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Photography: Calvin Sit

12 months on: chefs, DJs and bar owners remember their last night before lockdown

Nightlife pioneers from around the world look back at the moment their worlds turned upside down

Written by
Dave Calhoun
&
Time Out editors
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This week is one year since the WHO declared Covid-19 a pandemic. To mark what we’re calling the Pandemiversary, Time Out is looking back at the past year in cities around the world, and ahead to what the future may hold.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020. That was the day the world learned from the World Health Organisation that we were officially living in a global pandemic. Already, in parts of Asia, including China and Hong Kong, citizens were living with Covid and experiencing disruptive lockdowns. In the USA that evening, President Trump spoke to the nation, initiating the mass desertion of offices and beginning a wave of lockdowns across all non-essential activities. In Europe, over the following days and weeks, governments would continue to roll out or strengthen shutdowns.

For many of those whose livelihoods are rooted in nightlife culture – DJs, restaurant owners, chefs, promoters – this was the beginning of a long period of upheaval and uncertainty. In some parts of the world, lockdowns still persist 12 months on. Bars, restaurants and clubs have been shut for an entire year. In other regions, such as Australia, social life has now gone back to normal, although the risk of further disruption hasn’t disappeared entirely.

To mark the anniversary of the declaration of the global pandemic, Time Out spoke to a range of nightlife heroes in cities around the globe, from Sydney to Los Angeles. Here they remember the nights their lives changed for ever. 

Chefs, DJs and bar owners remember their last night before lockdown

New York
Photograph: Kenny Rodriguez

New York

Anya Sapozhnikova, nightclub co-founder and performer

Anya is the co-founder of House of Yes, the creative collective and nightclub in New York. House of Yes has been shut for the past 12 months.

‘Wednesday, March 11 was Dirty Circus: one of the memorable last days at House of Yes before we closed. The house was one-third full. It felt as if there was a blizzard outside keeping everyone away. The energy in the room was tense, yet everyone there wanted to be there no matter what. Deep down, the feeling of this being one of the last ones started to creep in. During Act Two, I closed my eyes, threw a handful of raffle tickets over my head like confetti, and proceeded to lick the stage in an attempt to locate the winner with my tongue. I thought: This might be the last time this happens for a while… if ever again.

‘During the last act of the show, a gentleman in the front row who I had met earlier that night told me it was his first time here. I watched him watch the show, his eyes glistened. I realised tears were coming out of mine. Before taking our last bow, I grabbed the mic, and thanked everyone for being there with us, and said that we’ll forever remember this night.’

Paris
Photograph: FSEGUIN, courtesy of Bonjour/Bonsoir

Paris

Aurélien Delaeter, bar and nightclub owner

Aurélien is the cofounder of Bonjour/Bonsoir, an agency which owns restaurant and nightclub Badaboum, nightclub 824 Heures, and bars 3615, La Casbah and Panic Room. All remain closed under France’s current lockdown restrictions.

‘On Friday, March 13, we were no longer allowed to gather in groups of more than a hundred. On that last night before lockdown, I did a tour of all my businesses. At Badaboum, the club space was closed, but we’d put on a little party for friends in the room upstairs. The rest of the place was pretty subdued. The following week we were due to host Kerri Chandler, all the way from the States. But events were already being cancelled by that point, and there was a smell of defeat in the air.

‘I then went over to 3615, near Oberkampf, where it was much livelier. There was an insane queue, people totally off their face. And it was even wilder at 824 Heures. It felt like the end of the world. I finished off by heading to La Casbah – here everyone was just drinking and sounding off on what might happen. That was the hardest thing: the uncertainty. The staff were worried, but no one was freaking out.

‘When the lockdown was finally announced, we had to empty all the fridges and switch off plugs we’d never thought we’d have to switch off. It felt like leaving your house before a really long summer holiday.

‘Today, all of my businesses are on pause, and I’ve racked up a lot of debt. Two things you can do to help: get the vaccine, and as soon as things open up, come down and catch a concert or two.’

