I kept my order simple: ‘The crab and the wine list, please.’ Catching up with an old comrade last year in one of Washington’s better restaurants, the look in his eye said ‘sorry’ before I had even realised my face had fallen. Everyone was dry, just iced tea and Diet Coke. Everywhere. The senator and the lobbyist: dry. The wonks were on the water and even the gentleman from the Times of London six tables away was letting his country down.
‘The wine list is at the front of the menu, sir,’ said the polite Southern waiter, pointing me to a choice of two reds and two whites by the glass. All American, obviously.
‘Fine, I’ll have a Bloody Mary instead please.’ My lunch companion cracked up when the waiter innocently asked if I would like vodka in that. Welcome to America, land of the free, where the boozy lunch goes to die.
Fast forward a year to London and this barbaric phenomenon is ruining every great trade. The City has been suffering under this tedious American tendency for the best part of a decade now, but it’s spreading like the pox. It makes it much harder to stagger in after a three-hour lunch and gently snooze through till teatime under the beady gaze of your boss or rival colleagues in a big open-plan office. ‘The demise of the boozy lunch can be linked to the rise of the mobile phone,’ Simon Walker from the Institute of Directors tells me. ‘It was far easier to order that second bottle of claret when you didn’t have two smartphones on the table blinking away at you, reminding you of your impending 3 p.m. meeting.’
As the partitions came down and the chinos came in, American bank practices have spread from the City, down Fleet Street and have even reached Westminster. As politics and journalism have become more of a profession than an art form, the rules of the game have got tighter. With hacks and flacks tied to the internet, just like in the City, it’s harder to escape. Walker is spot on about the mobile phone reining in fun, but it’s not just that. With the constant news cycle, the twittering and the death of proper deadlines, it’s increasingly difficult to disappear for the middle of the day.
‘When I arrived in Westminster in 2001 it was not unusual to sink half a bottle over lunch every day,’ says the new Sunday Times political editor Tim Shipman. ‘For Sunday scribes a “three-bottler” was far from unusual.’
Was it the boring right-on Labour years that ruined everything, then? ‘Many blame the decline of Westminster drinking on the tofu-eaters of New Labour, but I always found them willing to quaff. The bigger cultural change has taken place with the new intakers of 2010 keener on penning policy papers than sinking a gallon of Gavi.’
Money is tighter too, says Shipman: ‘Just as big a problem is the dwindling size of Fleet Street expense accounts. Many newspapers now impose a £100 limit, which makes it difficult to afford a bottle in many Westminster hostelries. But there are ways around it. At the Sunday Express I was limited to £80. On one memorable occasion my guest and I ate steak and chips at £4.99 apiece with a £70 bottle of Gevrey Chambertin to liven things up.’
With every decline, there are those who will fight back. There are still well-known faces who it is best to call after lunch if you’re after gossip, and it’s always fun to spot news channel correspondents sinking one or two at lunch only to belch their way over to the studio when something breaks. But Shipman is right — frankly the vast majority of career politicians are boring. At least until the sun has gone down.
It’s got so bad that even Nigel Farage is slowing down. I remember — well in fact it’s hazy — a lunch with the Ukip leader a few years back that started with two Bloody Marys, a bottle of white, two bottles of red and a cheeky port. While Nigel, toking on a Rothmans, walked off in a dead straight line to appear on the BBC, I contemplated a nap on the steps outside the now defunct Shepherd’s. Perhaps the most disturbing twist in the never-ending saga that is Ukip came when Farage was recently spotted sipping sparkling water at a lunch.
It’s not yet as dire over here as it is in America, but something horribly depressing has happened while nobody was looking — drinking at lunchtime has been almost obliterated. The lunchtime jollies have turned into coffee without biscuits; the stories dreamt up over that fourth one for the road have been replaced by 24-hour news cycles and retweeting. Those of us remaining must fight back. If it gets any worse, we will have to go work in insurance.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 29 March 2014