Where are you drinking?*
Choosing a bar is your opening move. Be sure you make the right one.
By Monica Corcoran Harel
"I hate the office," growls Doug Ellin, the creator and executive producer of the hit HBO series Entourage. "I'd much rather do meetings in a great bar, where people aren't nervous and you can relax and be more creative."
Even on the show, Ellin rarely allows his achingly suave characters--Hollywood actors, agents, producers and directors--to broker a deal in a boardroom. Dark bars, pulsating nightclubs and old-school lounges that serve epiphany-causing martinis are the settings for onscreen business maneuvers. "You just need to find the right place and become a regular," says Ellin, who personally favors a sleek sports bar called Goal in Los Angeles. "I do my meetings there, back to back."
Finding a corner booth that substitutes well for your corner office, however, is no flimsy pursuit. Choose the right bar and you've found the place to deepen a connection, make a pitch, close a deal--and, not least of all, enhance a client's opinion of you. But the refreshing ease that comes with clinking glasses can melt as quickly as crushed ice if the lights suddenly dim low and Lady Gaga starts blaring.
So what makes a great business bar? Here are the essentials:
Discreet seating . A booth is optimum, but a corner table or tables with at least 3 feet between them will do (anything closer invites eavesdropping). Chairs should be comfortable, too.
Friendly, attentive staff. Whether it's the bartender, server or host, you should have a go-to person at your favorite haunt, who always looks out for you and your guest. Being neglected or mistreated does not reflect well.
The maitre d' or hostess often dictates where you sit, so Ann Marie Sabath, corporate etiquette consultant and author of Courting Business: 101 Ways for Accelerating Business Relationships, recommends some reconnaissance beforehand. "I like to introduce myself and then have someone call me by name when I arrive later with a client," she says. And to get the best table, she pre-tips $20.
Ellin avoids places with haughty servers. "I want to get treated well," he says. "And they have to be alright with the fact that I could be sitting in a booth for four hours." Indeed, Ellin recalls a successful meeting with actor Martin Landau at the Polo Lounge in Beverly Hills that lasted six hours.
Compelling crowd. You don't need to be surrounded by celebrities and moguls, but the place should be filled with interesting, professional-minded people. In essence, your peers. It goes without saying that a rowdy atmosphere or a pickup bar is unsuitable for sealing a deal.
"I like a quiet but interesting crowd, compelling décor and enough space to put down a computer," says Douglas Merrill, former Google CIO and author of the new book Getting Organized in the Google Era. His favorite haunt is Citizen Smith in Hollywood, Calif., a cavernous lounge and restaurant that feels like a mash-up of a Scottish castle and an Aspen lodge. For Merrill, who's amassing a team for his top-secret technology startup, conducting interviews at a bar sends out the right message. "An office meeting is better for a corporate deal. There's more structure and pressure," he says. "But doing an interview at a place like Citizen Smith shows that we're an interesting company."
Manageable din. You never want to be somewhere that suddenly packs up and requires you to scream negotiation points across the table and distracts from the business at hand.
"Can I hold a conversation in the room? That's my first question. I don't want to yell in a meeting," says Eric Kopeloff, a producer who works closely with Oliver Stone. When he and the director met with top financial honchos to research the upcoming sequel Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, 75 percent of their appointments took place in Manhattan bars that had minimal noise. The young turks liked the Rose Bar in Gramercy Park; older power execs roosted at Midtown's Monkey Bar.
"We got the best stuff for the film over drinks after breaking the ice with a personal question," Kopeloff says. "In some cases, we needed to ask them about using locations to shoot, like a trading room floor, and we could strike a deal right there."
Full range of liquor. A client may opt for a domestic beer, but top-shelf brands of alcohol and good wines are a must. You may want to celebrate a deal with a single-malt scotch or Champagne. Plus, you don't want to limit anyone's choices.
Good lighting. This is not only key for reading facial cues, but it also sets the right tone for business. Too dark can send the wrong message; too bright can be unflattering. If you're unfamiliar with the bar, ask the maitre d' whether the lights are turned down at a certain hour.
Good food. You never know when negotiations will extend past cocktail time. Lots of great bars offer interesting snacks, such as fancy spiced nuts or Kettle Chips. Unshelled peanuts and popcorn don't cut it. Otherwise, look for an appealing bar menu with sophisticated small plates.
Kelly Cutrone, the no-nonsense New York fashion publicity guru and star of Bravo's reality show Kell on Earth, has a business meeting almost every weeknight and prefers the Café Bar at the Carlyle Hotel or the lounge at the Soho Grand.
"The scene is laid back, you can get a bar menu, and the service is top of the line," she says. "Once you have all that covered, the meeting becomes a little more liquid and things really start to flow."
Decent décor. This place is an extension of your office. If you're into a hip, retro '60s vibe, your bar should reflect your taste and personality. If you prefer Chesterfield sofas and mahogany paneling, settle in at a place with a clubby, masculine setting.
But sometimes, you must defer to your client. If out-of-towners crave a taste of the hottest scene, go with it.
"If I have CEOs or creative directors of fashion brands who are coming into town and want the supertrendy scene, I have to take them there," Cutrone says, with a groan. "But I don't get much business accomplished other than proving to them that I have enough power to get a really great table."
Monica Corcoran Harel is a Los Angeles writer and author specializing in the culture of keeping up appearances.