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A waiter sorts through checks at Darjeeling Express last November, just after the restaurant first opened for guests. It’s the second incarnation of chef Asma Khan’s Soho Indian restaurant which has won critical accliam
A waiter sorts through checks at Darjeeling Express last November
Michaël Protin/Eater London

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What London’s Restaurants Need Now

“I have no faith in this government. They have shown almost sneering contempt for hospitality and feel we can be used to do the work they are so incompetent to do themselves.”

After Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s coronavirus lockdown roadmap revelation in the House of Commons yesterday, 22 February, Eater London spoke to several chefs and restaurateurs across the city who now have a rough understanding of their route out of lockdown.

They remain unsure of the future of their financial support systems and the extent to which they will be responsible for implementing and enforcing safety protocols as and when restrictions are actually lifted and dining rooms can reopen. With Brexit compounding the pandemic’s complications for staff retention and recruitment, restaurant owners must also ensure that when they can open, they have the teams they need to do that — and that their places of work are as safe for those workers as they are for the guests they are employing them to serve.

This second of two-part interview feature in the week that London restaurants, pubs, bars, and cafes learned of the proposed timeline for their reopening. Read part one here.

The below answers have been edited for clarity.


Now it’s months not weeks until you can reopen properly, support is surely going to need to be extended beyond the end of March and April...

Firstly, what is your minimum expectation from the Chancellor’s Budget on 3 March?

Adejoké Bakare, Chishuru: “The same level of support (furlough, rates holiday and VAT cuts) as well as looking into the people that fell under the gaps like the self employed or [businesses that opened] in between the lockdown[s]. I am all for it.”

Asma Khan, Darjeeling Express: “The minimum I would expect is for the business rates holiday to be extended for a year. VAT held at 5 percent and the furlough scheme extended to give us a buffer while we take small steps to restart again, and the flexi furlough option will let us bring people back slowly to work.”

Adejoké Bakare, chef-owner Chishuru in Brixton, right. The restaurant is struggling through the coronavirus lockdown in London, as restaurants are closed until further notice
Adejoké Bakare, chef-owner Chishuru in Brixton, right
Michaël Protin/Eater London

Louis Wainwright-Vale, Element Coffee: “I think the furlough scheme will be extended well into autumn but other than that I have little expectation that there will be meaningful help for businesses.”


And secondly, what do you think he should announce?

AK: “I think the loan repayment for the bounce back and the [coronavirus business loans] interest-free period should be extended for another year as there is no business who will be able to repay when they actually have not traded for a year.”

L W-V: “I could harp on about the things I think the chancellor should announce, including massive taxes on the wealthy to pay for the economic fall out of this crisis, nationalising Amazon, and his own resignation but a guy can dream.”


Japanese udon noodle bar Koya in Soho, closed for now during the coronavirus lockdown in London
Japanese udon noodle bar Koya in Soho, closed for now during the coronavirus lockdown in London
Michaël Protin/Eater London

It looks like the rent eviction protections are also going to be extended and there’s talk of extra intervention from the government. If you’re still at an impasse with a landlord, what can you see as being done to break the deadlock?

Normah Abd Hamid, Normah’s: “It’s like chicken and egg... the government has to be fair on both sides (landlord and tenant) and we (or me) don’t want it to look like we are expecting a handout most of the time.

“Due to the current situation, if the landlord evicts the current tenant, it will be hard for them to find a new tenant due to the current situation because many businesses have closed. Meaning a lot of people are out of job. The high street will be empty. My suggestion is for the government to workout a plan for the businesses which aren’t able to get any support from either government council — and pay grants on behalf of small business straight to the landlord through HMRC to cover owed rent.

“I believe whatever grant or support that government is giving out, it should go back to the economic cycle, where people will be able to spend, jobs will be retained, and business will be able to survive.”

L W-V: “There is nothing landlords can do to evict you right now. They will have to wait for their money. Not only is there no financial benefit to them evicting tenants, but it is immoral and must be resisted, physically if necessary. I will chain myself to the coffee machine. I need to stop before I start quoting Chairman Mao.”