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Singapore
Photograph: Baju by Oniatta

Singapore

Oniatta Effendi, fashion designer and retailer

Oniatta is the founder of Baju by Oniatta, a fashion boutique in Singapore specialising in batik, or clothes made of printed cloth. It has now reopened in a new location.

‘It was all very unexpected. We had just launched a collection meant for Eid in 2020. In a normal year, getting a new outfit for Eid is a priority for those who celebrate it, but then a week later the government rolled out nationwide “circuit-breaker” measures and we had to close the store temporarily. The restrictions kept us mostly at home and only going out for essential stuff – shopping for batik was not one of those.

‘We had an entire collection we didn’t know what to do with. I was getting anxious and my makers in Indonesia were equally so, because they couldn’t produce batik and the tailors could not do anything in lockdown. But they quickly picked up that there was a demand for facemasks and we got to work making masks from remnants of previous collections. The response was overwhelming and we quickly sold out. 

‘I had to also deal with moving to a new store last December. When restrictions eased and people could go out more, we would get customers who bought the masks coming into the store wanting to see the full batik cloth that their mask was part of. Some of them would ask about the motifs and prints to learn more. In a way, the mask was a sample or teaser of the batik we have in the store. With the batik business, a part of it is also about educating wearers and sharing the stories behind the fabled cloth, so this was heartwarming – to still retain that curiosity and community even after months of not seeing each other.’

Barcelona
Photograph: Cupcake (Sala Apolo)

Barcelona

Bulma Beat, DJ

Bulma is a resident DJ at Tarantos Club, Sala Apolo and Yass! in Barcelona. She has performed only twice since March 2020.

‘On March 5 I was DJing for more than a thousand people in Sala Apolo. The atmosphere was great. But the shadow of coronavirus was already present. My partner told me, Maybe next week we won’t be able to DJ,” and I answered, “You’re kidding me? Surely they won’t close the Apolo? It’s a temple!” A year later, Sala Apolo is still closed.

‘The last time I DJed was on March 7 2020. After that all events, including international ones, were cancelled. That’s when I realised it was serious and started to really worry. We thought it was only going to be 15 days, but throughout 2020 I only had two small events.

‘In March of last year I also got coronavirus and was sick for 40 days. When I recovered, I didn’t know what to do: should I keep waiting for everything to open again? Everything was uncertain, a rollercoaster of feelings. Nobody knew what the next step would be, and I think people aren’t aware of the chain of unemployment the closure of nightlife has caused.

‘Being a DJ is my life. I didn’t want to change my profession. But I have invested my time in another project: a website of online escape rooms. It doesn’t make me money, but I’m passionate about it.

‘The world of nightlife in Barcelona has 100 percent ground to a halt. We were the first to close and we will be the last to open. My hope is that people really want to go out partying again.’

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London
Photograph: Courtesy of Gordon McGowan

London

Gordon McGowan, bar owner

Gordon owns Buster Mantis, a cocktail bar in Deptford, south London. The bar is currently closed under the rules of London’s latest lockdown.

‘After weeks of rumours and speculation, on the night of March 23 2020, London learned its fate. And so, naturally, we drank. At least on this night, we finally knew what was happening. There was a general air of quiet acceptance in the bar that evening, that we were all – customers, staff – honourably going down with the sinking ship.

‘People were friendly. We gave away the last of our food. I wasn’t sure if we would ever reopen, though every tipsy customer seemed to have a conflicting timeline that they had apparently been given in confidence by a government source. 

‘Strangers spoke to each other, bought the staff drinks. The bartenders sardonically added a cocktail called “The Last Word“ to the specials board. A fluffy dog trotted unbothered around the bar, off the leash. It probably didn’t even belong to a customer, thinking about it. I hugged my staff at the end, and we closed the shutters.’

Melbourne
Photograph: Courtesy of Hugh Allen

Melbourne

Hugh Allen, chef

Hugh is executive chef at the Melbourne restaurant Vue de Monde, which is now fully open after shutting for several months.

