Whatever happened to the liquid lunch? It is a question often asked with nostalgia throughout the Square Mile.
Traders in pubs, City executives in boardrooms, journalists and lawyers in wine bars; the sight and smell of booze at noon was at one point in time as much a part of the City’s identity as pin-stripes and Porsches.
Yet times change, and today that legendary, not to say notorious, era of daytime drinking and boundless mischief has largely been replaced by Pret sandwiches and sushi al-desko. It is true that insurers can often still be spotted boozing it up at midday around the Leadenhall district, but by-and-large the City has been tamed.
It would be easy to think that such a shift has taken all of the colour out of the City’s dining scene, but today I am meeting Soren Jessen, a man who is currently proving that verdict wrong. You might not know his name, but you would recognise his flagship City restaurant that sits opposite the Bank of England, One Lombard Street. It is a large modern brasserie with a circular bar beneath a domed skylight, where much of the Square Mile’s gossip and chatter takes place over high-end European food.
“We specialise in spoiling difficult people,” says the Danish-born banker-turned-restaurateur, who is taking me on a lunch trip around his three restaurants. “We’re dealing with people who can afford to pay whatever it takes, but they have no time for error. If you’re taking a client out in the City, you just can’t have a 25-minute wait for your main course or get the wrong one – you have to know it is going to be slick.”
We begin our trip with a starter course south of the river on Borough High Street, at Soren’s most informal restaurant, Borealis, a relaxed Nordic-themed joint which shares the building with a co-working venture. It is a modern partnership that seems appropriate given the area’s popularity among young media and tech types. Food here tends to be pickled, marinated, smoked, cured, or raw, and is often served on a Smoreboard (buttered rye bread) as part of the restaurant’s traditional Nordic cooking style. We share a lightly fried fillet of plaice on top of the dense bread, covered in a curry remoulade packed full of flavour. We drink lavender lemonade: “The liquid lunch has not vanished, but it is on the retreat…With people often not wanting to drink things alcoholic now, it’s boring just to serve water so we’re building up an interesting selection of soft drinks.”
We leave Borealis not long after noon as tables start to fill up, and for our main course we head north to the City, where Soren first arrived 30 years ago (“when bankers weren’t considered criminals”, as he jokingly puts it). Soren made his name first at Merrill Lynch before joining Goldman Sachs, where he worked under former boss Michael Sherwood on the trading floor with the likes of Ocado’s current chief executive Tim Steiner and investor Guy Hands.
Yet a decade at the top end of finance was enough for the Copenhagen-born executive. “10 years was great, but I started to think it was also quite an aggressive environment. So I decided to find another stressful career in restaurants.”
He adds later: “I’m definitely happier now. My problems are about changing wine suppliers and dealing with business rates. It’s all real, but in the old job I would be dealing with the shape of the yield curve. And you don’t want to grow old on the trading floor – my job has been turned into an algorithm.”
When Soren left the world of banking he had already been a backer in several restaurants, such as a Picadilly Circus establishment called Atlantic Bar and Grill.
After seeing Atlantic turn over £10m in its first year, Soren decided to give the trade a go for himself, buying One Lombard in 1998. Since then he has launched both Borealis and Ekte, our next point of call.
Tucked away within the Bloomberg arcade, Ekte is relatively new to the City, having opened in late 2017. It is located opposite Sweetings, London's oldest fish restaurant and a favourite of Soren's during his banker days, and one that he still visits every so often.
“It is the new kid on the block versus the oldest one in the City,” he laughs.
Despite the success of Sweetings, Soren says that much of the food in the City used to be fairly bland – "largely bangers and mash". But Ekte is a testament to how much bolder the City’s dining experience has become in recent years. “Today the City is really adventurous with its food. It is full of well-travelled people and the palate is very international.” Such open-mindedness, he says, is evidenced by the popularity of dishes on his menu such as duck hearts or fried cod roe.
We are served a mix of small plates full of prettily-served fresh fish dishes on breads and covered in marinades tasting of dill, onions and apples. We eat curried herring (our final curry dish, Soren promises) with a shot of akvavit (a Scandinavian spirit) to be drunk alongside it to cut through the fattiness of the fish oils. We also try devon crab with lemon, tomato, chilli and a confit egg yolk on sour dough toast.
But before we are tempted into any more alcohol, we leave Ekte for a one-minute walk towards Mansion House, where we step into One Lombard for our final course: a pear whiskey trifle and chocolate fondant.
With a small lobby and a vast round bar planted in the middle, One Lombard has the feel of a five-star hotel, especially at breakfast time. Given the demise of the long lunch, Soren says that many in the City now use a morning meal to talk business instead.
“We’ve had people come in to have a power breakfast with champagne to celebrate a deal they’ve just signed…but next to that you’ll have someone reading a paper with a croissant or a coffee. You can’t go to Claridge’s or The Connaught or The Ritz in the City – so you have to go to Lombard to get that sort of style and service of breakfast.”
We finish with a glass of Sauternes, ending what Soren calls his "lunch safari" with a hazy, sleepy satisfaction that must have been a routine feeling back in the days of proper lunchtime drinking. And yet while it is easy to be nostalgic about the lunches of days gone by, restaurateurs like Soren are proving that there has never been a more exciting time for food in the City. There is also the added bonus that we might be able to remember a bit more about what actually happened.