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Restaurants & Bars

Does Dallas Still Power Lunch?

Expense accounts may be on the decline, but the desire to schmooze is still thriving.
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Al Biernats
A typical lunch crowd at Al Biernat’s Oak Lawn Elizabeth Lavin

The dining room at the original Oak Lawn location of Al Biernat’s is busy on a Friday afternoon. Lunchtime diners sit at tables cloaked in white tablecloths, talking over plates of prime rib, glasses of red wine, and baskets of warm bread. There’s an exciting buzz in the air. But look closely and you’ll find something peculiar. Partitions separate small tables. Attorneys settle shoulder-to-shoulder in semiprivate booths, speaking in hushed tones. A table in back is filled with gentlemen in suits and ties conducting a meeting. Some patrons are seated even farther back in a room behind a wall of glass. 

“The beauty of this place is we have tables where you can be seen because it’s one big, big open room,” says Brad Fuller, Al Biernat’s director of operations. “But there are also places where you cannot be seen. It is a good design for a power lunch.” 

Decades ago, Dallas’ corporate leaders and ambitious yuppies flocked to steakhouses and bistros to power lunch—hard. The practice peaked in the 1980s and ’90s, when it was an opportunity to climb the corporate ladder. A steak salad and 45 minutes at a prime table was all it took to assert one’s dominance.

Many believed the era of the power lunch ended for good during the pandemic.

Many believed the era of the power lunch ended for good during the pandemic, when employees worked from home and opted to conduct deals remotely over video calls. Restaurants—including mainstays such as Al Biernat’s—suffered as dining rooms emptied overnight. But when mandates lifted, people rushed back. Fuller says 2021 and 2022 were the “unicorn years” because of the boom after so much pent-up demand. “You saw wine and martinis and people ordering steaks for lunch. The spend was definitely up. I feel like they’re back.”

No one understands power lunches better than the seasoned maître d’s who arranged them on the reg for C-suite executives. “The power lunch was about being seen, once upon a time,” says Zee Bugatti, the president of Bugatti Ristorante and a former maître d’ at Pyramid Restaurant and Bar. “Being invited by your boss meant that you had influence at the company.” 

Bugatti counts high-profile Dallas executives and celebrities among his clientele, a roster that once included the late Herb Kelleher, legendary former CEO of Southwest Airlines. Kelleher had a standing table at Bugatti Ristorante, where he often hosted meals with airline executives. The topics of the meetings, we’ll never know—and Bugatti will never tell. “Confidentiality stays between them and me, exactly as it would if they were eating at a normal restaurant,” he says.

Dakota’s Steakhouse, a power-lunch haunt downtown, takes privacy to the next level—or, rather, a level below. An above-ground elevator leads to a subterranean dining room; inside, a thick curtain hides exclusive alcoves that offer players a secluded place to eat and meet. “There’s nothing like this restaurant in the city,” says Rita Martinez, the restaurant’s maître d’. “It’s like a hidden little gem, and if you didn’t know where it was, you wouldn’t be able to find it.”

The steakhouse closed in 2020 after operating for almost four decades but reopened in 2021 with a few upgrades under new ownership. What didn’t change was Martinez’s presence in the dining room. 

“I’m very good with people, and I remember faces and names,” she says. “If I’ve met you once and you told me, ‘Hey Rita, I’m discussing some very important details today, I need to have a private area,’ I’m very good at remembering things like that.”

Although many of Dakota’s loyal clientele came back after the pandemic, Martinez has noticed a shift. “We get people that just want to come in and have a great lunch, and they don’t really want to discuss business,” she says. “Sometimes they just want to come in and have a cocktail and good lunch steak.”

Which is fine. But some lunch spots aren’t willing to leave anything to chance. In an effort to explicitly go after corporate diners, Truluck’s recently launched a 45-minute, three-course power lunch. I tested it out with a colleague in September; it ran almost twice as long. We had to take our dessert to-go. 

Al Biernat’s keeps a tighter schedule. When I interviewed Fuller at the restaurant for this story, our meal ran about an hour long. Although we weren’t engaging in power plays, Fuller told me he chose our table because it was the one that Wick Allison, D Magazine’s late founder, loved. The table was located close to the center of the dining room but far enough back to offer a good view of the entire place. Fuller and Al Biernat himself even brought out the partition Allison liked to separate his table from the next. 

We made sure to leave his favorite seat open. 


Top 5 Power Lunch Spots

Whether you’re looking to be seen or stay incognito, here are some top options. 

Al Biernat’s Oak Lawn
You’ll prove you’re in the know with a res at Al Biernat’s original location. 4217 Oak Lawn Ave.

Dakota’s Steakhouse
Conduct meetings—or sip a midday martini—in private at this subterranean downtown steakhouse. 600 N. Akard St. 

Fearing’s Restaurant
Set the tone at Dean’s swanky Ritz-Carlton restaurant with a Rattlesnake burger; celebrate the deal with his signature margarita at the bar. 2121 McKinney Ave.

Knox Bistro 
If you prefer to keep things light while flaunting your sharpened edge, Knox Bistro, Bruno Davaillon’s airy French restaurant, is just right. 3230 Knox St., Ste. 140.

Table 13 Addison
There are more booths than tables at this Addison restaurant, which also features $4 martinis and $5 wines during lunch Monday through Friday. 4812 Belt Line Rd.


This story originally appeared in the January issue of D Magazine with the headline “The New Power Lunch.” Write to [email protected].

Author

Nataly Keomoungkhoun

Nataly Keomoungkhoun

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Nataly Keomoungkhoun joined D Magazine as the online dining editor in 2022. She previously worked at the Dallas Morning News,…

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