There were fears of masks, gloves, perspex screens and – heaven forbid – having to use the same glass for a Riesling as for a Shiraz, but in the event, the government advice to UK restaurants reopening can perhaps best be summed up as “Just do what you can”.
The July 4 revival had been widely trailed in advance of this week’s announcement, with many restaurants happily taking bookings before they’d even been told they could re-open – or the conditions under which they’d be operating. In the event, it seems they were right to throw caution to the wind. One hospitality chief hailed the guidelines as being so loose as to constitute ‘operating in a near normal way’.
Masks, gloves and screens have all been deemed unnecessary, while the endlessly discussed social distancing measures are effectively those that any self-respecting patron might ordinarily have expected in a Michelin-starred venue. The two-metre distancing has already effectively come down to one metre across all UK businesses, with guidelines stating that where 2m is not viable, ‘risk mitigation’ such as keeping interactions brief and avoiding standing face-to-face for conversations should be implemented. Now, for restaurants, that advice has been further watered down in a directive so loosely presented as to be almost meaningless.
‘If it is not possible to… comply with social distancing guidelines, businesses should consider whether that activity needs to continue for the business to operate, and if so, take all mitigating actions possible to reduce the risk of transmission,’ is one typically broad stricture.
There is uncertainty over how tightly the guidelines can – and will – be enforced. The guidelines are just that, presented as ‘Steps that will usually be needed’, with the final decision on their implementation down to the restaurant itself. Among the measures encouraged are limiting capacity so as to “reasonably enable social distancing”; using contactless ordering (eg an app), “where available”; and not playing music so diners don’t have to raise their voices and risk airborne transmission.
Other measures are a mixture of common sense and comedic sensitivity: Providing only disposable condiments – or cleaning non-disposable condiment containers after each use; making hand sanitiser available on entry to toilets “where safe and practical”; and keeping toilet facilities well ventilated, by propping doors open “where appropriate”. The most stringent measure expects venues to keep a temporary record of customers for 21 days to assist the government’s test and trace system.
A month ago, people would want a Plexiglass bunker. But now they’re done with lockdown – they’re ready to live life again
Jonathan Downey of Hospitality Union, a group of over 3,000 business owners founded in March to protect jobs across the restaurant, bar, café, pub and club sectors, told Restaurant Magazine: “Everything is phrased as advice and is voluntary,” he said, highlighting the number of “helpfully vague words and phrases such as ‘where possible’, ‘encouraging compliance with’, ‘consider the use of’, and ‘minimising’. For many of us, that will mean operating in a near normal way, with some enhanced cleaning practices.”
Before the guidelines were announced, Clare Smyth, chef-patron of the two-Michelin-starred Core in Notting Hill, said she had been monitoring re-openings across Europe and preparing for staff to wear masks, washing their hands after every individual service, and presenting wine lists by QR codes. In the event, such diligence seems overly zealous.
Stephen Finch, CEO of London wine shop, bar and small-plates venue Vagabond, criticised the government’s “muddled thinking”. The group will be re-opening its dining facilities on 4 July but Finch said he wouldn’t be “going overboard” with “massive plastic shields and temperature guns”. “Maybe a month ago, people would want to see a Plexiglass bunker but now that people have been out, they’re done with lockdown. They’re ready to live life again.”
For many restaurants, the decision to re-open will be dictated by the impact on their capacity. Jason Atherton, who runs nine London restaurants, including the Michelin-starred Pollen Street Social, said: “The issue in London is space: the cost of the rent means that, usually, a restaurant needs to be at 75 per cent capacity to make a profit.”
He has halved the number of tables at Pollen Street Social to 36, to allow for social distancing. As a result, second sittings will be essential: “In order to break even, we need to serve 45 tables for lunch and 76 tables for dinner – assuming the spend per head remains the same.” Atherton said he plans to create disposable menus, provide hot towels and sanitising stations, and send virtual wine lists to customers to allow them to select a bottle in advance.
The number of waiting staff on the floor is also likely to be reduced at many venues, with diners served by a single member of staff throughout their meal. Ravinder Bhogal, owner of Jikoni, plans to reopen with a smaller menu to accommodate a re-engineered staff rota, staggering hours to allow for travel on public transport at off-peak times.
Other chefs still have concerns. One two-Michelin-starred name who won’t be re-opening said: “Even with social distancing reduced to a metre, how do you serve food to a table while maintaining a gap of at least three feet? Some people think they can make it work – that’s fantastic for them and I hope they flourish. But this is going to be bad, and I’m afraid there are going to be casualties within the restaurant sector.
“There are no tourists in London right now, so that is a significant number of our customers, especially from Asia, Europe and the States, where the pandemic has been at its worst. Not only that, but many of our customers are in that high-risk area of 50 and above, and the last thing I want to do is put their health at risk.”
Alex Rushmer of Vanderlyle in Cambridge echoed these concerns. As a small independent restaurant, he told The Guardian, re-opening becomes a gamble he is not willing to make. “A diner displaying symptoms, or who tests positive (and informs the restaurant) presents an establishment with significant decisions – both financial and health-related,” he said. “This should mean a mandatory two-week shutdown for the restaurant to prevent any further spread. [But] the prospect of taking reservations, stocking a kitchen, preparing a menu, calling staff back from furlough and re-opening, only to have to close again at a moment’s notice is terrifying.”
Among the London restaurants due to re-open on 4 July are:
The Wolseley (Mayfair)
Brasserie Zédel (Soho)
The Ivy Chelsea Garden (Chelsea)
Padella (Borough Market and Shoreditch)
Chisou (Mayfair and Knightsbridge)
Core by Clare Smyth – (Notting Hill).
Hush – (Mayfair)
The Ivy – (Soho)
The Ivy Asia – (City)
Gaucho – (various locations)
M Restaurants – 4 July (City), 6 July (Victoria)
Bluebird Chelsea (Chelsea)
Skylon (South Bank)
Butler’s Wharf Chop House (Tower Bridge)
Le Pont de la Tour (South Bank)
Coq d’Argent (City)
German Gymnasium (Kings Cross)
Paternoster Chophouse (St Paul’s)
Other fine-dining venues outside London reopening include:
L’Enclume in Cartmel and Tom Kerridge’s restaurants in Marlow – The Hand and Flowers and The Coach. Among those in London reopening later in July are Duck & Waffle (City, 6 July); Temper (City, Soho, Covent Garden, 6 July); Le Gavroche (Mayfair, 7 July); The Oyster Bar at Bibendum (South Kensington, 8 July); Gold (Notting Hill, 10 July); and Cafe Murano (Bermondsey, 5 July – St James, 21 July).