One hundred and fifty-two days after London restaurants learned of their nightmare before Christmas — when government restrictions closed all non-essential businesses in England — dining rooms reopen today, 17 May.
It marks the end of a month of outdoor dining and four months of takeaway and delivery from restaurants and staff which have become accustomed to uncertainty, novelty, and adaptation. The return of indoor dining — with restrictions on social distancing still in place — comes at a time when April showers in May aren’t giving way to the spring. Those who have been shivering on makeshift terraces for the past five weeks will welcome some shelter and a little heating.
But this time, from those whose workforce and livelihoods are contingent on an interrupted reopening, there is caution. Reservations books might be chocka, but lessons have been learned. The fear of another lockdown might be diminished, but it has not gone away. Today marks stage three on a four-stage roadmap — with restaurateurs still sanguine about the fact there’s a lot that could go wrong between now and 21 June, the date when all social distancing restrictions are scheduled to be lifted. No one is yet counting their chickens.
Following on from their experiences of those reopenings and lockdowns, this is the first of three looks at how a kaleidoscope of London’s restaurateurs feel about the return of indoor dining, and the ongoing recovery. Eater London spoke to Iré Hassan-Odukale, owner of Ikoyi, the West African-inspired fine dining restaurant in central London; Ellen Chew, the restaurateur behind Singaporean restaurant Rasa Sayang in Chinatown and Covent Garden bakery Arome; Ashik Ali, of Delhi Grill in Islington; Modern European cafe-bakery-restaurant group owner Jeremie Cometto-Lingenheim; Holloway Road Malayasian laksa bar owner Mandy Yin; Queensway’s Normah Abd Hamid of Normah’s; and Ferhat Dirik of Turkish restaurant Mangal 2.
The below interviews have been edited for clarity.
Do you think this is it?
Iré Hassan-Odukale, Ikoyi: Yes, I believe — and hope — it is now. If not, then there might be a short circuit break for a week or month.
Ellen Chew, Chew On This Restaurants: I, along with millions of people, would like to think so! But I think I’ve learnt my lesson in being unprepared for the unexpected. I think humanity was pretty much unprepared for the pandemic and the impact it had on us. So I’ll err on the side of caution.
Normah Abd Hamid, Normah’s: It’s pretty much like a ‘look and see’ feeling.
Jeremie Cometto-Lingenheim, Brut Restaurants: Sadly not. We’ve just had a management meeting and we are preparing for another trade interruption in October/November followed by another one in January/February 2022.
Ashik Ali, Delhi Grill: The last year and a half has been a nightmare for us as a business.
I am hopeful but yet cautious about opening and hope we won’t need another lockdown; I think we will bounce back as an industry but this will be a long journey ahead.
Ferhat Dirik, Mangal 2: I really, really hope so!
How much does this past weekend feel like the “end”?
EC: Strangely, I’ve never stopped moving so it doesn’t feel like there is an end or a beginning for me personally. We’ve been keeping busy trying to stay relevant and evolving as quickly as we can. In fact, we have opened two new places, including Arome Bakery in Covent Garden, during lockdown.
Mandy Yin, Sambal Shiok: Definitely feels more like the end than any other reopening date in the last year, even if we only have outdoor seats for the moment.
I H-O: Not that much really, because it’s been so long. And we’re still in a semi-lockdown. Things will start to open on Monday, but so I’m preparing myself for a possible setback, but hoping for the very best.
N A-H: We are still very cautious about the whole thing. We are not going on full-scale just yet. We have work out few strategy for us to have a ‘trial period’ and see the outcome of it. Basically, focus more on local area customers for the dine-in customers and expand the area of coverage for delivery services.
J-CL: It feels like a mid-chapter in the pandemic saga.
FD: There is certainly an air of change around Dalston: Fewer masks worn on the street, more people out and about. The general vibe is one of optimism and joviality, or maybe everyone is getting drunk.
How much does the idea of today feel like the “beginning”?
MY: It feels like turning over a new leaf.
FD: For us, it certainly feels like we’re reopening and reinventing all over again. A new menu; a new team; new wines; new cutlery and glassware. New everything.
J C-L: I think 17 May feels more like a lifeline or a stepping stone closer to a ‘beginning’ which should be on 21 June. However, we have to look beyond our borders to remind ourselves that the crisis can boomerang back into the path of countries which were supposedly over the worst of it.
It seems to have been forgotten that restaurants were open between July and November in 2020. Bonfire night lockdown (and then the nightmare before Christmas) were both disasters, but how different is 17 May 2021 from 4 July 2020?
AA: Last July, we were a lot more nervous...
J C-L: We were all very naive last year and made some horrendous errors of judgement which had catastrophic consequences. One of them was to think that 4 July marked the end of the pandemic.
I’d rather be overly pessimistic this time around and remain lean and alert rather than do a victory jig in the streets just yet.
I H-O: I think we were more enthusiastic in July; then, we really hoped that was it, to be honest. We’ve learned a lot from that and now are more cautious.
EC: I think business owners are now a lot savvier than we were back in July 2020. We are much more knowledgeable in taking measures to regaining the people’s confidence in dining with us.
FD: I guess we now know, for the most part, what we’re dealing with and are a little acclimated to lockdowns. We know what COVID is, and its repercussions ... All-in-all, less doom and gloom, and fear.
In addition to the vaccine which seems to have reduced both the chances and fear of infection, transmission, and closure, what else has changed and what now are your biggest concerns?
EC: The possibility of yet another lockdown. Having said that, as you mentioned, the vaccine has eased some of the concerns of that happening again but with chatter of a new variant sweeping South Asia, we cannot be complacent. COVID has been a harsh teacher. We must learn the lessons that have been imparted or we are doomed to repeat the mistakes that we made that led to a year of tragedy.
FD: A big change has been the understanding of COVID, and how carelessness can affect our dearest loved ones. We’re all a bit more vigilant. But from our restaurant’s perspective, it’s back to business as usual. We’re itching to get back on the grind.
MY: For sure the excellent vaccine rollout is a massive relief and does make this seem like we’ve finally ‘beaten’ COVID.
I H-O: I think people’s attitude to the virus has changed. People are bored and weary of the restrictions now; they appear to be more relaxed and make their own rules. That relaxation might prove good or bad — time will tell. But if we have another outbreak, my concern is people won’t be as careful.
AA: We have lost a lot of our regulars and it feels like we are opening a new restaurant and only can hope everything will be ok.
J C-L: Concerns are always staff. Finding them, paying them, and keeping them. It’s been amazing to see our team interacting with our guests again and restore some sanity and purpose in all our lives. Most of our waiters are not of age to qualify for the vaccine yet, so we remain vigilant.
Check back for more insight from more London restaurateurs — on reopening, staff, customers, and lessons learned during the pandemic — later this week.