‘It’s weird: I remember the moment when the lockdown was announced by the prime minister during service at the restaurant. I had my phone and was live-streaming the news to watch the press conference. After that I had to brief the team, which was hard because no one knew what was going to happen. The staff were shocked, scared and unsettled. We made the decision to operate a take-home model called Vue to You, which offered dishes for people to enjoy at home.

‘At the start I expected the pandemic to last for a few months. I read a bit about Sars and how the world continued after short periods of lockdowns. I never would have guessed that over a year later our borders would still be locked, with lockdowns continuing around the world.

‘We’re doing well now and have bounced back better than we expected. Guests are excited to eat out again and spend on a big night, and we have limited our services to make it safer and more manageable for the team. We are on the way up and feel optimistic for the future.’

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Chicago
Photograph: Anthony Linh Nguyen

Chicago

Kyle LaValley, live music promoter

Kyle is talent buyer at the Chicago music venue Sleeping Village, which remains closed.

‘Our last show was on March 12 with the bands Protomartyr, Negative Scanner and Monica Plaza. Protomartyr is beloved in Chicago and one of my favourite live bands. I was emotional watching the soundcheck, thinking this would likely be our last show for weeks. Little did I know our stage would sit vacant for over a year after that evening.

‘When Protomartyr took the stage, frontman Joe Casey greeted the crowd by saying, “Welcome to the last show on earth…”, which felt alarmingly real. I was overcome with tears watching their set from the sound booth, not knowing what the future would hold for live music and the careers of so many friends and artists.

‘We plan to reopen our socially-distanced patio in the spring and will continue to assess safely reopening our indoor bar and venue as more folks are vaccinated. Until then, subscribe to newsletters for updates, write a positive Yelp or Google review and spread the word about the CIVL SAVE and NIVA ERF funds, which are providing direct relief to venues, artists and staff.’

Lisbon
Photograph: Courtesy of Pedro Bandeira Abril

Lisbon

Pedro Bandeira Abril, chef

Pedro is the chef at Chapitô à Mesa in Lisbon and co-founder of the culinary collective New Kids on the Block.

‘The last event we ran as New Kids on the Block before lockdown in March 2020 turned out to be a very special day. First, we had a great friend, Marcelo Rodrigues, here in Lisbon, who is also a cook and organises the Rainbow Room parties in London. At these parties, usually on Sundays or Mondays, cooks and bartenders get together – people that spend the rest of the week working. We wanted to bring that to Lisbon.

‘That same day, Pura Sede, a natural wine festival, was taking place and they invited us to host the closing party. As it happens, it turned out to be an incredible day. We thought that only half a dozen people would show up – there was already lots of pandemic talk in the air. But at 2am there were still people arriving at Fábrica Musa.

‘Besides being cooks, we are all friends and that’s where the New Kids On The Block dynamic comes from. When everything opens again, we will come back strong. 2020 saw immense challenges for everyone as a group and as individuals. We all have our businesses and we have all suffered from the pandemic, but it was also a year of consolidation. We have to subvert the system and do it our own way.’

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Madrid
Photograph: Courtesy of Roberto Ruiz

Madrid

Roberto Ruiz, chef and restaurant owner

Roberto was the chef and co-owner of the Michelin-starred Mexican restaurant Punto MX, which closed in Madrid last year. Ruiz and his wife María Fernández have now opened a new restaurant, Barracuda MX.

‘I had many mixed emotions on the first day of lockdown. First of all, uncertainty and restlessness reigned. It was a very fragile moment for the team and the restaurant. That night there were a lot of confused customers wanting dinner, but we could not do it because of the regulations.

‘We had planned a future for Punto MX, but of course the pandemic changed things. I had to call time on a project to which I had dedicated eight years of my life, my heritage: the first Mexican restaurant in Europe to win a Michelin star.

‘What I remember most is the day that María and I went to say goodbye to the restaurant. We did the last round holding hands and knowing that this very important professional and personal stage in our lives was over, without knowing exactly where we would go next.

‘Like everyone else, I thought this could last 15 days. Of course, I never thought I was still going to be having conversations like this a year later  – because things have hardly changed. We have a vaccine, but other than that, we still have a long way to go.’

