The Art of Lunch
The daily helter skelter of modernity is such that even the simplest of pleasures must now be filched like an outlaw, grabbed at like an opportunistic child, wolfed like the famished. Or, I suppose, planned in advance like we’re all project managers or something.
Subsequently one of the day’s most obvious gratifications, lunch – the first meal of the day – is more often than not reduced to the ritual chunneling of baguette into your gullet while sitting at a desk or queueing in the Post Office.
We have lost sight of one of mankind’s greatest inventions: The long, boozy lunch. Or as we call it, Drunch.
Just look at the numbers: The average lunch break taken in the UK is 30 minutes. In France they get two hours. That’s right, while we’re champing on their pallid batons they’re settling down to fine wines and four courses. In Spain they even have a little sleep afterwards. When did we get so backward?
Lunch, put simply, is the reward for mornings; our appetite a return for the getting out of bed. Done properly, it is a respite from life’s rigours; a little holiday, if you like. It really is a mystery why we have allowed the extended midday meal to slip from our consciousness, combining as it does three of our favourite things: Eating, drinking and not working.
Pass the menu and let’s consider some of the elements of this lost art.
The long lunch requires friends, trusted colleagues or people you fancy – preferably a combination of all three.
Unless you have a special relationship it’s generally unwise to lunch with your boss, though one good trick is to wangle one with your boss’s boss (invite them if necessary, they will be delighted – and feel honour-bound to pick up the tab). That way when you return to the office two hours late, roll your eyes and say to your boss, ‘Blimey, your boss is a one’, you’ve not only got a ready-made excuse but you’re also putting them on edge about what you’ve been discussing.
Ideally, you will want nothing from your lunch companions and they will want nothing from you. This leaves you free to discuss the breadsticks, gossip about fellow diners and expound your theory that, due to global warming, greenhouses will soon be as rare as the Cockney sparrow, which may ironically precipitate the latter’s return as aphids will once again be readily available… Conversations of the gods.
If you’re unlucky, someone will postulate that a lack of aphids is more likely due to their monophagous desire for sap under negative hydrostatic pressure rather than the presence of greenhouses, at which point just smile and re-introduce the subject of breadsticks. It’s important not to get too earnest.
Does the food matter? Experts, or similar, are divided.
Corporate Deserter, I. Osman, insists on the finest cuisine known to man, but that’s OK because he’s picking up the tab on his gargantuan expense account. Esteemed colleague, Dirty South, on the other hand, is happy with anything as long as he’s heard of it, it has no visible face, it doesn’t come from the sea and it isn’t vegetables.
Personally, I’m somewhere in between. If I’m going to invest a couple of hours of my life somewhere, I would like the food to be interesting, timely and fresh. But if this is not to be the case, I will accept a beverage on the house by way of apology.
What I will not accept is unlicensed premises. Drink is of course a crucial component of the long lunch. The ordering of wine must never be in doubt, notwithstanding a refreshing lager beer or an enlivening spirit to commence proceedings. I like to order a G&T before I have even taken off my coat.
The corollary of this, sadly, is that the long, intoxicating lunch cannot be undertaken on a daily basis. Part of the fun is the daytime drinking and once that becomes normalised it ceases to be special. Not to mention you will almost certainly be drinking too much.
The way we look at it, it’s OK to be non-functioning, it’s even OK to be an alcoholic (though, as regular readers will testify, we are not doctors), but what it is not OK to be, is a non-functioning alcoholic. At this point you’re not living, you’re merely existing, and if there’s one thing we like to do, it’s live. Live, love and loaf. Three things.
We recommend the long lunch is taken no more than once a week. And twice at weekends.
The lunches of which we speak should not be taken in those ‘1 Hour’ places, where they will ‘need the table back’ or worse, actually close at some point and try to run you off the premises with the stench of bleach. The long lunch requires a minimum of two hours, with gaps between courses, much mulling, chats with the waiters about sparrows and a little something to try from chef. It’s at this point that I. Osman will usually send his subordinates back to the office, to fight the good fight, while he orders a dozen oysters for pudding.
