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WHERE'S THE BEEF? AT POWER LUNCHES, WHERE STEAK TAKES THE CAKE

Big food is power food, according to restaurant owners. When a business deal is at stake, ordering a big hunk of meat is far from rare.

"A businessman is not going to want a la-de-dah lunch," said Alan Stillman, chairman of the New York Restaurant Group, adding that women are not chicken about eating large portions of red meat, either.

"Women tend to eat similarly to men and will go through a steak as fast as a man. If a woman chooses a steakhouse for a business lunch, it's because she wants a steak, too," he said.

Stillman's company owns 11 restaurants in New York, Chicago, Miami and New Orleans and plans to open one in Las Vegas in December and one in Washington next year. Among its holdings is Manhattan's Maloney & Porcelli, one of the restaurants just named by Gourmet magazine as a winner in its "best for business" category.

"They have a pork shank there that's almost as big as my cocker spaniel," said Andrew Plesser, whose public relations firm does some work for Gourmet and who has business lunches at Maloney & Porcelli. The deep-fried shank weighs 2 1/4 pounds.

The restaurant's best-selling steaks include an 18-ounce sirloin, a 16-ounce filet mignon and monster rib steaks that can range up to nearly 2 pounds.

Indeed, many of the 24 U.S. and Canadian "best for business" restaurant winners are famous for hearty meat fare, not dainty nouvelle cuisine creations or delicate Asian food.

Other top business spots on the list include Morton's of Chicago restaurants in Washington, D.C., and the Phoenix and Scottsdale, Ariz., areas; Ruth's Chris Steak House in Beverly Hills, Calif.; Manny's Steak House in Minneapolis, and Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steakhouse in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

The survey, which appears in the magazine's October issue, evaluated more than 3,500 restaurants and polled 26,000 randomly selected subscribers in the United States and Canada on restaurants in their areas. The survey was conducted by Monroe Mendelsohn Research of New York.

Gourmet editor in chief Gail Zweigenthal said she thought readers would choose restaurants offering lighter meals as the most popular spots for business lunches and was shocked that they chose steakhouses instead.

"I am pretty much the biggest steak eater I know . . . but I save my steaks for going out with friends in the evening. I just had a business lunch today at the Mark Hotel, which has a quiet, gentle dining room, and we both ordered salads."

Ms. Zweigenthal said it might be that people think of steak when they are dining on expense accounts, "but maybe these people don't go back to work after lunch, either."

Most people prefer to have a big restaurant meal, which often includes wine, at dinnertime so if they feel sluggish afterward they can just go home, she said.

She speculated that diners who eat heavy lunches might be on out-of-town business trips. "Maybe you do your business over lunch and then sleep it off in your hotel room."

Does the craving for a heavy lunch magically disappear on the health-conscious West Coast, which is famous for its lighter "California cuisine"?

Louis Parnell, head waiter at San Francisco's Le Central Bistro, another "best for business" winner, answered with an emphatic "no."

"As far as power lunches go, they do tend to eat pretty hearty meals," he said.

"We are one of the few restaurants in San Francisco that serves steak tartare, and we sell a lot of it," he said, referring to the raw beef delicacy.

Stillman maintains that despite a growing emphasis on eating low-fat, healthy meals, "big food has always been in."

He did admit that about 50 percent of lunch sales at Maloney & Porcelli were lobster and other seafood, but he said the average lobster served at the restaurant weighs five pounds and none is under three pounds.

"When people spend money in a restaurant," he said, "when they leave they want to be able to say, 'It was expensive but it was worth it.' "