I think it was Somerset Maugham who said that to eat well in England, you must eat breakfast three times a day. Well, things have improved in recent years, especially if you're on an expense account. But the old cynic would surely be amused at the current renaissance of the Great English Breakfast in the London business community. Not that the three-hour lunch has gone out of style, you understand, but "doing breakfast" is the latest success symbol.
Some people -- especially traditional City types -- still look on it with horror as a barbaric American custom. But a breakfast meeting is an invitation that's hard to refuse. The person you want to see may be plausibly booked up three weeks ahead for lunch and dinner, but if he's seriously interested in meeting you, chances are he'll be able to squeeze in breakfast tomorrow. After all, breakfast implies a sense of urgency, business that can't wait.
"I'm big into power breakfasts," says Bob Payton, a native Chicagoan and London resident who owns the My Kinda Town restaurants in London, Aberdeen, Paris and Barcelona. "It's the only way to stretch the day. Sometimes I have two breakfasts in a morning, starting at 7:30 with a cup of coffee and a croissant and then a proper English breakfast with a proper Englishman."
On Sept. 1, Britain's Institute of Directors canonized the trend by launching business breakfasts at its Pall Mall headquarters, in response to a demand from members who want to start their working day earlier. "British executives are realizing that to compete successfully they've got to put in more hours and more work into those hours," says John Nicholas, the institute's deputy director. "If the habit spreads at the expense of the long working lunch, it could even be good for directors' health." The power hungry can now start the day with a choice of prunes, green figs, kippers, Cumberland sausages, black pudding, pancakes and syrup, eggs, bacon, tomatoes and mushrooms with India or China tea, coffee or chocolate. After that, who needs lunch?
"The worst place for a power breakfast is the Hyatt Carlton Tower," Payton says, "only because everyone else is doing the same thing. So you spend most of the time listening to the negotiations at the next table. I had a big meeting there and could hardly keep my mind on what I was talking about. I've had a really good breakfast out at Heathrow, where you're lost among the minions. The best place is the Ritz, where the tables are spread far apart. I don't like Claridge's only because their food is so terrible. Another good place is the Inn on the Park, where you can get steak and eggs. They also give you free newspapers."
If it's privacy you want, the Inn on the Park in Mayfair has introduced a breakfast package, which includes a meeting room with flowers, for the growing number of tycoons coming in off the street. The hotel has started a 300-calorie "alternative breakfast," which consists of shredded wheat with fresh strawberries and skimmed milk, whole-wheat bread and apple butter.
The business breakfast has several obvious advantages over the business lunch. For one thing, the time frame is limited -- serious breakfasters will seldom stray beyond 9:30 -- and business isn't blurred by alcohol, unless it's a hangover from the night before. What's more, you can normally walk in without a reservation and enjoy the same atmosphere and opulent surroundings at a fraction of the cost.
For example, the Savoy (ideal for the City) offers continental breakfast for
5.75 (about $9.50) and full English breakfast for
8.25. At the Ritz on Piccadilly, close to the publishing and advertising world, you can breakfast in ineffable style for about
11 on English country-house specialities such as deviled lamb's kidneys and kedgeree (a confection of smoked haddock, rice, mushrooms and cream, glazed with a light curry sauce) in an elegant room that doesn't smell of the night before. "It provides very fertile ground for courting and selling," says Manager Julian Payne. "We have at least half a dozen well-known people who stride in here with a great sense of security twice a week for breakfast. Hotel restaurants are like a tube of toothpaste; you get to know your brand and you stick with it."
Some restaurants in the City and West End are opening for breakfast to catch the trend, and the Little Chef chain, a subsidiary of Trust House Forte, serves breakfast through the day.
A popular venue is the Fox & Anchor pub at 115 Charterhouse St., off Smithfield Market, close to Fleet Street, which has a special dispensation from Britain's bizarre licensing laws. At 6 a.m. you can join meat porters and BBC executives for a heroic English breakfast washed down with Guinness or champagne. Says a PR consultant, Bob Bevan, "The portions are unbelievable. You're lucky to get through half of what they serve."
Payton points out that in the United States, power breakfasts are passe', the new thing is power teas. But that's another story. Meanwhile, here are some other good places for a power breakfast in London: Hyde Park Hotel (Park Room overlooking Hyde Park), Knightsbridge, SW1. From 7 to 10 a.m., continental ( 5.90) or English ( 8.25) breakfasts are available, as well as an a la carte choice of waffles, beef hash and lamb's kidneys. The "Knightsbridge Breakfast" ( 19.50) includes a half-bottle of champagne, smoked salmon, lemon sorbet, fruit and croissants. Claridge's, Brook Street, W1, offers continental ( 7.50) or English ( 11.50) breakfasts. The fare is similar to that of the Savoy (same management) except for a wider choice of fresh fruit. Tables are well spaced for privacy, especially three alcove tables soundproofed by drapes. Brown's Hotel, 22-24 Dover St. (off Piccadilly), is the quintessence of tradition, with both continental ( 5.75) and English ( 8.50) breakfasts. Available a la carte are fillet of plaice, roast beef hash, cold York ham, minute steak and mushrooms, deviled kidneys and black pudding. Roger Collis is a free-lance writer and columnist.