Some would say the business lunch is dead. I don’t agree: for me, it is remains a favourite ritual. Perhaps I enjoy lunch because I’m in the trade. I love to try new restaurants, judging their decor, menu, service, food and ambience not just as a customer, but as an operator, always on the lookout for new ideas and talent.
I like business lunches because they are an opportunity to take time away from the front line and have a proper conversation. For me, business breakfasts are a bit too rushed and business dinners eat into one’s family life, while brunch is something that takes place at weekends. However, eating out at lunch offers a break from non-stop meetings and calls, is a civilised institution, and involves more intimate discussion than typically happens in the workplace.
A sandwich or salad at one’s desk is the midday meal for many executives. I do that, too, but once or twice a week I love to stroll out of the office and be served a proper meal in hospitable surroundings. A business lunch is the ideal time to discuss confidential or difficult subjects, interview a new recruit or catch up with colleagues. We are all more relaxed at lunch than in meeting rooms. Lunchers know they have 90 minutes or so to share a meal with no sudden interruptions, no PowerPoint presentations, no minutes being taken and no written agenda.
However, too many business lunches can lead to weight gain and too much time away from the coal face. I don’t like boozy lunches, and do not enjoy returning to work in the afternoon so full that I’m sleepy.
Thirty-three years ago, when I worked at the stockbroker Grieveson Grant in Gresham Street in the City, the partners would partake of an extensive Friday lunch and pour themselves into a fleet of taxis at about 3pm to be ferried back to their home county mansions. Such indulgence is now wholly out of fashion, except perhaps for very special celebrations.
Since the Bribery Act came into force in 2011, organisations have introduced much stricter rules about how much corporate hospitality is permissible. Luckily, I find the most expensive restaurants are stuffy — I favour informal places, which tend to deliver better value and simpler food.
London has hundreds of first-rate restaurants that offer set lunch menus at enticing prices. Anyone who lives in the capital puts up with noise, traffic, crowds, high prices — but a glittering array of restaurants is one reason to stay amid the hurly-burly. Almost all restaurants make their real profits during the evening trade, which, in effect, subsidises the lunch service, so the midday meal can be a bargain.
Many modern managers spend their lunchtimes at the gym, preferring healthy calorie-burning exercise to the dangers and delights of a cooked meal. Good for them. I think they are missing a vital opportunity to be genuinely social, and to take advantage of one of life’s greatest pleasures — delicious food with interesting companions. Moreover, taking someone out to lunch is a way to discover a bit about their hinterland, or perhaps a step towards closing a big sale, or doing an important deal.
I recall a lunch at Pizza Express in Soho’s Dean Street in 1992 which ultimately enabled the takeover and successful float of that business — and that was the making of my career. Another extended lunch, in Edinburgh perhaps 20 years ago, led to me becoming co-owner of the largest group of venues at the city’s Festival Fringe.
Years ago I owned the most fabled lunch venue in Britain, The Ivy near Covent Garden. In a single room there used to gather an amazing concentration of media big-shots and showbiz stars, as well as politicians and tycoons. Now the rich, powerful and famous are scattered across many dozens of desirable restaurants: never again will there be one dominant place to have lunch, simply because there is so much choice.
Of course, eating out disrupts the flow of the working day, and it takes effort to book and travel to and from the chosen restaurant. Yet that is the point: an appointment for luncheon is a serious commitment. It should also be a highlight of the day, something to look forward to, a modest treat amid all the more tedious aspects of a working life, such as commuting and administration.
As Keith Waterhouse wrote, it feels a little like playing truant. A decent lunch can make the difference between a dull day and a congenial one.