Pity the poor peer who once endured a pork escalope in one of the House of Lords’ restaurants. “It was uneatable,” he complained to the Lords’ chairman of committees. “Tough and dry, and clearly cooked for hours before. It really was a disgrace.” Another peer complained: “I am aware that one noble lord was served ‘gone off’ smoked salmon in the Bishops’ bar the other day.” This week, the Times reported that retired peers will be allowed to keep the privilege of using the upper house’s subsidised restaurants – though we might be wary of viewing this as much of a perk.
Can the food really be that bad? Joss Bassett, editor of the London Lamppost site, went for lunch in 2015, when the peers’ dining room was first opened to the public for a brief period. He went again in 2016. “The first year was quite traditional modern British – ox cheek, potted crab,” he says. “It was perfectly good, but nothing special. The cost was £35 a person and wasn’t worth any more than that. In 2016, the style was more modern British and my overriding memory was that, despite looking impressive, the food was very dry, particularly the chicken.”
More impressive, he says, was the relatively low-priced (£15) glass of 1955 Cockburn’s port. The Pugin wallpaper is “stunning and the service extremely friendly, giving it a relaxed formality that was unexpected”.
No peer returned my requests for a description of what it is like when it is not open to the general public, but a reviewer for the Financial Times in 2011 was invited for lunch at the peers’ dining room. The smoked trout salad was “simple, delicate and faultlessly done. Mains such as fillet of beef with truffle creamed potatoes and bourguignon sauce look tempting; but I opt instead for a veal escalope.” It was served, public school-style, with over-boiled vegetables. “Puddings are far more satisfactory: I try a first-class apple and rhubarb crumble.”
Emma Crewe, professor of social anthropology at Soas, sat at the “long table” in the peers’ dining room in the course of researching her book, Lords of Parliament: Manners, Rituals & Politics. “I’m an anthropologist so talking my way into the private bit was really exciting, it was like going in to a priestly sacred chamber.”
In terms of atmosphere, she says, “peers have talked about it reminding them, if they’ve been there, of Oxford or Cambridge”. The dress code has relaxed since the day one hereditary peer told Crewe he was shocked by how some women in the upper house dressed, “‘as if they’re in their kitchen’. That was about 20 years ago. People do not have that attitude any more. They dress more like [they work at] a law firm.”
The rule of the long table is that you sit at the next seat available. “You plonk yourself next to whoever and the significance of that is that you often find yourself sitting next to somebody who is not necessarily from the same party.” Unlike MPs, peers are mostly there for life, “so there is much more pressure to get along with everyone. You want to make allies in other parties and you particularly want to make allies with the cross-benchers. So the long table is a really useful place to make sure you network.”
In a BBC documentary last year, Lord Walpole said the long table was “where this country is governed from. We like to think so anyway.” In 2008, he met an undercover reporter in the peers’ guest room, where the journalist met contacts before taking them to eat in the dining room, and reportedly told him: “There’s more business done in here than is done in most government offices.”
Any space – such as the library, corridors, lobbies – is “a good place for approaching a potential ally or somebody you know is going to criticise your amendment”, says Crewe. The restaurants work well because “people do tend to go back to the same place, you know where you can find Baroness So-and-So having a coffee”. Crewe is “unconvinced” that a retired peer could sustain relationships with those in power “if they’re just popping in for lunch now and again”, and she points out that one of the reasons for the extended perk is to encourage peers to retire. While some may try to exert influence, others would simply miss those pork escalopes.