New York — WHEN anchor Bob Schieffer wanted to make it clear that he was tickled about his replacement on the "CBS Evening News," he invited Katie Couric to lunch at an understated Midtown restaurant where he knew they would be noticed.
"I wanted everyone to know that I really like Katie," he said recently. "And if you want to get the word out, the easiest place to spread it is Michael's."
Sure enough, there were some prominent diners at the West 55th Street restaurant that day to witness their chummy meal. ABC's Barbara Walters sat a few tables over with Al Gore's eldest daughter, Karenna Gore Schiff. Next to them, music impresario Tommy Mottola presided over the head table by the window, while Viacom Chief Executive Tom Freston, News Corp. President Peter Chernin, Vanity Fair writer Dominick Dunne, designer Ralph Lauren and Donald Trump's children, Ivanka and Eric, were seated strategically around the airy front dining room.
A high-wattage crowd is something you can count on at Michael's. Since it opened 17 years ago, the restaurant has been the go-to lunch spot for a certain stratosphere of New York, the top echelon in the worlds of show business, fashion and publishing.
As camera-laden tourists jostle down Fifth Avenue, the well-coiffed and well-known quietly sweep into the garden-level eatery just a half-block away, tucked discreetly down the street from the Peninsula. Some may come for the California-style menu, with its emphasis on grilled fish and local produce. But most of all, they come to see -- and be seen.
"To the extent that Manhattan is like high school, with all the fragile egos and cliques -- geeks, jocks and popular people, all vying for status -- Michael's is the high school cafeteria," said N.Y. Daily News gossip columnist Lloyd Grove, who frequently dines there when he needs material. "It's not just a restaurant; it's an information clearinghouse."
Although Los Angeles has plenty of hot restaurants, it's hard to find one that regularly draws the same concentration of power players from such a cross-section of industries for lunch. Just the drive time alone limits such gatherings.
"L.A. is a much more diffused place," said owner Michael McCarty, whose original Michael's in Santa Monica attracts a more laid-back lunch business.
But in New York, lunch has long been a high-profile meal, propelling the fame of spots like the Russian Tea Room\o7, the \f7celebrity hangout in the 1980s. Nowadays, establishments like the Four Seasons and Lever House restaurant draw their own prominent clientele, but the scene at Michael's commands the most attention. One of the most avidly read features on fishbowlny.com, a local media blog, is "Lunch at Michael's," a weekly column chronicling who was dining with whom, complete with a table map. (It's not just getting in for lunch that counts, it's getting a prime seat.)
So how is it that in a churning city like New York, which boasts more than 21,000 restaurants, one place has been able to maintain a lock on such influential patrons?
It comes down to one key ingredient, said CBS communications chief Gil Schwartz, who eats there weekly: "It has this never-ending supply of people in need of self-esteem."
The restaurant provides the answer to an essential New York question, he added: "If lunch happened, and nobody was there to see you have it, did you have lunch?"
Toast of two coasts
WHEN you first step inside Michael's, it's not immediately apparent that it's the gathering spot of the city's elite. If anything, the low-ceilinged dining area is tasteful but decidedly low-key, aside from the huge sprays of cherry blossoms that swoop over the small tables. But look closely and you'll notice the pedigree of the art on the cream-colored walls -- original works by David Hockney, Jasper Johns and Robert Graham -- and the well-known faces seated around the bright room.
After opening the first Michael's in Santa Monica in 1979 and generating an immediate buzz, McCarty was convinced that the same kind of unfussy atmosphere and inventive cuisine also would play well in New York. The restaurant had to have a garden, he decided, and be centrally located to the media and entertainment industries in Midtown Manhattan.
Eventually, McCarty found what he was looking for on West 55th Street -- then home to a restaurant called the Italian Pavilion -- within walking distance of top talent agencies such as William Morris and ICM, as well as the television networks and major publishing houses.