Tom Gilbart (on left) and David Cook in Manchester. Photograph: Rebecca Lupton for the Guardian.
In Rome, a lunch break is enshrined in law. In Rio, food vouchers come with the job. So what can we learn from the way the rest of the world lunches? Writers from Nairobi to New York find out what’s on the menu.
The lunch al desko plague has thankfully yet fully to infect Manchester, where most workers still take a proper break. Drinking at lunch – or dinner, as most people still call the midday meal (tea is what you trough in the evening) – is far from unusual, especially on Fridays, when whole teams hit the pub for a few cheeky pints to welcome the weekend. At Creative Concern, an ethical media agency in the ever fashionable Northern Quarter (NQ), “gin o’clock” is a sacred institution on Fridays at 4pm, joined occasionally by “wine on Wednesdays” if they are having a particularly good (or bad) week.
While Manchester’s evening dining options are still not up to London’s standards, the former Cottonopolis excels at cheap lunch eats. Katsouris, a deli on Deansgate, one of the main thoroughfares, has a queue out the door every day, offering a range of hot roast meat sarnies for £3.50 a pop (£4, if you plump for the mutant granary bap), as well as ridiculously large plates of paella and Middle Eastern meze. Philpotts, a superlative sandwich chain originally founded in Chester, puts Pret to shame, though the latter is always hoaching on Cross Street.
Manchester is also very good at soup: Shlurp, on Brazennose Street, offers an ever-changing menu of seasonal, locally sourced soups, and is a favourite of council workers at the nearby cavernous town hall. Back in the NQ, there’s a bearded hippy, operating as Lunchbrakes, who arrives on a bicycle and shouts, “Soup and sandwich guy” as he rocks up with a basket and two giant flasks of soup: £1.40 for a small chicken korma soup, £2 for a large.
“Rice’n’three” is another popular choice, the speciality of a host of deceptively basic-looking takeaway joints that all compete with a range of tasty curries and rice for a fiver. Little Aladdin and This & That, both in the NQ, come recommended, while Phatha Phat, on Butter Lane near the legal district, is popular with lunching lawyers.
Many people head to the Arndale shopping centre, bypassing the bland chains of the upstairs food hall for the market on the high street side, where you can eat your way around the world from stall to stall. If the sun’s out (“cracking t’flags” as we say in the north-west), everyone will rush outside and crowd into the few sunspots not overshadowed by Victorian architecture. The town hall’s monument steps offer a great people-watching spot, while the summer lawn in Spinningfields, a new glitzy development around the law courts, is a catwalk on a summer day. HP
My lunch: Tom Gilbart, 34, barrister (pictured top left) My brother-in-law David and I are both lawyers. We like having lunch together, but don’t often get the chance because of the demands of our jobs. When we do manage it, we love eating at a “rice’n’three” place. There are a few dotted around the city centre, but our favourite is Phatha Phat. It’s only a few yards away from some of Manchester’s most glamorous restaurants, and I have to admit that it doesn’t look very inviting. It’s a tiny, no-frills place hidden down a back alley, but it is all about the food.
Every day, the staff prepare a fresh selection of curries, daals and kebabs, and you take your pick with some rice and a salad. It costs £5 and is great value. Today we’re having slow-cooked lamb nihari, sag aloo, lentil dal, pilau rice, green salad and seekh kebab. At lunch, the place heaves with a wide range of people, and on Thursdays and Fridays you are lucky to get a table. The food is fresh, full of flavour and spicy without being overpowering. This sort of restaurant represents what I love about my home city: friendly and lacking in pretension, but excellent quality.
Three years ago, the government carried out a survey to find out how many people ate their lunch at home. The answer was 74.3%, a figure that says much about a country in which less than half of women have a paid job; one in which most of the population lives and works in villages, towns or small cities, where employees and employers alike can often get home for lunch and maybe even fit in a pisolino (nap) afterwards.
Shopping, or doing any other kind of business, in an Italian provincial town is usually impossible between 1.30 and 3pm. And many establishments don’t reopen till 3.30 or even 4pm. Government ministers have more than once railed against the Italian lunch break, or pausa pranzo. One called it “a ritual that brings the whole of Italy to a stop”.
But the picture among city office workers is very different. In Rome, tavola calda establishments, where the food is laid out on a bar, are popular with office workers. Sometimes, it is self-service; sometimes, there is a server haring between tables. But the customers all get to sit down and relax.
The right to a lunch break – like almost everything in Italy – is enshrined in a law. The length of break is up to employers, and one survey by an Italian online recruitment agency found that 30% of its clients seldom left their desks at lunchtime, with 60% saying that a shortage of time forced them to rush. Then again, the same survey found more than two-thirds took lunch breaks that lasted an hour or more. JH
My lunch: Andrea Zazzara, 43, lawyer I’m normally in court until 1pm or 1.30pm, and then I have to go back to my chambers, so I generally don’t get out to lunch before 2pm. There’s a nice little trattoria nearby, so if I go out with colleagues, we ring ahead and say how many we are. The chef, Pasquale, will then cook us a pasta. But we don’t know what it is. It’s a surprise. He has a lot of imagination and revisits traditional recipes. My favourite is a spaghetti alla carbonara that he makes with tuna and courgette.
