With several of Britain’s best restaurants opting to cut their midweek opening hours, does this signal the final last gasp of the long boozy lunch? If so, will you miss it when it’s gone?
Historically, the concept of the “long lunch” was treasured by restaurant fanatics of all stripes. Self-styled foodies who, in taking four hours over lunch, felt they were paying homage to the Mediterranean dining ideal may have looked down on flash City gents rinsing the company credit card over £11,000 bottles of Pétrus, but their motives were not that different.
To spend a midweek afternoon indulging in extraordinary food over a drink or seven has always felt exquisitely transgressive, whoever you are. It is a small act of personal rebellion. But due to repeated recessions, stricter working environments and changing attitudes to alcohol, the long lunch has been in decline for years. For instance, a recent M&C Allegra FoodService study found that a mere 14% of lunch meals now include alcohol, and what fun is the long lunch without a boatload of booze? As many of our best restaurants begin to do away with midweek lunch services entirely, the long lunch feels like a tradition in its final death throes.
Faced with a shortage of highly skilled chefs and keen to make themselves more attractive places to work, Nottingham’s Restaurant Sat Bains, London’s Hedone and Darlington’s Raby Hunt are the Michelin-stared eateries that have jumped first in nixing midweek lunch services, but it is predicted many will follow. The two-star Hibiscus – a personal lunch favourite of mine when it occupied its crypt-like cocoon on Ludlow’s Corve Street – has just announced it will no longer open on Tuesday and Wednesday lunchtimes, as has Northumberland’s well-regarded Feathers Inn.
There are still countless restaurants where you can eat at lunch, of course, but most are fast, casual places – places where you grab lunch, rather than luxuriate in it. Nowadays, even City suits need to be back at their desks pronto; the Threadneedle Street branch of M Restaurants offers a £28 two-course menu, which it promises you can polish off in just 28 minutes.
In many ways, the 2008 credit crunch was the final nail in the long-lunch coffin. Since then, at lunch, people have been swapping fine dining for fast-casual or casual coffee-shop dining and takeaway. Certainly, outside London, due to their visibility and licence to discount, the big lunch winners over the past few years have been the high-street chains: Pizza Express, Starbucks, Greggs. In that changed landscape, a number of newer, ambitiously foodie independent restaurants – such as Altrincham’s Sugo Pasta, Sosban on Anglesey and Le Cochon Aveugle in York – have chosen to forgo weekday lunches altogether. Others, such as Baltzersen’s and Norse in Harrogate, operate as cafes by day and formal restaurants at night.
In short, those places where you might once have dreamed of whiling away an indecent afternoon are increasingly ceding the lunch marketplace to Nando’s and M&S. There is no arguing against this shift, economically. People are strapped for cash and pressed for time. Most do not want to eat a restaurant lunch on a Tuesday. At high-end venues that are competing furiously for the best staff, something has to give. Often that thing will be lunch.
But, for all that hard-headed logic, I’m sure I am not the only one mourning the demise of the long lunch. That rare, delicious timeout from reality was always more of an event than eating out on a Saturday night. Dodging work for the day, it felt like you were asserting a brief agency over your own happiness.
Where were your favourite places to “waste” a long, boozy afternoon? Or do you believe that the long lunch has a future? Are there still gastro hotspots on your must-do, long lunch list?
This article was written by Tony Naylor, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 26th January 2016 12.54 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010