The days of the lingering, smoke-filled, three martini lunch are long over, a victim of shrinking expense accounts and greater health awareness.
The goals of the business lunch – entertaining clients, celebrating with colleagues and networking with contacts – remain the same, but there's a new emphasis on fresh, healthy, sophisticated dining.
Foodie culture has entered the boardroom, so restaurants are serving local, seasonal dishes that appeal to culinary sophisticates. While expediency and comfort remain priorities, today's business savvy restaurants are offering innovative ways for customers to dine while closing the deal.
Maybe it's an effort to forge strong bonds between colleagues or maybe it's just a fun way to get people to move beyond their boring old soup and salad (dressing on the side) ritual, but the passion for sharing plates is moving out of the tapas bars and into the business lunch.
Even in meat-mad Calgary where steak is still often the default protein, chefs such as Kaede Hirooka of the Home Tasting Room are supplementing their more traditional lunch time offerings – burger, clubhouse sandwiches, steak – with lighter, more vegetable-focused tasting plates. His red quinoa salad is loaded with pickled red onion, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, all dressed with an umami-packed miso chipotle vinaigrette, while a shredded Brussels sprouts and kale salad gets kick from candied walnuts and warm bacon vinaigrette.
Toronto's Drake One Fifty has become a favourite with the downtown business lunch crowd thanks largely to its communal dishes, including garam masala-spiced cauliflower with kale chips, and crispy artichokes with anchovy-seasoned aioli and citrus chips.
With a major renovation in 2013, Reds Wine Tavern in Toronto put a greater emphasis on casual dining to include a selection of the menu dedicated to "shareables." Today that section has become one of the restaurant's most popular with such quick and healthy international options as Thai lettuce wraps with herbs and vegetables, an avocado-spiked shrimp and scallop ceviche, and steamed edamame beans with ponzu and wasabi.
Teetotallers, or anyone needing to do actual work in the afternoon, no longer have to rely on free soda refills and endless cups of coffee to get them through business lunches. More and more restaurants are turning their creative energy to creating complex and delicious non-alcoholic beverages that go way beyond the Shirley Temple.
At Nota Bene in Toronto, diners can choose between a sweet clementine-based soda or a house made take on Cherry Coke that outshines the original in every way.
Market restaurant in Vancouver's Shangri-La Hotel offers its guests a selection of homemade sodas, including cherry, chili and strawberry mint lemonade.
Cooper Tardivel, the cocktail bar and lounge manager at Hawksworth Restaurant in Vancouver, oversees one of the most sophisticated "zero-proof" cocktail menus in the country. "We see a lot more people having zero proofs," he says. "We want to offer them something that looks beautiful, but also has an actual flavour profile that you can pair with your food; it just doesn't have alcohol in it."
"Take our Yuzu iced tea, for example – organic pomegranate juice, local honey, Yuzu juice and cold brewed black tea. A great representation of how a zero-proof cocktail can be full of diverse flavours and refreshing."
Exclusive private tables
Negotiating million-dollar contracts or revealing details about corporate strategy require discretion and privacy, so no self-respecting power restaurant would be without at least one private dining room for its VIPs. Sometimes the private rooms offer the best seats in the house.
Canoe, the luxurious Oliver and Bonacini restaurant situated at the top of the Toronto-Dominion Centre in downtown Toronto, offers a pair of intimate private rooms. Masters and mistresses of the universe dine on maple whisky-cured foie gras or braised suckling pig with green tomato relish away from prying eyes while peering over the expanse of the city.
At the foot of that same tower, the chic Bymark restaurant offers a trio of private rooms that can be configured in a variety of ways. Such customization extends to chef Brooke McDougall's menus, as well. "At lunch people are on a tight time schedule," he says, "so I compose my à la carte menu, which I run for everybody, and then I have preset menus that I offer to groups larger than 12, 15 or even up to 50."
Guests of the Red Wine Room at Calgary's Catch restaurant dine, as the name suggests, surrounded by artfully displayed selections from the restaurant's substantial wine list.
The elegant Rideau Room in the back of the Shore Club in Ottawa may resemble a dining room on an elegant Art Deco ocean liner, but is outfitted with such modern amenities as AV capability, wireless Internet and a 46-inch flat screen.
Of the several private rooms at Black and Blue steakhouse in Vancouver, the most impressive features a gas fireplace surrounded by a marble mantle and a wall made of Champagne bottles.
For hard-core foodies, a business lunch is just another opportunity for a great meal. Fortunately for them, lunch is a great time to visit some of the country's best and most popular restaurants.
The lineups for dinner at Pizzeria Libretto in Toronto are legendary, but at lunch there's almost never a wait and the $15 prix fixe menu offers the same great pizza that the restaurant is famous for. Similarly, the tasting menu at legendary Milos in Montreal starts at $75, but at lunch a three-course meal that might include tuna tartar and charbroiled lamb chops is a very affordable $20. Similarly, the evening tasting menu at George at Verity in Toronto begins at more than $100 while a three-course lunch menu is less than half that.