No Such Thing

In a new series, The Fence discovers the reality of free lunches.

Those who say there’s no such thing as a free lunch don’t read the papers. They’re everywhere. Food writing runs on a system of jolly incestuousness in which the only loser is the reader. The restaurant hires a PR to promote it. The PR emails journalists and editors inviting them to ‘try’ the restaurant. The journalists and editors have a free meal.

If you have gone to the trouble of renting a restaurant, employing staff, buying ingredients and having the lights on, the marginal cost of having a journalist to eat at a table that would otherwise be empty is really very low. You might get a review, in which the journalist will be unlikely to declare the bribery, but even if you don’t, the influence works its way into the system. Editors are subtly influenced by the free lunches. The next time they are writing a list of London’s Top 10 places for lunch, they’ll think ‘well, I might as well include that place that gave me the free lunch.’

Some critics like to act as though they are above this kind of thing, but only about five of them have the expense accounts to eat where they like. They book under assumed names, as though the entire restaurant doesn’t get a chill to its bones the moment Jay Rayner, say, to pick a demure and physically innocuous specimen, crosses the threshold. Marina O’Loughlin is still anonymous, sort of, but that’s about it. If you think Grace Dent is getting the same service as you, you have not seen the kind of service Grace Dent gets.

Naturally The Fence has been gazing on all this corruption and thinking: where’s ours? In the spirit of envy, we wrote to some PRs asking ‘free lunch please’ to see if the legend was true. Lo and behold, they were up for it. As a consequence, over the next few months we will be eating some of London’s iconic lunches and saying what they’re like. Vitally – and we cannot stress this enough – we will not be paying. If this sounds like a magazine trying to have its metaphorical ironic cake and also eat its quite literal cake: it is.

First up is Quo Vadis, the louche old queen of Dean Street. The door was already open here. Sophie Orbaum, the communications director for Harts Group, which owns Quo, is a great pal and used to live with me. If ever I write something about Quo Vadis, El Pastor, Barrafina or any other of the Harts’ future ventures, bear that in mind. I’m also on the committee of Quo Vadis’ members club. Frankly this report was not going to be one of those hard-hitting exposé type reviews, even before the free lunch.

Still, what a lunch! In a previous life the building was a brothel. Before that Marx lived here. Karl and the working girls would no doubt appreciate the building’s current incarnation as a series of elegant rooms where a wealthy and good-looking crowd of creatives hoof martinis and pie without fear of being disturbed by hoi polloi. The walls and menus are adorned by the work of John Broadley, the same Yorkshire wonder who decorates each of our print issues. The head chef is Jeremy Lee, a rambunctious golden-hearted Scotsman and legend of Soho who’s never had the reputation his cooking deserves, mostly because he has had the temerity to be an angel in an industry full of arseholes.

The food changes according to the season and Jeremy’s whim, but some dishes are permanent. The cosseted starlet of the line-up is the smoked eel sandwich, one of the most famous plates in London. Rightly, so. Although there was also some beautifully cured salmon, the sarnie is the thing. Generous chunks of eel are smoked to the point of sweetness. The outside of the flesh has an alluring gelatinous shimmer, but the centre is firm and deeply fishy. This eel sits between two thin slices of crunchy buttery toast generously dolloped in horseradish, not the kind that peels the skin of your mouth off, but a creamier variety with a gentle warming heat. On the side is a little heap of pink pickled onions, which you can incorporate into the sandwich if you want, which you do. Sophie, having eaten by her estimation several hundred of these sandwiches, shows us how to share them properly, by taking the upper layer of bread off before cutting it in half. You should probably have one each, though. Maybe two.

What you have for your main course at Quo is a choicier proposition. The changing list of pies is reliable but not ideal if you have to work in the afternoon. I had a fat skate wing, its top crisped gold, looming up out of a capery, buttery sauce like one of those glaciers we’re always told are on the verge of crumbling into the sea. The Fence’s editor had a slab of hake, which he munched down without his usual grumblings. We drank Beaujolais, it being fruity, and champagne, it being free. I’m told there was pudding – the puddings are usually worth the trip to Quo on their own – but we were quite drunk by then and I forgot to take photographs, so there’s no way of telling whether we did. I would have checked the receipt, but as I have mentioned there wasn’t one.

Halfway through our meal James Hart, one of the owners, came over to say hello and possibly work out whether he needed to fire his director of communications. James is a master of showing people a good time, but he also knows how to run a business, so he was perplexed by the new concept. ‘It’s like Lunch with the FT, we explained, except it’s lunch for The Fence.’

‘Ah, I see,’ he said, with the furrowed brow of a man who suspected he was being conned but was too polite to do anything about it. By way of mollification we explained we were only accepting freebies of London’s ‘very best lunches.’ He only looked half convinced, but that much is true. Quo Vadis is one of London’s very best lunches. You don’t have to pay us to say that, although it helps.

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