Tiers come and go, but the restaurant scene’s determination to fight back against Covid-19 is strong, with unbridled optimism, opportunism and outstanding cooking. Believe it, Britain: restaurants will rise again!
Purist poised for action: Humble Chicken, London
A busy Soho reminds Japanese chef, Angelo Sato, of boozy Tokyo nights with his brothers, searching alleyways for great izakayas (late-night Japanese food bars). “Soho’s energy is insane,” he enthuses. That is why Angelo is focussed on opening Humble Chicken, originally pegged for January, when life returns to Soho and his restaurant can operate as a lively counter-dining spot. Formerly head chef at Restaurant Story, Angelo has serious cooking pedigree but wants his food – “fun” Japanese-inspired small plates; individual clay-pot rice dishes; “beak-to-tail” yakitori skewers of liver, heart, cartilage, gizzards – served in a relaxed izakaya atmosphere. “Japan’s really socially strict. The izakaya is where people can be themselves. It’s a different world.” Tiers aside, Angelo is convinced London will bounce back. “It’s one of the world’s biggest cities. Open something new and cool, people are going to come.”
Pizza against Covid: ELD Pizza, London
“Chefs like to be busy,” reasons Elliot Cunningham of his decision to open this Bethnal Green pizza spot in 2021. “There were a lot of deflated people within the industry. That’s dangerous. ELD is a means to keep me and my staff interested and creative.” Best known for his live-fire restaurant, Lagom, ELD, meaning fire in Swedish, is the first of Elliot’s “sustainable umbrella concepts”. ELD will make use of British charcuterie and cold-pressed rapeseed oil on its 'nduja or Hispi cabbage, anchovy and chilli pizzas. Next morning, the team will use the wood-fired oven’s residual heat – “It still sits about 300C” – to bake breakfast pastries. In such tiny details, Elliot hopes ELD will prove cost-effective, waste-minimal and resilient. Naturally, it was conceived with Covid in mind: “We designed the seating so it keeps people distanced with minimal screens. Then, if we’re locked down, there’s a cobbled driveway that houses a conservatory and our pizza oven, where people can rock up and order at the window, which is cool.”
Future-focused Caribbean: Rudie’s Jerk Shack, London
Rudie’s had a stop-start 2020. Its new Brixton restaurant could only open for a few days in December, while its latest kitchen at Fulham pub, The Prince, squeezed in just one night’s service before Tier 3 (then 4) hit. Yet, such openings illustrate the opportunities available. This year will be a year of change and, for some, expansion. Matin and Michelle Miah, whose Jamaican roots underpin the couple’s love of jerk cooking, have spent several years gathering a following for Rudie’s charcoal drum-cooked menu (see also, Borough Market, Boxpark Shoreditch). In these chaotic times, landlords are seeking new, trusted operators. To entice brands in, some landlords are beginning to offer longer rent-free periods, greater financial help with fit-out costs and lower-risk turnover-linked rental agreements. “If we do well,” says Matin, “they do well.” Matin is realistic. It will take months for London to return to normal. But, he is confident it will, and Rudie’s will soon open a new Canary Wharf kiosk: “July to September, out of first lockdown, we had record trade. People will return. Hopefully, we’ll be ahead of the game.”
Pivot-ready wine bar: The Old Pharmacy, Bruton, Somerset
“We realised in lockdown that this team is incredibly flexible. We find creative ways to survive,” says chef Merlin Labron-Johnson, who, in January, was due to open The Old Pharmacy grocery store, café and wine bar in tiny, boho Bruton. “We want it to feel domestic rather than like a retail space, and, in the evening, it’ll morph naturally into a wine bar: remove produce, light candles, music on.” Equally seamlessly, if tiers demand it, the space can flip to pure retail and takeaway. Like Merlin’s neighbouring, farm-to-table restaurant, Osip, the handsomely refurbed, Grade II-listed space will showcase spanking Somerset produce, including vegetables grown on Osip’s land. At lunch, expect exceptional salads and toasties – “Somerset is the heart of UK cheesemaking, especially cheddar” – and, after dark, when it can open properly, bread, cheese, meat and weekly specials including fresh pastas and small plates such as roasted carrots with wild garlic pesto, walnuts and shaved cheese. Add in an often natural, organic wine list (from £4.50 a glass; real grape geeks will find rarer, pricier vintages dispensed by Coravin), and the Pharmacy sounds like the perfect place to wait out Covid. “There comes a time in life to take calculated risks,” says Merlin. “If we can make this work, then, out the other side, we’ll be in a good place.”
Raring-to-go rural inn: Heft, High Newton, Cumbria
“The locals are giving us grief, saying, when are you opening, we miss the pub, and neighbouring restaurants are busy,” says Kevin Tickle, surveying the prospects for Heft, the rural inn with rooms he will open by early March. A local lad best known for his Michelin-starred stint at Grasmere’s Forest Side, Kevin’s first solo venture will see him serving a high-end, ultra-seasonal tasting menu in the restaurant (£90 a head) and, in the pub, banging beers alongside plates of, say, venison pastrami with stout mustard: “I’m a big believer in utilising whole animals. If we’ve got sirloin on in the restaurant, we’ll use the shin and shoulder in the pub, in a clever way.” Kevin is cautious – further lockdown would mean reviving his Heft at Home meals or selling beer online: “You do what you can to survive.” But, he is in a strong position. He can add staff as restrictions ease, and, hopefully this spring, will be able to welcome diners into Heft’s fell-side gardens. Personally, he cannot wait: “I want to get back in, doing what I love.”
Twelve new venues for 2021
1) The Pony North Street, Bristol
After reinventing his Michelin-starred Pony & Trap as this hip city bistro, chef Josh Eggleton’s new pub, the Queen’s Arms, will open in March.
2) Fenn, Fulham
Hackney’s Nest team will head west to open this restaurant.
3) Society, Manchester
Follow-up to Leeds’ Assembly Underground street food market, due March.
4) Indian Alley, Camden
Benares spin-off, offering street food and eat-in canteen dining.
5) The Bailiwick Freehouse, Egham, Surrey
Game-loving pub from husband-and-wife chefs, Steven and Ami Ellis.
6) Kraft, Dalston
Brewery German Kraft, distillery Jim and Tonic, and contemporary kebab tinkerers Le Bab, will combine forces at Locke apart-hotel.
7) House of Fu, Leeds
Ramen, karaoke rooms and listening bar from Ox Club’s Ben Davy.
8) Mr Ji, Soho
Fried chicken spot with Taiwanese-inspired dishes.
9) Döner Summer, York
Vegan doner crew whose York outpost will unveil its Garden of Vegan, with individually heated tables.
10) Heritage, Dulwich
Up-scale Indian restaurant. Expect modern dishes such as a truffled chicken kebab.
11) Unalome, Glasgow
Michelin-hailed Graeme Cheevers is aiming for the stars.
12) Le Bar des Prés, Mayfair
Star French chef, Cyril Lignac, hopes to open an outpost of his Japanese-French restaurant in March.