l’ail with fried eggs, crème fraiche and arugula (rocket to us Brits). Dawn hedonists can go for a Bloody Mary though, or a non-alcoholic cocktail called You’re Hired! And You Get a Raise!
LANDMARC, 10 COLUMBUS CIRCLE
Why wait for the movers and shakers to come to you when you could just go to them? Landmarc is located on the third floor of the Time Warner building in Columbus Circle on the edge of Central Park. As such, media big shots like Jeff Zucker, president of CNN, and Robert D Marcus, president of Time Warner, treat the smart French and Italian-style bistro like their personal canteen.
Known for drawing in the elite creative crowd, it often entices celebrities staying in the nearby Mandarin Oriental Hotel who are looking for new roles on cable shows. It also helps that the Lincoln Center, which is home to the Met Opera, the NYC Ballet and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, is just next door.
All the classic New York staples are here, from an $18 smoked salmon bagel to pancakes with maple syrup and blueberries, and it also offers an impressive selection of omelettes. The signature dish is the Landmarc egg sandwich, which packs in a sausage, sautéed spinach, a roasted tomato, gruyère cheese, an English muffin and hash browns.
BALTHAZAR, 80 SPRING STREET
This buzzy, Parisian-style brasserie in SoHo was famous in its early days for being a late-night celebrity hang-out with an unlisted phone number.
Now 16-years-old, word has got around and dinner has been surrendered to the tourist crowd and locals. Luckily, the big hitters haven’t abandoned Balthazar – they just arrive a bit earlier. Its breakfast crowd has tripled in the past few years, attracting late-rising, less corporate professionals from the worlds of fashion, art, publicity and web publishing.