Pret a Changer
Every Monday to Friday, I walk a gauntlet at lunchtime. At the foot of my office building is a series of the same chain concerns you’d recognise from any stretch of A3-use-classed Central London real estate, and when I am hungry and lazy they come calling. When I don’t have time to wait for the barista whose eyes I try not to meet at my coffee shop, I have been known to pop into Coco di Mama; when I haven’t brought in the remnants of the previous night’s on-trend dinner of charred brassicas, I have been known to avail myself of Pod’s salads. I once even ate the sushi at Wasabi, and I am here to tell the tale. But – whatever the circumstances – there is and will always be one exception. Somewhere you’ll never see me, and please kill me if you do. That place is Pret a Manger.
There’s previous here. For five years I worked in an office where Pret was, by far, the closest semi-viable lunch option. I worked hard; I seldom had time to venture further afield. And so I measured out the second half of my twenties in so many cerise spoons, keeping time on my vanishing youth with the calendar of weekly soups like a despairing farmer consulting a fraudulent almanac. I have shaken the pot of Dijon dressing for an ocean’s worth of salads Niçoise; I have numbly treated myself with slabs of pasta bake and only felt more tired afterwards. I have chased innumerable sandwiches with brackish miso soup that savoured poignantly of childhood holidays on the English coast and uncried tears.
I’m laying it on a bit thick, of course. None of it was that bad. But that’s kind of the point. Everything has been focused-grouped to be so blamelessly fine, so just-good-enough, that you never eat anything unappealing there. Nor, of course, does anything taste truly excellent, or exciting: it’s the culinary equivalent of those special curtailed lamp-posts you get on motorways near airports, stripped of any lofty ambition to minimise the potential for disaster.
It’s also just lunch. Some people don’t need delicious (or, for that matter, Delicious) in their lives on a daily basis; some people are in a hurry; some people just don’t care. Stop lunch-shaming, you lunch-bigot! The Christmas sandwich is actually pretty great! It’s just a meal. It doesn’t matter.
But it does matter. Honestly. Food is always a choice, and the choice you make says everything about you and how you see the world. Choosing to see lunch as just a meal is no different from choosing to see the thing clashing with your meeting as just another one of your kid’s concerts: it implies something similarly fundamental about the hierarchies you have created in your mind and in your life. Pret is the taste of settling for less to free yourself up to do more. The decision you avoid, the effort you redistribute, the minutes you save – these are the things that will haunt you, in time.
I left my previous job last year. I still work hard, but it’s different now. I’m different now. I’ve worked out – for the time being, at least – what matters, and what doesn’t, and how much. And lunch matters a lot. I’ll still try to be virtuous and bring in a salad if I can, but if I can’t, I allow myself to have options. Happily, my office overlooks Leather Lane, and so I’m spoilt for choice. I’ve found an unpromising stand that does a great Thai green curry; further up the road Yum Bowl does a zingy Vietnamese-inflected assemblage that you can fool yourself into thinking is healthy. Dukan 41 does really excellent falafel; a few doors down Tongue and Brisket offers a slightly modernised take on Jewish deli food (though not so modernised that you can’t still buy fish balls by the dozen).
The street is a perfect microcosm of the city that surrounds it: diverse, lively, interesting, impossible to navigate at peak hours, stuffed with way too many Third-Wave coffee shops. There is history – in Cino’s, the greasy spoon near the top; in the faces of the traders selling unappetising fruit – and, as in London at large, sometimes it grinds uneasily against modernity – against Prufrock, say, the coffee shop surfing that Third Wave so hard it doesn’t do skimmed milk. But really it’s life-affirming to be among so many people, so many small businesses and passion projects, so much food cooked with such immediacy. It is everything lunch at Pret is not (that is not necessarily a recommendation: I have rolled the dice and come up snake eyes on more than one occasion, including a pretty nasty batch of food poisoning). To walk among it, to eat food from it, is to remind yourself you’re in a special place; that you’re lucky; that there are elements of your life that you control.
That last point is becoming more important to me. As 2016 has ground remorselessly onwards I’ve found myself reading more and more about self-care: the things you can affect (and effect), the kindnesses you can perform, to make it a little easier to inhabit your skin (for a whole bunch of related stuff, I’d recommend following Kat Kinsman on Twitter, whose question “Whatcha gonna do to be kind to your brain and heart this week?” acts as a pretty perfect rallying cry). These are not the happiest times to be alive: close to midnight in a year we’d love to forget. I’m not denying that there is a need for us to unite against a host of ills; merely observing that we should remember to take time for ourselves, too. Here are some things I do now that I did not do in the past, and which work (for me): I go running, as far as often and I can. My wife and I do something nice, out of the house, on a Sunday evening, instead of watching the weekend bleed into Monday on a TV screen. And most days, around 12.30 every day, I take the lift downstairs, turn right so I’m opposite Pret, and keep walking.