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As the glorious age of feasting on limitless expense accounts draws to a close, those reduced to the indignity of paying for their own sustenance should cherish the worthy and reasonably priced eateries frequented by Legal Times’“Food Court.” Yet, we all need an occasional splurge. But like attorneys whose “AV” ratings begin to tarnish with time, some of our most venerated restaurants belie their upscale reputations and stratospheric tariffs by serving up disappointment. While there are many truly wonderful posh meals to be had around town, some of my rare forays into the realms of the power-elite have made me wish I hadn’t strayed from my humble routine of self-assembled sandwiches and reconstituted orange juice in our firm canteen. Just last month, a senior partner and I treated a soon-to-be-ex-associate to lunch at one of the top spots in town, an event that succeeded in salving my conscience and lightening my wallet while barely assuaging my appetite. The bright, tasteful room radiated a soothing atmosphere of understated opulence, but for me the heart of any meal is the food itself. My starter was tantalizingly billed as a seafood and vegetable chowder, which seemed to suggest a modicum of nutritional essence, but truth-in-advertising would have compelled a more accurate description as “saline solution,” as the other vaunted ingredients were far more evoked on the menu than evident in the bowl. Speaking of which, the “chowder” was served in a sort of urn with a narrow foot into which a sizable portion retreated and there defied polite extraction with the oversized spoon provided. So, not wanting to horrify my fellow diners by just picking the thing up and slurping it down, etiquette required that I leave a dollar’s worth behind. Often, even a lowly broth can become transformed into a satisfying appetizer when complemented with a fresh roll or two. But, perhaps to save trendy dieters from a deadly overdose of carbs, the only baked products offered were crisp, crackly seeded things with barely more substance (and only slightly less salt) than the elusive solids of my soup. The combination of briny bouillon and seasoned crunchies made me quite thirsty, and so I remained for the next hour, as our waiter deigned to refill my chic (i.e., small) water goblet but once � and that was only after presenting our check. (Perhaps he hoped that out of gratitude and relief I’d augment his gratuity, but I cleverly thwarted that ruse.) As with the “chowder,” words can deceive � my main course was billed as a light chicken salad, which I foolishly assumed would involve, if not feature, some vegetation. But no � it turned out to comprise sparingly garnished chicken fragments tightly compressed into a cylindrical shape, somewhat reminiscent of pet food plopped from a can. Despite the bizarre presentation and boring consistency, the portion was quite sufficient � a pleasant surprise, since, given the texture of my so-called appetizer, I was growing more than a bit nervous about just what a “light” entree might imply. My partner wasn’t so lucky � his daily special, a seafood platter, consisted of but a few veggie scrapings and a grand total of two scallops and two shrimp � large ones, to be sure, but still a rather stingy array for nearly 30 bucks. I can’t comment on dessert, which I resisted, not only from fear of being thrice deceived by the menu’s cruel misuse of language, but out of deference to my poor back � I couldn’t bear wedging it for another half-hour against the ornate but brutally uncomfortable carved rear support of my chair. Now, despite my brash opinions, I readily admit that I don’t purport to grasp the intricacies of restaurant economics, but I’ll venture that the prospect of luring diners into lingering for such high-profit closers as coffee, cake, or liqueur would swiftly repay the cost of upholstering. Indeed, I was sorely tempted to press into service one of the cushions that seemed so redundant on the divans gracing the room but was restrained by the same shameful cowardice masquerading as rectitude that led me to blandly assure the maitre d’ on the way out that everything had been just fine. Well, enough! By now you’ve surely concluded that I’m a boor, a glutton, a cheapskate, or, more likely, all of the above, and in any event that I have no business whatever daring to criticize the refined art of elegant dining nor the challenges of running a select business in a pricey town. So be it! I’m sure the site of my recent disenchantment will manage to survive without my future patronage and hopefully those more attuned to the good life have superior grace and discretion to forgive an occasional lapse in their expectations. Perhaps the only useful lesson to be drawn from all this is the permanence and resilience of reputation, which, as we all face the depredations of age, may not be such a bad thing after all. And now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for my sandwich and OJ. Peter Gutmann is a partner at the D.C. office of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice and can be reached at [email protected]. Music articles by the author are posted on his Web site at www.classicalnotes.net.

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