Eating & drinking: Forking for business

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THERE THEY sit, as if they haven't risen from their polished mahogany dining chairs in years. In a way, they haven't. The cholesterolosaurus, bloated and bullish in a Rumpole-ish sort of way, dressed in what was once a nice piece of chalk-striped Savile Row handiwork, is making low, guttural sounds, an elbow propped on the white clothed table, an eyebrow cocked for effect.

Reaching the punchline, he thumps a fist down on to the table, rattling glasses. His head is thrown suddenly back with the sheer force of his own thunderous laugh. Haw, haw, haw. Rewarding himself for being so witty, he picks up his glass of claret and drinks deeply.

The prostatosaurus, resplendent in Turnbull & Asser and Kent & Curwen, guffaws and shakes his head in helpless mirth as he spears the enormous lump of charred red meat on his plate, rips it apart, piles on a few French fries, and shovels the lot into his mouth, his sides still heaving like party jelly.

While there are still a few watering holes that attract the odd dinosaur, the business lunch is not what it used to be. This is a good thing. There was always something innately sinister about the idea of a bunch of big, fat, red-faced men getting another bunch of big, fat, red-faced men pissed on port, in order to get a yes instead of a no. The answer is not to kill off the business lunch, but to reinvent it.

These days, it's mineral water instead of Scotch, white instead of red, fish instead of beef, and taxis called at 2.15pm, instead of close to five. The new business lunch needs to be a great deal more flexible than the old, but then, so does the new business. Extended trading hours, less gender bias, and the new home office, all impact on how we handle our extra-curricular meals.

And when we handle them. Some business people refuse to donate even an hour in the middle of the day to eating and drinking with colleagues, and convert all invitations to a breakfast over squeezed juices and yoghurt. That said, we need a few more good restaurants to open for breakfast.

The new business lunch cannot be recognised by the old signs of heavy, velvet drapes; dark, hidden nooks and crannies; Victorian carvers, the groaning trolley, and the girly waitresses with pert noses. Instead there are glass walls, airy atriums and smart young staff. The diners whizz in, talk over a salmon fish cake and a glass of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, share a panna cotta, toss back an espresso, and go.

You can't talk properly while eating a steak. You can tell dirty jokes and go haw haw haw a lot but you can't actually talk properly. Nor do you want anything that has something perfectly nice and simple at the start of its menu description and then goes on and on like an annual general meeting, to include roasted fennel and gazpacho cream with almond wafers and snow-pea shoots and black mustard seeds. You're so busy worrying about black mustard seeds in your teeth that you forget to discuss the company's new strategic thrust.

Instead, you want duck and mushroom risotto, slow-roasted tomatoes on crisp polenta with pancetta, or a good piece of roasted cod with buttered cabbage. Stuff you can eat with a fork is great for business.

The clever ones walk there and back, too, returning to the office feeling refreshed, satisfied and stimulated. In fact, they probably end up being fitter, happier, and more successful than the martyred colleagues left behind at their desks, working through a ham salad sandwich and a can of diet something.

Who would you most trust to solve the problems of the world - the lunchers or the munchers? If only our world leaders would get together and make a block booking at Mash, Fish, Bank, St John, Bali Sugar, Clarke's, Sugar Club, Randall & Aubin, Villandry or Pont de la Tour. If they could but swap the hostility of the conference table for the hospitality of the dining table, who knows what could happen. So it's all agreed then? World peace as of next Monday? Haw haw haw.