Friday, September 06, 2013

Executive Dining

Have you noticed that many vintage entertaining and tablesetting books devote at least a few pages to executive dining? It's quaint, really, because I believe that few of us devote much effort to weekday lunches, especially those we consume while working at our offices. In fact, I am writing this very post while eating Orzo Salad at my desk. It may not be a civilized way of eating, but it certainly is efficient.

But, back in the days when life was just a little bit less frenetic and when emails and social media were a burden yet to be discovered (and, by the way, when men wore suits and women wore dresses and skirts to work,) many people did take the time to enjoy a proper lunch. Sometimes they met friends at restaurants while at other times, they broke bread with their colleagues in the break room. A few brave souls ventured as far as three martini lunches (!) There was even a tradition in some offices, especially those of decorating establishments, of taking tea or coffee in the late afternoon, sometimes from a tea trolley that was pushed throughout the office.

Of course, not everyone had access to executive dining rooms, tea trolleys, and power lunches at the Four Seasons. But looking at these old books with their attractive workday tablesettings does make me realize that sometimes I really should slow down and enjoy life's little pleasures...even if that means eating Orzo Salad on proper china and at a proper table!

Image at top: In the 1930s-style Maple dining room of Cartier, a panther motif table was set for executives to discuss business. Note the wine and cigarettes.

"A Client Lunch at Wells, Rich, Greene, Inc." as conceived by Mary Wells Lawrence.  Tiffany & Co.'s "Bamboo" flatware and "Jardin de Jade" china adorns the table, which is surrounded by Bielecky Brothers rattan chairs.

"A Small In-Office Lunch" at the Manhattan office of John T. Sargent, former Chairman of the Board of Doubleday.  The table is set with "Si Kiang" china, "King William" flatware, "St. Remy" glasses, and a silver Monteith bowl filled with pears, all from Tiffany & Co.

"Luncheon at Chanel Inc.", where this fantasy lunch included Caprese Salad, grilled sole, and cantaloupe sherbet and gaufrettes for dessert.

"Lunch in the Corporate Boardroom" at the New York Bank for Savings.  Letitia Baldrige, who was a trustee of the bank, set this table with Tiffany & Co.'s "King William" flatware.

Primrose Bordier set her table for a "brainstorming session with her colleagues."  Asian accents include Philippine trays used as chargers, small Japanese hot towel baskets that served as bread plates, and Japanese porcelain bowls.

"Luncheon at an Executive's Desk" at the Time & Life Building, c. 1960. The table was set with tableware from Tiffany & Co., including what appears to be their "Hampton" flatware.  I myself have "Hampton" flatware, but I have never once used it for lunch on a workday!

"Luncheon in a Board Room" at the Time & Life Building, c. 1960.  Again, the tableware is from Tiffany.

Not a working lunch, but rather a working dinner in the Sutton Place apartment of the late designer, Valerian Rybar.  The menu included cold lobster, brochettes of baby lamp chops grilled aux herbes de Provence, and eggplant caviar.  A ginger-scented Crème Bavaroise would have been served for dessert.  The table was set with vermeil pieces from Tiffany.

Photos from: "Tiffany Tablesettings", "New Tiffany Tablesettings", "Tiffany Taste", and "The Elegant Table" by Barbara Wirth.


  1. Gracious living seems to be a lost art in this country now. What are we all rushing toward? Pots of cash mean nothing if life is not well-lived. It takes very little to add a grace note, even at work. I used to keep a place setting of china and real silverware in my desk to eat my brought from home food, while others ate out of take-out containers with plastic utensils. My idea soon caught on, and you could actually feel the decompression in the room.

    In France, people still sit down to a civilized lunch; it is better for social interaction, digestion, weight control and general health, as well as graciousness.

    BTW, had a great meal recently you might like to try: a small lobster, steamed and cut in half from head to tail, with meat removed and diced, then add roasted corn kernels and cubed cucumber, all dressed with a light citrus aioli and piled back into the lobster shells over a bed of ice. Delicious, refreshing and a great presentation for a summer luncheon or fancy dinner, with one half as an appetizer and two being a main course. Easy to make ahead too. Dessert was a medley of summer berries folded into a champagne sabayon in a tall glass - perfect.

    1. Good comment. It's like the difference between wearing jeans and a dress or suit. With jeans, one tends to slouch. When wearing a dress, though, one walks with shoulders back and head held high. I think the same concept applies to dining, too.

      That meal sounds heavenly!

  2. These are beautiful + ahhh the luncheon + in the office, a thing of the past I fear.

    1. Peggy, I'm afraid you might be right...a thing of the past. Too bad.

  3. Ah, to live back in the day when life was more dignified and elegant. Not only is the china itself lovely but the tables are thoughtfully set in a way that suggests "slow down and enjoy". I think we've lost an element of civilized living in this age of multi-tasking and speeding through one moment to get to the next. Perhaps tonight I'll pull out the china in honor of your post. Thanks for the lovely reminder!

  4. Anonymous2:58 PM

    The glory days of Tiffany.

  5. Anonymous6:27 PM

    When I started my first "real" job, 40 years ago, I was 18 and putting myself through college. Lunch at formal table settings like these, usually with clients, was the norm for the first 10 years when I accompanied my bosses as a business assistant. People knew what to do with a napkin and which fork to use. A lot of good work usually got done, but conversation was always intelligent, learned, witty and bonding. Then, lunch became a "business" lunch. The table settings became less formal, conversations were replaced with terminology, and less work got done. Then, lunch became the "Power" Lunch. The table settings were irrelevant and no work got done while egotists sized each other up. Then, lunch became the "working lunch." People ate sandwiches off a conference table and talked about project planning with food in their mouths. Now, I go to "strategy" lunches. They are virtual meetings via Internet. Everyone tweets about the snide text messages about the IM conversation the global managers are having about rolling out a marketing campaign for team building. No tables, plates or food. So, I gave my stainless flatware and ceramic plates to Housing Works several years ago and set my table thrice a day, every day, for breakfast, cocktails and dinner: the linens my great-grandmother monogrammed in silk, the raised-gold and cobalt Bernadaud, the Christofle sterling, and the Baccarat, Hawkes and St. Louis are earning their keep, delighting my family and friends at every meal. Not a single thing has dented, chipped or broken - - so much for "saving the good stuff!"

  6. Jennifer,

    What a lovely reminder! I was once able to help with a Tiffany Table Setting. Back in the roaring "Bonfire of the Vanities" 1980's New York- for the designer George Clarkson- he was nothing if not immaculate, and elegant. Even in jeans and a polo, he exuded style-
    P.S. I am so looking forward to YOUR book !!!!