Tables spill on to the streets in Chinatown. Diners sit outside restaurants under a sea of scarlet lanterns. It’s glorious to see. Especially given that when the pandemic hit, it was here that emptied first.
This wave of outdoor dining is thanks to a successful campaign to temporarily pedestrianise Soho. The project has meant extensions to how far outside restaurant owners can place tables on thoroughfares including Greek Street, Dean Street and Frith Street. Its launch on July 4 has led to copycat schemes around the city – from the Bermondsey beer mile to King’s Cross.
‘It’s amazing. The atmosphere reminds me of how it’s done in East and Southeast Asia,’ says Ellen Chew, owner of Malaysian spot Rasa Sayang on Frith Street. She’s used her period of forced hiatus to develop a barbecue menu for the restaurant’s new outdoor area: chargrilled satay skewers and banana-leaf-wrapped spicy grilled seafood.
Other restaurants such as Gerrard’s Corner, Lotus Garden and Plum Valley have been offering alfresco dim sum, setting up tables and chairs on the street since the reopening weekend. Look on Instagram and you’ll see pictures of the area full of life.
Iris Ma, acting manager of Cantonese dim sum restaurant Plum Valley on Gerrard Street, says that its 30-cover outdoor seating area has been busier than she expected. ‘Customers have been loving this new outdoor set-up, especially because of the good weather. It’s wonderful to see the area buzzy and a little bit busier again,’ she enthuses. And, most importantly, business is growing again. Ma says: ‘It isn’t as good as before, but I expected way worse.’ Meanwhile, Z He, co-founder of Bun House on Lisle Street, says that the restaurant is getting more takeaway walk-in business. ‘We’re in the process of applying for an outdoor seating licence and our other site, Wun’s Tea Room, is set to reopen in this month,’ he says. ‘People have been dying to go out after being locked down.’
There are still challenges ahead, though. ‘What we’re doing now is really not something that we’re used to,’ says Chew. ‘There are more variable factors to consider for outdoor seating, such as weather and extra hygiene.’ Ma adds that she fears that the new congestion charge might put people off driving into central. And of course, as we head into the autumn, there’ll be worse weather and the potential of another lockdown to compete with. Until then though, the pedestrianisation makes things look a tiny bit more hopeful. ‘Without it businesses wouldn’t stand a fighting chance,’ says He. ‘I hope they carry this on for many years to come.’
It’s still too early to tell whether this mini-spike of customers in Chinatown is here to stay, but it’s good to know that Londoners haven’t lost their appetite during lockdown.