Tables at the Top : Executive Dining Rooms Hit the Spot With Corporate Leaders, Developers

Galperin is a Los Angeles-based free-lance writer who has covered commercial real estate for several years

Let's do lunch--executive-style.

How about starting with a soup of asparagus with lemon creme at Salomon Bros.? This specialty of the investment-banking firm is served amid mahogany paneling, silk walls and a collection of Chinese porcelain on the 32nd floor of the Wells Fargo Center in downtown Los Angeles.

Then on to the Cobb salad at Glendale Federal Bank headquarters. Lunch is not as formal here, but the 14th-floor view of Glendale is quite attractive, especially on a clear day.

Sushi is another option. Toyota Motor Corp. offers a daily selection of raw fish and other Japanese specialties at its U.S. headquarters in Torrance.

And, if soup, salad and sushi aren't enough, try the all-you-can-eat buffet at the investment-banking firm of Bear Stearns & Co. in Century City. Entrees include broiled salmon with red bell pepper coulis and chicken breast with artichoke hearts and tarragon.

Finally, there's dessert.

Trust Co. of the West, a pension fund manager, offers a fine selection of pastries, seasonal fruits, ice creams and sherbet. Diners at TCW can savor these while admiring a collection of valuable Southwestern landscapes and a view of downtown's Bunker Hill.

Welcome to an inner sanctum of corporate Los Angeles, the executive dining room.

While most office workers nosh at a local eatery, bag a lunch or grab a sandwich at the company canteen, there are a privileged few who enjoy the pleasures of a posh restaurant just steps away from their desks.

The menu, service, style and exclusivity of these executive facilities vary with each company. Some firms coddle their top brass and clientele with sterling silverware, gold-rimmed Limoges china and Baccarat crystal. Other employers prefer more modest accommodations and self-service buffets.

Increasingly, executives are appointing their offices with antique furnishings, museum-quality artworks, silk--and sometimes suede--walls, marble and granite surfaces. Perhaps the ultimate status symbol at the office, however, is the executive dining room.

Developers have taken notice of this and now plan most major office projects to accommodate some sort of executive suite and dining room. Building codes mandate a long list of do's and don'ts for developers and office tenants.

How easily a building can handle the need for kitchen facilities--which require, to start with, extra ventilation systems, open shelving and specific floor and drainage requirements--can be an important issue in lease negotiations. And landlords looking to create a high-class impression for their properties welcome tenants indulgent enough to build and maintain an executive dining facility.

While executive dining rooms tend to create an impression of elitism, "this is not a perk. It helps us do business better," said Ernest Schmider, a partner at the law firm Latham & Watkins.

By keeping attorneys near their desks at the First Interstate World Center, Schmider said, the law firm operates more efficiently. Clients who demand instant attention can have their attorney paged rather than wait for his or her return from lunch.

"It makes the lawyers more accessible to the clients," Schmider noted. "That's reason enough to have it."

Andrew Haas, a senior managing director at Bear Stearns, agrees. "It's a highly efficient way to conserve our time," he said.

Besides efficiency, Haas quipped, he savors "that magical moment when the check doesn't arrive."

In fact, the diners at both Latham & Watkins and Bear Stearns are billed for almost every meal they take in-house. However, they needn't worry about having enough cash or plastic on hand.

Business executives, for the most part, like to describe their dining rooms by such phrases as "understated elegance," "a bunch of tables and chairs" or "just like any restaurant."

Unlike any restaurant, though, corporate dining rooms tend to be "customized for the chief executive," said Ron Michaud, regional vice president at Marriott Corp., which operates about 90 dining facilities in the Los Angeles area, including Northrop Corp. and Times Mirror Co.--publisher of The Times--which maintains a series of dining rooms, each with its own art collection.

Some top executives insist on personally approving every detail of the executive dining room. Others may seek to surround themselves with the works of a favorite artist or a preferred brand of cigar.

Tradition and formality are especially important in cities such as New York, Boston and San Francisco. In Los Angeles, executive dining facilities are not as widespread or as elitist, Michaud observed.

What sets these executive retreats apart from other eateries, however, is the premium placed on convenience and a reticence about publicity. The latter is especially true during a recession, when companies are under pressure to cut costs in other departments.

"We take a very low profile here," said Sheila Stevick, senior vice president at Trust Co. of the West in downtown Los Angeles. "It's the way we work."

Besides seeking a low profile, TCW diners who seek a more slender profile can opt for what the menu lists as the Stevick Plate, which on a recent visit featured a 365-calorie entree of lentils with spaghetti sauce.