Ombra reopened its dining room on 4 July after nearly four months of closure imposed by the first national coronavirus lockdown in England
Staff at Ombra last summer after the restaurant reopened in July
Michaël Protin/Eater London

Looking a little further into the future, what is the sense from staff about returning to work? How many people have you lost, either as a result of the pandemic or because of Brexit? What are your expectations for the job market come the summer?

Mitshel Ibrahim, Ombra: “If the government is interested in economy then it would be in their and restaurant worker’s interests to get them up there on the vaccination ladder.

“Most of us have been working throughout — at one time, two in the kitchen; two on the floor [while the team is on flexi-furlough.] They’re happy to come back without it being a back and forth because it’s been hard to keep focus and to remain interested and motivated.

“Now we can fully invest ourselves — we can change page and fully invest in a new chapter.”

NAH: “In the restaurant industry you can’t work from home, and if we rely on delivery many people won’t have a job in the future because only the kitchen area will be operational. We will have less workers in the future. Since March 2020 we have closed our prep kitchen, which employed four people, because we now do everything in the restaurant.

“Summer? It depends on the whether people will be able to travel again. Otherwise is not going to be much different.”

AB: “I have lost staff because of Brexit and the lockdown, but we have had an increase in job vacancy inquires...So we are hopeful to fill the vacancies with people eager to get back to hosting diners again.”

Quintessential comfort food classic mince on dripping toast at Quality Chop House, one of 10 places to eat in a listed building in London
Quality Chop House can dare to dream of again putting mince on toast on a real plate for customers in its dining room this summer.
Quality Chop House [Official Photo]

Daniel Morgenthau, Woodhead Restaurants and Quality Chop Shop: “We saw the greatest change to the makeup of our team at the start of the pandemic. A number of our European colleagues made the decision to return home to see the pandemic out with their families. But since then we’ve managed to keep our team together. We’ve been able to offer work to all of our full time colleagues during this lockdown, and though the nature of the work is of course very different, the routine and momentum as a business hasn’t really changed too much — something we’re grateful for. We’re hoping to maintain some of the more successful lockdown elements of our business once we do reopen and this will create a number of roles that we’ll be looking to fill.

“The impact of Brexit on the jobs market is of course yet to be seen. But we’ve always taken the view that experience is less important than a passion for hospitality when it comes to working in the industry. We know there will be many people looking for jobs when the economy reopens — so I just hope we can show people what a fulfilling career hospitality can be.”

AK: “[Unlike in November when Darjeeling Express opened] this time restaurants will be competing with each other to get the best talent.

“There has been a massive exodus over the lockdown from London. The presumption is a lot of them who left were European nationals who have always been the backbone of hospitality. I think recruiters also need to take this time to create clear job descriptions and start fresh in some ways.”


Guests leave Normah’s in Queensway Market last November, one of London’s best Malaysian restaurants
Guests leave Normah’s in Queensway Market last November
Michaël Protin/Eater London

Lastly, there’s every chance the government is going to pass on new “policing” responsibilities to restaurants, as they did from last July. There’s almost certainly going to be social distancing in place, and there is even the suggestion that operators could be responsible for checking if guests have been vaccinated. Do you fear that you will be burdened after reopening? And what do you hope the government does to minimise any additional headaches for restaurateurs and their employees?

John Devitt, Koya: “Some form to continued Vat and business rates relief and reconsidering the term of the CBILs with an extra year’s no interest or repayment. The uncertain trade without government support may well be the end of the road for many.”

AB: “Our outfit is quite ‘cosy’ and most guests are quite willing to book in on the COVID app and specify if they were adhering to the household guidelines. If an extra requirement of checking vaccination ‘certs’ begins to impact on the experience, a tick-box integrated into the present COVID app will make it easier for operators, I believe.”

