There’s something about a “proper lunch” for a middle-aged hospitality professional that’s not dissimilar to his or her younger self dropping a pill at a rave.
First the sense of anticipation, an excited queasiness. On arrival, the maitre d’ looks caught somewhere between nervousness at what he knows will end up as a rowdy table and anticipation of a large dollop of tronc and/or a palm full of notes.
Next comes the stiff upward jolt of the first Martini. Nerves are jangling but the direction of travel is good.
Suddenly, cruising altitude is attained and all is well in the world. Wine is gulped and commented on knowledgeably. Our exec is bullet-proof, everything said is terrifically funny, each observation is profound. There may even be close physical contact, firm arms round the shoulder, back-slapping and, later on, play-fighting.
Eventually confusion sets in and we might be spotted staring absently into space or asleep on a banquette. Some of the younger set might have “gone on” to the bar at the Groucho Club or Dinerama.
Finally there’s the awakening next morning – not always where you expected to wake up. Kingsley Amis nailed it in Lucky Jim: “Dixon was alive again. Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way; not for him the slow, gracious wandering from the halls of sleep but a summary, forcible ejection. He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of the morning. The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did. He resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.”
Of course longer-term benefits include the deep bonds formed in adversity – a “proper” lunch isn’t a walk in the park, it has a whiff of recklessness, even danger. Viewed from the outside it has the garrulous hallmarks that make our continental cousins (and spouses) look at us in appalled embarrassment. From the inside it is a glorious adventure, with all the thrill of bad behaviour thrown in.
I was somewhat dismayed, therefore, to read lunch as an occasion is in decline – in terms of frequency (minus 7%) and spend growth, which is almost half that of breakfast or dinner.
However, I’m not altogether surprised. Writing personally, breakfast – in steep growth – is the “getting stuff done” meal. It’s when you meet someone for the first time you think could be an important contact. It’s when you meet to hammer out a knotty issue. It’s business-like, time-efficient, inexpensive and hasn’t the slightest whiff of danger. Oddly, it’s similar to meeting “for a pint” which, despite involving alcohol, rarely spins out of control.
In a world where there has never been greater surveillance of employees or investees, breakfast looks like a good use of time. On the other hand, being a frequent luncher will certainly raise question marks over use of time, mental health and attitude towards the sanctity of company funds.
I would say the optimal number of proper lunches per year is somewhere between four and six – and these should be paid from one’s own pocket. Breakfasts, by way of contrast, can be three to four per week and no-one blinks.
I suspect the famous lunching restaurants such as Rules, River Café and Otto’s succeed by providing the ideal backdrop to “proper lunch” behaviour. There’s a veneer of civility, a reassuringly expensive wine list, comforting food, and knowing staff who recognise you and provide the gentlest of nudges towards excess – a nudge all the more effective for being almost imperceptible. Then there’s the growing, congratulatory tone from the team as the event progresses and the choices become more reckless and expensive. This is an art form and has nothing to do with the quality, style or sourcing of the food and everything to do with making someone who wants to exit their own head for an afternoon feel good about it and drop a few quid in the process. It is, in fact, an art form as old as civilisation itself.
Lunch may be, if not dead, then dying by the broadest of measures but it unquestionably has an important role in the psychodrama of conducting business in middle age. Therefore, I say: “Long live lunch!”