At this time of end-of-year introspection, it's hard not to question our daily grind. There's lunch, that most awkward meal. Eating at a desk, we often choose the same old thing. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Caroline Stacey plays the international lunch doctor ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, Winter 2008
What will you have for lunch today? Here’s a bet: if you’re at the office, and planning to eat at your desk, it will be the same thing as yesterday—and if not, then the same as you had the day before, or the day before that.
It’s a peculiarity of the working lunch--as opposed to the on-expenses business kind--that, despite an ever-increasing range of options, come 1pm office workers around the globe pull their jackets off the back of their chairs, trundle off to the nearest sandwich or sushi bar, and then order, on autopilot, one of the same three things to eat. A tuna and sweetcorn sarnie; a chicken and avocado salad; miso soup and salmon teriyaki. Eat like this, and every day, a little of life’s potential leaches away.
Yet a portable lunch can be a sensual, gastronomic experience. Taking the time to try other options nearby can bring mouth-watering rewards. To this end, we’ve studied the lunch habits of three office workers, in London, Paris and New York, and suggested some gourmet to-go alternatives both in their immediate neighbourhood and farther afield.
The patient: Alexandre Vidili, negotiator at Emile Garcin property agency, 6th arrondissement
In 2001, Alexandre spent a year living and working in New York. Though back home everyone spent their lunch hours in proper restaurants, Alexandre picked up the local habit of dining al desko. Now eating sur la pouce ( “on the thumb”) has taken off across Paris, and Alexandre says he’s not ashamed to lunch at his desk. Still, he admits that he’s stuck in a sushi groove, eating the same salmon, California roll, rice and salad set every day.
The prescription: Only a few streets away from Alexandre’s office is a branch of Lina’s Café, a funky sandwich chain with a New York feel that Alexandre should be quite at home with; its club sandwiches and quiches are chunky and filling, with richly gooey brownies to finish. Also close are the very French, very ladylike tea rooms of Ladurée, renowned for its macaroons, but good too for dainty savoury tarts and prêt à porter sandwiches.
Or he could try the legendary delicatessen Fauchon, in the 8th arrondissement; it may be best known for its madeleines both savoury (truffle) and sweet (honey), but it also sells langoustine risotto and foie gras sandwiches for a take-out lunch. Further up-market, a box from Café Be--a takeaway operation from the multi-Michelined chef Alain Ducasse--is both flauntable and full of gorgeous flavours: try Iberian ham and mushroom marmalade sandwiches, fougasse with goats’ cheese, chicken and basil, with chocolate bread to finish. Finally, for fast food with Parisian panache, Alexandre could visit a branch of Cojean: the Thai chicken or quinoa, lentil and vegetable salads are particularly good, as too are the meat and dairy-free soups.
Café Be 3rd floor, Printemps de la Maison, 64 Boulevard Haussmann, 75009 Paris; +33 (0)1 42 82 67 17
Cojean (below) 3 Place du Louvre, 75001 Paris, and branches; +33 (0)1 40 13 06 80
Fauchon 24-30 Place de la Madeleine, 75008 Paris; +33 (0) 1 47 42 88 88
Ladurée 21 Rue Bonaparte, 75006 Paris, and branches; +33 (0)1 44 07 64 87
Lina’s Café 22 Rue de Saints Pères, 75006 Paris, and branches; +33 (0)1 40 20 42 78
The patient: Philippe Cromer, head of commodity investor solutions Americas at Barclays Capital, midtown Manhattan
At noon every day, Philippe leaves his desk for as long as it takes to head down to the café on the ground floor of his Park Avenue office, where he picks up a bag containing a lettuce, tomato and egg salad, a slice of wholegrain bread (no butter) and an apple. His excuse? “I’m on the trading floor, I can’t afford the luxury of lunch.” Yet he admits his choice is purely automatic: he can’t even remember the name of the café that feeds him so regularly.
