How it feels to open a London restaurant in 2020

Despite the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, London is home to a raft of new restaurant openings. Fiona Beckett speaks to some of the people behind them

Words by Fiona Beckett

The interior of Noble Rot Soho's restaurant
Noble Rot Soho is in the former site of the historic Gay Hussar

News that Gordon Ramsay is planning to open 50 restaurants across the UK shouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise – but now? In the middle of a pandemic? With the hospitality industry on its knees, you’d imagine such an enterprise would be suitable only for masochists or those with a point to prove (and/or desperate for publicity).

Yet Ramsay’s not the only one. Restaurateurs with much lower profiles are busy opening new venues in London and other UK cities. It’s a matter of debate as to how much we really need Mexican fine dining in our lives at the moment, even if based on foraged ingredients, as Santiago Lastro’s new restaurant Kol is heralded to be. Or, indeed, the ‘playful celebration of Nordic and Japanese creativity and craftsmanship’ being offered by newcomer Pantechnicon. On the one hand, such fripperies are not top of most people’s to-do list; but on the other, such welcome diversions are surely just what all of us need right now?

Asma Khan: "We’re building a restaurant that’s designed with distancing in mind"
Pantechnicon offers a "playful celebration of Nordic and Japanese creativity"

Most new ventures are planned with a long lead-time – several of these openings, including Lastro’s, had been in the pipeline for a while before they were interrupted by the pandemic. “These are uncertain times and a tough-looking panorama but we are doing everything we can to be able to do what we love and to make people happy,” he wrote on Instagram.

For others, the lure of a unique site was too good an opportunity to miss. For the owners of Noble Rot, which opened in Bloomsbury in 2015 and quickly became the London wine world’s favourite haunt, the chance to take on the old Gay Hussar, one of London’s legendary restaurants, for its second opening was too tempting to pass up. At present the owners can only run it at 50 per cent occupancy, but “life is always uncertain and we had a dream location. We don’t believe in putting things on hold until a better time,” co-owner Dan Keeling told Club Oenologique.

Too often, however, the pandemic has necessitated a change of course. Soho members’ club Trade, which catered exclusively for the hospitality industry, was never going to thrive with so many of its members out of work. So owners Xavier Rousset and Gearoid Devaney reopened as The Black Book, a late-night wine bar – only to be hit by the ‘curveball’ of the 10pm curfew, as Rousset puts it. It’s hard, but like Keeling they don’t want to lose a prime site. “We don’t open until 3pm because lunch trade is still tough. We’re just praying people are looking for a 5 to 6pm drinking spot in Soho,” he says.

While many restaurateurs are also on their knees – either in prayer or otherwise – some are designing new premises around the restrictions. Asma Khan of Darjeeling Express, who featured on the Netflix series Chef’s Table, had already outgrown her site in Soho (where she was attracting Hollywood A listers and doing 90 covers on a Monday lunchtime) but was struggling to locate an alternative. Finally she found a landlord who was prepared to embrace her vision of a restaurant that was as much a social and cultural enterprise as a commercial one.


The financial fallout of closing down would have been diabolical

At the new, much bigger restaurant – in Covent Garden – Khan will be offering a pre-ticketed tasting menu, last orders for which will be taken at 7.30pm while the 10pm curfew is in place. “Unlike many restaurants that have had to adapt, we’re building a restaurant that’s designed with distancing in mind,” she says. “Even then, we can still seat 120 people.”

For Khan it’s clearly not just about profit but empowering the women who make up her all-female team and the families that rely on them. “There are 25 of us and 25 families who depend on us, so the financial fallout of closing down would have been diabolical. I’ve lost three members of my own family due to COVID. People have lost their dreams and savings and futures and jobs. We’re the lucky ones.”

Khan is one of the premier league of internationally-recognised names, and has the clout to make sure her staff are looked after. Neighbourhood restaurants, by contrast, have had to cope with a whole raft of different problems.

When Robin and Sarah Gill closed their The Dairy in Clapham, it hit their employees hard. “The day they told me we weren’t going to reopen was one of the worst of my life,” recalls general manager Alessandra Tasca, who has worked with the Gills for six years.

Even if they had been allowed to reopen, the small space would not have been workable under social distancing rules. But as has been the case with many much-loved neighbourhood restaurants, rumour of the Dairy closing saw them offered a new home in Bermondsey, an upscale foodie haven near London Bridge.

Tasca felt “blessed”, she said, at being offered the chance to run the new place, but conceded it was still tough going, especially with the curfew, which, like many, she considers misguided – not only for it impact on the hospitality industry, but for the the sudden crowding on public transport caused by the 10pm closedown.

In other neighbourhoods such as the City of London financial district – “the Square Mile” as it’s known – things look very different. Rousset and Devaney run the Burgundian-style restaurant and wine bar Cabotte there, and with most offices running at a tiny percentage of capacity, trading is “tough”, says Rousset.

Interior photo of The Black Book in London
Black Book, a late-night wine bar hit by the "curveball" of the 10pm curfew

In villagey Marylebone, by contrast, where one of the pair’s other restaurants, Blandford Comptoir is located, business has been surprisingly buoyant. There’s no question, Rousset says, of changing the formula there. “At least here, people are spending when they go out and if you’re well established you have more chance to survive.”

No-one knows how the pandemic is going to play out but, given the uncertainly, the job losses and the lack of customers, London’s hospitality world remains optimistic. On the one hand, restaurateurs are incredibly supportive of each other – though it helps, of course, to be in the fortunate position of having a substantial financial cushion.  Yet even someone whose pockets are as deep as serial restaurateur Jeremy King, boss of a stable of well-known establishments including The Wolseley and Brasserie Zedel, has had to put projects like his new restaurant Manzi’s on hold. “If money was no object, I would have finished Manzi’s and mothballed it until the right time – but that might not be till next year, and that requires a great deal of capital. It takes a brave person to commit any available funds to build a restaurant right now. But I would urge any operators for whom cash is not an issue to take the opportunity to be positive, and to get attention. I firmly believe that when people finally realise that Covid is now a limited threat, the West End will bounce back.”

London restaurant openings – and reincarnations – this autumn

Noble Rot Soho
The much-anticipated second wine-focused restaurant from ‘Rotters’ Dan Keeling and Mark Andrew on the site of the former Gay Hussar at 2 Greek Street. With the much-admired Alex Jackson (ex Sardine) in the kitchen

Kol Marylebone
Mexican fine dining in Marylebone from Santiago Lastra, the chef who ran Rene Redzepi’s Noma pop-up in Mexico

Pantechnicon Knightsbridge
As a combined Japanese/Nordic restaurant and retail space encompassing food, drink and design this ticks a lot of boxes. The restaurant elements are Eldr (Nordic) and Sachi (Japanese)

The Black Book Soho
Originally intended as a late-night wine bar, it looks like Xavier Rousset and Gearoid Devaney’s reincarnation of Trade is going to have to be a late afternoon (and mid-evening) one for the time being. Still, the wine should be ace.

The Dairy Bermondsey
This change of neighbourhood from Clapham to Bermondsey for Robin and Sarah Gill’s much loved farmhouse-inspired restaurant is not too far, fortunately, to deter former regulars.

Giannino’s Mayfair
The venerable Milanese institution, which first opened 120 years ago, comes to London, as the first offshoot of the restaurant outside Italy. The challenge, admits restaurateur Antonio Fantini, is “enormous”.

Darjeeling Express Covent Garden (opening later this year)
A much bigger, more high profile site for Netflix star Asma Khan’s all female-run restaurant, still offering home-cooked Indian food but will now include a biryani tasting menu.