What happens next is up to you. At Deserter, we consider lunch an opportunity for a kind of Situationist liberation, a flâneurie, in which whims and fancies overrule traditional afternoon activities and so-called ‘requirements’.
It only takes one person to say, ‘Well, to be honest, there’s nothing I actually need to rush back for’ and suddenly a new path for the day unrolls before you, like your own personal red carpet. Is that person usually me? Possibly. I rarely want a good lunch to end. I consider it my gift to humanity that I may plant the seeds of such thought in the minds of others and selflessly let them reap what I have sown.
Some may decide to order another bottle and stay put awhile, some may even go for the ultimate goal of remaining in the restaurant for so long you eventually order dinner. For me, it’s one of the few times when I yearn for cocktails, so I like to suggest a nice hotel bar or a little place I know round the corner with a prodigious Happy Hour.
By 4pm you’ll be raising blue drinks and bellowing Situationist slogans like ‘Free the passions!’, ‘Work? Never!’ and ‘Who’s for a game of darts!?’. By 9pm you can be in bed, sleeping it all off.
As for the settling of the bill, splitting payment is all very well (and, of course, fair enough) but it hardly needs saying that in an ideal world, someone else will be doing the paying.
Deserter extremist, Half-life, is expert at instigating the freebie – he claims the last time he paid for lunch was on a date with Grace Jones in the ’90s. Should you happen to mention that you won 30 quid on your acca at the weekend, for example, his face will light up in conspiratorial glee.
‘You fucking genius, you should celebrate!’ he’ll say, softening you up before adding, ‘How about lunch?’.
Next thing you know you’re stuffed to the gills, £60 down and sharing a twilight spliff by some bins. But, man, does it feel good.
Suggestions of the day
London’s spiritual home of the long lunch is, of course, Soho, which despite recent upheavals retains enough restaurants, bars, bistros and dens to offer fulsome afternoon promise. But South London has its own share of PM palaces and here, in no particular order, are some that I have found myself still in way after the cheese trolley has done the rounds.
Giuseppe’s Place, Borough
At the entrance to King’s Head Yard, off Borough High Street, a neon sign reading ‘Ristorante Italiano’ points to an unpromising door in the wall. As you descend the stairs to this basement eatery, though, the weight of the world leaves your shoulders and you are transported to a safe Italian haven. Even in the event of a nuclear strike, you feel, there might be time for one more bottle of Chianti and a sing-song.
The food can be a little slap-dash, but a 2 for 1 deal with a Tastecard at least brings the prices back down to something approaching reality.
Rocca di Papa, Dulwich Village
While locals wait (and wait) for the Crown & Greyhound to re-open, there is at least some cause for celebration in Dulwich Village – the presence of another Italian favourite, Rocca. For me, this just pips new pizza place par excellence, Franco Manca in East Dulwich, as the menu is more extensive (which helps if you find you’ve somehow managed to eat pizza for three days running) and in the summer it offers al fresco dining.
Having said that, there is not a lot around for ‘afters’ so if you’re planning to push on till dusk, Lordship Lane might be a better bet.
Another outside eating experience is offered by Gastro, a proper French bistro on Venn Street, at which they do the classics superbly. Snug and intimate inside, it’s Mrs Raider’s favourite place for French onion soup, steak frites and experimenting with anisette.
Estrela Bar, Vauxhall
Estrela also has expansive outside seating but here we like the little upstairs restaurant where you’re transported to Portuguese holidays gone by and treated to an extensive menu of Portuguese cuisine. The arroz de marisco and grilled razor clams are sensational. Unsurprisingly, I haven’t eaten there with Dirty South.
Market Porter, Borough
Back in Borough, this handsome, no-nonsense first floor dining room (see pic above) is another escape from the hurly burly as you kick back and watch the bustle of the market with a pint of Harvey’s Best in hand. It’s a bit of a cheat this one, since by about half three (during the week) you’ll be asked to move downstairs, but as downstairs is a pub, it’s a disappointment that soon passes.
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Image credits: Main image by r reeve used under this licence; ‘Before’ by East Midtown used under this licence; ‘During’ by brett jordan used under this licence; ‘Afters’ by Pat Joyce used under this licence