Here’s What It’s Like to Eat in the House of Lords’ Exclusive Parliament Dining Room
Going for lunch at the House of Lords is like taking a stroll through history—in terms of food as well as architecture.
The Peers' Dining Room is briefly open to the public for the first time as an experiment to see if the common people are a useful source of income while Parliament isn't in session.
You might think it's a privilege to dine there, but the lords themselves may disagree; they have been known to complain about the food, the service, and even the coffee in the restaurants, bars, and cafeterias that serve as their staff canteens.
Members of the House of Lords are known as peers, and the Peers' Dining Room is the most formal place to eat, drink, and plot. The menu and the room itself are both charmingly old-fashioned.
Those of us used to less elevated dining locations may feel like impostors trying to pass as aristocrats at the offices of government, or else like extras in a Harry Potter movie.
The Palace of Westminster features stunning Gothic interiors and elaborate chandeliers. It's definitely a bit Hogwarts. Take the Central Lobby, which you walk through on your way to lunch: It's a stone octagon where corridors from the House of Lords and the House of Commons meet. Its soaring arches are decorated with statues of kings and queens.
You sense thousands of years of history, though a fire in 1834 means the current building dates only to the 19th century. The exact history of the Peers' Dining Room isn't known, but plans of the palace from 1938 show it occupied the current space at that time.
I'd say it's an experience not to be missed, but you probably will if you haven’t booked. All 1,600 seats for the lunches quickly filled, and 500 people are on the waiting list. If you want to try your luck, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
(The trial is limited to weekday lunches from April 14 through May 8. Dinner isn't an option.)
You have to give details of your booking before passing through the first stage of security, when you are asked if you are carrying sharp objects. That's before you even reach the X-ray machines and the airport-style arch, where my braces (suspenders) set bells ringing.
You are escorted to a beautiful paneled room with a high ceiling and rich furnishings that serves as a bar, though that little word doesn't quite describe the splendor of the location. The wood paneling is dark and smells of polish and privilege. You sit on overstuffed chairs, and the view from the windows is of the River Thames. It's like a musty library in an old country house, where a butler might serve you a glass of vintage port. Ever seen Downton Abbey? You've got it.
It's not expensive. A fine bottle of House of Lords Rose Champagne (by Gaston Chiquet) costs 45 pounds ($68). It's light and fresh with just a hint of strawberry. And if you like it, you can pick up another bottle at the souvenir shop through which you later pass on your way out to the street and the real world.
The House of Lords Chardonnay is even cheaper (at 17 pounds a bottle) and appears a great bargain, until you try it. It tastes as if someone has removed the flowers from a vase and tipped the contents into your glass: floral, certainly, but not something you would necessarily choose to drink.
You place your order for lunch, which costs 35 pounds for three courses, with coffee and chocolates. There are four starters, four mains, and four desserts. The waiters appear almost conspiratorial, leaning in close to communicate: They are formal without being snooty, friendly without wanting to be your mates.
About 15 minutes later, they invite you to come for lunch and escort you along a corridor to the L-shaped dining room, which certainly has the wow factor.
A large fireplace sits at one end, while the walls are decorated with yellow, red, and gray flock wallpaper above more paneling. The patterned carpet is red and green, while chandeliers hang from the high ceiling. The red leather chairs are decorated with the House of Lords portcullis gold logo. Your table is draped in stiff white linen, on which sits a vase of dusky pink roses.
You might think your fellow diners are indeed peers. The average age must be above 50, the men in dark suits and ties of muted colors, the women in discreet jewelry and elegant frocks. Conversations are conducted quietly.
The air carries a whisper of expensive fragrances.
Photography and mobile phones are banned, but that hardly appears necessary. These are not the kind of people who are going to go into a group hug for a selfie or to shout into a mouthpiece that they are dining at the House of Lords. The room and the people belong to an age when such devices didn't exist.
Personally, I am feeling nostalgic.
(I did consider trying to sneak a shot on my Samsung, but I'm a technophobe who doesn't know how to prevent the thing from flashing. I accidentally took a photo of the foot of a policeman on the way in, while trying to demonstrate that my phone was switched off.)
The experience isn’t really about the food. If the lords like to moan about the catering, why should we like it? But the cooking of Executive Chef Duncan Basterfield is impressive. He knows how to create dishes that sound reassuringly comforting and old-fashioned, yet are lighter, with layers of flavor.
The menu is nostalgic, featuring the likes of pea soup, baked salmon, and summer pudding. Much as I hate to boast, I have to tell you that I've been twice this week. I booked early this month when I first wrote about this poshest of pop-ups.
The soup features broad beans and mint and is served with crumbled goat cheese and pea shoots. It's got texture and depth, though mine wasn't hot. The pastry in the St. George's classic mushroom vol-au-vent is light and crisp, the truffled béarnaise sauce taking the earthy flavor a little deeper.
A main of slow-cooked ox cheek with Irish champ mash, heritage carrots, salsa verde, and jus is deep and rich, the meat satisfyingly parting on contact with a fork. That flesh is so smoky and intense, it's not even polite.
Corn-fed chicken breast is light on flavor. It's filled with morel mushrooms and served with crushed Jersey Royal potatoes, asparagus, and creamed spinach. It won't set your taste buds on fire, but it's inoffensive. The meat doesn't have a lot of personality: It's a chicken from central casting.
The desserts are best of all. The steamed date and walnut pudding comes with a butterscotch sauce and is topped with vanilla ice cream. This is a real old-school English pud: sticky and sweet—and forget your modern nonsense about lighter food.
It's a good, solid end to an acceptable meal that is elevated by its setting. I wouldn’t want to eat this traditional food every day, and yet these two lunches will stick in my memory with the tenacity of an annoying pop song. I've just realized what that chicken was saying to me: chirpy, chirpy, cheep, cheep.
Parliamentary officials refer to this aristocratic pop-up as the "Dissolution" opening of the Peers' Dining Room—dissolution meaning that the term is over for parliamentarians and they've all gone home ahead of the general election.
You don't need to be dissolute as such, although I might have hit the House of Lords Claret a little enthusiastically during my first lunch.
Even sober, you will be escorted from the building: Security considerations make it unwise to have people wandering around after they've spent a couple of hours with knives. (Plastic cutlery wouldn't really work here.)
Your waiter also needs to make sure you leave via the gift shop, with its House of Lords teddy bears, golf balls, and chocolate boxes. I'm looking at a bottle of House of Lords Champagne as I write this. I just couldn't resist.
Let's hope the success of this trial opening means it happens again in the future. It's good to let citizens hang out in their legislature and for foreign visitors to see how good we are at doing all this pomp stuff. Plus, I wouldn’t mind going back later in the year to do my Christmas shopping.
Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Bloomberg. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines.
Corrects previous version with accurate price of House of Lords Champagne.