As the UK restaurant industry navigates reduced covers and new customer demand – not to mention no shows – some venues are turning to set menus to weather the storm. Could they be the industry's saviour? Perhaps, says Millie Milliken
Borough Market railway arches, Friday night, Mei Mei. The Singapore/Malaysia/Indonesia-inspired street food stall is the creation of ex-Pidgin head chef Elizabeth Haigh, who has recently launched her Bā at Mei Mei eight-course set-menu concept in the evenings under those hallowed arches.
Borough Market has never been open for evening dining before in its 2,000 years, but as Covid-19 has forced the likes of Mei Mei (as well as neighbouring Brindisa and Padella) to pivot their businesses to allow for social distancing, it’s a scene that is becoming all too familiar and will no doubt continue to for the foreseeable future.
Starting at £45 per person, the set menu can only be booked ahead of time by purchasing tickets, while a £35 wine pairing (curated by sommelier Honey Spencer using Modal wines) can be added as an optional extra.
It’s a clever move: fall-back funds if customers fail to show (check out the 'No more no shows' campaign, plus more on this topic on our upcoming podcast), waste control when it comes to ordering ingredients, and a single-supplier wine offering all mean that restaurants can control their spending at this crucial time for their businesses.
And Haigh isn’t the only one. Hide in Mayfair has just announced the launch of its pop-up Hidden Supper Club, where chef James Goodyear will be running changing 10-course pairing menus for £95 per person (with an extra £55 per person for matching wines). Ombra in Hackney has introduced set menus at weekends and are hoping to roll them out to weekdays if they prove successful, while nearby Bright is also running set menu-only service in its dining room, as reported by Eater.
At first glance, the implementation of multi-course set and pairing menus may seem paradoxical. If you want people to come in and eat then surely you want to make your food as affordable as possible, right? Yes, and no.
As track and trace measures remain in place, so, naturally, do bookings. People are less likely to dine on a whim with bookings being advised across the sector. That means that when people do book, they're looking to commit and set menus make that choice easier.
People are less likely to dine on a whim with bookings being advised across the sector. That means that when people do book, they're looking to commit and set menus make that choice easier
I'd also argue that while the public may be going out less often, when they do they'll want to celebrate and perhaps spend more money than they would if they were dining out more regularly. So by offering a set menu, restaurants are giving guests a high-quality option at a higher perceived value.
There's also the added ease of ordering – no menus are needed at the table if guests have already chosen their menu, while less interaction with staff means time saving for them and again, minimal contact.
It's not just high-end restaurants taking the plunge either – more mid-range restaurants are getting in on the act too, making use of set menus in order to optimise on chancellor Rishi Sunak's Eat Out Help Out scheme.
In August, Mamucium in Manchester is running The Chancellors Menu (£10 for three courses) on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays as it participates in the government's scheme. It will be interesting to see whether other venues follow suit in a bid to get guests through the doors.
As for my own experience at Bā by Mei Mei, the ease of advanced booking (and the corresponding £50 booking payment) and a pre-ordered menu meant that getting back out and dining was as relaxing and low-maintenance as it can be when you're constantly sanitising your hands. Organised fun has never been so enjoyable.