What’s the first thing you’re going to eat at a restaurant as lockdown eases? Will it be one of Dishoom’s breakfast naans, oozing cream cheese and chilli jam? Will you over-stuff yourself with Gloria’s giant lemon meringue pie?
Back in March this was a hypothetical question, but suddenly things have got very, very real.
From Saturday July 4, London’s restaurants are able to open their doors again. The stipulations? Social-distancing measures must be in place, customers must remain one metre from each other and each table must sit six people or fewer. Those shifts – plus public nervousness – spell huge changes for the food industry. Especially here in London, a city of tiny restaurants: the vibey, cramped kind famous for counter seating and no bookings. What does the future spell for these spaces? How will they survive? What will eating out look like in the New Normal?
The first thing to know is that not every restaurant will be opening this week (or even this month). Lots of spaces are choosing to keep their doors closed because of decreased footfall in their neighbourhood or difficulties operating under social-distancing measures.
Will Ellner from Bancone says he’s staying shut because ‘we can’t make the numbers work on having so few diners in and we believe perspex screens and a half-full restaurant will ruin the vibe’. Meanwhile, Sandra Leong from Old Chang Kee in the West End says that it’s not financially viable to open while the area is quiet. ‘While there are no workers, shoppers, tourists or theatregoers in town we’re going to stay closed,’ she says. ‘We’ll be keeping a beady eye on the footfall, waiting patiently for information.’
Those that do open soon – from the grassroots indies to the fast-casual chains – will look and work differently to how they did in the Before Times. Wahaca, for example, is trialling opening three restaurants. Co-founder Mark Selby says that each will now feature metre seating gaps and hand-sanitising stations at the entrance. Sharing salsas will be removed from tables and waiting staff will pass food back to back to avoid contamination.
‘We’re also manically developing a payment method where people can order and pay on phones,’ says Selby. He explains that the chain’s plan is to offer customers two types of experience. One that will feel as normal as is safely possible and another for those who are more nervous, with enclosed seating and very little interaction with waiting staff. ‘We’ll have some spots that are secure,’ he says, ‘and others where rules are followed but it’s not an isolation ward. It’ll be very flexible.’
It’s not just Wahaca switching up the way service runs in the New Normal, everywhere will be adapting. The AA has even launched a Covid Confident certificate – a stamp of approval on health-and-safety awareness – to monitor this.
Some restaurants will be expanding their space by spreading the dining area outside. Brat is going to operate in Climpson's Arch. Meanwhile, Westminster City Council has approved plans for areas of Soho to be pedestrianised so that Londoners can eat and drink on the street. Gloria, Dishoom and Mangal 2 – all largely no-booking spots in the Before Times – are going to be reservations only, and many places are introducing time slots for diners.
Mangal 2, for example, announced on Instagram that previously there were 100 seats in the restaurant but now there’ll be only 30. Visitors will have to book 75-minute slots online in order to eat there.
Perhaps the biggest changes to London’s restaurant scene, though, will have less to do with eating out and more to do with how we interact with our favourite eateries in other ways. Lockdown has altered the way restaurateurs think about their businesses says Max Venning co-founder of Top Cuvée. Basically, in order to survive, restaurants are becoming brands rather than just physical spaces.
‘The industry has been very set in bricks and mortar up until now,’ says Venning. ‘What everyone has seen is, even in times where there is no lockdown, it’s better to have more strings to your bow.’
You can see this in the wave of restaurant merch people have stocked up on in the past few months. You can also see it in the ways business models have changed. In March, Venning decided to turn his tiny neighbourhood restaurant into a physical and online shop, brilliantly called Shop Cuvée. It now sells ready meals, fresh produce, natural wine and bottled cocktails from sister bar Three Sheets and other London booze heavy hitters like Mr Lyan, Scout and Tayēr + Elementary. ‘It picked up pretty rapidly,’ says Venning, who explains that they plan to keep the shop going even once the restaurant reopens, moving it to its own space.
Top Cuvée isn’t the only restaurant that’s pivoted to retail. Brawn and Trullo both launched shops selling produce from their suppliers. Meanwhile other restaurants introduced new products that will remain in the New Normal. Alice Grier, managing director of Gemma Bell, a PR company that represents restaurants like Padella and Sabor, says that you can expect delivery services to stay, especially prep-at-home kits like Padella’s pasta sets and Sabor’s vac-packed Sabor en Casa kits featuring Spanish tortilla mix, prawn croquetas and more. ‘Cook at home stuff is much easier to have quality control over,’ she says, explaining that it’s also less additional work than doing takeaway. ‘Chefs are going to be pre-making batches of sauces etc before customers come into the restaurants each day anyway.’ Sending out these kits also means that chefs can avoid paying the big fees demanded by apps like Deliveroo and Uber Eats on takeaways ordered through them.
All these changes will hopefully mean that many of London’s restaurants are safe and successful over the next few months. In fact, Venning reckons they’ll help bring about some positive changes. ‘It will force places to take their time with customers,’ he says. ‘There’ll be less turning tables. Everything will be slowed down by 10-20 percent which will create a better experience.’
But there will be casualties. The pandemic has sadly already claimed beloved restaurants like The Ledbury and Sardine which have announced that they won’t be reopening. Grier says she has worries about favourites like ‘Barrafina, Brilliant Corners, counter dining places where you’re cheek to jowl’. She thinks that outdoor eating in newly pedestrianised areas will be a saving grace over the summer but isn’t a long-term solution as we head into autumn and winter. Her biggest worry, though, is fine dining. ‘Is there an appetite for it?’ she asks. ‘What about things like sommeliers coming over to the table and pouring the wine? Will the bottle be left on the table from now on?’ Plus, all the experts Time Out spoke to agreed that decreasing the social-distancing rule from two metres to one has made outlooks more promising, but that it’s still going to be extremely difficult for restaurants to make money during this period.
Whether it’s going out for a full-on three-course meal at your neighbourhood eatery, picking up a takeaway and eating it in the park, or ordering a meal kit to eat at home, now is the time to support the London restaurants that you love. ‘We need to try and keep as many of the good restaurants and bars that we can.’ says Venning from Top Cuvée. ‘We’re all in this together.’