Today, 12 April, restaurants, pubs, cafes, and bars begin their phased re-opening, allowed by law to serve customers on terraces, roadsides, and in beer gardens. It’s mid-April and the sun is shining in London, but this is England and it is cold — at lunchtime, just eight degrees celsius. Customers, for now, appear defiant; chomping at the bit to get out and into restaurants after months of lockdown.
Restaurant dining rooms have been closed for four months; the longest they’ve been empty since the Covid-19 pandemic first turned the industry on its head over a year ago. In those four months, many businesses have remained open for takeaway, continuing to serve their communities; some have reinvented their offerings entirely; some have waited it out; some have not made it through, as has been the way of the last year.
Ahead of the first major date for hospitality in the government’s reopening “roadmap,” several chefs and restaurateurs from across the city have shared their thoughts on customers returning after so long.
Keshia Sakarah, of Brixton’s outstanding Caribbean restaurant Caribe; James Lowe, of hibernating Michelin star Lyle’s and lockdown hit Flor/Asap Pizza; Mandy Yin, of Holloway Road duo Sambal Shiok and Sambal to Go; Dan Morgenthau, of central trio Quality Chop House, Quality Wines, and Clipstone; Missy Flynn, of soon-to-be Soho darling Rita’s; and Mitshel Ibrahim, of perhaps the pandemic restaurant in London, Hackney’s Ombra, explain what they’ve done to prepare, how bookings are looking, and how they expect staff and guests to fare in what is a very different world to the one they left behind in 2020.
The below interviews have been edited for clarity.
After being closed for so long, how are you feeling about opening up next week?
Keshia Sakarah, Caribe, Brixton: “Excited to get back in the kitchen and meet new and old customers, but a little anxious having been closed since December and still being in a pandemic.”
James Lowe, Flor, ASAP Pizza, Lyle’s: “People seem to have forgotten that we used to always worry about being busy. Restaurants used to have worries, when they were allowed to stay open! We had uncertainties; we were just more used to them. We now owe loads of money, have a mountain of debt that we need to get rid of.”
Mandy Yin, Sambal Shiok: “We reopened for takeaway/delivery last month so it isn’t a standing start for us to reopen for outdoor dining next week. Also, we aren’t taking any bookings for our outdoor seats, as the arrangement is very informal [on Holloway Road] — like a street food market.”
Dan Morgenthau, Woodhead Restaurants: “Four months is a long time for a restaurant to be closed! There’s of course a great deal of excitement about returning to doing what we love most, there’s also a fair amount of trepidation too — because we want to deliver brilliant experience but we know our muscle memory is a little out of sorts! Also because the past 13 months have been so bruising for those in the hospitality industry.
“Thankfully there will be a huge amount of satisfaction that comes from being able to interact with our guests in person [...] nothing really compares to the buzz of service. I don’t think we can underestimate how much we’ve all missed this.”
Missy Flynn, Rita’s: “We’re not opening this week as we are still building the restaurant, but I am excited and nervous about everything else opening up. Glad we have a bit of time to ease into it to be honest, it’s been interesting seeing central London suddenly jolt into life, lots of structures going up near us in Covent Garden and Soho.”
John Devitt, Koya: “The work we’ve done in lockdown has allowed us to reimagine a different direction. It’s been intense.”
How are bookings looking? And have they surprised you?
Mitshel Ibrahim, Ombra: “We’ve been getting a lot of bookings. It hasn’t surprised me, people are really looking forward to reuniting with their loved ones for a catch up over a lunch or a birthday celebration. I expect it to mellow down when everyone’s able to have guests indoors though.
“On the other hand, we’ve also been getting a load of cancellations. People are binge booking a bunch of places and then cancelling — much like they do for Valentine’s Day dinner. But it’s not that surprising, it’s the same kind of thing that happened back in August when the #EatOutToHelpOut campaign launched. Back then we had a few guests that acted like they’d never eaten out before. Just no idea how to behave in a restaurant. Really bizarre.”
JL: “The dream is to have enough people coming up to the door [at ASAP] and not have any delivery. Pizza is just better fresh.”
MF: “We’re not yet live on Resy but the emails and DMs are trickling in…”
DM: “For the next couple of weeks, bookings are more akin to what we’d expect over Christmas — and that’s with significantly reduced capacity. We’re just hoping the worst of the weather is behind us!”
Talk a little bit about the preparations that have gone into this reopening — and anything you’ve done specifically for next week.
MI: “We’ve done quite a bit of preparation for our reopening as everyone’s a bit rusty since we haven’t been trading as a restaurant for four months now. So simple things like going through the new menu, sanitation procedures, track and trace, how to communicate and remind guests about the wearing of masks whenever they’re not sat at their table etc. We’ve also signed up to the government initiative for frequent staff testing. We’ve rearranged tables on the terrace and got a couple of new heaters, so now all our tables on the terrace are heated and covered.”
KS: “We’re only using our outside tables so making sure they’re safely distanced, we have a host to seat guests on site and a new app ordering system that customers can order from their tables.”
DM: “Behind the scenes we’ve done a lot of work to ensure we open as safely as possible — moving to twice weekly testing for example. And we’ve used the down-time to make some cosmetic improvements to the restaurants.”
JL: “It’s been quite nice. We have what we call a ‘pre-opening restaurant template’, which we run through as thought we’re opening a new restaurant. It’s been a rare opportunity for new managers to spend a lot of time with me and the operations director of [investor] JKS [Restaurants] and we’ve realised that loads of stuff wasn’t written down, we just did things, which is actually bad business practice.
JD: “Koya Soho will remain closed, but the City [Bloomberg Arcade site] will open with 48 covers outside. There are wind barriers, heaters, and it’s completely covered, so it’s as civilised as you can get for outdoor dining.”
How are the staff feeling about coming back in (some of whom presumably haven’t worked on site since before Christmas)?
MI: “We’re expecting guests to want to feel like the good ol’ days are back, pre-Corona, and that obviously is concerning to our staff because unfortunately, the struggle is not over yet. The staff will have to police some of our guests reminding them of that and that’s an anxiety I’m sure restaurants all over have. It’s not what front of house is hired to do.”
DM: “The majority of our team have remained working over the past three months - in our shop, preparing our meal kits, or in Arrosto. So in some respects the past few months haven’t looked that different and I hope that that will make the transition back to service a little easier.
“Having said that, I think the rhythm of all of our lives has changed recently and it will certainly take some adjusting. We’re conscious that for some members of the team the transition may be more challenging and we’ll do everything we can to support them.”
There seems to be much more public confidence than there was last July because of the vaccine roll-out. Do you fear this could lead to complacency from guests with regard to the hygiene and safety protocols you’ve put in place? With that, what are you planning to do to mitigate the risk of transmission? And how do you think it’s going to impact the experience of staff and guests?
KS: “I think it could but I think a lot of people are still aware of the risks of the pandemic even though there is a vaccine. We are keeping tables socially distanced, wipeable menus, everyone who visits the site will register for track and trace and there are hand hygiene stations throughout the site and at tables. Fortunately, a lot of the protocols we have had in place since last summer and work well with guests!”
MI: “There’s only so much we can do and I’m confident that we’ve done those things. Like I mentioned before, signing up to the government initiative for staff testing, re-training, and most importantly making sure we retain the team spirit and fluid communication that kept us alive these last 12 months.”