Sydney
Photograph: Above Par

Sydney

Efe Topuzlu, restaurant owner

Efe is the co-owner with Ozgur Sefkatli of Middle Eastern restaurant Above Par in Sydney, which was scheduled to launch the same day lockdown started in March 2020. It’s now fully open.

‘The night before lockdown was sleepless. The next day was supposed to be Above Par’s very first day. Sydney’s centre is well known for its buzzing streets, traffic and noise. The day we opened was the emptiest we have ever seen the neighbourhood in our lives.

‘We were excited for our first venue together, but the uncertainty was depressing. I can’t describe the emotions I was going through – I had experienced nothing like it before.

‘Talking to our staff was the hardest part. We asked if they would be okay not working for a while. Having to do that talk that was the most difficult and dramatic moment of the pandemic for us. But we had to go on, switching to takeaway and cutting the menu down to a few items.

‘Normally, I am a positive person, but in those uncertain times both Ozgur and I could not stop thinking of the worst-case scenario: “Are we going to fail along with the whole world?” But our mentality was if we can make it out of this, nothing can beat us again. 

‘Restrictions were eased in time, and we started welcoming dine-in customers. Initially, ten people, then 20, then 50 – with social distancing between tables, of course. Looking at those days now, we can easily say that we have come a long way. Having a full house on a Friday night when our DJ is playing tunes, the crowd is enjoying drinks and food and having a laugh: it’s our dream come true.’

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Hong Kong
Photography: Calvin Sit

Hong Kong

Jay Khan, bar owner

Jay is the co-founder and head mixologist at the Mexican bar Coa in Hong Kong. The bar is now open but has experienced various restrictions and shutdowns over the past year.

‘The last night before lockdown was intimidating. We were going into unknown territory, and we were all very confused.

‘We had to immediately come up with ideas to sustain the business and keep our team’s jobs. Through this adversity, we decided to launch our own ecommerce site for our guests to purchase cocktails for delivery. We also collaborated with a local brewery to make one of our signature cocktails in cans. We did whatever we could to earn enough to keep going.

‘We have come a long way and learned a lot through the hardship. But the business is still a rollercoaster ride. It dips to the bottom if we are forced to shut or limit our hours. It does well if restrictions are softened.

‘One way to support the business while bars are closed is to purchase bottled drinks – or, of course, visit us whenever we are open. At the moment, we are open as we have a restaurant licence. But we never feel safe, as we can be forced to close any time the government demands.’

Los Angeles
Photograph: Courtesy Dynasty Typewriter

Los Angeles

Vanessa Ragland, theatre director

Vanessa is the co-artistic director of L.A. comedy theatre Dynasty Typewriter. The theatre has been shut since last March and has switched to online performances and other projects.

‘The last performance we had at the theatre was a double performance of Josh Thomas’s stellar “Whoopsie Daisy” on March 11. That night we had two full houses.

‘We had our night manager in a newly created position of “The Grand Sanitiser”, wearing a hazmat suit and sanitising the hands of each audience member. We had also just instituted no-touch check-in and check-out. We felt like we were doing our best, I guess. It still seemed appropriate and helpful to have a playful approach to the situation; it didn’t feel like there was a life-changing inevitability in the near future.

‘Cut to the next day: mere hours after hosting 400 people in the theater, by noon we’d cancelled that evening’s show. By 6pm on March 12, we’d alerted our staff and then our entire mailing list that we’d be closed until it was safe to reopen. That email also stated that we were going to get into live-streaming and that we were committed to figuring out a way to stay afloat. We assumed it would be a few months at most, and even that seemed impossible for a theatre to weather.

‘Now a year later, we’re astounded to see that we have somehow held true to our naive words, having hosted hundreds of live-streams, launched an online university (The Enchantiversity, so far unaccredited), published a magazine and a calendar, and used our marquee to write love letters to our city and community, uplift marginalised voices and, of course, what we do best – or maybe worst… write dumb jokes.’

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