Can London’s high-end restaurants survive the pandemic?

At the entrance to Veeraswamy, London’s oldest Indian restaurant, a sign tells guests to prepare for a temperature check. At the reception desk they are greeted by steel columns dispensing hand-sanitiser gel, and packets of wipes are laid at each place setting.

But instead of the usual busy lunchtime service last Thursday, there were just two members of staff quietly laying tables for the first service in three months, after the coronavirus lockdown forced the 94-year-old restaurant to shut its doors for the first time — it even stayed open throughout the second world war.

“We will deliberately be maintaining as much of the atmosphere as possible,” said Ranjit Mathrani, chairman of Veeraswamy, which he co-owns alongside two other fine dining Indian restaurants in London and the casual dining chain Masala Zone. The additional health and safety protocols are one of a “tsunami of challenges”, he added.

Consumers and restaurateurs have heralded July 4 as “Super Saturday” — the day that the UK government has permitted bars, restaurants, pubs and hotels to reopen. Bookings for the day spiked as consumers prepared for their first meal out in months.

Ranjit Mathrani: ‘We will deliberately be maintaining as much of the atmosphere as possible’ © Charlie Bibby/FT

But beyond the weekend, with a dearth of tourists and corporate lunch trade, and with social distancing measures limiting the number of tables, the proprietors of London’s most iconic restaurants face a stark choice.

“It’s a question of whether we lose money keeping [the restaurants] closed with the staff on furlough or lose money opening. The gamble is we think we will lose less money opening them up,” said Jeremy King, chief executive of Corbin and King, which runs landmark restaurants such as the Wolseley, the Delaunay and Brasserie Zedel.

Others have already fallen by the wayside. The Ledbury and Greenhouse, two Michelin-starred establishments in Mayfair, the Ritz hotel’s club and Caprice Holding’s restaurant Rivington have permanently closed. In an open letter to the government some of London’s most renowned restaurateurs said its dining establishments could be the city’s “biggest casualty”.

Even if they open, these iconic restaurants face a challenge in retaining their luxurious atmosphere when service is done in protective clothing, menus are wipe clean rather than leather bound and idling at the champagne bar is banned.

“For [the customers], they have to feel like they are coming home,” said Stephen Hutchings, general manager of Scott’s, the 169-year-old seafood restaurant in Mayfair. “We are trying to keep business as normal.”

Stephen Hutchings: ‘[Customers] have to feel like they are coming home’ © Charlie Bibby/FT

On Thursday the restaurant was filled with builders installing glass screens to separate tables and waiters learning how many times they must wash their hands and how to offer the new wine list, which will involve scanning a QR code so that it can appear on a customer’s phone.

Such clinical protocols differ from restaurant to restaurant, reflecting that the government’s directions for reopening are guidelines rather than hard rules.

At Veeraswamy, waiters will initially serve tables wearing clear plastic visors, while at Pollen Street Social, which will open in August, serving staff will wear white gloves and masks. At Scott’s and the Wolseley, front-of-house staff will not wear any protective clothing.

Tables will be pre-laid in some, while others — such as the Gaucho restaurants — will have the tables bare, save for a decoration or place mats, until guests sit down. The guidance recommends providing cutlery “only when food is served”.

“We don’t understand the not pre-laying because that means greater interference. We would rather have five minutes between each use of the table so it can be thoroughly disinfected,” said Mr King of the Wolseley’s plans.

After three months of closure, the implementation and expense of such detailed procedures has added to the financial pressures facing the capital’s top restaurants.

Packets of sanitising hand wipes are being laid at each place setting at Veeraswamy restaurant © Charlie Bibby/FT

Mr Mathrani estimates that the initial start up costs across his restaurants are about £5,000, with the cleaning products costing around £2,000 per month on an ongoing basis. Over a year, it amounts to “about the salary of a member of staff”, he said.

“This is the time when restaurants are running out of money. Rent needs to be paid, even if it hasn’t yet, and the labour cost will start to rise. Everybody has been doing their mathematics,” said Peter Backman, an independent restaurant sector consultant.

Richard Caring, chairman of Caprice Holdings, which owns Scott’s and the celebrity bolt-hole Le Caprice, warned that future demand is impossible to predict: “With all the fear that’s out there at this moment in time, [reopening] doesn’t mean you are going to have a business. Everybody forgets that. You still have to have people with the confidence to go out.”

Mr Caring has permanently closed Le Caprice’s current site behind the Ritz hotel as a result of the crisis, and said that he was negotiating on two different sites in Mayfair for a new Caprice that would have more space and outdoor seating.

Jason Atherton, the Michelin-starred chef and owner of Pollen Street Social, said that “you have to be in it to win it” and that as long as restaurants were priced sensibly customers would return.

But Mr Mathrani sounded a more cautious note. His three fine dining restaurants make between £60m and £70m in sales in a typical year but he estimated that this year the takings will be only 35 per cent of that.

He is modelling for demand increasing at 5 per cent per month: “We are prepared to stick it out and see what happens,” he said.

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