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It may be true that this summer is more serious than past ones, and that work quality and getting to know your firm has taken on greater importance. However, being a summer associate is also about socializing, and lunch. And anybody who says that there’s no such thing as a free lunch has never been a summer associate. The best free lunches, however, benefit from a little planning. So you need to overcome a few hurdles in order to organize the most successful possible summer associate lunch. YOU CAN STAY WITHIN THEIR BUDGET Hurdle No. 1 is that you need to work within the budget of your firm’s attorneys, who will accompany you for lunch and expense the cost. Their budget is generally in the $40 per person range for lunches with summer associates (higher at some firms, lower at others, and always changeable by a partner’s signature). In order to accomplish this goal, your best bet is to stick with restaurants that offer prix fixe (set price) menus, which typically include an appetizer, entr�e and dessert with no wiggle room for any individual to blow the budget. Still, you have to be careful. For example, during the much-promoted New York Restaurant Week in June, many top restaurants offer lunch for $20.02. This is perhaps New York’s worst-kept secret, the restaurants are all packed, and it’s a great week for you to eat a sandwich at your desk and catch up on your work. Then, when the tourists and the herd have settled back into their year-round routine, hit some of the restaurants that offer $20.02 lunches year-round. Aureole, tremendously improved under chef Gerry Hayden (don’t miss his caramelized chicken breast and soft parmesan polenta) offers its prix fixe every day of the year — but you have to go after 2 p.m., which often works out well anyway because by then you’ll truly be able to ascertain your afternoon workload. (34 E. 61st St., 212-319-1660, $20.02, three courses, after 2 p.m.) Patricia Yeo’s AZ (21 W. 17th St., 212-691-8888, $20.02, three courses) is one of the city’s swankest rooms (complete with retractable roof) and offers one of the most effective examples of Asian fusion cuisine. A favorite is soy-ginger steamed halibut with Sichuan mustard and Chinese sausage. When computing costs, though, remember that tax and tip together add around 25 percent to your bill and that the only free beverage is tap water. And don’t be drawn in by bargain prix fixe menus that are completely disproportionate to what a restaurant normally charges — especially at the steakhouses. It’s simply not possible to get a great big, USDA Prime, dry-aged steak for 20 bucks, and you’ll rarely dine well for that price at any restaurant that typically charges $100 per person for dinner. Of all the seemingly impossible bargains I’ve pursued, the only one that exceeds expectations every time is the fabulous six-course prix-fixe lunch at Bouley (120 W. Broadway, 212-964-2525, $35, six courses). You’ll get to taste some of the best stuff from one of the world’s top chefs — including, on most days, the signature phyllo crusted Florida shrimp, baby Cape Cod squid, diver sea scallop and sweet Maryland crabmeat in an ocean herbal broth — albeit in humorously small portions. As at Bouley, sometimes a slight upward departure from the $20.02 mark yields a superior meal. At Aquavit (13 W. 54th St., 212-307-7311, $35, three courses), you can taste Marcus Samuelsson’s Scandinavian-influenced cuisine, with dishes like his slowly poached lamb with truffle and butternut squash tart and sweetbread sauce. Ask to sit near the waterfall. Chanterelle (2 Harrison St., 212-966-6960, $38, three courses) is a pleasant and sunny room at lunchtime, and the saut�ed halibut with peas and pancetta makes for an ideal light summer lunch. For years, Jo Jo (160 E. 64th St., 212-223-5656, $28, three courses) offered one of the best prix fixe lunches in town, and now that it has reopened (after a long but lovely renovation) it continues the tradition. If you’re bored with salmon, that’s because you haven’t tasted Jo Jo’s slowly baked version. I’d skip most of the old-school French dinosaurs in Midtown, with an exception: Le Perigord (405 E. 52nd St., 212-755-6244, $32, three courses) has managed to keep up with the times without losing its traditional clubby feel, thanks to young chef Jacques Qualin. His Harissa-dusted sweetbreads with roasted sweet pepper emulsion are positively unstuffy. I DON’T HAVE THE TIME — OR DO I? Hurdle No. 2 is that you have a time limit, though often this limit is psychologically self-imposed (the partners at most every firm expect summer associates to enjoy lunches with their colleagues — that’s why they have these lunch programs in the first place — so don’t let any midlevel associate make you feel otherwise). One way to remove some of the time pressure, though, is to avoid the peak 12:30-1:30 p.m. lunch rush, when service slows and tables are harder to come by. A 1:45 p.m. lunch allows you to take control of the dining room and set the schedule. Likewise, a time limit doesn’t mean you always have to dine within a block of your office. Taxi transportation, especially for a group of four, is a simple matter after around 1:30 p.m., and no matter where you work you should at least once make the subway trip to Bouley for lunch. Hurdle No. 3: You have to choose your lunch group carefully! The joy of a free lunch unravels when you go with people who aren’t willing to savor the experience. EAT WITH THE FOODIES Find the other foodies in your firm and dine with them as often as possible. If you can assemble a truly reliable and cooperative group, you can even coordinate to dine within budget at non-prix-fixe restaurants like Nobu (105 Hudson St., 212-219-0500). If you order conservatively, it can be done. Or you can try some outer-boroughs dining. Perhaps my favorite lunch in New York City is the cheeseburger at the Peter Luger Steak House (178 Broadway, Brooklyn, 718-387-7400). Made of the same beef that comprises Luger’s legendary steaks, it’s worth the trek. IS IT REALLY TIME TO GO BACK? Hurdle No. 4, the unavoidable reality of the summer lunch: You have to go back to work afterwards. There’s no solution for this, so just get used to it. Welcome to the real world. Steven A. Shaw, a former Cravath, Swaine & Moore litigator, writes about food on www.fat-guy.com and elsewhere.

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