NAH: “When we reopened after the first lockdown, we only accept eight people to dine in at one time due to our space. We don’t think operators should be responsible for checking the guests have been vaccinated or not. Firstly, because the vaccine is not mandatory, it can create a scene which we very much want to avoid. My hope is for the government to vaccinate [restaurant workers], maybe after all the front-liners.”

Jeremie Cometto-Lingenheim, Brut Restaurants (Primeur, Westerns Laundry, Jolene, Big Jo): “I m going to re-read George Orwell’s 1984 in the next few days and will get back to you.”

jolene is london’s coolest bakery
Jolene in Newington Green’s dining room
Sam Ashton/Eater London

AK: “I have no faith in this government. They have shown almost sneering contempt for hospitality and feel we can be used to do the work they are so incompetent to do themselves. I’m not sure how much hospitality will be able to push back as for many the need to open will outweigh any additional administrative burdens that may be dumped on us.”

DM: “Hospitality professionals are not public health professionals and I don’t think it’s right or fair for the burden of enforcement to fall upon them. That being said, it’s not something I’m particularly worried about. Our guests have been hugely understanding of the pressures our team have faced. And likewise our team have been unbelievably professional when it’s come to managing some of the more nuanced and difficult situations that have inevitably arisen. My hope is that with the vaccination programme well and truly under way and with rates back at levels comparable to last summer, we can go back to some semblance of normality with covid safety precautions not dominating the guest experience (as they were with the imposition of the curfew for example).

Quality Chop House

94 Farringdon Rd, London, Greater London EC1R 3EA +44 20 3490 6228 Visit Website

Portland

113 Great Portland Street, , England W1W 6QQ 020 7436 3261 Visit Website

Soutine

60 Saint John's Wood High Street, , England NW8 7SH 020 3926 8448 Visit Website

High Street

High Street, , England KT3

The Clove Club

380 Old Street, , England EC1V 9LT 020 7729 6496 Visit Website

Pollo Feliz

13-23 Westgate Street, , England E8 3RL 07479 478722 Visit Website

Luca

88 Saint John Street, , England EC1M 4EH 020 3859 3000 Visit Website

Westerns Laundry

34 Drayton Park, , England N5 1PB 020 7700 3700 Visit Website

Element Coffee

236 Northfield Avenue, , England W13 9SJ Visit Website

Seven

Brixton Station Rd., Brixton, Greater London, London, 44 0207 998 3309 Visit Website

Flor

1 Bedale Street, , England SE1 9AL 020 3967 5418 Visit Website

Brawn

49 Columbia Road, , England E2 7RG 020 7729 5692 Visit Website

Darjeeling Express

2a Garrick Street, , England WC2E 9BH 020 7836 8888 Visit Website

Chop Shop

66-68 Haymarket, London, Greater London SW1Y 4RF +44 20 7842 8501 Visit Website

Bellanger

9 Islington Green, , England N1 2XH 020 7226 2555 Visit Website

Primeur

116 Petherton Road, , England N5 2RT 020 7226 5271 Visit Website

OMBRA

1 Vyner Street, , England E2 9DG 020 8981 5150 Visit Website

The Quality Chop House

88-94 Farringdon Road, , England EC1R 3EA 020 7278 1452 Visit Website

Brilliant

72-76 Western Road, Southall , Middlesex , UB2 5DZ Visit Website

Two Lights

28-30 Kingsland Road, , England E2 8AA 020 3976 0076 Visit Website

Clipstone

5 Clipstone Street, , England W1W 6BB 020 7637 0871 Visit Website

Chishuru

Coldharbour Lane, , England SW9 8LB 07960 002150 Visit Website

Jolene

54 Great Jones Street, Manhattan, NY 10012 (646) 429-8383 Visit Website

Quality Wines

88 Farringdon Road, , England EC1R 3EA 020 3602 8115 Visit Website

Big Jo

326 Hornsey Road, , England N7 7HE 020 3915 6760 Visit Website

Singburi

593 High Road Leytonstone, , England E11 4PA 020 8281 4801

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