No-one quite knows when the long lunch suffered a mortal blow. Perhaps it was the financial crisis of 2007-08, when money lost its lustre. Perhaps it was before that, in the 1980s, when US working cultures flooded the City of London after the Big Bang.
The grim phrase “al desko” was first recorded in the Washington Post 40 years ago, so the rot has a long history. Now, in the aftermath of the pandemic, with employees habituated to working from home for much of their time, the idea of spending two or three hours in a day at a nominally social event seems not just absurdly extravagant but positively treasonous.
I have a habit of forming great emotional attachments to lost causes, and this may be another example, but I want to say, in loud and defiant terms: the long lunch still has a place in modern business.
I am aware that this is not an easy sell. Indulgence is one of the greatest modern crimes, and knowingly to inhale and imbibe rich, fatty foods and—whisper it—alcohol seems utterly reckless.
Let me try to reassure with a few parameters. I am not proposing that people drink themselves insensible in the middle of the day and find that they are unconscious or at least unfit for work by 4pm. Each of us has his or her own tolerance for alcohol, and you must take some responsibility for your self-care.
Equally, my prescription is not one which will fit all industries. I would rather not be placed under the care of a surgeon, for example, who had lunched long and well. Machine-operators are probably better off avoiding it. But we live increasingly in an economy of the mind, at least here in the capital, and I do genuinely believe that a relaxing, restorative and sociable break during the day can recharge the creative batteries.
This is not a new theory. The famous (or notorious) three-martini lunch of the American corporate world in the 1960s and 1970s was popular partly because such expenditure was tax-deductible, but also because it was believed that some, like the mavens of Madison Avenue, would be more relaxed and productive after a few measures of gin or vodka. And the TML held a long grip: President Kennedy called for the end to such tax breaks in 1961, and Ford and Carter were still squabbling over its place in business in 1976.
Of course, it goes back to the days before office life was the staple of even a gentleman’s employment. The clubs of St James’s, though they frowned on open commerciality, were the setting for deals and arrangements which trod that fine line between professional and social. “Chips” Channon, the inter-War MP and socialite whose unexpurgated diaries have recently been published, seems hardly to have been away from such establishments for most of the 1930s, while David Margesson, Chamberlain’s legendary chief whip, kept a table at the Mirabelle on Curzon Street from which he administered discipline to Conservative MPs.
I work in a social industry. One foundation of what I do is human connection, and anyone who thinks that is as well done in a bland office or conference room as in a good restaurant or café has very little experience of people. The ancient Greeks were governed by the concept of xenia, the delicate relationship between a guest and a host, and something of that lingers in the business world. It is revealing no industry secrets to say that a connection developed in a semi-social situation is likely to be warmer—and therefore more productive on both sides—than one which depends purely on telephone calls or emails.
Those of you who can, I urge to try it. If you have, in modern parlance, a key stakeholder, someone with whom you treat regularly, clear a space in your schedule and arrange lunch. You will need two hours at least if you are not to feel rushed: three courses, after all, then coffee or tea, perhaps some petits fours, even a cigar if you both indulge. You need neither break the bank nor emulate a fish, but a couple of glasses of wine will do you no harm, maybe something sweet with pudding or spiritous with the coffee. If the weather is fine, a brisk walk back to the office should clear away any fuzziness in your head.
It will transform your relationship. “Did you have a good day?” someone may ask you or your guest. “Actually, yes,” you will reply, with a note of surprise. “I had a really good lunch with X. Did you know s/he has twins/plays volleyball/sails a yacht?” Tiny details but they make the work contact a rounded human being. They are easy social jumping-off points next time you meet. And you will have created that slippery feeling of mild but warm friendship: you may not see each other socially, but when you are together, you will have a sense of camaraderie, of something more than a simple business relationship.
I could begin to list establishments which you might find congenial: but that can wait for another day…