Executives with a heartier appetite were offered a blueberry seafood gazpacho followed by the chef's special: poached mussels with linguine.

At Bear Stearns, chef Christian Thillet features a daily mix of what he likes to call "Americanized French food." But the dining room could best be described as Spartan--concrete walls with a touch of wood paneling and wall-to-wall carpeting.

The main dining room accommodates about 50 people, while an adjacent room is used for more intimate luncheon meetings.

Support staff have their own lunchroom--the Back Door. Here the menu is basically takeout, with a selection of snacks, sandwiches and sodas.

At Union Bank, chef Jose Michel cooks up a daily selection of fresh appetizers, entrees and desserts. Executives and their guests eat in a suite of small dining rooms--each with its own theme and art collection--on the 38th floor of the bank's headquarters building in downtown Los Angeles.

Nearby, Security Pacific National Bank boasts a panoramic view from its dining facilities on the 53rd floor of Security Pacific Plaza. Reservations are required, and the atmosphere is semiformal, with the staff attired in tuxedos but no gloves.

Officers at Security Pacific are welcome for lunch--as long as they are entertaining business guests or gathering for a meeting. Otherwise, executives break bread elsewhere.

In contrast, Latham & Watkins encourages all its attorneys to eat in as often as they like. The firm has dedicated a full floor of space at First Interstate World Center to conference facilities--including enough rooms to feed up to 1,000 people.

Most days, however, Swiss-trained chef Rene Chila provides meals for only about 70 attorneys and their guests. The dining room also provides a showcase for the photographic talents of the firm's lawyers and support staff.

Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro is another law firm that offers extensive dining facilities. The firm's kitchen opens for breakfast weekdays at 6 a.m. The main dining room accommodates 80 and there is an adjacent room for more intimate gatherings of up to 10 attorneys and their guests.

"It's a very cost-effective measure," said Mary Ann Reilly, director of special events at the Pillsbury, Madison. In-house dining, she added, allows the firm to offer a very high level of service to clients, plus privacy.

At the offices of Salomon Bros., chef Laurie Newman prepares veal scallopini with a tomato basil cream, minestrone with pesto and sorbet for dessert.

"There's nothing we can't do," Newman said. Besides her usual choices of the day, she'll prepare vegetarian and even kosher meals, when requested.

"We find it extremely efficient and economical as opposed to taking people out," said David L. Knowles, a Salomon managing director. The ability to conduct confidential meetings without disturbance, he added, is also an important factor.

"Executive dining is more time-efficient and generally more cost-efficient than dining at an expensive restaurant," said Arthur Manask of Toluca Lake-based Morrison Manask Food Service.

Manask's company oversees about 30 private dining facilities in the Los Angeles area, including Latham & Watkins; Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker; Pacific Enterprises, and MCA.

Some companies are becoming concerned about excessive expense and the negative impression that executive dining can create, especially in a slow economy.

At MCA, for example, Chairman Lew Wasserman makes it a point not to dine in splendid isolation. "It sends a team spirit message," Manask said.

As part of a cost-cutting move, First Interstate closed its executive dining facilities last year.

But some executives fondly recall the fancy lunches there, such as one for the governor of Oregon to encourage business for a First Interstate subsidiary in that state. The chefs served salmon, berries, vegetables and wine--all from Oregon.

The bank's new headquarters does have a dining room, but it's been scaled down substantially from what once existed at 707 Wilshire Blvd.

"This day and age, everybody is looking to function more efficiently," said Diane C. Siegel, a senior vice president at First Interstate. Closing the dining facility, she said, "exhibits good business judgment."

"It was not the best use of money and space. It didn't make sense anymore." Still, mused Siegel, "people would like to remember it as it was."

There's no question times are changing for executive dining rooms, said Michaud of Marriott.

The high cost of running a kitchen has prompted many companies to contract for their food services with a company that delivers food daily.

A good chef and several helpers are sure to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Thousands of square feet of office space can translate into five- and six-digit figures. And, of course, grocery bills have a way of adding up.

Diets are changing as well. There's less alcohol, less sugar, less salt, less fat and less cholesterol nowadays. Also missing at most local dining rooms are cigarettes and cigars. There was a time when the host offered fine cigars to his diners.

As the West Coast becomes more of an international business center, protocol and cultural sensitivity have become the new watchwords.

It's very important not to offend a diner's religion by serving the wrong foods. Conversely, one way to impress is to offer such specialties as sushi to the Japanese, noodle dishes for Chinese guests and Middle Eastern dishes for visiting Saudi dignitaries, Michaud said.

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