Closed restaurants in Covent Garden (Photo by Alberto Pezzali/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

What will become of the hospitality industry?

Has Britain’s favourite pastime of eating and drinking reached its peak? How will the industry recovery from this financial blow?

As the hospitality business in Britain – and indeed round the world – faces what might be its Waterloo, it is salutary to remember its origins. The first establishment in London that we would regard as a ‘restaurant’, by any sort of contemporary standards, opened in 1665, and was named The Pontac’s Head. It was located near the Old Bailey, and run by a Frenchman, Arnaud de Pontac, who also owned the Haut-Brion chateau in Bordeaux.

Here, one could purchase de Pontac’s wine at the extravagant price of seven shillings a bottle, and dine on such hitherto unknown dishes as ragouts and fricassees, featuring ingredients such as peacock and larks’ tongues, which were far removed from the basic diet of bread, cheese and meat that made up the average Englishman’s food at the time. It was criticised by the envious for being decadent – and French, which amounted to the same thing – but it established a formula that would be followed and refined for hundreds of years, and only now shows serious signs of being challenged, even destroyed.

Eating out in restaurants and drinking in pubs have been two of Britain’s most celebrated activities for centuries

The Pontac’s Head was an enormous success, and continued for well over a hundred years. It finally closed its doors in 1780 thanks to redevelopment of the area, which is by no means solely a 21st century concern. Yet today, few establishments manage to stay open for more than a decade, let alone a century. This is due to any number of reasons, in normal times: sky-high rents, a hugely competitive market, the enormous cost of raw materials and rapidly evolving tastes. Influential critics and caustic social media posts don’t always help, either. But never before has the industry been so imperilled by circumstances that could never have been anticipated.

Eating out in restaurants and drinking in pubs have been two of Britain’s most celebrated activities for centuries, immortalised by countless writers, singers and journalists.  The Telegraph critic William Sitwell has even published a new book about one of his favourite activities, The Restaurant: A History of Eating Out, the publication of which unfortunately now comes to seem like a wake rather than a celebration. It is an industry that accounts for around 3 million jobs, or nearly 10% of the British workforce, with a contribution of about £130 billion to the economy, about 5% of GDP. And, unless something dramatic happens in the very near future, it looks as if it might be in tatters.

Up until about two decades ago, pubs and restaurants were very different places to what they have evolved into since. A lively scene had arisen in London fine dining in the Eighties, featuring chefs such as Antony Worrall Thompson, Marco Pierre White and Nico Ladenis. These ambitious men were different to their more sombre and conscientious predecessors, as they saw themselves more as rock stars than white-hatted functionaries. Their names were above the doors, their antics all over the gossip columns and the prices of their food extraordinarily high. As their businesses gathered Michelin stars and glowing reviews, thanks mainly to the machinations of the PR agent Alan Crompton-Batt (one obituary remarked of his death at the age of 50 that ‘the bottle got the better of him’), the restaurant industry in the capital started to become exciting.

This was equalled by the emergence of a new phenomenon, the so-called ‘gastropub’. The first example of this was the Eagle in Farringdon, which opened in 1991 and offered the then-remarkable combination of a vaguely bohemian atmosphere, innovative but inexpensive food, good, mainly European wine and interesting beers from unusual breweries. It caught on, and, a decade later, what it was offering was not in any way unusual. Growing up in Bristol in the Eighties and Nineties, I watched as pubs changed from rough, dirty places that usually offered chicken in a basket, with violent fights as a side order, to civilised family-friendly establishments that one could actually enjoy eating and drinking in.

Yet restaurants remained expensive. Even as the Ramsays and Wareings and Blumenthals began to make names for themselves, their establishments were hugely expensive, and largely patronised by the super-wealthy. At a time when a meal for two could routinely cost a hundred pounds a head, it seemed as if eating out at this stratospheric level would remain a pursuit for the metropolitan elite, rather than the average diner. Stick to the pub, was the subtext of the glowing reviews of the latest Michelin-star extravaganza, if you think that this is too rich for your palette, and too much for your wallet.

When I first began an occasional career writing about dining and drinking around fifteen years ago, there were a lot of excellent places to visit, but the clientele was predominantly middle-aged and older, and the atmosphere was often formal and stilted. Social media changed all that entirely. It democratised the dining experience, making the must-visit places a thrilling riot of colour, noise and deliciousness. London and Britain’s other big cities began to have a cornucopia of places to visit, popping up in other venues, serving food from trucks and vans and generally offering better and more interesting dining options than ever before. The best pubs won Michelin stars and attracted adulation for their beer and wine lists. The best-known restaurant critics enjoyed their own heady fame. And the unseen orchestrators of the industry, the public relations consultants, could make fortunes both for and from their client lists.

