Opinion: London's re-opening weekend was two tales of one city

Millie Milliken

Millie Milliken

06 July 2020

As the weekend saw bars, pubs and restaurants opening their doors across the UK, deputy editor Millie Milliken found her ‘Super Saturday’ out and about in London was, for the most part, somewhat different to the one portrayed in the media

It was the day we were all waiting for. 4 July, ‘Super Saturday’: aka the day that hospitality could finally resume service, albeit far from one that can be described as ‘normal’. Boris warned people ‘not to overdo it’ (despite allowing venues to open at 6am), businesses booked up in record time and operators overhauled their venues and service styles to ensure both customers and staff felt safe coming back into bars.

Twitter was flooded with camera phone videos and photos of a heaving Soho vista (and mainstream media rushed to interview and snap the baying crowds). My experience on Saturday, however, was one that reflected the hospitality industry’s resilience, creativity and determination in the face of what has proven to be its biggest challenge in decades.

Above and beyond

For starters, the measures taken by operators to comply to the – frankly, woeful – government guidance have been extraordinary. My local pub, The Roebuck in Borough, has spent recent weeks undergoing a refurb not only to refresh the old girl, but to create a safe space for guests and staff. A one-way system means that the two entrances and exits are never crowded and the bar is clear of dawdlers, while a screen for those ordering takeaway or enquiring about tables keep the first entry point to the bar safe. 

My experience was one that reflected resilience, creativity and determination in the face of what has proven to be its biggest challenge in decades

Staff were careful not to lean over guests and asked for empty glasses to be passed to the end of tables, and table service was for the most part swift (although after weeks of lockdown, and three pints in, we were grateful for the lulls as more people arrived for their indoor and outdoor table bookings). 

Over in Bethnal Green, the vibe was surprisingly quiet, but no less atmospheric. Renegade Urban Winery benefits from its slightly secluded spot behind the railway arches and as well as bookings they have implemented an optional sign in form and contactless hand sanitiser dispensers for those who wanted to use them. It was a much more ‘trust the customer’ approach and one which didn’t seem to hinder service or experience.

Behind the masks, you could feel the relief and the smiles. It certainly put us at ease

Across the road, Coupette’s staff were an absolute delight. Their branded face masks may have been an initial shock, but none of the aspects of their service were hindered – behind them, you could sense the relief and the smiles. It certainly put us at ease. The cocktails, you'd be please to know, certainly haven't lost their charm either.

And can we all just take a collective moment to be thankful for the use of venues’ toilets again.

Crowded market

It wasn’t all plain sailing though, but by no means was it the fault of operators or traders. Heading back to SE1 we headed over to Borough Market which, despite having been relatively busy over recent weeks, has certainly always felt safe and well managed.

However, on Saturday throngs of people streaming off the Jubilee Line and London Bridge station meant that the area from the Southwark Tavern down to Black & Blue was swarmed with revellers.

Hospitality workers are back to doing what they're good at: making people feel welcome

One restaurant operator we stopped to talk to (and whom we have been regularly buying takaway cocktails from during lockdown) even suggested not sticking around. 'You just won't enjoy it,' she warned – she certainly didn’t look like she was. And, as the police vans turned up, we decided to call it a night.

London's first weekend back for pubs, restaurants and bars may have been two tales of one city, and I hope that the staff are recovering from what must have undoubtedly been a tough 48hrs at the coalface, but across the whole of the UK, hospitality workers are back to doing what they're good at: making people feel welcome.

Having spent 4 July drinking pump-poured pints (out of a pint glass), perfectly chilled Pet Nat and freshly mixed cocktails (with the sound of a cocktail shaker rattling in the background), all scored by the soundtrack of people re-establishing relationships, there was one overriding sentiment I felt as I swayed home: it's good to be back.

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