Fleet street veteran Jeff Mills has enjoyed a few liquid lunches in his time, but the corporate world has sobered up.
I recently met a couple of business colleagues in The Blackfriar, an atmospheric Victorian London pub you may know. Much loved by City boys and girls through the ages, it has character, real ale, a good choice of wines, frosted glass partitions and no music. It has always been the perfect spot for a drink or two on the way home, but also, on this occasion, for a trip down memory lane.
As we met for our regular “strategy meeting” at a prime table conveniently close to the bar, we could hardly fail to notice just how well behaved and abstemious most of our fellow drinkers were. Back in the late 1970s and throughout most of the 1980s, we’d have struggled to keep up; now, we were practically the only ones ordering alcohol. I used to frequent the place shortly after Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979, and probably a decade before yuppies appeared with their mobile phones the size of bricks and almost as heavy. What remained constant from the 1970s through until the end of the 1990s was the enjoyment of the corporate lunch.
PUT IT ON EXPENSES
Those were the days when flashy business types thought nothing of spending thousands on the company credit card in restaurants such as Langan’s Brasserie, Simpson’s in the Strand, Rules in Covent Garden (the oldest surviving restaurant in the capital) and, of course, the Savoy Grill, the all-time favourite of business leaders. At the time, it was said by some in the City or working on newspapers in nearby Fleet Street that if your boss invited you to lunch at the Savoy Grill you were about to be promoted, but if you were invited for dinner you were about to be fired. The idea was that you could return to the office after lunch to celebrate your good fortune with colleagues, or slip off home quietly in the evening if it had been bad news.
THE PRAWN COCKTAIL YEARS
In truth, the food generally was pretty ordinary by today’s standards. Back then a typical lunch menu might have been starters of smoked salmon or prawn cocktail, with a choice of fish, steak and chips or roast meat for a main course, though you would be offered the odd grouse or venison at places such as Rules, depending on the season.
The Savoy Grill was one of the best options because there the staff produced the roast of the day on a magnificent trolley with a silver-domed cloche, which was wheeled to your table. You could tip the waiter doing the rounds before he carved the joint, thereby ensuring you got a decent portion.
Another favourite for lavish business entertaining was Le Gavroche in London’s Mayfair where Albert and Michel Roux (Snr) ruled the roost, and where chef Pierre Koffmann got his first real break. Koffmann eventually went on to cater for big business spenders at La Tante Claire, which he opened in Chelsea’s Royal Hospital Road in 1977. This was perhaps the first time those entertaining their business contacts were offered such treats as pig’s trotters alongside delights such as foie gras, sweetbreads and morels.
On the celebrity chef scene during the late 1990s was Nico Ladenis, who in 1989 opened a restaurant called Simply Nico in Pimlico, before moving location twice and eventually accruing three Michelin stars. Ladenis decided that no customer should have more than one gin and tonic, ask for salt and pepper, or in any way criticise the food. I remember vividly being on the sharp end of his tongue when I took one look at the blood running out of the pigeon I had ordered and had the cheek to ask for it to be cooked a little more.
Now, of course, the long business lunch has largely gone. Companies are facing tougher trading conditions – this in spite of surveys showing that many businesspeople still rate lunch with prospective clients as the most important element in sealing a deal, and those being entertained are more likely to renew a contract after being wined and dined. Entertaining at expensive restaurants is a rare treat, though you can still spend a lot of money on business lunches.
Perhaps the last hurrah for the corporate lunch was when a group of City bankers on a lunchtime spree spent upwards of £44,000 on a wine-fuelled lunch at London restaurant Pétrus, run at the time (in 2002) by Gordon Ramsay. The fact that once the story got out, five of the six lost their jobs, despite it being their own money spent, really was the death knell for the no-holds-barred business lunch. Good riddance, some of you may say. Well, perhaps. There’s no doubt we live in more sober times. But can we toast that?
Jeff Mills has been a travel reporter and editor for more than 30 years.