City workers at M restaurant in Threadneedle Street, in the heart of London’s financial district, drank the bar dry of Veuve Clicquot champagne this week as they toasted the return of al fresco dining after long months of lockdown.
Down the road at sister restaurant Gaucho, people braved the unusually chilly spring to be served a meal out for the first time this year. On their first day of opening on Monday, the chain’s seven London outlets sold on average just over 1kg of steak per customer.
April 12 marked one of the first days of trading this year for restaurants, pubs and bars after the government lifted the lockdown order, in force since early January, on non-essential retail and allowed hospitality venues to serve customers outside.
In stark contrast to the ghostly atmosphere in the financial district for most of England’s third lockdown, lunchtime queues formed on Friday outside popular City lunch spots — from the much-loved baguettes seller Porterford Butchers to Coq D’Argent’s swanky rooftop terrace.
Pret A Manger said its outlets in the area, some of which have remained open for takeaways while the restrictions were in place, recorded a 10 per cent rise in sales.
There were signs that London’s rush hour was returning. Tube stations in the City and Canary Wharf were about a quarter busier than the previous week, according to Transport for London. It said the peak-time rush was especially pronounced, indicating that more people were returning to normal working patterns for the first time this year.
Although most employees are still working from home in line with government guidance, several City bosses said more staff had asked to return to the office this month, citing essential work or personal reasons, including the need to get out of the house after months and see colleagues in person. “It’s a valid reason to come to the office,” noted the head of a financial services firm.
On a tour of businesses around a bustling Bloomberg Arcade as part of a the City’s reopening campaign on Friday, William Russell, the lord mayor of London, told the FT that employers had begun to encourage staff to return.
He said the number of workers in the Leadenhall Building, for example, had doubled from 125 before Easter to 250 this week.
“It’s slow progress but hugely positive. More people are coming back, there is no doubt. The office is not dead — there may be a hybrid version but we will have more people back in the office than some people think.”
Canary Wharf said footfall on its estate had increased since March, with most of its 250 non-essential retailers open again.
Russell pointed to “pent-up demand” for hospitality in the Square Mile from people tired of lockdowns — something echoed by local businesses.
“We’ve been extremely busy. Because we are open, people are coming back more eagerly. Today, tomorrow, Sunday and even next weekend are already fully booked,” said Soren Jessen, owner of Nordic restaurant Ekte, which has expanded its outside space.
Des Gunewardena, chief executive of D&D, which owns Coq d’Argent and New Street Grill in Liverpool Street, said like-for-like revenues were up 60 per cent compared with the same day in 2019, despite only terraces being open. Bookings were more than double pre-Covid levels for the next six months as customers scrambled to secure tables ahead of an anticipated full reopening of restaurants indoors.
“Only three days out of lockdowns but it’s looking good,” Gunewardena, said.
Such early signs of life have given the City authorities hope that the financial district can bounce back, despite fears that the many people will work only part time in offices in the future. Many employers — from PwC to Lloyds Banking Group — have plans to offer a hybrid working model split between the office and home.
The recovery will be slow, however, with the number of people in the City this week still far lower than pre-pandemic levels and are expected to remain so until the government reviews its ‘work from home’ order in June. Despite the week-on-week increase at City and Canary Wharf stations, TfL said the transport network was carrying about a third of pre-pandemic traffic this week.
The outdoor limits on hospitality is constraining most businesses. Martin Williams, chief executive of Rare Restaurants, owner of Gaucho and M, said the venues were full but only operating at about a fifth of normal capacity “and our sales reflect this”.
He added that it would only be when the government changed its messaging telling people to go into the office instead of working from home that restaurants would “get anywhere close to normal trading”.
Phil Urban, chief executive of pub group Mitchells & Butlers, said the outdoor reopening was a “dress rehearsal”, adding: “People quickly forget that we are not making money on it . . . until restrictions are lifted we can’t trade profitably.”
Some small business owners have questioned whether they can survive long enough to see more people return. The City of London Corporation is trying to drum up support for a sustained return, with events across the Square Mile planned between now and the summer.
The Corporation also announced a £50m Covid-19 business recovery fund this week to help hospitality and retail reopen and has loosened rules to allow bars and cafés to use more outdoor space.
Catherine McGuinness, policy chair of the Corporation, who was in her Guildhall office for the first time this year, called on ministers to provide more information on plans for a safe return to offices “in the very near future”.
She said that employers and many staff were “very keen to return to the workplace to see colleagues and clients”. Initial footfall numbers were promising, she said.
“Personally, I’m so looking forward to getting back out and meeting people again,” she added. “The atmosphere has been great. You have to remind yourself not to hug everyone.”
England’s road out of lockdown
From April 12: Restaurants and pubs started trading with outdoor table service only. Hairdressers and nail salons as well as gyms reopened. Outdoor entertainment attractions such as theme parks and drive-in cinemas also reopened.
From May 17: Further relaxation of social-distancing rules. In outdoor settings, up to 30 people will be allowed to meet. In private homes, individuals will be able to meet another household or gather in groups of no more than six.
Indoor hospitality and entertainment venues including pubs, cinemas and museums will reopen. Hotels, hostels and other accommodation venues will also reopen. Indoor venues will be permitted to hold up to 1,000 visitors or 50 per cent of the venue’s capacity, while outdoor venues will be permitted to hold up to 4,000 visitors or 50 per cent of the venue’s capacity. Up to 30 people will be permitted to attend family events such as weddings and funerals.
From June 21: The legal limits on social contact in indoor and outdoor settings will be removed. The remaining closed settings including nightclubs will reopen subject to the latest scientific guidance.