Oral History: Steve Millington

It’s been 26 years since Michael McCarty opened the New York outpost of his original eponymous restaurant in Santa Monica. From its inception, the 55th Street restaurant has attracted buzz not so much for its American cuisine and notorious $36 Cobb salad, but for its meticulously seated power clientele—and the deals they make over lunch. “The merger between AOL and Time Warner was done here,” says general manager Steve Millington, who has been the maestro of seating arrangements at Michael’s New York since 1998. (You know your star is falling if you get a table in the back.) Millington has witnessed countless lunchtime book deals and media acquisitions involving such power players as Barry Diller, Irving Azoff, Dick Parsons and Les Moonves. And, of course, he’s also seen plenty of deals go south. “When eye contact at a table stops, that’s when you know things have gone awry,” he says. These are the rules of the Michael’s power lunch.

“Some people look straight through you. That’s insecurity. Security is looking someone in the eye and asking a question that’s actually relevant, like, ‘How’s your family?’—and waiting for the answer. Listening is an art.”

“It’s very important for people to know when to walk away. You have to know when to leave.”

“Never let them see you sweat. Some of these guys have got that down to a science. They exude confidence. When Bill Clinton walks into the room, you just feel his presence.”

“Somebody who has a meeting they know won’t go well will ask me, ‘Can we keep things moving right along? It’s not going to be a great lunch.’ I’ll make sure they’re out the door in 45 minutes.”

“The biggest problem with power guys is making them wait. They’re not used to it. If you’re late, you’ve screwed it up.”

“You have to know your place. There is a certain veneer that you have to remember exists. Because as soon as you don’t, you get your head smashed in.”

“People who are powerful aren’t powerful because they’ve tiptoed through the tulips. Barry Diller is a guy who keeps you at arm’s length. He focuses on you and it’s like you’re in the sun getting burned. That sort of power is earned through really tough deals.”

“People with huge power or great wealth are generally very low-key. They dress a little more casual and are less inclined to be pushy. They don’t need to put on airs.”

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