Lunch for The Fence

Just two short years after his first installment, our free lunch editor returns.

You should be careful what you wish for. When I wrote my first column, I hoped that by brazenly soliciting freebies I would be offered a few decent meals, write them up in a lackadaisical fashion, and call it a day. It was hard to imagine anyone wanting to read much of that stuff and frankly it seemed likely the magazine would go under within a couple of months, terminally incapacitated by its editor’s obsession with printing physical copies.

I was wrong. Here we are, nearly two years on from the first one, and I am filing a second piece. The first column proved popular, which was depressing. Every journalist knows there are two modes of working: the rare kind, where you think you have made a decent fist of something on an interesting topic and hope somebody notices, and the other kind, when you are bashing it out and trying to get to the end of the day without being sacked or sued. I wrote the first column in about ten minutes. ‘Much better than your usual stuff’ was the consensus. Typical, isn’t it: you labour for years on ersatz American-style ‘long reads’ and crafting ‘witty’ political satire for the broadsheets and all you get are 400 comments asking if you are a poundshop Marina Hyde. (If any of them are reading this: all hacks are poundshop Marina Hydes! Go for a walk.) But pull back the veil on the freebie industry and they all crave more.

My personal circumstances have changed since the first column. I am now awash in offers of free restaurant meals, conveniently just as Ozempic hits the shelves. Is there anything capitalism can’t do? Actual restaurant critics must abide by expenses because they are paragons of impartiality. Restaurant-adjacent hacks and editors, in the name of ‘experiencing’ stuff, are free to slurp and chomp at the promotional teat from dawn until dusk, and as a rule, do so. Being a restaurant critic seems like a dream job, but what’s not clear to civilians is that it’s actually much better to be not-quite a restaurant critic. Less prestige, but also less hatred; more ligging opportunities, and you never have to file any copy – heaven. This is the reason that while actual critics tend to anger, misery and self-flagellation, not-quite-critics are by and large a happy bunch.

There are a handful of publications, mostly American, who care deeply about not accepting free stuff. At a recent event, I saw a woman turn down a complimentary pashmina because it would have violated their publication’s gifting policy. But each department has its benefits: the books department is sent endless books – top tip, remove the press release before you re-gift it to a friend – beauty reporters receive constant unctions and potions. There are fashion influencers who haven’t paid for their own clothes for ten years. Travel is practically all freebies, which is announced by the ‘X travelled as a guest of Y’ at the bottom of each article.

But back to the free food. For this second outing I wanted something fancy. My first idea was to go to the most expensive restaurant in London, Sushi Kanesaka, an omakase at 45 Park Lane where 18 courses cost £420, before drinks and service. ‘I’m 99% certain this will be a no,’ said the publicist. I never heard any more. Luckily there was an option down the road at the Four Seasons, at the absurdly named and very fancy Pavyllon. This is the first London restaurant for the French chef Yannick Alléno, whose distinction is having been awarded twelve Michelin stars, for restaurants in Paris, Courchevel, Dubai, Monte Carlo and Seoul, which gives you a sense of his market. We may have to wait a while for an outpost in Hull.

Let’s be clear: if you are reading this, you will never be rich enough to eat at Pavyllon. It’s not that there aren’t a few workwear trustafarians and self-deluding bond traders among The Fence subscribers – there are – but this isn’t a young rich restaurant like Noble Rot or Chiltern Firehouse, it’s a middle-aged or old rich restaurant. The first giveaway is that it’s in the Four Seasons. The second is the menu, which is the kind of food – fiddly, beautiful and small – that inverts the mentality of most restaurant-goers. In the normal way of things, you go out hoping that if you spend £300 on lunch, you’ll leave full. Wrong! Classic poor person thinking. The real elite know that what you want is to spend £300 but still be hungry. Pavyllon is the perfect place to do this, provided you make a point of refusing the bread basket.

I took the novelist and podcast tycoon Elizabeth Day. We met when we worked together on the Observer, where she was the main features writer and I was a commissioning editor on a maternity cover contract. One day we went for a drink and she confessed she was thinking of leaving the paper. They weren’t paying her enough and she had an idea for a podcast about failure. I wouldn’t do that, I said. Why would anyone leave a stable gig like writing features for the Observer to take a punt on a podcast? At the time this was a real gesture of friendship, as I badly coveted her job. (When she eventually left I asked if I could have it and they said no.) Still, I like to think that my words of warning will be ringing in Elizabeth’s ears when she takes to the stage at a sold-out Sydney Opera House early next year, empress of a multi-million pound empire of failure. If only she had listened to me, she could still be doing 10-minute junket interviews with listless actors rather than bestriding the media landscape like a fragrant colossus.

I had only asked her the day before, after another guest had cancelled. It’s the corollary of the rule that you should only agree to plans you would say yes to if they were tomorrow: if you only arrange things at a day’s notice, they’ll be good.

Elizabeth bounded into Pavyllon, where the staff had given us a prime corner table. ‘You’ve come dressed as the sofa,’ she said, in reference to the grey sweatshirt that I hadn’t really given much thought to, but which I had to admit bore some resemblance to the upholstery. ‘An extremely handsome man has just sat down over there,’ she added, as if by way of contrast. I looked over. She was right.

Elizabeth is the only person I know who has gone on the journey from ‘normal hack’ to ‘borderline international celebrity’ and it pains me no end that she has not turned into a monster. If becoming awful isn’t the price of being a star, what else might be holding me back? Talent? Application? It doesn’t bear thinking about.

Our waiter asked if we had any allergies. ‘Only caviar,’ she said sadly, before ordering a modern gazpacho and a sea bass. She was on a tight schedule, so we were à la carte, though, of course, as this was a free lunch, I paid nothing. (In an attempt to lure business lunchers, Pavyllon also offers a 5-course menu for £55.50, which they serve in 55 minutes. This is clever and has wider potential. I can see meals with a guaranteed time limit being popular with large families.) I assumed the ‘modern’ aspect of the gazpacho was its £26 price, but our waiter explained that it was down to the method of vegetable extraction, which Monsieur Alléno has patented. ‘Sounds like something out of Dragons’ Den,’ said Elizabeth. He chuckled.

I had the seabass carpaccio and beef tartare, a kind of raw surf ‘n’ turf, followed by a langoustine and caviar tart that appeared in the ‘must haves’ section of the menu. The puck that arrived, ready to be drizzled in beurre blanc, looked beautiful but was no more than 8cm across, a magnificent ratio of price to surface area. Still, it tasted excellent, all three bites of it. Elizabeth drank champagne, just the one glass as she had therapy afterwards. I drank champagne and white wine. Riesling is a kind of therapy. The meal was not without mishap. One waiter was unable to explain what a chirashi was. They also tested the fire alarm halfway through. I admit I’m no restaurateur, but if I had a restaurant on Park Lane where a tasting menu was £148 without drinks or service, I would simply not test the fire alarm during the lunch service. Apart from that, the whole thing could hardly have been more comfortable: inoffensive tasteful decoration, beautiful plates of tasty but light, fish-heavy food.

Midway through our meal a group of five women arrived for lunch. They looked so much like they belonged that the owners might have hired them. What does it cost to dress like that, I asked Elizabeth. She eyed them up. ‘For all five? £25,000,’ she said. ‘£50,000 with the handbags.’

The waiter went over to take them through the menu. I picked up the fag end of one sentence: ‘…it sounds like something out of Dragons’ Den, doesn’t it?’ he said. How they laughed. Such are the wages of influence.

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