There’s another fantastic place nearby. There are tables, though not many. It’s slow food, really: nice, healthy ingredients and genuine flavours. It’s a bit like having a meal at home. But it does get very crowded, because this is how Romans particularly like to have lunch.
If I don’t have enough time, I’ll go to a place selling pizza al taglio (pizza sold in rectangular slices). But I would never eat a sandwich in a bar. Absolutely not. I think they’re unhealthy. And they might have been prepared somewhere else.
The cliched impressions that outsiders have of New York City are largely false: people aren’t especially rude; life doesn’t move unusually fast, most of the time; in the average neighbourhood, it’s impossible to order takeout food in the middle of the night. Lunchtime in midtown and downtown Manhattan is an exception, though. For those who aren’t stuck with sandwiches or salads at their desks, it’s a genuinely frenetic event, marked by a crazy multiplicity of choices: traditional diners and delis; “fast casual” chains serving burgers, burritos or customised salads composed from a selection of 60 ingredients; plus the new generation of food trucks, serving curries and pad thai, lobster rolls and bacon-flavoured ice-cream.
“Haste seems to be a controlling factor in the luncheon of the worker,” declared an article in Munsey’s Magazine in 1901, a few years before “automats” appeared in Times Square, offering pies and cakes from behind individual glass-fronted compartments, to shave off a few more seconds. The automats are gone, but the sense of haste lives on – although it’s recently grown easier to stop and breathe, too, thanks to the increase in pedestrianised areas, peppered with tables and chairs, orchestrated by Michael Bloomberg’s visionary transport commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan.
Elsewhere in New York, far grander things are happening at lunchtime: the city was the birthplace of the original “power lunch” (the phrase was probably coined to describe meals at the Four Seasons restaurant, on 52nd Street) and of the uptown, upmarket “ladies who lunch”, a term popularised by New York magazine. For the non-plutocrats, meanwhile, it’s a speedy but crucial change of scenery in the working day, marked by an ever-increasing range of food options. There are a thousand more tranquil places on the planet to eat your lunch, of course, but what New Yorkers know is that plunging into the manic energy of the city for half an hour can be just as restorative. OB
My lunch: Amber Hoover, 37, foreign rights specialist at a publishing firm I’m eating braised beef over spinach, sriracha string beans and some sort of spring greens with onions. And rhubarb tea. From a place called Dig Inn – it’s pretty healthy, I think, and a good way of getting vegetables in my system. They even have a phone app, so I can pay without having to bother with cash. Because I work in publishing, there’s an entertainment element to lunch that happens sometimes – once or twice a week, I’ll have a business lunch, a proper sit-down. The rest of the time, lunch is either like this or, all too frequently, crammed in at my desk while I keep doing whatever I’m doing.
Rio de Janeiro
Typically, Cariocas [residents of Rio de Janeiro] lunch at a restaurante à quilo, a buffet where the price is determined by the weight of food on the plate. Almost all offer staple Brazilian fare, such as rice, feijão (black beans), meat, farofa (toasted cassava flour) and salgadinhos (a variety of savoury snacks), alongside various other dishes.
Brazil has large and long-established Japanese, Italian and Middle Eastern communities, meaning sushi, spaghetti and esfihas (an unleavened bread pasty introduced by immigrants from Syria and Lebanon) are commonplace. Most à quilo restaurants also boast a salad bar.
They vary enormously in quality, price and atmosphere, but the high-end ones operate with the efficiency of a well-oiled production line. Customers are given tickets on their way in, form an orderly queue around the buffet, weigh their plates, then sit at a table where one of the waiting staff takes their order for drinks. Plates are cleared as soon as they are empty. Customers then queue again in front of the cashier, before handing their receipt to a member of staff who lurks by the exit. Lunch is often the only meal these restaurants serve, so ensuring a rapid flow of customers is key.
For high-end professionals, there are more traditional restaurants with a set menu, but such establishments are relatively rare. At the other end of the scale, there are plenty of lanchonetes, snack bars that serve salgadinhos and fruit juices, where customers generally eat standing up.
No one eats at their desk, because it’s considered bad manners, and grossly unhygienic. The importance of the lunch hour is such that the specific timing of the break is often written into contracts. Many workers also get food vouchers as part of their pay, with a daily allowance of about R$20 (£4) loaded on to a credit card, accepted at most à quilo restaurants. Eating out appeals to the Cariocas’ natural sociability, allowing colleagues to spend time together chewing the fat outside the office. BD
My lunch: Clara Araújo, 33, journalist for Criar Brasil, a media NGO Today, I’m eating what I usually have for lunch: on one side of the plate I have a bit of salad, because my mother taught me it was important to have something healthy; on the other is the stuff I really like – a slice of meat in mushroom sauce and a couple of esfihas, one filled with meat and the other with cheese.
