Out to lunch, and other high adventures of the palate

''Let me smile with the wise, and feed with the rich,'' Samuel Johnson once said, adjusting his wig and heading, no doubt, for the restaurant of Jean-Louis at Watergate in Washington, D.C.

The cheapest meal at the Watergate is priced at $40, and that certainly ought to wipe the smile off the face of the wise. For $70, Dr. Johnson - waiter, please pass the check to his rich friend - may toy with two appetizers (oysters and crab cakes), a salad, breast of squab with sweet potatoes, and dessert.

We trust Sam will hit the pastry cart for all he's worth, because, frankly, a smidgen of pigeon, a dab of sweet potato, and three oysters, however plump, simply don't add up to dinner for a growing boy working night and day on his dictionary.

Nevertheless, the public has been assured by the eagle-eyed auditing of a Wall Street Journal reporter that the Watergate is actually losing money on these economy specials.

Jean-Louis Palladin, the chef and part owner, practically wept as he laid bare a deficit budget second only to the Pentagon's, due to the high cost of his ingredients, not to mention $25,000 worth of Limoges china to frame that squab and $5,000 worth of tablecloths to spill it upon. M. Palladin observed that ''If people knew what happened in the back, every detail, they would think . . . 'It's cheap!' ''

Well, maybe not quite. But we know what Jean-Louis means. We have exactly the same feeling whenever we grill franks on the backyard barbecue.

Still, the fact is, nobody goes to the Jean-Louis Watergate restaurant for sheer, vulgar nourishment. A ritual of genteel exclusivity is taking place here. Even if you're a person who can plunk down $120 (beverage extra), you're not necessarily going to be given the chance. There are only 14 tables at M. Palladin's disposal, and you'll have to battle Ronald and Nancy Reagan and Henry Kissinger and Mikhail Baryshnikov for the honors, just to name four who could be very tough customers to unseat.

This opens up the whole subject of eating, not as a matter of tasting, chewing, and swallowing, but as a sort of statement. For the cost of a hearts-of-palm and lobster salad from Jean-Louise - between $12 and $13 - you can buy a new book by Ligita Dienhart and E. Melvin Pinsel, titled ''Power Lunch: How You Can Profit from More Effective Business Lunch Strategy.'' Even eating, it appears, can have ulterior motives, and here is a guidebook all about them. In effect, Dienhart and Pinsel are telling you how to work at your lunches so that one day you can loaf and enjoy your dinners at Watergate.

Nothing about a Dienhart-Pinsel lunch has anything to do with the delights of the palate. One is advised where to eat and what to eat in terms of maneuvers as elaborate as a military operation. A business luncheon, it is assumed, constitutes a form of combat. The equivalent of occupying the high ground is to take a ''power seat'' commanding a view of the room, leaving your opponent-companion to stare at the wallpaper behind you.

Having put the enemy on the defensive, don't blow your advantage by ordering ''wimp food'': poached salmon or rack of lamb. A steak - the bigger the better - is ''power food'' at its most effective, especially if the consumer happens to be a woman.

Power-eating, if one grasps the concept, is practically identical with bad manners. The power-eater plays the terrorist of the luncheon table - a zone that innocent folks believe to be demilitarized.

A recent memoirist has revealed that John F. Kennedy stabbed his morning waffle and waved it more or less in the face of his breakfast companion. A true power-eater doesn't wait for lunch.

If the companion protested, JFK said he didn't like conversation in the morning. Checkmate. Make that man president. Reserve him the ''power table'' at M. Palladin's Watergate. But don't seat him at our table at the old hashery.

High-energy performers of one kind or another give us problems with swallowing. The people we like to eat with have to be (a) hungry or (b) friendly or (c) amusing or (d) all three of the above. We leave the rich to Dr. Johnson; we leave the powerful to one another.

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