Dining: Update from the Metropolitan Grand Secretary
The Covid crisis saw lots of the cheaper restaurants close, never to re-open. Few new such restaurants have appeared on the scene, and all that are still offering dining to Masons are paying more in Council Tax and rent. The cost of staff remains very high in London, plus staff retention remains a problem… It is really no good anyone complaining that dining is cheaper in the provinces in the hope that we can replicate that commercially in London: “hope doth butter no parsnips” as I recall my Grandmother saying (or was that “fine words”?).
If you are lucky enough to meet at the West London Masonic Centre (Ealing), the South East London Masonic Hall (Penge) or Southgate Masonic Centre, then cheaper dining is available. Some units will have their own arrangements with restaurants and other approved Masonic Centres which mean that convivial dinners can be had at a cheaper price than in other commercial venues. But in addition to 10 Duke Street, St James, where Clubland is your market, and Mark Masons’ Hall with its wide range of dining options to suit all pockets, the vast majority of Lodges and Chapters meet at Freemasons’ Hall; we often forget that FMH has only provided dining options fairly recently. There were some issues with FMH dining in the first few years, but these, I am delighted to say, are being fully and actively addressed in partnership with the Metropolitan Office.
To address these issues, Metropolitan Grand Lodge and Grand Chapter put together a working party to report; members of that team with specialist hospitality knowledge have since been working closely with the Grand Secretary, Adrian Marsh; alongside Claire Bastin (Commercial and Hospitality Director) and me. We are taking a two-phase approach to ensuring that dining is both more affordable and that ‘The Big House’ is a more attractive place in which to dine. Dining at FMH, if your unit meets there, gives two further easy wins. Firstly, there is no travelling between venues. Secondly, meetings can start a little later (to help the working member) and yet finish dinner at the same time (so those needing trains out of London do not have to risk the last train of the evening, what with the rail networks being anything other than reliable…). The café/bar at FMH is also more than competitive in its pricing for drinks, so is a great place to congregate before a meeting and to relax in after the meal.
The first phase has been to produce compelling menus which range from 2-course meals without wine at £50 (inc. VAT) to three-course meals with reception drinks and wine at £70 (inc. VAT). There is also a premium menu which means that those who want a particularly special meal can have one at FMH without having to go elsewhere. Units can also bring their own wine without paying any corkage; and several of my units are taking advantage of this with port and Madeira after dinner, with FMH kindly supplying the glasses. Free coffee is available in the café after dinner, as well as the opportunity for post-prandial drinks. Further drinks can also be provided at the table by pre-ordering or paying there and then.
I have only heard very good reports of both the dinners and the service since September, which is a great testimony to Patricia Radulescu, Yugo Torti and their respective teams. As part of phase 1, more dining opportunities are available, including the Old and the New Boardrooms, as well as the Courtyard for al-fresco, good weather dining. My units will certainly be trying the latter when we get to summer 2024.
Speaking of 2024, plans are shaping up for phase 2 next year: more menu choices, including more informal opportunities, as well as a potential remodelling of the bar to improve the overall club experience and to free up some smaller rooms for additional dining. A lot of work is going on behind the scenes and, of course, while the devil is in the detail with no magic money tree, I am very hopeful as I know that there is a very real determination to surpass what is already offered to ensure that Freemasons get the best out of the building which is our international Headquarters.
Patricia and her staff in Masonic Dining have been inundated with Lodges and Chapters which meet at Freemasons’ Hall enquiring about dining there, including units which had previously moved from dining at FMH when unhappy with the quality of food and service in the past. As more and more units dine at Freemasons’ Hall, there will not be the need for an imposed service charge as the external caterers benefit from economies of scale. Please note that FMH itself is not seeking to make any profit in providing this member service, but FMH dining must cover its costs so not to be a burden on UGLE as a whole.
FMH and Metropolitan Grand Lodge/Grand Chapter are always looking to improve the dining experience and it has never been more important if we are preserve that key aspect of the Masonic experience. Please, therefore, let me have any suggestions or concerns that you have, so I may pass them on and discuss them with my colleagues at FMH. Bon appetit!