"If the guides come in and slaughter everybody, that will damage their credibility to the customer'

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

Why have some restaurants reopened, while others remain closed? What implications will this have as the pandemic continues to affect our lives?

We asked the chef owners of The Little Chartroom, The Wilderness and Myrtle - Roberta Hall-McCarron, Alex Claridge and Anna Haugh - whether July 4th felt like the right time to reopen their restaurant or not; and in the latter case, why they chose to remain closed.  

>>> Listen to the full interview in our podcast released Monday at 10am - follow Grilled by The Staff Canteen so you don't miss out 

Famously vocal chef Alex Claridge - who kicked back at local online publication Birmingham Live when it reported on his decision to stay closed as made a point of reminding readers that the chef crowdfunded money to save his restaurant at the start of lockdown - a means not dissimilar to a bank loan, in that contributors are repaid, only in means (usually meals). 

"I was bowled over, we had over £30,000 of support pledges from our guests to make sure we reopen, which is insane," he said. 

But the reason not to reopen, he explained, "is twofold."

"There's a practical application to it - that our restaurant is a 22 cover space in an old factory, the toilets are 'bijou' - which means they are quite small. There's very little from a structural perspective that we can do to make Covid safe." 

What's more, he said, "I'm quite stubborn about the experience I want to offer."

"I've not been able to envisage how we reconcile our guest experience we want to offer to guests with a lot of the measures that are floated around." 

"We're in a position where we can sit back and take our time," he explained, aiming for a September 22nd reopen.

Roberta didn't feel comfortable reopening on the Scottish reopening date of July 15th, choosing to continue with the delivery system put in place during lockdown.  

"There were a number of reasons," she explained.

"We wanted to take our time and see how things went, see how other restaurants were doing and if there were any more flare-ups and whatnot."

What's more, she and her partner just launched a new concept on Edinburgh's Promenade, which she describes as "a little glass pod" where takeaway food is prepared on barbecues. 

"We really wanted to just focus on that before we decided to reopen the restaurant," with the advantage of having fewer precautionary measures to worry about than at a dining-in establishment.

Conscious of the safety implications of reopening despite the size of her restaurant in Chelsea, Anna Haugh might have kept Myrtle closed, but financial constraints left her with little choice - as her landlord demanded that she pay her rent in full, whether she has money going into the coffer or not. 

"I didn't expect to open as early as I did," she said, but "the longer it takes me to open up, the bigger the hole is that I'm in that I'm trying to dig myself out of." 

That's not to say that the chef wasn't concerned about opening - whether customers would come back and if they did, whether they would feel safe between her four walls. 

And the chef said that while being open under current conditions "has been difficult, it's been more positive than I expected."

What will the guides do?

The decision of whether or not to open - or, like Michelin-starred chefs Nathan Outlaw, Paul Welburn and many other top players in the industry, to go in a different, more casual direction - will likely have implications when the time comes for the guides to unveil their list of the UK's best restaurants. 

While they'll always have their place, Alex said, guides will matter less this year, and they will likely look different to any other.

"There's definitely a shift on what matters about food," he said. 

"I wonder if it it going to take a swing away from how much it's tasting menu led or luxe-led dining dominates." 

In any case, he said, "it'll be interesting to see creatively what else guides can do to play their part in championing hospitality." 

While all chefs can concede that guides are always at least a minor preoccupation under normal circumstances, Anna remarked that the current situation calls for a different attitude.

"Right now, everyone is focused on taking care of their business and trying to adapt to what this new world is." 

"I can't see people who loved food and care about the industry dropping their standards," she added, and "if restaurants just stay consistent with their brand and the food that they want to serve, people shouldn't worry about what the guides will do." 

"If the guides come in and slaughter everybody, that will damage their credibility to the customer - because the customers want to support us." 

Keeping it classy

Unfortunately, the answer of whether or not to open - and how to operate if you do - isn't clear cut, nor are any two situations identical.

Alex said: "We're all on the same team. It's very easy when you talk about the choices you're making for your business to sound like somehow your choices or your preferences have a quality judgement that is better or worse, but that is not the case." 

"Everyone is working in a constantly changing environment, and it's on fire, and missiles keep arriving." 

Having visited multiple establishments offering different dining experiences, - from Helene Darroze's two Michelin-starred restaurant at The Connaught to Dishoom, he said: "what's been heartening is the level of detailing." 

"You can tell that operators are really working creatively on this."

"It's inspired me - but this industry always inspires me. Seeing those trailblazers who - for practical reasons or otherwise had to forge ahead - find a way to make it still classy," he said, "that's been really comforting." 

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Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 7th August 2020

"If the guides come in and slaughter everybody, that will damage their credibility to the customer'