Shoppers queued in the West End from before dawn to enter “non-essential” stores
(Jeremy Selwyn)" />
Bookings at alfresco spaces such as roof terraces and gardens were said to be “off the scale” despite the day starting with snow showers and temperatures not forecast to rise above 9C. Indoor dining is not allowed until May 17.
Hairdressers also went back to work with Boris Johnson among the first to get a trim. His barber dropped in to Downing Street to smarten him up ahead of this afternoon’s special recall of Parliament to give thanks for the life of the Duke of Edinburgh.
Des Gunewardena, chief executive of fine dining group D&D London, which operates venues such as Bluebird Chelsea and the Coq d’Argent in the City, said: “Basically we are packed to the rafters everywhere. Bookings are totally unprecedented. I have never seen anything like it in all the years I have been in the restaurant business.
“We’re running a continuous service all the way through today. There’s no separate lunch and dinner. It was the only way we could cope with the demand.”
He said bookings over the next three weeks were more than double the level of the same period in 2019 — despite having only a third of the capacity of the pre-Covid era — and more than triple the “Super Saturday” reopening of last July.
The group has more than 100,000 people booked in over the next five weeks until indoor dining returns on May 17 and will be running four sittings on average at each table today.
Apart from a brief respite in the first two weeks of December, London’s hospitality sector has been forcibly shut since the second lockdown began at the start of November. One of the first premises to reopen was 45 Jermyn Street in St James’s, which began serving breakfast on its terrace from 8am.
Simon Thompson, chief customer officer at Fortnum & Mason, which runs the restaurant, said his staff had been equipped with thermals and down vests to keep them warm while serving the first customers in temperatures hovering around freezing.
Outside central London, neighbourhood pubs and restaurants also reported bumper reservations. Tom Helliwell, the owner of The Woodman pub in Highgate, said: “We have over 5,000 bookings for the first month of opening — which is fantastic. We are very excited. The challenge for us is the British weather. We can only accept bookings for tables that are ‘weather proof’ and can only open the other tables once we know what the weather forecast is going to be. We are lucky to have such a large garden next to a Tube station.”
Jamie Kerr, general manager of Mama Shelter London in Hackney Road, said: “Our garden bar is now fully-booked until the 22nd of May, and this has been the case for a while — all slots were full less than a week after we opened up reservations, and on Saturdays the bar is booked seven times over (about 350 covers in total) so we expect to be very busy.”
Patrick Hooykaas, managing director of TheFork booking website, said that nationally bookings over the past seven days were up 14 per cent on the July reopening, despite only a fraction of the tables being available compared with last summer when dining indoors was allowed.
Patrick Dardis, chief executive of Young’s brewery, said: “Today is just a very small step towards getting our business back to anywhere near viability. We are only allowed to serve outdoors, which is so reliant on the weather. We are pleased to be opening circa 140 pubs, as we are determined to play our part in kickstarting the economy.”
Meanwhile in the West End, queues began forming at stores such as JD Sports, Nike Town and Primark in Oxford Street from 5.30am. One shopper, 16-year-old Maddison Courby, said: “I feel so much better now that things have opened up again because I’ve just been stuck indoors. I don’t really like online shopping either, which is why we got up so early.”
Retail analysis predicted that 1.7 million shoppers would visit stores in the capital today.