The prescription: The gourmet foodhall in Grand Central Station—just around the corner from Barclays, at 42nd Street—offers lots of portable possibilities, including Asian-inspired takeaways from Dishes at Home: look for chicken skewers, black-bean cakes and coconut bread pudding with apricots. Meanwhile the Park Avenue branch of Hatsuhana, on 46th Street, sells imaginative bento boxes of high-end sushi and sashimi that provide the midtown crowd with brain food.
Ten minutes from Philippe’s office, at the bottom of Central Park, is the Bouchon—a café-cum-bakery that does takeaway cashew-nut-butter and jelly sandwiches, spinach quiches and fresh soups, all from the French Laundry’s Thomas Keller. Ten minutes the other way in Madison Square Park, Danny Meyer of the Union Square Café has opened Shake Shack, a cool kiosk that flips peerless burgers and top-notch hot dogs. And if he has a meeting on Wall Street, Philippe could try the financiers (not money men, but little almond cakes) at a branch of Financier Patisserie, which serves sumptuous quiches and salads with French-inspired combinations such as mushroom, white truffle oil and gruyère, or dried sausage, Roquefort and walnut.
Bouchon Bakery Time Warner Centre, 10 Columbus Circle, NY 10019; +1 (212) 823 9366
Dishes at Home Grand Central Market, 42nd Street at Park Avenue, NY 10017; +1 (212) 370 5511
Financier Patisserie Liberty Plaza, 35 Cedar Street, NY 10005, and branches; +1 (212) 952 3838
Hatsuhana 237 Park Avenue at 46th Street, NY 10017, and branches; +1 (212) 661 3400
Shake Shack (pictured above) Madison Square Park (entrance on Madison Avenue at 23rd Street), NY 10010; +1 (212) 889 6600
The patient: Rachael Hunt, professional support lawyer with Lovells, Clerkenwell
Despite working in the middle of one of London’s liveliest gastronomic neighbourhoods, with everything from Austrian frittaten soup to Vietnamese noodles on her doorstep, Rachael’s default lunch setting is a quick trip to the canteen for a takeaway couscous salad. True, hot food is forbidden in the office, she is not a sandwich fan and doesn’t want to eat meat in front of her vegan colleague—but even so, there are plenty of alternatives.
The prescription: Rachael’s workplace sits plum between two first-class takeaways. She could get a punchy lunch of potted shrimps or courgette and sundried tomato tart, with a glorious banana cheesecake, at the great gastro-café, Hilliards, on Tudor Street, while heading north up Farringdon Road, she will find everything except sandwiches at Flâneur Food Hall, a café-traiteur that does wonderful Caesar or watercress, fennel, pear and manchego salads, plus cold slices of frittata.
In summer, Rachael could try the mackerel couscous from Leon, a burgeoning chain of café-takeaways selling sparkling, fresh-faced dishes developed by the chef Allegra McEvedy; its winter menu includes hummus with flatbreads, a “superfood” salad and a buttery pecan pie. Tiffin Bites, a City-wide, low-fat curry chain, offers a crunchy, tangy and refreshing aloo papdi chaat of potato, onion and chickpeas with tamarind sauce and coriander chutney--plus delicious chicken tikka wraps for when the vegan’s off sick. And if Rachael does secretly yearn for something non-vegetarian, the café at the spectacular new Kings Place arts complex on York Way is just far enough away for her to eat one of its hot roast beef and lamb rolls during her stroll back to the office.
Flâneur Food Hall 41 Farringdon Rd, EC1; +44 (0)20 7404 4422
Green & Fortune Cafe at Kings Place 90 York Way, N1; +44 (0)20 7014 2850
Hilliards 26a Tudor Street, EC4; +44 (0)20 7353 8150
Leon 73-76 Strand, WC2 and branches; +44 (0)20 7240 3070
Tiffin Bites 22-23 Liverpool Street, EC2, and branches; +44 (0)20 7626 5641
Picture credit: Getty
(Caroline Stacey is an award-winning food writer who works from home and eats scraps for lunch.)