So here we go, then. Unless you have been in a literal bunker rather than a figurative one these past few months — and you have missed the wild-eyed post-lockdown preppers in your social circle, manically hoarding enough restaurant reservations to see them into October — then you will know that this Monday marks the return of outdoor hospitality to our long-padlocked city. It is tempting to reach immediately for the springtime metaphors; to note that, just as flowers are blooming and hibernating animals are rousing, so too are the capital’s bars, pubs and restaurants waking from their lengthy epidemiologically-mandated slumber.
But as a semi-lapsed long distance runner, April has always meant the London Marathon to me. And so, as being a restaurant lover throughout this interminable slog of a lockdown has felt like its own endurance sport — with a need for mental fortitude, pluck in the face of adverse weather conditions and a cavalier, Paula Radcliffe-ish attitude to outdoor weeing — it feels wholly fitting that a significant waymarker should come in this of all months. True, we are not yet at June 21’s promised Covid endpoint. But in the coming days and weeks, as masked hospitality staff welcome beaming regulars back, it will feel that we have rounded the corner amid the urging roar of the Mall, and that the finish line to this nightmare is finally in sight.
Is it obvious that I am feeling slightly emotional about this? Or that, when I am at one of my looming restaurant bookings (because, predictably, I am one of those people who has quite a few), I may actually weep when a server pours my wine, compliments my menu choice or microplanes feathery drifts of cheese onto my fresh pasta? Naturally, as a restaurant critic, part of this is professional bias. But, more than that, I am excited about some order being restored; about those of us who have persevered through this long winter — who have stuck it out when every second friend seems to be wondering if London is really the place for them — getting some respite and reward for our faith. I’m excited about the city, which for so long has seemed a shrunken, sickly version of itself, getting some colour back in its cheeks. To think of the restaurant meals that will be taking place next week — cones of crisp pomme frites at Bellanger; peri peri duck hearts in Kudu’s hidden sun trap garden; the customary procession of Chocolate Nemesis slices beside the water at the River Cafe — is to remember that life, and this exhausting, brilliant city, is about more than survival and long interludes of fretful confinement.
Still, in all the excitement we mustn’t gloss over the difficulties facing the hospitality staff that are on the other side of this equation. Despite government efforts to bolster the coming outdoor dining jamboree, alfresco opening isn’t viable for all businesses. The continued lack of tourists, particularly for West End restaurants, paints a grim financial picture for months to come. And, as evidenced by a week that has contained a mini heatwave and actual snow, April’s unpredictable weather makes a tentative return to trade feel all the more volatile.
Then, of course, there is the enduring problem of rent arrears: the dark, metaphorical storm cloud that has been gathering in the distance for some time. As of last month, the Government’s lease forfeiture moratorium — essentially a means to prevent commercial landlords from evicting business tenants who can’t pay rent because of the pandemic — was extended, for the third and supposedly final time, until June 30. Given that post-Covid hospitality rent debt in London is thought to be approaching £3 billion, it’s a move that offers some much needed breathing room.
There will also be a “call for evidence” to try to referee relations between landlords and tenants. But this is a can that has been kicked down the road so much it’s practically flattened. And trade bodies such as UKHospitality have long been calling for long-term government fixes to halt a delayed bloodbath of closures. They are asking, really, for some policy boldness to match the extreme nature of a virus that wiped away about £72 billion in industry turnover last year.
And, look, while none of this is especially sexy for those of us who mostly concern ourselves with the front-facing, here’s-your-negroni-sir part of restaurants, it is vital to ensure that London’s truly diverse dining ecosystem flourishes rather than falters in a post-pandemic future. Diners and restaurateurs have shown resilience, creativity and grit to get to this point, and the precipice of some longed-for normality. A little extra help wouldn’t go amiss.