They have just finished polishing the brass plate at the threshold of Trullo at London’s Highbury Corner when I arrive for my lunch, dead on noon. A moment later I become the first customer to cross that threshold in 108 days. And then there I am, with a menu of rustic Italian dishes in my hand. I choose. They bring. And then they do the washing up. After over three months of the lockdown and an awful lot of my own cooking, it is frankly thrilling.
But it isn’t business as usual, not quite. Trullo has reduced the number of seats upstairs from 38 to 22 with a similar cut for the basement dining room, and a path has been marked out across the floor should you need to head to the loo. Screens have been inserted between tables making them into booths, and all the waiters wear visors. “It’s very good to be back,” our waiter says, as she takes an order for rugged pasta dishes and porchetta. Does she feel anxious about the working conditions? “I really don’t actually,” she says.
Trullo was launched in June 2010 by chef Tim Siadatan, a graduate of Jamie Oliver’s 15 training scheme, and Jordan Frieda, formerly front of house at the River Café. They should have celebrated their first decade last month; instead they are celebrating simply being here at all. “London feels really empty to me,” Frieda says. “Dinners will probably be fine but for lunches we need office workers and we know there’s very little of that.”
There are also fewer people with expendable income, and reasonable concerns about whether customers and staff will be at risk of contracting the virus. “We gave the staff the option to come back to work or to stay on furlough,” Frieda says. “Only a couple have not yet returned.”
A survey by the industry body UK Hospitality found that 47% of England’s 20,000 or so restaurants were planning to reopen this weekend, with another 40% to follow by September. Restaurants in Northern Ireland were given permission to reopen on Friday while those in Wales and Scotland will be allowed to reopen from 13 and 15 July respectively.
Although many chefs, waiters and restaurateurs have bubbled with enthusiasm for the reopening across social media in recent days, the industry is feeling anything but secure. Last week nearly 7,000 job losses were announced across big high street names like Upper Crust and Café Rouge. High-profile restaurants including the Michelin-starred Ledbury and the Greenhouse in London have also announced their permanent closure.
The recent story of Trullo and its two casual pasta restaurants, both called Padella, will be familiar to restaurateurs across the country. “We closed everything on 18 March,” Frieda says. Between the three sites they employ 150 people. “We had to go from restaurant to restaurant letting almost everyone go,” he says. The second Padella in Shoreditch had been open only a month, and any cash reserves had paid for its launching. “Combined with paying our staff their holiday pay and so on we were essentially bust.”
But then the furlough scheme came to the rescue. “Although that only amounted to about half pay, the staff were relentlessly positive,” Frieda says. The first few weeks were spent arranging government-backed loans. “We then did a bit of delivery of pasta kits, which was fun,” he says. Since the announcement on 23 June that they could reopen in July, they’ve focused on complying with social distancing rules, and retraining staff. “We’ve forecast that we’re going to lose money for a year,” Frieda says. “It’s just a question of how much.”
But for now, there is the lunch service to attend to. A steady stream of customers arrives, and it’s clear the majority are regulars, delighted to be back. I first visited Trullo almost exactly a decade ago, and raved in my review about a boisterous dish of buttercup-yellow pasta with nutty brown shrimps, shredded courgettes, chilli and lemon, and here it is back in front of me. It’s just as fabulous as it was back then.
I clean the bowl, mop with my bread, and watch in wonder as my waiter clears the table. Running restaurants in the age of Covid-19 is not going to be easy, but it’s still great to have them back.