Image courtesy Koya

The Road BackLondon

London’s Restaurants Have Reopened Again. So, What’s Different This Time?

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After a long winter, the opening of restaurants and bars’ outdoor spaces in April was one of excitement and trepidation for both businesses and guests. This, with the arrival of spring, has felt like a breath of fresh air, as the possibility of engaging with people and being social has been much needed. There is much joy in the industry as people slowly return to doing what they do best – being hospitable.

This has all come with a lot of hard work, of course.

Vaccination or not, establishments and their guests still have to contend with a global pandemic, and the original structures and spaces of restaurants were not built for these times – therefore, there is still a constant shifting for everyone. With a year under their collective belts, the only constant seems to have been to expect the unexpected, as restaurants have continuously had to adapt – and step up for others – throughout.

But with this experience at hand, how is this reopening different from where we were last summer? Have expectations changed, and are guests feeling more at ease and familiar with Covid protocols? We spoke with four very different establishments to see how the last few weeks have shaped up,

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Image courtesy Cora Pearl

Oliver Milburn, founder and owner, Cora Pearl

An acclaimed British restaurant situated in the heart of Covent Garden, Cora Pearl reopened this Spring with 16 new seats outside on Henrietta Street – covered and heated.

How have the last few weeks been?

Very busy. As it’s only 16 seats, we were expecting them to be full. It has been a rush of relief and fun. Although it’s been very full-on, it is great to be a functioning restaurant again! In comparison to last year it has felt, weirdly, much less ‘Covid protocol’, as it’s all become second nature now.

How have guests responded to the opening?

Quite well. Although, you’d be amazed how many people have no idea how hard it’s been for us, nor care when it concerns things like turning tables. Trying to break even on 16 seats is impossible without some serious turning of tables!

“The real test will come on the 17th May – will people want to sit inside?”

Have there been any surprises in terms of your expectations?

The spend per head has been good, and the 16 seats are very full, but the real test will come when inside opens on the 17th May – will people want to sit inside?

Last year there felt like a lot of guidance but no clear rules, and restaurants and bars were left to create their own boundaries. Does that feel different this year, and if so how?

No, it’s the same – although I would suggest people are less worried about Covid while still accepting of the rules and regulations. The trick is to make sure we don’t get landed with them forever as a new normal.

 

Image courtesy Koya

John Devitt and Shuko Oda, co-founders, Koya 

Koya City, a Japanese restaurant focusing on udon noodles in Bloomberg Arcade, opened up the first week that outdoor dining was allowed. Meanwhile, their Soho branch will open in May when indoor dining is permitted. They have 50 covers, which is double what they had last year.

How have the last few weeks been?

It’s been great – really lovely to see so many outside enjoying the terrace, especially all the familiar faces who are back dining with us after all those months off! We haven’t had to do too much prep and training to reopen, as we were doing a lot of deliveries via Dishpatch and Koya Mail which has kept most of the team focused.

“Everyone is better informed and willing to play by the new regulations”

Did you get a slew of early bookings, and are you able to accommodate walk-ins?

We did get a lot of early bookings, but we only take bookings for dinner as lunch is walk-in only. We were prepared for the response because we’ve had a great response from Koya Mail – we had remained on the front of everybody’s minds and had been prepared for the reopening.

What were some of the things that were different compared to opening up on 4 July last year?

We are better prepared, and customers and staff alike are more understanding of the new rules. We’re very much looking forward to 17th May for the return of inside trade, so that we can reopen our Soho restaurant, too. Guests have been great. Again, everyone is better informed and willing to play by the new regulations. It will be interesting to see how we all change when the rules are relaxed, hopefully on 21st June.

Have there been any surprises? 

No surprises, really. We expect trade to be brisk and looking forward to it getting busier and busier. No going backwards!

 

Image courtesy Three Sheets.

Noel Venning, co-owner, Three Sheets

Three Sheets, an award-winning bar in Hackney (named one of the best bars in the world last year), opened with 11 seats outside. They have always had seating outdoors, but their big shift this year has been to open as both a café and bar.

How has this year been?

We’ve been open as a café since January 6th, working with a rotating roster of chefs and restaurants for our monthly changing ‘guest sandwiches’, alongside pastries and coffee by Dead Good. We’ve had a great response from our regulars and locals, which has continued now that we’re permitted to have guests seated outside. We’re open 8am Wednesday to Friday, and 9am on Saturday to Sunday with coffee and pastries in the morning, and food and cocktails from 12pm to 10pm.

Was there a lot of prep or change to be able to open?

For the café, we rejigged the bar to accommodate prepping the sandwiches, so we’ve had to change that around a bit – we’re effectively a bar that serves food.

How have guests responded to the opening of the outside space?

People seem quite used to the set up – certainly everyone is used to the QR codes [for track and trace] by now. We actually opened up bookings for May before April; as soon as we announced our outside tables, the first and second week filled up very quickly. We keep one table for walk-ins which is pretty in demand, and our inside bookings for May are looking good. We thought that our locals and regulars were keen to come back, but we were concerned that people might go to larger outside areas. It’s been a pleasant surprise how quickly people have booked.

It feels good to be able to talk to guests and have them sit down, rather than just serve them and then they have to leave. It’s great being able to give people menus and actually interact with them.

Does this year’s reopening feel any different, especially with Covid guidance?

Doesn’t feel any different – same lack of guidance as last year. If anything, even less guidance.

 

Image courtesy Budgie Montoya. Credit: Nic Crilly-Hargrave.

Ferdinand ‘Budgie’ Montoya, chef and owner, Sarap

Filipino restaurant Sarap BAon have been fortunate to be able to use some of the empty units next to them to increase their covers, expanding from 12 covers to 26 outside, all on a walk-in basis. This has been a huge change, as they had only been in the space for three months before the start of the pandemic, and during the last year, remodelled to meet the needs of the new world.

How have the last few weeks been?

We had an amazing first day back on the 14th of April, which put me in a bit of panic mode and I immediately increased staff hours and our stock to increase our par levels for the week. But sadly, the rest of the week was extremely quiet, financially one of the worst week since we reopened in December. The second week, however, was the complete opposite – we had a steady start early in the week and increased nicely through the weekend.

“Hospitality is such an integral part of our cuisine and philosophy – it also allows us to tell our story and to educate our customers on what our food is all about.”

How have guests responded to reopening?

The overall reactions have been positive, there were a lot of people who came on the second week who specifically wanted to wait out the first week of opening as they had assumed it would be too busy. The vast majority of customers were very compliant with signing in, wearing masks and keeping a safe distance whilst queueing.

What have you felt, opening the doors to people again?

It has been such an amazing boost for myself and the team to see tables full, and to engage with our customers. Hospitality is such an integral part of our cuisine and our philosophy at the restaurant – it also allows us to tell our story and to educate our customers on what our food is all about.

How have you balanced your delivery service, your at home lechon kit, and opening up to guests?

We’ve had to put the at home lechon kits on hold for the time being as there simply isn’t enough time to cope with it. There is so much that goes into the meal kits, from the production to shipping them off. We’re still refining our processes as we go along and once we are fully staffed, I’m sure we’ll be able to do more. But until then, our focus is now on dine in plus takeaway and delivery, and to ensure we give them the best customer experience possible.


Anna Sulan Masing is a London-based writer and academic, and a co-founder of Sourced Journeys and Cheese Magazine. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram. Follow Resy, too. 

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