JUST about the time the phrase "Let's do lunch" became popular, the noon meal began falling on hard times.
The latest sign of changing social patterns comes from London, where an elite luncheon club, the Gresham, closed its doors and went on the auction block last week. Membership at the 150-year-old institution in the financial district had dropped from 500 to 370, and only one-fifth of those actually took time to eat at the club. Bankers and lawyers who once regarded a leisurely midday meal at the Gresham as an entitlement now stay in the office at noon, afraid they might miss something if they leave their computers. Their new downscale lunch, as disdainfully reported by the club secretary, consists of a sandwich and a can of diet soda.
Londoners are not the only ones foregoing the pleasure of an unhurried lunch. The Ritz-Carlton in Boston no longer opens its dining room for lunch. And from CEOs to clerks, more workers are "eating in," turning cluttered desks into tables for one. As they nibble absently on salads and brown-bag sandwiches, these solitary diners meet deadlines, read professional journals, answer mail, and return phone calls.
Lunch hour used to be a much anticipated event - a kind of mini-vacation in the middle of the day. Underlings, mindful of their limited budgets and ticking time clocks, dashed to the company cafeteria or modest eateries near the office. Bosses headed for white-tablecloth restaurants.
Then came what could be called the "lunch crunch," a no-time-to-eat syndrome that exemplifies the trend toward longer, more demanding work days. Power lunches of the '80s gave way to power breakfasts - less leisurely, less expensive, and ideal for getting people to begin the work day even before they reach the office. At 7 a.m., hotel dining rooms fill with corporate early birds, their spreadsheets and legal pads crowding tables formerly reserved for eggs and toast. At noon, managers who once measured co rporate status by their access to executive dining rooms now find themselves too busy to leave the office.
For workers who do venture out, the premium is on getting back before they are missed. Between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., Pizza Hut serves a personal pan pizza guaranteed to arrive at the table in five minutes. If it doesn't, a customer eats free. The Ground Round makes a similar 15-minute promise for its "Lunch Break" menu. Other restaurants do a brisk business in orders "to go," which are whisked back to employees' desks at sprint speed.
For those who stay in the office, vending machines that once offered little more than candy bars and peanut-butter crackers now dispense a variety of sandwiches, soups, and fruit. At office microwaves, workers with Tupperware containers in hand line up to zap last night's leftovers into today's economical lunch.
Anybody who can spare time for a proper lunch is seen as a nobody. There are pejorative terms to cover various cases, like "ladies who lunch," describing nonworking women who indulge in an expansive noonday meal. But even their ranks are dwindling. Last week the Women's City Club in Boston was auctioned off after its membership dwindled to 150 from a high of 5,000.
The new Spartan lunch hour may be easier on the wallet and the waistline, but it leaves everything else to be desired.
Two kinds of pleasure used to meet at the lunch table - a delight in good food and a relish for conversation. Food is now regarded with suspicion, to be classified as healthy, even medicinal, if it tastes bad enough, or as slow poison, if it's delicious. Instead of eating, one reads the fine print on labels and ends up with yogurt and a handful of nuts, dry-roasted and unsalted.
As for conversation, how many employees have the talk left in them after spending all morning in meetings and conferences or on the phone?
A good, relaxing lunch takes an attitude toward life and implies a certain priority. But the attitude, the priority does not go with the model of life as a fast track. Will a leisurely - but not too leisurely - lunch in a congenial setting become as obsolete as a village green? If so, one more oasis will be lost where friends can interrupt their ever more hectic, separate journeys to savor the sweet taste of companionship - a word that means literally, bread broken together.