Brett Graham, owner of the two-Michelin-starred Ledbury restaurant, which closed due to the lockdown
I am a restaurant critic at The Spectator, however, I spent much of 2020 not reviewing restaurants but praying for them. I lost my spite and my pleasure this year.
It is easy in times of happiness to tease restaurants. I never got tired of mocking the restaurant-palaces of the rich with their full-size ornamental trees (Le Louis XV – Alain Ducasse, Monaco), their chairs for bags (if your bag is worth £5,000, why not?) their tanks of colored fish (Sexy Fish, Berkeley Square) and their evident surprise when you don’t order a £200 bottle to go with a £100 duck (Imperial Treasure of St James’s).
But even these palaces throbbed with anxiety through the autumn. They were almost empty and now, with much of the country in Tier 3, they have closed again, though many – Hide at Home, Le Comptoir Robuchon – are offering takeaway. We move forwards, we move backward.
If I lost my spite Gordon Ramsay did not. Early on in the pandemic, he developed a eugenics theory relating to restaurants; he said the deserving would survive. This is idiotic and unfair – the glorious Ledbury in Notting Hill was among the first to close, yet the KFC in Penzance mysteriously endures.
It seems that the well-funded (or those with sympathetic landlords) and the seriously cheap or well-sited will survive. That is the nightmare: we lose the middle. As I watched good restaurants fall this year, I appreciated them, and the people who make them, more than ever. Restaurateurs are dreamers by nature. They invest everything: money and time. No one goes into the restaurant trade for money – the work is too hard.
Ollie Dabbous of hiding is, for me, the most gifted chef in Britain, and the hours he works are incredible. (This is perhaps why the restaurant industry is one of the few remaining places where those without a university education thrive.) To be a restaurateur is an act of imagination, love, and will. Turnips greengrocer in Borough Market opened a restaurant with staff from The City Social this year. They built a fairyland out of turnips, and ash. Tomas Lidakevicius served food of incredible beauty and taste from what is essentially a field kitchen.
Hospitality is the third-largest employer in the country, but its emotional and cultural value is incalculable too. From Pompeii to London 2020 restaurants indicate an open and sophisticated civilization: what better sign of a great city is there than a glut of fantastic restaurants?
Pre-pandemic London was filled with the cuisine of all the world: can we really pretend, without it, to be a pre-eminent city? You could dine in a Viennese café (Fischer’s) a Parisian café (Brasserie Zédel) or a Nordic bakery (Snaps + Rye, now closed forever).
When restaurants die memories die with them: I measure my childhood happiness in trips to Spaghetti Junction in Teddington and the Chu Chin Chow in Hampton Court. It is ridiculous to suggest that restaurants are only about food – anyone, with care and coin, can make good food. They exist to create love; that is what all great restaurants do, from the investor-funded grand salons to the family-owned neighborhood places and the street corner sandwich bars which might perhaps serve a world-class Scotch egg (Aunty May’s of Newlyn). We summon them, and we fill them with our joy.
Are we really prepared to lose them; to see them go the way of the pubs for a nocturnal dystopia made of Netflix and Domino’s pizza? Aren’t we unconnected enough? Without more government intervention, there will be carnage in spring. We have already lost The Conduit, Roux at Parliament Square, Vanilla Black, Indian Accent, and Le Caprice; it will no longer be possible to sit in Le Caprice and imagine yourself a character in a Judith Krantz novel.
Those who work in restaurants will lose far more than opportunities for pleasure. UK Hospitality, the largely ignored advocate for the British hotel and restaurant trade, says 660,000 people – one-fifth of the total employed in the industry – have lost their jobs, and is predicting a further 160,000 redundancies by spring. And 45 percent of the restaurant and hotel sector is family-owned.
The anxiety is overwhelming; the misery cannot be counted. Restaurants complain that they have no proper advocate in Parliament. “We are chucked around like a sack of potatoes,” says one proprietor, “nobody has our interests at heart”.
Furlough was life support but the Government screwed up, confused tips with service charge, and left some restaurant staff to exist on 40 percent of their usual income; even if they keep their jobs, they may lose their homes. Many restaurants are now a year in rent arrears; when this is over, how will they pay it back?
I hear some great London estates – Howard de Walden, Grosvenor, Cadogan, and the Crown Estate – have been supportive. (No one is suggesting that restaurants just don’t pay rent for 2020). Some are accepting a percentage of turnover. For others this pandemic has been an opportunity; some landlords, I am told, are “vicious”. One told a famous restaurant he was happy to take back the lease, as the leaseholder had just completed a fantastic renovation at his own expense, from which the landlord can now benefit. If you consider that some interiors cost £20 million, it makes sense: if self-interest is your only interest.
Now restaurants face the dead, early months of 2021 with no Christmas boom to sustain them. I have spent this pandemic begging readers to support their local restaurants, to remember how precious they are. If you cherish them, use them now however you can; support their endeavors to survive or they won’t be here in the spring.