I come to this restaurant regularly with my colleagues. We like it because it’s nearby and the food is varied and excellent value. All the à quilo restaurants in the centre of Rio are busy and noisy at lunchtime, but this place is still kind of intimate. There are even a few booths where couples can sit close together. For me, leaving the office for lunch is important. I don’t cook, so bringing food into work is not an option. I also like to get away from work for a while. Leaving the office gives you a chance to nourish both your belly and your creativity. You get the chance to interact with your colleagues in a different way.
Lunch is a raucous and communal affair in the Kenyan capital. For many, it’s an escape from the drudgery of desk jobs, and they gather in the large restaurants around the business district, where they share hour-long sit-down meals.
Not too many people have time for a proper breakfast before work. Cut-throat competition in schools means that the kids have to set off for class in the half-light of dawn; adults, too, generally leave home in the early hours, to beat the city’s notorious traffic. Lunch offers a welcome respite. At around midday, office workers troop out, in groups of three or four, and sometimes even seven or eight, to find a good spot in their favourite restaurant. Very few people go out for lunch alone.
Local tastes vary, depending on affordability and a region’s culinary traditions. Cuisine from western Kenya is the most widespread, with smoked, fried or whole fish, sometimes stewed in coconut sauce – a popular choice. Those with a more adventurous palate can try boiled tilapia fish head, or chicken, beef or stewed goat tripe (the latter is a favourite at the popular Ranalo Foods downtown). The national dish, nyama choma (goat rib roasted on an open spit), is mostly enjoyed on weekend afternoons with a couple of drinks.
Some choose to have their lunch at cafeteria-style restaurants, where they queue and then go out into the sunshine with their plates. But on a recent, unusually chilly Wednesday afternoon (temperatures anywhere below 20C are considered too cold by Nairobians), two sisters who work in computer sales, Marissa Oluchina and Emma Mwongeli, explained that they prefer having lunch at Abu’s Place, located just behind the city’s main mosque, which specialises in coastal dishes. Abu’s mainstay is pilau (rice cooked in a seasoned broth), while Mwongeli names a dish from the mountain region of Kenya as her favourite: “There is nothing as good as a nice plate of githeri [a mix of stewed maize and beans], topped with fresh avocado, to set you off into the afternoon in a good mood.” MM
My lunch: Jack Okinyi, 40, owner of a social media consultancy I rarely have time for dinner or even breakfast, so for me lunch is the most important meal. I usually grab a snack at dinner time (or sometimes forget to), but I can never miss lunch. I work in downtown Nairobi, so most of the time I take my lunch there.
My favourite restaurant is Ranalo Foods, which specialises in the traditional cuisine of my Luo people; Barack Obama Sr is one of our more famous kinsmen. Most of the time, I have fish and a brown millet cake known as ugali. The fish can be deep-fried, smoked or boiled, but it is always tilapia. The restaurant sources it from the freshwater Lake Victoria, which has very tasty fish.
I always eat with a friend or two, since I do not enjoy eating alone. My favourite lunch is deep-fried whole tilapia with osuga (wild vegetables in cream) and brown ugali. At KSh 750 (about £5), the meal is relatively expensive, but the restaurant is very clean and the service is world class.
When it comes to a working lunch in Beijing, you can’t beat the baozi, or Chinese steamed bun. Legend has it taht the baozi was invented more than 1,800 years ago by Zhuge Liang, a Chinese statesman and military strategist who is also credited with creating the wheelbarrow. Facing crisis when his hungry, dehydrated soldiers began to fall ill, Zhuge dreamed up the idea of making doughy, human head-shaped buns packed with pork and beef. They are said to have cured his sick warriors and guaranteed subsequent battlefield success.
Today, baozi can be found the length and breadth of China, and are eaten morning, noon and night by those in search of a quick, nutritious and filling snack. In China’s capital, where office workers generally get 45 minutes to an hour for their break, a lunch on the run means a trip to somewhere such as the Qingfeng Steamed Stuffed Bun Shop. With 290 outlets, Qingfeng is one of the city’s top bun makers, churning out 16 tonnes of baozi each day for famished Beijingers.
There are pork and spring onion buns, pork and cabbage buns, prawn and vegetable buns, and vegetarian buns, each costing up to 4.5 yuan (46p). Also on the menu are bowls of pumpkin porridge – a snip at 3 yuan (30p) – pork and spring onion buns, which cost 3.5 yuan each (36p), and bowls of spicy cold noodles that sell for 9 yuan (92p). TP Additional reporting by Luna Lin
My lunch: Zhang Tong, 43, insurance salesman I’ll have steamed buns three or four times a week, and usually I’ll have six or nine buns a time – they’re made of flour and are stuffed with vegetables or meat. There are vegetarian ones, shrimp ones and pork ones, too. They cost 15-20 yuan (£1.50-£2). It is fast food, it tastes OK and it’s safe. Because of all the food scandals in China, I look for restaurants that are clean and tidy.
In Beijing, common folk also go to restaurants that sell zhajiang mian – fried sauce noodles. There’s one just around the corner from here. The food is great, but the restaurant isn’t so clean. Sometimes I will eat with my colleagues and sometimes I dine alone – Chinese fast food chains are my go-to choices. I usually spend about 30 minutes having lunch. I hardly ever eat at my desk, because my job requires me to spend most of my working hours outside the office.