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The death of the long lunch! Good or bad?

Peter Switzer
22 April 2022

The closing and sale of a Sydney eatery — a city institution for decades — favoured by the Labor and Liberal party politicians alike, coincides with the implications of the Coronavirus pandemic and the changing nature of Aussies.

But this is not just a Sydney thing. It’s happening in our other capital cities and in places like London and New York as the new age with its new generations reject old ways, such as long Friday lunches, while committing to new ways, like going to the gym at lunch, drinking green juice and forever being engaged with their mobile phones.

I was brought up in an era where success and promotion were big deals for employees and when you made it, you would end up travelling in business class on airlines and you’d be invited to long lunches, especially on Fridays.

I’m not saying that was necessarily good but that’s the way it was and as social attitudes and actions change the economy and what it produces changes. And the pandemic has ramped up the pace of many of these changes.

The Coronavirus lockdowns have created trouble for CBD businesses and in December last year, the NSW Government joined forces with the Sydney City Council to put on the long lunch with tables set for dining down George Street, catered by top chefs, to get people back into the city.

But this is not just an Aussie thing.

In 2016 The Guardian noted the slow death of the long lunch in the UK citing “repeated recessions, stricter working environments and changing attitudes to alcohol” for the long lunch going into decline.

At the time, an M&C Allegra FoodService study found “that a mere 14% of lunch meals now include alcohol”, and The Guardian’s Tony Naylor asked: “What fun is the long lunch without a boatload of booze? 

“As many of our best restaurants begin to do away with midweek lunch services entirely, the long lunch feels like a tradition in its final death throes,” he concluded.

The Golden Century’s site is now up for sale and the owner of the restaurant closed the business because he could not get a long lease, with the site in Sussex Street Chinatown, which is bound to be demolished and replaced undoubtedly with a new shopping precinct at lower levels as well as offices and/or apartments above.

And like most restauranteurs, the lockdowns and the lack of staff — especially foreign students, who would’ve been part-time workers — would have made the life of The Golden Century’s owners harder than ever before.

Many fear that Chinatown in Haymarket is being neglected as the CBD goes into decline and the exit of a restaurant like The Golden Century has added to the concerns but that could be a wrong call.

“Haymarket is located 750m from Central Railway and the Tech-Central Precinct and primed to benefit from an unprecedented $5.5bn of private and public investment into the area,” said JLL’s senior director James Aroney. “This regeneration will underpin its appeal as one of the most vibrant districts in Australia and ensure enduring demand for these extremely scarce high exposure retail offerings in Chinatown.”

(JJL is the new name of property business Jones Lang Lasalle.)

So, predictions about the city’s demise following the pandemic lockdowns and the attitudinal change toward working in the CBD could only be short-term, as new uses for the city, such as residential developments, take root in coming years.

However, I suspect the long, boozy lunches on a Friday are unlikely to be the domain of businesspeople going forward. That said, I wouldn’t rule out the future residents of city CBD precincts enjoying a lunch or two with libation on Fridays, with an easy walk back to their apartments.

The world changes and attitudes about alcohol, exercise and even what you should eat can lead to the success of some businesses and the death of others, but it would be foolish to presume that consumers and businesses will stop spending and demanding things in the future.

The long lunch might be replaced by a team-building exercise such as a cooking class with a top chef and by the way, the odd bottle of wine might get a run when the team members sample their culinary efforts!

The world is changing and sometimes it is for the better.


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