It was, in other words, a bubble of deliciousness, filled with equal parts brilliant presentation and hot air. And bubbles, as everyone knows, have to burst eventually.

The most significant threats to the British hospitality industry pre-coronavirus were Brexit side-effects and over-rapid expansion. In the first case, many restaurateurs and publicans began to fear that they would no longer be able to get the staff that they needed in their establishments, especially in the more lowly positions, because they would not qualify for working visas. Despite the elevation in prestige in dining in Britain over the past few decades, it is still relatively rare for the British to pursue a career in front-of-house hospitality, and the maitre’d at most establishments is most likely to be European. When I interviewed chefs and restaurateurs about their concerns for the future, the one most mentioned was ‘not getting the staff’.

This may be related to the rapid demise in groups that have overstretched themselves. Jamie Oliver’s chain of Italian restaurants, Jamie’s Italian, has vanished from the high street, and the places that once bore Antonio Carluccio’s name have finally gone into administration as well, after consistent grumblings that their quality had sharply declined. The Eat group of sandwich shops are no more. And on and on it goes, sometimes as a direct result of the pandemic, and at other times as an inevitable consequence of an over-crowded market in which customers are far too savvy to pay high prices for mediocre food.

I watched as pubs changed from rough, dirty places that usually offered chicken in a basket to civilised family-friendly establishments

Yet the industry’s complete cessation threatens to turn a trickle of closures into a flood. Several predictions suggest that as many as one in four restaurants and pubs will never reopen, either because they are unable to pay debts incurred during their hiatus or because an already struggling business has descended into bankruptcy without the necessary income to sustain them. At least one major initiative has already not worked. It was widely expected by the Treasury that many businesses would choose to switch from conventional restaurants and pubs into temporary takeaway and home delivery services, but in most cases this only lasted a few days, before employees decided that it was not worth risking their health for £10 an hour. I still remember the steady flow of emails into my inbox on Monday 23 March, just before and after the lockdown was formally announced, all of which said almost exactly the same thing: ‘We are devastated to tell you…we explored every option but decided that for the safety of our team…we look forward to seeing you when we reopen.’

If we reopen, a more honest communication might have said. While many of the bar workers, waiters and kitchen porters are sitting at home on furlough, their bosses are desperately trying to access whatever funding they can from banks and the government to keep their businesses going. Some will succeed, and others will not. There will be thousands of individual tragedies, with hard-working businessmen and their families ruined by the pandemic. But, eventually, the lockdown will end, and the surviving establishments will reopen, if they can find the cash to buy stock. What can we expect then?

My own prediction, based on gut instinct and from talking to those I know in the industry, is that the peak that we reached around 2018 and 2019 will never be attained again. With looming mass unemployment and a declining economy, going out for meals will cease to be the everyday treat that it had become for many, and once again revert to being a luxury experience for the rich and for special occasions.

I can’t see the mega-chains being adversely affected by the crisis – there will always be a market for cheap pizza, burgers and chicken – but a lot of very good independent places will struggle to keep going in their previous fashion. Pubs will engage in a Darwinian battle for survival; if you ever considered yourself spoilt for choice before, you will soon have to acclimatise to the idea of ‘the local’, the solitary pub near you that survived the lockdown.

Other parts of the industry will suffer, too. There has been a steady build-up of resentment against various national restaurant critics for some time – too privileged, too nepotistic, too smug, too condescending – and beleaguered papers, currently having to reassign these writers in strange and strained capacities without any restaurants to review, may feel that their well-paid presence is not as necessary as the critics themselves might believe. PRs are being laid off by their desperate bosses as their clients vanish, and if the industry survives at all, it will be a smaller, less grandiose operation. The days of lavish lunches for journalists and big press trips are probably behind us now.

I can only feel sadness about what is going to happen, barring either a miracle or the successful and speedy provision of much-needed assistance for the industry, both in its months of closure and for when it reopens. For all the flummery and nonsense that has been attached to going out, it has been an indispensable part of many people’s lives for a long time, and to have it ripped away from us in so cruel and final a fashion seems deeply unjust. The Pontac’s Head survived the Great Fire of London, a year after it first opened, but it seems a given that many of the places that have made all of our lives happier and more socially fulfilled ones will cease to exist, and that is as much of a tragedy as all of the other losses that we now face as a society, and a world.

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