This article was also published in the Financial Times.
Lunch with the FT is back with all the relevant details on how to enjoy it at www.ft.com/lunch
And it is back for one very good reason. While no two economists or financial experts, it would appear, can quite agree on the precise state of the British economy, there is no doubt that over the past eight weeks there has been a plethora of either bad or gloomy financial news. We thought that reintroducing Lunch with the FT would be an ideal way of lifting this gloom, of injecting a bit of fun into the second half of February.
It is now more than 15 years since I first had the idea for the original lunch promotion, Lunch for a Fiver, as it was originally called. And while two of its major inspirations were geographically very diverse, New York and Yorkshire to be precise, there are still two factors in common despite this passage of time.
The first and most surprising perhaps is the connection with the nomination for a Democratic Presidential candidate in the US. While the race today between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton is so close, back in the summer of 1992 Bill Clinton was already assured of the Democratic Presidential nomination long before the Democrats were due to meet in New York for their convention in August 1992 to nominate him officially. Facing the prospect of a month when most New Yorkers go on holiday but without this anticipated influx of visitors, a hundred restaurateurs came together to launch what proved to be a highly popular US$19.92 menu, an annual event where the menu still continues in step with the calendar today.
I read about this and its overwhelming popularity in the American restaurant trade magazine, Food Arts, in the autumn of 1992 just as a recession was beginning to bite worldwide, the second factor common to today. I went to see Max Wilkinson, then Editor of the Weekend FT, the Saturday edition of the Financial Times, with the vague idea of doing something similar in the UK. A blunt Yorkshireman with a nose for value, Wilkinson listened to what I had to say and then promptly replied, "Well, it will only work if you can persuade the restaurateurs to do it for five pounds." Lunch for a Fiver was born and in that bygone era came to the aid of numerous restaurateurs then wondering where their next bookings were coming from.
Over the subsequent decade LWFT transmuted from one single price point to three, £10, £12.50 and £15, and formed a strong and worthwhile association with the charity 'Save the Children', to which FT readers generously donated over £600,000. But the seeds of its popularity eventually sowed its gradual decline as numerous newspapers followed the FT's lead and it became difficult for the restaurateurs, let alone the restaurant goers, to distinguish one newspaper's restaurant promotion from the other.
Several new and very different factors have, however, been prompting me over the past couple of months to consider how we could best reintroduce Lunch with the FT.
The first is that, as in 1993 although economic conditions are today nowhere near as bad as they were then, there is the opportunity for the FT to make a market. On the one hand I know that readers have missed LWFT and will relish the opportunity to take advantage of the good lunchtime deals that the restaurants will be offering. The second was more speculative, that at the end of what has been two excellent trading years for most British restaurateurs signs were beginning to appear even before last Christmas that demand was tailing off.
Then there was the capability of utilising the internet more efficiently. In fact, it can be argued that restaurants are one of the few businesses that have seen only benefits from the internet rather than a single threat to its future prosperity. As long as it remains impossible for food and drink to be despatched electronically then customers must go and visit their chosen restaurant. There can be no eating or drinking on line. Every other aspect, however, seems to have benefited: marketing, recruitment, sales and promotion and, via so many people's food-related websites and blogs, the demand to go out, eat and to enjoy restaurants. The LWFT list on-line and its link to 'Fine Writing about Fine Dining' are just extensions of this phenomenon which we trust you will enjoy.
While sticking to its general principle, therefore, of offering some really great value meals around the UK, Lunch with the FT 2008 sees the introduction of several significant innovations.
The most obvious is that this article is not accompanied by several pages listing the participating restaurants. This is because, although Lunch with the FT has always involved time-consuming planning and meetings between numerous people at the FT, the most expensive ingredient for the paper has always been the cost of collating, printing and publishing these lists over the fortnight. Now the internet can accommodate all these vital details with all the restaurants taking part now to be found at www.ft.com/lunch
To ensure that we are able to work from the most reliable database of restaurants across the UK we have been working closely with Richard and Peter Harden who run Harden's Guides and therefore have much easier access to the country's restaurants. This has produced an excellent geographical spread of restaurants.
LWFT has always attracted the best restaurants partly because we were the first, partly because the restaurateurs have always appreciated FT readers as their customers. This year sees the return of many readers' favourites: Al Duca, the River Café and Ransome's Dock in London; Read's at Faversham in Kent; The Harrow at Little Bedwyn in Marlborough; Rogano and The Ubiquitous Chip in Glasgow and Brasserie 44 in Leeds.
To this are added a large number of new restaurants, some taking part for the very first time, because one of the major changes over the past decade has been the number of new openings and, as a result, the number of covers available at lunchtime. London offers lunch at Bibendum and Clarke's, Chez Bruce and La Trompette; Club Gascon and Le Café Anglais as well as Amaya, Arbutus, the Blueprint Café, Brumus, Magadalen and Quilon. There is strong representation in Belfast, Brighton, Bristol Edinburgh and Manchester; Le Champignon Sauvage in Cheltenham; and from Fifteen in Cornwall.
On the more pleasurable side, the most significant difference this year from the past is that we have not tried to impose price points for the restaurateurs to squeeze under, other than stipulating a maximum of £20.08 for two courses which has enabled many of London's top restaurants to join in.
The most important, reason for this is that there is hardly a restaurant in the UK today which does not offer a good fixed price lunch menu. They are a vital factor in today's market and our thinking was that if we tried to impose artificial price points the result might be counter-productive, that what would be offered would be a series of rather bland dishes that had been put together to ensure the price point was adhered to.
Instead, what we have asked restaurateurs to do is look at the fixed-price menu they usually offer and improve upon this for the fortnight to draw in even more FT readers. How they do this we have left entirely to their discretion but it could be achieved either via an even more mouth-watering list of dishes or, as Baba Hine of The Corse Lawn Hotel in Gloucestershire responded when we initially discussed this, of working with her local wine merchant on a great range of wines by the glass to accompany her gutsy food (this idea has also been picked up by numerous other restaurateurs, too.)
A further reason for letting restaurateurs choose their price point is that we hope that this will result in a much broader spread of participating restaurants geographically and, particularly, better value for those going out to eat in restaurants outside London. There is no doubt that there is a significant difference in the cost of eating out in the capital and outside and that what looks a particularly good-value menu at a restaurant in the West End can be far less attractive for those living in Wales, Scotland or Northern England.
An addition this year is that we are inviting readers to report back on any or all of their experiences over the coming fortnight and I have set out some tips to allow you to report back on what you have experienced during Lunch with the FT 2008 on a separate landing page on www.ft.com/lunch. Obviously, we are looking to find and reward the very best amateur restaurant correspondents but one, I hope, that will not threaten my future career.
Finally, as the market has changed since 1993 so has the emphasis of LWFT. While initially it was all about finding the least expensive good-value lunches, and particularly providing first-time restaurant goers with an inexpensive opportunity to go out and eat, FT readers are today, I know only too well, far more knowledgeable about where to eat out well.
But what I believe everyone is interested in at this time of the year is particularly good-value lunches, which we have stressed to the restaurateurs has to be the basis of what they offer for the fortnight from Monday 18 Feb. To ensure that this is the case, the FT is putting up three cash prizes which will be awarded on the basis of your feedback and their menus to the three restaurants which have offered what we consider to be the best-value lunch during LWFT 2008.
The menus, service and overall offer are obviously the restaurateurs' responsibility. But the decision-making process as to those restaurants which have performed best now rests with you - in your hands and on your palates.