Every day at work, the same problem. Where to go for lunch? There's also the problem of when to go to lunch (early? calm that rumbling stomach? or late? shorten that afternoon?) but I'll leave discussion of that for another day. I work near Green Park tube station, in the heart of Mayfair, where the choice of places to go for lunch isn't as wide as you might expect it to be. There's not a chip shop or a McDonalds in sight, for example (although at least one of those is definitely a good thing). There are sandwich shops, and cafés, and pubs, and coffee shops, and bars, and posh restaurants, and a supermarket, all competing daily for my hard earned cash. And from today there's even more competition as Marks & Spencer are opening one of their Simply Food outlets right above the tube station, seeking their slice of the lunchtime market. I'll be popping along there later to see what they have to offer the weary office worker, assuming I can get near the place for queueing secretaries. Meanwhile, here's a detailed list of my main lunch options:
Sandwichshops: These tiny little eateries hide in the gaps between real shops, dispensing lunchtime bread to passers by. They always look reassuringly amateur, as if the bloke behind the counter popped down to the supermarket first thing this morning, bought some sliced bread and mixed vegetables, sliced them up with five tins of tuna and then shoved the resulting mixture into a row of empty margarine tubs. The shop may only be packed for two hours each day, but charging three quid a time makes for impressive profit margins.
Pret A Manger: Spread across London like a very expensive rash, these shops specialise in mass-produced hand-made sandwiches, available in a variety of slightly exotic flavours, with accompanying small pots of sliced guava, thimbles of soup and cubes of chocolate brownie. Nevertheless they succeed in the marketplace because the chain's founders recognised one very important fact - that nobody ever likes making a packed lunch in the morning. We all know we could assemble a well-balanced nourishing boxful with twice the volume for a tenth of the price in our own kitchens but, somehow, at quarter past seven this never feels like quite such a good idea. More fool us.
Benjy's: The opposite of Pret, these cheap 'n' cheerful sandwich shops have sprung up across London in the last year. You can buy a complete lunch in Benjy's, complete with shrink-wrapped Chelsea bun, for less than the price of a Pret brie, tomato and basil baguette. This is a good thing, not least because it tends to attract a clientele of dirt-cheap local workmen, rather than the usual upmarket crowd. OK, so they could put a bit more filling in their torpedo rolls, and the choice of crisps is a bit limited, but at these prices I'm not complaining. A regular haunt of mine, then.
Cafés: Mayfair may be a bit posh, but there are still boltholes that will serve up a plate of fried breakfast washed down by luke-brown tea. Of course, this being Mayfair they also have to serve up plates of falafel, and bowls of pasta smothered in dilute tomato sauce and grated parsley, but the full bacon and sausage platter wins hands down for me every time.
Sainsburys: It took the big chains a while, but they've finally worked out that small scaled-down supermarkets in the middle of city centres can rake in the money. A small basket five times a week on top of your weekend trolley dash, it all adds up. All they need is a stockpile of pre-packaged sarnies and a salad bar, and all you get are a few reward points you'll never bother to redeem anyway.
The pub: It is theoretically possible to fit a pub lunch into the regulation sixty minutes of the office lunch hour. Minutes 1-5 are spent shepherding everyone out of the office whilst waiting for one straggler to reappear from the toilets. Minutes 6-10 are spent walking to the pub, then minutes 11-15 are spent ordering the first round of drinks, just a half for me please, it's lunchtime. Minutes 16-20 are spent perusing the pub menu, and minutes 21-25 trying to order the chicken in a basket, and you wanted ravioli didn't you, and just a salad for Sandra please, without onion. Minutes 26-35 are spent happily chatting and waiting, but minutes 36-40 are characterised by the growing realisation that the food might not arrive in time before you have to be back in the office. During minutes 41-45 someone wanders reticently up to the bar to ask them when the food's coming, and buys everyone another swift half while they're at it. The meals finally appear towards the end of minutes 46-50, except Sandra's salad, which turns up during minutes 51-55, so she's still picking the onion off while everyone else is nearly halfway through their pile of chips. Finally, in minutes 56-60, everyone is forced to wolf down whatever they can of the mountain still remaining on their plate before staggering back to the office late, but it's ok because the boss is still only halfway through his scampi at the pub down the road and won't be back until three at the earliest.
The Ritz: This bastion of the upper class serves the well-do-to, the old-and-fuddy and the more-money-than-sense with genuine Mayfair fare. Men must wear a jacket and tie, and it would appear that some obscure rule forces all the women to wear a floral twin set and pearls. It's a little on the expensive side for lunch, and even the legendary afternoon tea will set you back nearly thirty quid. Still, if I ever fancy a £28 omelette for lunch, I know where to come.
Marks and Spencer - Simply Food: Rarely has the opening of a new glorified sandwich shop been so eagerly awaited by the local population, and by a company's shareholders. Green Park's new M&S foodstore opened at 7am this morning, and by the time I arrived 75 minutes later there were already queues. I was pleasantly surprised to find an appealing range of well-packaged food at über-Benjy's but sub-Pret prices. The till staff had learnt the script for their cheery greeting well, without ever sounding transatlantically insincere. By lunchtime the shop was even more packed than a prawn, avocado and salad panini, so I was glad I'd stuck my turkey doorstop in the office fridge earlier on. And there were still crowds in there when I left work at 7pm this evening. It's a licence to print money, I tell you. And a tip for any of you thinking of visiting in the future - it's much quieter downstairs, and they do mini double chocolate muffins down there.