Has the sobering transformation of long liquid lunches contributed to better business? One nostalgic journalist, Robin Lynam, thinks not…

Twelve years have passed since the green and gold splendour of the Mandarin Grill at the Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong fell victim to radical refurbishment. Yet I am still mourning it, and for me what it represented: civilised long lunches.

Not that there is anything wrong with the restaurant of the same name that has superseded the classic, windowless grill room that was the place to go for a three-hour lunch for more than four decades. It holds a Michelin star, and every time I have been there the food has been excellent.

But it is businesslike. Where the old room was full of softly lit recesses into which people playing truant from their offices could discreetly retreat, the Mandarin Grill today is flooded with natural light. Everybody can see everybody else, and people meeting there for a business lunch are probably discussing business.   

I find that dispiriting. When I started having business lunches back in the 1980s, as you took at noon the seat you expected to occupy until 3pm, a waiter, who already knew your response, would enquire whether you would like to see the wine list. Today, you are asked the spirit-dampening question, “Still or sparkling?”.

The point about the business lunches of 20 or 30 years ago is that they weren’t particularly about business. They were a reward for already having done some, or an opportunity to get to know people with whom you might do some, with their tongues nicely loosened.  Those lunches were bathed in good wine. At 2pm you did not say, “Good lord is that the time? I must be getting back to work.” You said, “Let’s have another look at the digestif trolley.”

During a brief stint in public relations before I subsided into journalism, I worked with a senior account executive who quite frequently returned late from a long, boozy lunch  and fell asleep at his desk. One time I remember the boss sticking his head round the door and nodding approvingly. “He must have signed another client,” he said. He was right. Not only was this executive not functionally impaired by lunchtime drinking, he was able to function quite substantially because his clients liked drinking with him.

The withering of expense accounts has something to do with the near disappearance of the long lunch, but I suspect it is more a consequence of changing attitudes towards daytime consumption of alcohol. It is hard to get properly into the spirit of the occasion without the social lubricant.

Today even one glass of wine, never mind finishing the bottle, is widely regarded with austere disapproval. “You don’t drink during the day, do you?” I was once asked, incredulously, by one of the new school of daytime puritans. He would have thought nothing of getting plastered in Lan Kwai Fong until 3am and struggling into work with a debilitating hangover, but regarded a lunchtime martini or glass of champagne as the gravest dereliction of duty.

I doubt that we do business any more efficiently as a result of the new puritanism, but we certainly do it less agreeably. And in Asia we have lost most of the venues where good old-fashioned business lunching was properly understood. The traditional hotel grill room is all but extinct. Of the classics in Hong Kong the Mandarin Grill is now a misnomer, and the Excelsior Grill and Hilton Grill merely memories.

In Kowloon the Holiday Inn Golden Mile did away with the Baron’s Table years ago, but the risen-from-the-ashes Hyatt Regency is to be warmly commended for recreating Hugo’s, historically a long lunch favourite, and still a venue which recognises that lunch is a celebration of life.

Morton’s at the Sheraton remains highly sympathetic to people who still like to start lunch with a martini or two while they study the wine list. So does The Envoy at The Pottinger hotel, my current favourite long lunch venue. These are places that after 2.30pm prefer to continue to take your money rather than chase you out of the door.

In 1987 the late Keith Waterhouse, who in Who’s Who listed “Lunch” as his sole hobby and who would have been horrified by the institution’s decline, wrote an excellent book called The Theory and Practice of Lunch. It contains much sound good sense, and I commend it to your attention.