It’s just over one week since restaurants and pubs reopened for outdoor dining in London. They have been largely blessed with sunshine, and clement, if not blazing temperatures; cold nights tempering warm evenings is a fitting representation of the mood in the capital’s dining terraces, pavements, and other outdoor spaces.
Because while this reopening feels more hopeful than that of winter, there is still much to do. Though outdoor opening suits some of the city’s best places to eat, many restaurants cannot open at all until May; there is no resolution on rent in sight just yet; just as kitchen porters, cooks, chefs, waiters, and sommeliers get to grips with familiar territory after months away, diners must regain their own muscle memory.
Jeremie Cometto-Lingenheim, behind north London’s slick European quartet Primeur, Westerns Laundry, Jolene, and Big Jo; Mandy Yin of lauded laksa bar Sambal Shiok; Louis Wainwright-Vale of top Ealing cafe Element Coffee; Peter Dore-Smith, of Fitzrovia institution Kaffeine; Emma Underwood, of Nine Elms’ Darby’s; Dan Morgenthau, of Woodhead Restaurants; and Joké Bakare, of Brixton’s Chishuru, spoke about the first week — how it went, why they’re open, why they’re not open, and what they expect from the weeks ahead.
What’s the general vibe at your restaurant(s) right now? How are things?
Jeremie Cometto-Lingenheim: Re opening has been for the most part brilliant aided by the fortunate good weather: Our teams in Cornwall & London have been full of beans in getting the spaces ready and doing a few full services with them has been soul soothing.
Adejoké Bakare: We only have space for twelve people outside, so the numbers don’t really add up, but we can open up because people really want it. The pop-up [a one-day affair at Catalyst Cafe, on Gray’s Inn Road] gave me so many ideas, you saw it, people were so happy to come out and be eating. We did ... Some form [laughs] of suya at the end, it was wonderful, and made me want to reopen outdoors in Brixton.
Peter Dore-Smith: It’s been amazing, such a welcome change and atmosphere. Lots of customers commenting especially at Great Titchfield Street about how great this is.
Mandy Yin: I honestly am not the best person to ask about all of this as my outdoor seating really is very informal, and is not in any way full service. There haven’t been that many people using our seats yesterday and today because it is still a bit too cold, and today it was rainy.
Dan Morgenthau: We couldn’t really be any happier with how the first week has gone. There was a fair amount of trepidation going into the week: how would service feel after such a long break? Would our outdoor setup facilitate the type of guest experience that we want? Would we be busy enough to justify reopening? Would it rain! But these concerns were all assuaged the moment we opened our doors on Monday.
Louis Wainwright-Vale: It’s been quiet this week. Partially because everyone’s getting their haircut, queuing for Primark or down the pub at lunchtime. Although the quietness is partly due to the children being off school. We’re still keeping people out of the shop so they can’t get too excited and run amok while getting a takeaway.
Emma Underwood: I’d have answered this very differently in December — the attitude of the guests was in complete contrast. It was very tense, difficult, to follow the guidelines and to regulate how people were behaving, but now it’s a complete breeze to be honest with you. The guests have really relaxed and it feels like a different restaurant.
How have guests and workers found going back to restaurants — what’s the muscle memory like?
AB: We’re going to trial it and see how we go, starting 21 April. The market’s really bustling and quite exciting, with restaurants getting ready. We’re taking reservations, just to be on the safe side — it’s just so exciting that people really wanted to come out and see me and eat.
JCL: Guests have been incredibly receptive and have expressed how grateful they are and how much they are appreciative of all the details that have gone into making the dining room safe & relatively “normal”.
EU: The outdoor dining is fine — a couple of complaints about the weather — but we’re about as busy as we would be if we were fully open. We’ve bought back the whole team and we’ve recruited as well, which is the best-case scenario really. That was all that we wanted to do, keep people in jobs.
PDS: Trade has increased by 30% and we also opened our second store which in some ways takes customers away from the original store. Very busy especially over lunchtime. They are complying as much as they were before and with the correct systems, processes, training and communication in place, service has not been difficult at all. We are used to it and professional about it.
LWV: The tables have thrown our queuing system into disarray somewhat, but we’ve introduced a rigid structure of signs and arrows to prevent people clogging the otherwise smooth one way flow. We’ll see how that goes over the weekend... I think the staff appreciate a bit more of a cafe atmosphere. The last year it has felt more like working at a drive thru or a ticket office than a coffee shop.
What needs to change — policy wise or customer behaviour wise — if anything?
PDS: Nothing needs to change from our perspective. I am relieved and happy but there is a very long road of recovery to go. It is imperative to maintain focus and mental strength.
AB: I’m going to find out! We only have space for twelve people outside, so the numbers don’t really add up, but we can open up because people really want it, with a short menu, one hour fifteen menus, very small plates
JCL: Newly introduced legislations about “outside space regulations” have however shifted the goal posts again about what you can and can t call an outside space and what was good enough last year is no longer apt and another 10k aimed to facilitate outdoor infrastructures for the next 6 weeks disappears into thin air, so there is a mild frustration there but all in all it has been overwhelmingly positive.
Is this good preparation for the pending resumption of indoor dining on 17 May?
AB: I think it is. The pop-up and this outdoor decision have made me decide: get people out, sat down and happy, and we’ll think about the numbers afterwards.
DM: I’m conscious that not everyone has the ability to open for outdoor dining. And that we’re not out of the woods with the pandemic just yet. But all in all it’s been very positive and for now I’m just thrilled for the teams who have put so much effort into the reopening that their efforts have been rewarded.
EU: It is, especially because we’ve bought back the whole team and we’ve recruited as well, which is the best-case scenario really. That was all that we wanted to do, keep people in jobs. I had a day off yesterday and it was strange, I felt quite sad for being off. This is just how life should be.
JCL: Onwards we hobble...