Free Lunch?

May 5th, 2007

Ever since I moved to Sarasota, I’ve been hearing a joke that goes something like this: “All the old people live in Sarasota.. (beat).. and their parents live in Venice.”

Whether that’s true or not, the numerous opportunities to enjoy an “early bird special” do suggest something about the bedtimes of a large segment of Sarasota’s dining-out population. And although I don’t think of myself as one of those early birds, it was not long ago that the AARP wished me “Happy Birthday.” The snail-mail invitations for no-obligation investment consultations started arriving shortly thereafter.

The financial advisors who really want your IRA and 401K funds are competitive, very competitive. A savvy advisor knows that it takes more than his corporate parent sponsoring a PBS broadcast on the spotted owl to lure clients into his tastefully appointed sanctum.

So, as they look at their working-girl mutual fund portfolios in need of new strategies, my friend Fatima and her circle don’t feel the least bit abashed accepting a few of the many dining invitations extended by investment firms. And in Sarasota’s lively winter season, these invitations are clearly the bait of choice.

The lure of lunch or dinner at one of Sarasota’s A-List restaurants can easily outweigh one’s reluctance to be part of the gracious audience at an investment seminar—even when one is asked to show up for dinner at 3:45 p.m.

Fatima and I recently attended one such “seminar.” The presenter, our dapper host, whom I’ll call Larry, had a PowerPoint presentation and patter that might have been better suited to selling resort time-shares (and indeed he made a joke about time-shares). Larry made a lot of jokes—starting with, “Ok, how many of your came to this thing for the food?” A few guys just off the golf course raised their hands.

But business is business, and Larry got right down to the equities market, its inherent uncertainties and what he and his team could do to “lock in gains.” Larry dressed as if he’d locked in quite a few gains himself, an ample waistline hardly detracting from his crisp Euro-blue shirt, the sort I’ve always wanted—with the white collar and cuffs. Fatima reminded me that I should continue to maintain my literary integrity and dress like an English-major: that is, stick with the L.L. Bean oxford button downs I’ve been wearing since high school.

I found it easier to swallow actuarial tables and hedging strategies than the fact that someone selling annuities, had not double-checked the pronunciations of certain key words: With absolutely no irony, Larry spoke of need to be “vil-uh-gent” so as to guarantee returns to one’s “bene-foo-ciaries.”

Meanwhile, two waiters had begun to pour generous glasses of either Babcock Cabernet Sauvignon, or Los Alamos Chardonnay to an audience of forty in the restaurant’s private dining room.. At the same time, Fatima and I passed notes back and forth about whether one of the four single women at our table might be a shill for the firm.

I can happily report that our concern about a shill in our midst was unfounded, and that our food—served after roughly 80 minutes of “pitch”—was excellent. Larry was keeping his side of the bargain.

The restaurant had offered five choices, drawn directly from their evening dinner menu (one poultry, two fish, and two red meat dishes). The platings were attractive, but we agreed that sides and garnishes would have been more elaborate at a prime-time 8:00 seating.

My braised lamb shank was enormous—tender, juicy, and falling from the bone. Fatima’s red snapper, accompanied by a chunky fresh chutney, was delicious. One of our table-mates pronounced her filet mignon appropriately well-seared and rare in the center.

The single dessert offered came as soon as each guest’s main-course plate had been cleared, a reminder that the waiters would soon be needed in a higher hospitality mode in the main dining room. The homey apple crisp with cranberries, and walnuts was very good but would have benefited from a warmed sauce or a small amount of ice cream. (Indeed, it is offered à la mode on the printed menu.)

Continuing to note potential differences from the 8:00 seating, we couldn’t help notice that our coffee, an excellent brew poured from small air-pots at the table, went into cups that had arrived without their saucers. Our slightly distracted server seemed to have a small problem distinguishing the decaf from regular. At a function like this, the waiters know that their gratuity will come from the host, not the diners they serve. Consequently, there is little need for them to hover or utter the perfunctory, “How is your meal, sir?” Even as reviewers, we can’t say that we had a sense of evening service style. This was, after all, the proverbial free lunch.

You might well ask if I have the temerity to rate a restaurant on the basis of a banquet-service meal. The unequivocal answer is no. What we experienced was very good food, but not all the components that create the ambience a fine restaurant seeks to project. The buzz of a successful restaurant with competent staff and a clientele anticipating pleasure are among the intangibles that contribute to memorable meals.

On balance, I think our meal trumped the presentation, and I would willingly consider annuities and IRA-rollover plans again. And the next time, a presenter suggests “getting into equities,” I’ll be able to ask if he’d recommend that I hedge my portfolio by purchasing a “corresponding put.” More importantly, I’d be willing to return to this restaurant and give it a legitimate review.

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