Much depends on lunch. Well of course it does. A long lunch, I mean, not some dreary sandwich, stuffed full with dolour, chewed sullenly while hunched over one’s desk. That is not lunch, rather the very definition of dyspeptic despair. Nor is anything involving spreadsheets, bank managers, “colleagues”, “reaching out” (unless it’s for a chilled bottle of Sancerre), “projections”, “blue sky thinking” or “paradigm shifts”. Oh, and anyone uttering such offensive tripe as “just the one course,” “I’ll stick with the salad”, and, most appalling of all, “a bottle of fizzy will do” should be banished to the distant, icy depths of the supermarket ready meal chilla cabinet, the modern incarnation of Dante’s treacherous 9th circle of hell.
Keith Waterhouse, a man who certainly knew his way around a long lunch (in fact, he probably hewed the path by hand) had very strict views at to “What Lunch is Not”, as laid down in his slim classic, The Theory and Practice of Lunch. “It is not when either party is on a diet, on the wagon or in a hurry. It is not taken perched on stools at a ledge [the honourable exceptions being Barrafina. And the bar at Sweeting’s. Obviously]. It is not a duty. Or a bribe. Or a penance.” Kingsley Amis, another legendary luncher, once declared that the most depressing words in the English language were “Shall we go straight in?” closely followed by “red or white?” I do get the feeling that both Waterhouse and Amis, heroes of the half twelve both, were perhaps a touch TOO offish when it came to the eating. There’s no fun in a purely liquid lunch.
And while I feel the Old Devil’s pain, The King obviously hadn’t had to endure the vile linguistic effluvium that is sprayed with such filthy abandon over the unwitting modern diner. “Are you familiar with our concept?” being the most stinking of all. To which the only answer is “yes, I come in, eat, pay the bill and bugger off. But thanks for asking all the same.” But a pre-prandial sharpener – something crisp and preferably dry, be it icy glass of Manzanilla, a negroni, deep crimson and dangerous, or simply a positively arid Tanqueray martini, served painfully cold – is foreplay of the most exciting kind. A tease, a tickle, the filthiest of winks, something to get the taste buds tumescent, a promise of high jinks ahead.
That’s not to say that booze is the be all and end all. Hell no. An essential component, sure, but just one part of the happy cavalcade. Nor should this exquisite affair be a daily event, even a weekly escapade. And although some legendary lunches have admittedly sprung from parched ground – starting with a “fancy something to eat?” on a dull Monday morning in Shepherd’s Bush, and ending, 10 days later, in some far off Bordello, in thrall to a nubile troupe of Nubian dancing girls – it’s best to cite Baden Powell and be prepared. Meaning: the afternoon cleared; the kids dispatched to Grandma; and one’s wife, soothed, mollified and apologised to profusely in advance.
Because lunch is undoubtedly the most civilised of meals, a last bastion of succour and bonhomie in an increasingly unpleasant world. Breakfast is admirable, as long as it involves eggs and a few variations of cured and processed pig. Never those foul, infernal cereals. And the less said about the Continental breakfast, the better. Save that no Empire was ever built upon sweaty cheese and Danish pastries. Brunch is an abomination, simply because it takes two meals and crams them into one. While dinner is fine, Fergus Henderson notes, “at dinner you are tired, and it forms a full stop to the day.” Quite.
Lunch, though, done properly, retains a whiff of the subversive, a snifter of the illicit, a whisper of the ne’er do well. The very best lunch spots encourage much languorous lingering over a carefully chosen sticky – iced poire, kummel and vieux prune; Calvados, Cognac and Armagnac as warm as the waitresses’ smile. So that the afternoon skips gaily by, and before you know it, the tables are being re-laid and dinner saunters in. Such splendidly sybaritic behaviour is, of course, encouraged. As long as good manners are observed, then all is well in the world.
So where to go? Some of the great lunching temples of my early life have long paid Charon their obol, and been paddled, sadly, over The Styx. Kensington Place, of course (the physical body might still dwell on Kensington Church Street but the soul has long since ascended), and Le Café Anglais. Both Rowley Leigh joints, as you’d expect from a true long lunch master. Mimo’s D’Ischia and the late, great Foxtrot Oscar, where you could sup louche by the pint. And the much missed 192.
But many of the greats still endure. St John. That goes without saying. Quo Vadis, under the divine guidance of those brothers Hart, and Jeremy of Lee, a patron saint of the lengthy repast, just like Mark Hix, with the eponymous Soho, and Oyster and Chophouse. Time passes merrily, in both his presence and his venues too. Scott’s and Le Caprice never fail to please, along with Bentley’s, Andrew Edmunds and Sweetings. As well as Bellamy’s, Boisdale, Bibendum (in its old guise), Bocca di Lupo, Locanda Locatelli, The Wolseley, The River Café, Riva, Moro, Le Gavroche and Otto’s. Plus relative newcomers, Barrafina, 10 Portland Road, 45 Jermyn Street, The Colony Grill Room and 8 Hoxton Square. Not just great restaurants, but places that understand the true art of the long lunch, imbued with the very soul of their owners and chefs. “Lunch is a celebration”, sighs Waterhouse, “like Easter after the winter. It is a conspiracy. It is a holiday. It is euphoria made tangible, serendipity given form”. Fortunes may dwindle, unions break, and nations founder and fall. But as the world seems to shatter around us, thank god that we’ll always have lunch.